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Irish Writers and Religion.

This volume in the well established series on Irish writers and writing explores the major theme of how religion and society interact in Ireland. There are sixteen critical essays ranging over poetry, drama, prose, sermon and pamphlet literature. Robert Welch's brief introduction seizes on a common informing principle to this varied offering, namely integration as part of the religious quest. A religious instinct is a permanent feature of Irish writing. The essays follow a chronological framework but, despite the generic and stylistic changes over the centuries and the wide range of outside influences, many of the contributors return to the tensions between Celtic paganism and Latin Christianity as the cults, beliefs, poetry and practices of the former become assimilated but not totally so into early Christian Irish society. A major feature therefore in all manner of Irish writing which will not be ignored is the survival of a pre-Christian Celtic past. Seamus MacMathuna's |Paganism and Society in Early Ireland' powerfully sets out those themes, beginning with a brief analysis of Fiacc's Hymn (c.800 A.D.), and ends with a splendid translation of that most characteristic poem on the ebb and flow of life, |The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare'.

The next two essays by Joseph McMinn and Barbara Hayley move on to the literary uses of folk beliefs and religion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Inevitably, the brush strokes are too large; for example, McMinn's generalization, |Literature in eighteenth century Ireland, whether in Gaelic or in English, is the fruit of insecurity'. Politically and religiously, the middle class Anglo-Irish writers from clerical backgrounds may have felt insecure as the ruling Protestant minority over the dispossessed Catholic majority. In this context Swift and Berkeley are considered; and, among the sophisticated Munster Gaelic poets, Aogan O Rathaille (c.1675-1729) and Eoghan Rua O Suilleabhain (1748-1784) are used to illustrate the period's best known poetic form, the Aisling which combines the political, the religious, and the erotic in religious allegory. Indeed, the last essay by the poetess, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, |Mis and Dubh Ruis: A parable of Psychic Transformation' strikes to the root of an immemorial Irish literary tradition; that of the hag or cailleach signifying the tribal land she, when in the conjugal act with the rightful king, is then transformed into a beautiful goddess. Yeats encapsulated it into his play Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Ireland as a woman is one of the more persistent themes, from the ancient earth goddess to the modem goddess of liberty. A combination of art, religion and folklore is central to the works of Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke and Sean O Riordain.

Barbara Hayley, to whose memory the volume is dedicated, finds the classification of literature by religious affiliation too stark. However, the majority of 19th century Irish novelists were Protestant but Carleton, surely one of the more prolific and representative, was a convert to Protestantism before he began to write. And yet, the tensions between Catholic and Protestant makes for powerful fiction. Hayley concludes that, seen through fiction, Ireland presents a depressing aspect in the hopelessness of reconciliation between the two religions of the island.

It is invidious to pick and choose among such a galaxy of scholars, especially when they look at the giants, Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, McNeice, Kavanagh and Beckett. Nonetheless, their contentions need emphasis: Daithi O Hogain deems the distinction between pagan and Christian unsatisfactory because there is not enough stress on shared ideas and habits. Ruth Fleischmann takes on Yeats's challenge that |the intellect of Ireland is irreligious' by an examination of Canon Sheehan's novels and the works of Daniel Corkery in discovering The Hidden Ireland. The Japanese Yeatsian scholar, Mitsuko Ohno, examines the poet's mystical experiences but concludes perhaps too sensibly that religion for Yeats was nothing more than his poetry. Eamonn Hughes considers the effects of Catholicism on Joyce's writing as a whole, indeed, of how Joyce could both deny and assent to Catholicism. Anne McCartney sees in the long literary career of Francis Stuart how the spiritual and physical merge in everyday existence so that religion does not become the sole property of the Church. Alan Peacock's insights into the work of MacNeice and Kavanagh are nicely epitomised in his title, |Received religion and secular vision'; MacNeice being perceived |religious' like Horace in his concern to achieve a wholeness of response to life, and Kavanagh in his celebration of the local, the banal, the inconsequential.

To this reader, the essays on |Ghosts in Anglo-Irish Literature' and |Shaw and Creative Evolution', while eminently spell-binding in themselves, are marginal to the main themes. Others might contend that Lance St. John Butler's piece on Samuel Beckett and the absence of God is the best qualifier for marginality. Patrick Rafroidi's all too brief essay is a meditation on the living poet Desmond Egan's God-centred, even Catholic motifs. Egan's briefer |Religion?' roundly demonstrates that the religious impulse will show itself in a search for wholeness in his own tribute to Sam Beckett on his 80th birthday. The entire volume ends fittingly with Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's telling of the |Mis and Dubh Ruis', her commentary on this most feminine Celtic theme, and above all with her own howl of hag energy in a most sensitive poem in both languages, the Primavera. With this volume the Irish Literary Studies series goes from strength to strength.
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Author:McGurk, John
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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