The Blanket

The Resistance of Writers
Contesting Ireland: Irish Voices against England in the Eighteenth Century,
by Thomas McLoughlin;
reviewed by Anthony McIntyre
The Other View Summer 2001

 

Writers have an important task in every epoch. As the journalist Maggie O' Kane recently observed, if writing is not about producing change then writers may as well become sports reporters rather than face the dangers that subversive writing brings. Even where such writing fails to persuade or provoke and becomes little other than a historical artefact its very existence in years to come will have prevented the powerful and the control freaks from monopolising the historical record. Future analysts will at least be able to say 'Not all of humanity surrendered its creative intellect - there were some who did not believe the nonsense and spin of the day and dissented from it'.

The intellect of Irish writers has never been in doubt, apart from in the convoluted minds of those English endowed with a self-created superiority complex. Thomas McLoughlin underlines this point so well in Contesting Voices which through an examination of six writers - Molyneaux, Swift, O'Connor, Burke, Edgeworth and Tone - illustrates the existence of a body of writing which the author feels is unsurpassed in any of England's other colonies. The point is underlined by the assertion that Achebe published his first novel only two years before Nigeria's independence and Ngugi one year after Kenya's own experience.

Concentrating on the eighteenth century McLoughlin seeks to show that the Irish, while internally pluralistic, nevertheless possessed a certain monolithic character when it came to stressing just how different the Irish were from the view the English had of them. But this difference, rather than reinforce the belief that something other than total unity means a situation of being divided and conquered, actually served to challenge the English colonial view that the Irish were unchanging. Pluralism - rather than being, as Harry Donaghy wittingly observes, a form of pneumonia - constituted a rhetorical strategy of protest and resistance. It created, particularly in the work of O'Connor, a hybridity over essentialism.

It is in producing such hybridity that the indispensable democratic function of writers in all societies is underlined. A culture that places a premium on hybridity serves to prevent people being easily led. Recent Rwandan history demonstrates only too horrifically that a people easily led are a people that may easily commit atrocity. In the age of leadership spin the protection and valuing of political dissent which writers can perform so well is an indispensable safeguard.

The author seeks to examine post-colonial writing which immediately leads the reader to think in terms of Dorothy MacArdle and writers of that epoch. However, McLoughlin quickly illustrates that the term 'post' also means behind. Consequently, the investigative strategy of the writer is to find what lies behind the façade of the hegemonic English writing. 'Post-colonial' also is taken to mean post-the beginning of colonialism rather than post-the demise of the phenomenon. In our day McLoughlin would be investigating the subculture which lurks alongside but behind rather than beneath the official culture. The author's examination of the manner in which a counter-text comes to constitute a rhetorical power base from which to resist the imagery of the coloniser is a lesson that has universality to it. It is as much Foucauldian as it is anti-colonial.

Through his examination of Burke, McLoughlin is able to trace the resistance culture that existed amongst many Irish and points out that Burke serves as a reminder that it was not until Tone came along that Irish protest took on the character of demanding independence form Britain. This suggests that the culture of Irish protest against English injustice has a longer history than Irish opposition to British involvement in Ireland per se. Provisional republicanism, if it felt so inclined to trace its historical roots beyond 1969, might with justification look there rather than to Pearse and 1916.

So many of the writers examined by McLoughlin - Molyneaux and Swift for example, were silent about the political aspirations of Irish Catholics. There concerns were Protestant Ireland. Swift's is probably the most interesting given that his rhetorical strategy had at its centre ridicule. Contrasting this approach with that of Molyneaux, McLoughlin speaks of 'a shift from the gentleness of reconciliation to the savagery of abuse'. Despite Swift's deep engagement in bold confrontational protest against the English he always conceived freedom in a manner determined by the English.

Tone, was entirely different. Championing the cause of Catholics he situated himself on the margins rather than at the centre and saw things English as the cause of Ireland's problems. If he were alive today his dismissal of the Executive as an administration of boobies and blockheads would have led to him facing the accusation of being a rejectionist. Somehow, I doubt if he would care.

Contesting Ireland: Irish Voices against England in the Eighteenth Century. By Thomas McLoughlin. Published by Four Courts Press. Price HB £39.95 - PB £17.50

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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