The Irish and the gift of the gab

John Kelly finds wit, passion and sophistication in a challenging new book by Terry Eagleton; HEATHCLIFF AND THE GREAT HUNGER: Studies in Irish Culture Terry Eagleton Verso pounds 19.50
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Terry Eagleton has nothing to fear from the Trades Description Act. Anyone misled by his somewhat enigmatic title into thinking that this is a book about Emily Bronte or a discussion of the mid- Victorian novel, will find that it is in part all that, but that it is also far, far more. In a series of impressively well-informed and challenging essays, he charts the relationship between Irish literature and politics as they developed between the Act of Union at the beginning of the 19th century and the death of James Joyce.

Literature and culture have played a more prominent role in Irish politics and history than they did in England, largely (as Eagleton argues) because Ireland's colonial situation made questions of identity, representation and language much more problematic than they were on the other side of the St George's Channel. While he sees British culture gradually becoming a bulwark against social unrest, in Ireland it was a powerful contributor to it, and it is hard to think of writings in England which had the long- term impact of those of the Young Irelanders of the 1840s or the Irish Revivalists of the 1890s. A turbulent history produced an Irish society divided by class, ethnicity, religion and language - particularly the latter. Not merely was there the obvious difference between Gaelic and English: even English words had different meanings and nuances, not just on either side of the Irish sea, but between landlord and tenant, Protestant and Catholic within Ireland. After the Act of Union, legislation that made sense in England could turn out to be absurd or even disastrous when applied unthinkingly in the very different economic and social conditions of Ireland. The consequence, Eagleton argues, was an Irish suspicion of language itself and a compensatingly keen alertness to its duplicities, its capacity for play, for parody, for irony, for self-dramatisation or disguise. The gift of the gab, it seems, has less to do with kissing the Blarney Stone than slipping the embrace of crass or coercive laws. And this was true of all classes: "you know about the roguery of it, but you don't know at all about the truth of it", one old woman, prosecuted for stealing a cow, exclaimed. Thus, paradoxically, the Irish learned to be modernists (even post-modernists) before their economic and social structures had entered modernity.

It is this mismatch which fascinates Eagleton and which he is at his very best in analysing and discussing (his essay on the 19th-century Irish novel - an unduly neglected genre - is a brilliant tour de force). In his introduction he explains that his book is intended to bring to Irish history the insights of contemporary cultural theory, though he points out too that Ireland, as one of the oldest colonies, challenges the over- neat categories of much theorising. He also registers his own interests - all four grandparents Irish, and his mother born in the same Lancashire community as Michael Davitt, the architect of the Land League. This, as he anticipates, will give some readers the foreboding that they are to be subjected to the fulminations of a displaced Irish-Catholic Lefty indulging in romantic nostalgia and gratuitous Brit-bashing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, there is a commitment to a left-wing view of Irish history, but he is far too subtle and agile - and honest - to be sucked into the bog of sentimental pieties.

Eagleton's choice of the essay form is absolutely right for this book. The various pieces overlap and provide an interweaving account of modern Irish culture, but do not impose the over-determined narrative that a purely chronological approach would have involved. What we get, in fact, is eight meditations on a series of complex questions, centring on the Irish famine, the Ascendancy, the Act of Union and the often paradoxical relationship of literature and politics in shaping the modern Irish experience.

The opening essay (which gives the book its title) boldly reads Wuthering Heights as an allegory of the differences between the Irish and English perceptions of nature and culture. In 1845, Branwell Bronte, a Yorkshire version of the drunken stage Irishman if ever there was one, went to Liverpool where, Eagleton proposes, he would have seen poor Irish-speaking emigrant children. Perhaps he spoke of this to his sister Emily, who was just embarking on her novel, and one of those anonymous Irish children, dispossessed by the famine, stormed unforgettably into English literature as Heathcliff. Eagleton makes use of this possibility with freely confessed opportunism (of course he knows that the dates don't quite fit and that, for all we know, Heathcliff could be a gipsy or a creole), to contemplate the almost unrepresentable abyss that the Great Famine marked in Irish history and literature. Too well-read to regard it as genocide (although some of the Malthusian utterances of contemporary statesmen are chilling - one wondered whether a million deaths would be enough), he ack-nowledges the ways in which the English government forsook its most hallowed laissez- faire doctrines to intervene in the calamity, but concludes that as so often in Anglo-Irish relations too little was done too late. The capitalist system in which the government and landlords were entrapped was, he says, to blame, but he allows himself to suppose that had the British government taken the Act of Union seriously, had they really believed that the two kingdoms were one and indivisible, they would have put their corn where their fine words were, and saved countless lives.

It is the system that is to blame, too, in his consideration of the Anglo- Irish Ascendancy. Having taken power by conquest and consolidated it through the Act of Union, this ruling class had the opportunity to win the hearts of the people through psychological, cultural and economic initiatives. But they failed to do this - partly because of stupidity, but partly because the prevailing capitalist ideology in Britain caused Westminster to become increasingly embarrassed by this feudal remnant. Finally, the British government bought them out, but, like the French ancien regime, nothing became them like their end and in their death throes they produced Yeats, Synge and most of the writers of the Irish revival.

This causes something of a tension between Eagleton the critic and Eagleton the political thinker. In his reading, Yeats is the final apologist for an Ascendancy hegemony which rests on a false perception of history and society; and yet Yeats, and others like him, are great, even courageous writers. Even more distressing, both Yeats and Joyce subscribed to the view that history is cyclical rather than teleological, that it repeats itself rather than progressing forward. Thus, Eagleton arrives at the final paradox: after 150 years of cultural and political struggle, Ireland has produced a modernism which failed to enter properly into modernity, and he concludes that Yeats's images of spiralling gyres and Joyce's ceaseless repetitions in Finnegans Wake are fantasies of omnipotence, compensating for different forms of powerlessness.

This book raises more questions than it can answer, and that is its glory. It is provoking in the best sense, and written with wit, passion, sophistication and brio (we have hardly got to page eight when we find Yeats described as a vulgar Marxist - one wonders what adjective the old boy would have resented more). The Irish novelist William Carleton said of Thackeray that he wrote "very well about Ireland, for an Englishman" - with four Irish grandparents, ethnicity becomes blurred, so let's simply say Eagleton writes very well about Ireland.