Studies: Art, literature and national identity
The Autumn 2023 issue of Studies has as its main theme art, literature and Irish national identity. The lead articles illustrate in various ways the “web of indebtedness into which Irish art and literature is woven [which] extends over many centuries just as it does over many lands”. The editorial cites T.S. Eliot’s famous essay ‘Tradition and the individual talent’, in which he asserts that for a poet to enter into the tradition they must acquire what he calls ‘the historical sense’. It “involves a perception”, Eliot says, “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”.
By this measure (excessively conservative though it may be), James Harpur’s poetry is deeply ensconced in the tradition. In his essay in this issue of Studies, ‘Imagining Kells: A Poetic Meditation on the Book of Kells’, he brings us through his creative process as he penned ‘Kells’, the centrepiece of his 2018 book of poetry, The White Silhouette. The poem brings together four distinct voices in relation to the composition of the book. Two of these voices belong to its creators, an illuminator (‘Goldsmith’) and a scribe; and then we have two witnesses, the twelfth-century priest and historian Gerald of Wales and the poet himself in the 21st century. Writing, reading, responding, meditating, all come together and achieve a unity of tradition and contemporaneity.
In ‘The Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts: 200 Years of Social and Artistic Change’, John Turpin recounts the chequered history of the RHA on the occasion of its bicentenary. The purpose of the RHA, like that of the Royal Academy in London, was to foster the development of art in the country, cultivating public art education, attracting patronage, and exhibiting artworks. What is apparent is that Irish artists associated with the RHA tended to look abroad for their stylistic guides: touring Italy for a general artistic education, emulating English portraiture or French landscapes, or taking up avant garde or modernist notions. But the development of an Irish-Ireland ideology gave rise to an anxiety about ‘official’ Irish art especially after the foundation of the state. Should Irish art not define national identity? This question has lost its relevance in more recent times, especially thanks to the globalisation of art.
Declan O’Keeffe, in ‘Frances Biggs and the Windows of Gonzaga College, Dublin’, examines the life and work of Frances Biggs, one of the many great stained glass artists that 20th century Ireland produced. Biggs was primarily a musician, playing in the RTÉ symphony orchestra for 40 years, but for her, music and colours were always intimately related. The sounds of musical instruments appeared to her mind as colours – synesthesia, this is called. Her stained glass windows in the chapel of Gonzaga College, Dublin, where her husband, Michael Biggs, was commissioned to do the sculpture, displays her heightened sense of colour. A detail from her ‘Last Supper’ window is on the cover of this issue of Studies.
The complexities of Irish national identity are apparent in David Clare’s ‘Maria Edgeworth: Distinguishing the Irish Anglican Ascendancy from the English’. ‘In Irish theatre and film,’ Clare notes, ‘there is a long history of getting English actors to play Irish Anglican parts, without getting them to adopt even a hint of Irishness in their embodying of the parts’. But Maria Edgeworth’s novels convey a very different sense of the members of the Anglican ascendancy. In her work they are decisively Irish, as distinct in their vices and their virtues from the English people of their time as the Irish Gaelic Catholics were. And for the most part, Edgeworth, herself a member of the ascendancy, tended to portray the members of her class as ‘inescapably Irish’ but, just like all Irish people, capable of being ‘improved’ by being ‘exposed to enlightened ideas from other places, such as England, France, Switzerland, or Italy’.
Seamus Heaney, who died ten years ago this August, spoke on various occasions about the problematic nature of his Northern identity. His passport may have been green, but he stood opposed to bigotry, to what he called ‘the furious characterisations of the Unionist, Protestant collective in the North’. In ‘Seamus Heaney and Education: Student and teacher’, Bríd McGuinness does not deal directly with this tension in Heaney’s sense of his identity, but she discusses the fact that he was ‘constantly aware of dualities throughout his life’. Central in his psyche as a poet in the sense of being ‘in between’ and of attaining balance. And in his literary education, what dominated was openness to the world beyond the North, beyond the island of Ireland. McGuinness quotes Heaney’s address to the Swedish Academy: by encountering ‘the gutturals and sibilants of European speech’ as he listened to the family wireless as a child, ‘I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world’.
Other essays in the autumn issue of Studies include Anthony White mapping out the issues and outcomes of ‘The Dáil General Election of August 1923’; Seamus Murphy SJ considering Ireland’s fraught legacy of political difference and violence, in ‘Confronting the Past for the Sake of the Future’; Fiachra Long addressing the question of how we ought to respond to the threat that Artificial Intelligence ‘might push an increasing number of situations beyond the scope of human judgement’, in ‘Gnostic Currents in our Avatar Culture’; and Alexandra Maclennan presenting the story of South Africa’s first cardinal, the second-generation Irishman Owen McCann, in ‘Cardinal Owen McCann, Angola and Mozambique: Greater Ireland meets Greater Portugal’. Also, a review article by Professor Mark Bell recommends two recent works on Catholic Social Teaching, Anna Rowland’s Towards a Politics of Communion: Catholic Social Teaching in Dark Times and Anthony Annett’s Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy.