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Studies: Ireland and the Irish

Cultural notes on Irish writers, and especially on their sense of Ireland and Irishness, dominate this winter’s issue of Studies. The lead article, however, concerns a political rather than a literary conception of the country – perhaps the loftiest and most consequential vision of Ireland in the last century. It is that of John Hume, an extraordinarily gifted politician and visionary, the only person ever to receive the three greatest prizes in the world for peacemakers: the Nobel prize, the Martin Luther King Jnr Nonviolent Peace Prize, and the Gandhi Peace Prize.

In his editorial, Bruce Bradley SJ lists John Hume’s many gifts: “innate human decency, the capacity to build relationships with those of very different background and outlook to himself, sharp intellect, clear-eyed vision, and, perhaps above all, immense moral courage in the face of great odds and resistance from many sides to persevere in pursuit of that vision”. It was these that enabled him to fulfil the task that history gave him. “In purely Irish terms,” Fr Bradley asserts, “the comparisons with O’Connell and Parnell made at the time of John Hume’s death were not overblown.”

Senior Irish diplomat Michael Lillis, who writes the lead article on ‘John Hume’s legacy’, would agree. He considers Hume the most influential political leader in Ireland over the past forty years, not just on account of his unprecedented influence on taoisigh and opposition leaders, but also because he created the lexicon on which everyone has relied for discussing Northern Ireland politically.

He has devised an entire political vocabulary and a multi-layered vision for Northern Ireland that have been adopted in every serious attempt at a settlement, not alone by the SDLP but by every other protagonist from the successive Irish and British governments to unionists of all brands, even to loyalists and Sinn Féin, and of course across the debate in the South.

In line with this judgement, Lillis notes Hume’s role in sustaining the peace process over the long road – through Bloody Sunday, William Whitelaw’s 1973 White Paper, Sunningdale, murderous campaigns by the IRA, the UDA and the UVF, the North-South Council of Ireland, the New Ireland Forum, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and Thatcher’s unbending resistance to joint-authority solutions – eventually to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Lillis quotes Senator George Mitchell: “John Hume was unique, an extraordinary leader who was able to offer, in his personal courage and his sharp and incisive mind and rhetoric, a new way. In the United States we would call him a ‘Founding Father’.”

The rest of this winter issue of Studies is devoted to literary visions of Ireland and Irishness. Most of these are marked by that complexity and ambivalence towards the country familiar to students of Irish literature – tropes of split cultural allegiances, oscillation between resentment and nostalgia, and dreams both of escaping the land and of returning to it. David Clare examines a curious siding with Ireland’s land and people in two lesser-known works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had an Irish childhood but left the country before he was eight and never returned. Two more concrete recollections of the land of Ireland – as both seductive and dreadful – are viewed by Eamon Maher in a comparative study of George Moore and John McGahern. Yeats’s exaggerated Irish nationalism in his early works is observed by Dylan Thursfield. Thomas O’Grady considers an almost-forgotten novel of Brendan Behan’s, The Scarperer, in the context of the Irish propensity to hold an obsessive ‘sense of place’ – either a ‘topomania’ or a ‘topophobia’, an inordinate attachment to or intense hatred of the country of birth.

Two essays on Seamus Heaney round off the main section of the issue. In the first, Paul Corcoran conducts a deep exploration of the theme of hope in Heaney’s adaptation of Sophocles, The Cure at Troy, and discovers there a decidedly Christian extension of the form hope takes in the original Greek text. As such, it has Ireland as its implied object. It is a yearning for true justice “on the further shore… on the far side of revenge”. And in the second, Jeffrey Meyers recounts the fascinating “turbulent friendship” between Heaney and Robert Lowell, a monumental figure among America’s literary royalty.

The winter issue can be purchased from the Studies website »