Irish studies in our contemporary moment

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I am a professor of literature at a small liberal arts college in the United States, where I have seen Irish literature open up fresh ways to approach what students perceive as familiar problems, to skew them in ways that trigger productive new insights.

As one example, I regularly teach a class called Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ireland – a shameless (and successful) ploy to attract students to literary studies.

Despite its salacious title, we trot through the classics. We think about sexual repression in Joyce’s Dubliners and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, about addiction in Grace Dyas’s play Heroin and Lenny Abrahamson’s film Adam and Paul. By studying such texts closely, these young adults not only hone their skills of critical reading and writing, but also become familiar with the intimacies of another country.

The course takes a provocative turn late in the semester when we reach the unit on “rock ’n’ roll,” where my students soon encounter issues tied to race and representation. They stumble over a phrase like “the n-word of Europe” in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, a novel that follows an Irish band as they retool American soul music for their performances. We wince at Bono’s uncritical paralleling of Irish and African-American experience as he explains the influence of soul and blues music on U2.

These texts trip up my students, in ways they didn’t a decade ago. This is progress, an evident step in racial awareness and sensitivity abetted by literary and cultural analyses.

The perspective of my students is shaped almost exclusively by an American experience of race and racism, one informed by our country’s long and horrifying history of slavery and oppression. These Irish texts ask them to consider Black identity in a different national context, in books that came before, but are being read in light of, the Black Lives Matter movement.

Are these works by Doyle and Bono acts of pernicious cultural appropriation or are they reverent homage – can they be both? Is the invocation of Black musical traditions by white Irish men, real and fictional, a version of “blackfishing”, the term used to describe non-Black female celebrities who adopt Black style as a brand without regard for the particularities and history of racial identity and experience?

A question like that opens up thorny questions related to gender and sexuality. Students are now asked to think about intersectionality, to hear what happens when we talk about race and gender (and class and ethnicity and national identity, among others) in concert.

These are outrageously sensitive and complicated topics, but new scholarship on contemporary Irish and Northern Irish literature and culture can lend a hand as we grapple with them.

In The New Irish Studies, a collection I recently edited for Cambridge University Press, which focuses on 21st-century Irish and Northern Irish writing, scholars provide theoretical contexts and close readings that enrich and complicate such charged questions. Like Doyle, white writers such as Dermot Bolger or Oona Frawley have depicted fictional characters of colour who have migrated to Ireland, but should they tell these stories?

This issue is addressed in essays from the collection that demonstrate how writers such as Bisi Adigun or Christiana Obaro work to make their creative voices heard. Another essay examines Irish humanitarianism in Africa, as represented in novels by Sebastian Barry, Ronan Bennett and Anne Enright. Such analysis helps us to understand better the vexed motivations of humanitarianism, and also invites us to think more deeply and critically about the dynamics of Bono’s ONE and (RED) organisations.

It’s an exciting charge to help represent the dynamism of 21st-century Irish culture to the world. As a scholar, I’ve studied the dizzying political and social changes of recent decades, and seen our understanding of what constitutes Irishness and Irish literature profitably expand.

Today, for example, the descriptor “Irish author” might as readily reference a writer born in Brazil or living in Prague, as one born and bred in Derry or Dublin. And the roster of internationally recognised writers now includes young women like Sally Rooney, Emma Dabiri and Wendy Erskine, a very different literary landscape than that long dominated by Yeats, Joyce and Beckett.

But we have much work left to do in pursuit of racial justice and equitable representation, problems that span the globe, and in the quest for solutions to such problems, 21st-century Irish literature and performance, and how they represent the contours of a rapidly diversifying island, has much to teach us.

Plus, literary scholarship paves a two-way street. As debate in Ireland surges around the potential sidelining of books with racist slurs, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a long history of academic inquiry from American studies, critical race studies and ethnic studies can enrich and complicate those discussions.

So it seems an obvious lesson: Irish literature, in tandem with rigorous academic scholarship, can help us to see the world we think we know from a different, richer vantage.

At the close of the 20th century, the interdisciplinary academic field of Irish studies was thriving. Focused on Irish experience at home and abroad, and ranging among the humanities and social sciences, Irish studies became so prominent during these years that there are currently programs situated in universities and colleges on every continent except for Antarctica.

Yet today, many scholars who compose the field are being asked to justify its continued existence, as the number of students in the humanities plummets and critical attention turns from national questions to global ones. We may soon find Irish studies imperiled further, with the Covid-19 global pandemic leading administrators to hunt for academic programs and faculty lines to cut for cost-saving.

This seems a great irony, particularly for those who study contemporary Irish literature and performance. It is difficult to square the purported decline of the field with the international commercial and critical success of 21st-century Irish writing, where each week seems to offer a spot on the bestseller list or a prestigious award to some writer from the island. This surfeit of talent characterises not only the creative arts, but also academia where a range of scholars, using different critical approaches, are making sense of the complexities of our current moment through their astute assessments of contemporary culture.

Still, in this moment of historic crisis, to ask “Why Irish studies?” may seem at best picayune, at worst an unconscionable luxury.

And yet Irish studies has a long history of identifying and exploring massive social and political problems, the crises that have pocked Irish history for centuries. There is a robust body of incisive and insightful scholarship that tracks hardships and injustices across centuries: the features of colonial oppression or forced emigration, the suffering of the Famine, the political violence of the Troubles, the institutional abuses of the Catholic Church, the maltreatment of vulnerable subjects in Direct Provision.

The new Irish studies urges scholars to nudge academic research and teaching from a strict focus on crisis to one equally attentive to care. We offer essays focused on how families in literature attend to their elders, how feminists imagine and build community through digital networks, how friendship might play an important role in peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. We consider why so few pregnant women appear on the Irish stage, and explore how Irish-language writing scrutinises political conflict across the globe. These are only a few instances of how Irish contemporary writing provides a space for not only critique, but also imaginative possibilities for a better future.

Such essays demonstrate that scholarship is not just a resumé-building exercise for professors aloft in their ivory towers. The difficult and deeply informed intellectual work of these interrogations of literature and culture trickles down into our classrooms, where across the globe faculty use Irish literature and culture to tease out, with our students, mind-bendingly complex concerns including climate change, economic equality and systemic racism.

The critic Anne Mulhall has made a compelling argument that any notion that academic interventions can engender transformative political or cultural change is hubristic, unless academics work in tandem with social movements.

As scholars working with students, we also teach budding citizens the invaluable skills of deep critical thinking in a contemporary moment overwhelmed with pithy tweets and Instagram images.

My assertion that the close analysis of Irish literature can improve our conditions might invite reproach. Not for the first time, I could be labelled a scholar who is naively optimistic or somehow complicit with sunny neoliberal logics. And I am alert to the fact that I speak from a position of privilege: I have secure employment as a tenured faculty member, I work at an institution that values and supports the classroom experience.

But it remains true that all of us who teach – who have elected to teach – have a built-in audience for these difficult intellectual and ethical exercises. Our work as academics – as classroom instructors, as well as publishing scholars – is to tackle such tough questions in concert with the students who fill our classrooms and auditoriums. These are citizens in the making, individuals who are trying collaboratively to figure things out.

Irish studies can help teach those students, as well as those who will bump up against them, not only how to read analytically, how to understand the contours of Irish history and culture, or how to write a strong argumentative paper. It can also help all of us learn how to thrive amid the chaos of the contemporary world, how to construct informed and more empathetic opinions about matters of concern and to make those opinions heard.

Paige Reynolds teaches at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts. The New Irish Studies is published by Cambridge University Press.

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