“If there is such a literature”:
Thoughts on Teaching American Literature in Ireland /
Irish Literature in America

Peggy O’Brien (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

This piece is based on a talk given at a panel on the early days of American Studies in Ireland held as part of the annual conference of the Irish Association of American Studies in the Clinton Institute, University College Dublin, on the 31st of March 2007. The panel included contributions from John Montague, who talked about teaching American literature at University College Cork in the 1970s, and Denis Donoghue, who introduced many UCD students to the subject from the 1960s through to the 1980s. Prof O’Brien’s contribution described the role she played in introducing American literature to the TCD English curriculum in the 1970s.
L-r: Philip Coleman, John Montague, Peggy O’Brien, Denis Donoghue, William Riches, Ron Callan, Liam Kennedy
© UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies (http://www.ucdclinton.ie/events_conferences_2007_irelandsamerica_report.htm)

My pedagogic life in brief, one of those capsules that is half one color and half another, has consisted of teaching American Literature in Ireland and Irish Literature in America, roughly twenty years on one side of the ocean, now twenty on the other. Ireland brought me back to America; America brought me back to Ireland. How this happened, the story of this cloven and apparently perverse career, is much too long and at its deepest level far too personal for this occasion. I can’t reminisce, as requested, however, about my time teaching American Literature in Trinity College Dublin throughout most of the nineteen seventies and eighties without both being just a little personal and mentioning my work now at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

My interest in each tradition starts with an absence of either. A working-class girl on full scholarship, I went in the benighted times before co-education was common in private, third-level institutions here in New England to what was considered a “ladies’ ivy league” college: Mount Holyoke, which to this day is single-sex. It was founded in 1837 and originally called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the very school Emily Dickinson attended and from which she promptly withdrew, rather than submit to the spiritual tyranny of declaring her faith publicly. While I remember studying some Emily Dickinson at Mount Holyoke, I recall much more poring over the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, and Wordsworth, plus the “great novels” of Hardy, Austen et alia. The Mount Holyoke English department in the mid-1960s was dedicated to the close reading of canonical works, especially poetry, the reverse of today’s practice, in America at least. New Criticism reigned supreme, a prime reason for favoring the linguistic density of poetry, and Mount Holyoke was supremely, as we’d say now, Anglo-centric. I wasn’t complaining and still don’t. For one, if I hadn’t been forced to plough through the English tradition, I wouldn’t have survived for one second in my eventual job in the Trinity English Department, given its profile in the mid 1970s.

At one Moderatorship meeting, the annual occasion when we decided the level of degree to award each candidate, I can remember arguing for a particular student. This student had somehow not done well in, or even failed, the then required Old English paper but had excelled in American Literature, an elective subject. One of my older colleagues, without missing a beat, followed up on my ardent defense with a dry, lethal quip, “if there is such a literature.” I was noisily indignant, true to my national stereotype; but this febrile display was in stark contrast to the sober, even stern work I thought I was trying to do in the classroom, albeit buoyed by what still rings as non-stop laughter (my students were as diabolically funny as they were smart, clever in every sense). At that time, I was deeply engaged with the seventeenth century in New England, especially Covenant Theology and the repercussions of “plain style” on America poetics. I had done my PhD thesis, for my sins, on Original Sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne. I had worked under the obliging supervision of Professor J.K. Walton, the eminent Shakespearean, who took me on out of pity and kindness, since there was no Americanist in the department at that time. It was the haunted, pale spectre of Hawthorne, descendant of one of the most blood-thirsty judges at the Salem witch trials, who turned me toward the study of the influence of Puritanism on the nineteenth and ineluctably on the early twentieth-century imagination. I was like a prosecutor on the scent of a conviction. It didn’t matter that the Great War and the Great Depression impinged on Modernism; I had my cause.

The point was that I had returned to my own cultural inheritance almost from the moment I realized that I had, it seemed then, permanently settled in Ireland. This was not altogether contrary on my part. I’d been rehearsing this transition since the year after I arrived in Dublin to do an MA in Irish Studies at UCD, an experience which left me doubtful of my success in this area. The course was one of the first of its kind in Ireland and the academic cast was illustrious: stars like Denis Donoghue, Roger McHugh, Maureen Wall, Gus Martin, Maurice Harmon, and Nuala O’Faolain. The only problem was that these were the days before academics donned their theoretical armor like jousting knights before uttering a word.  We predominately American students took in without a clue a conflicting range of approaches to Irish Literature. The approaches that left me most befuddled, given my New Critical past, were those that relied implicitly on an understanding of Irish History, which seemed forbiddingly difficult. Roger McHugh would have strongly exemplified this line of argument. The problem was that there wasn’t available then a reasonably efficient remedy, like Roy Foster’s Oxford History of Ireland to mitigate such wholesale ignorance. But even more confusing were the simmering resentments and conflicts I sensed among our eminently civilized but tonally transparent teachers. Marianne Moore in “Spencer’s Ireland” somewhat superciliously refers to “the Irish with their genius for divisiveness”. That is truly how “they,” as represented by my professors in 1967 at UCD, seemed to me. I was lost. Having been raised on the canon, I was asked to read poets, who were apparently commendable for performing a cultural service I couldn’t appreciate. I’m thinking of someone like Padraic Fallon. I simply couldn’t untangle his allusive density, with its fine historical and inter-textual threads. As for Austin Clarke’s seemingly contortionist prosody, drawn, we were assured, from poetry in Irish, I experienced it as pure torture.

That’s why I retreated to the Puritans. I decided that, if I was going to rectify the hermeticism of my early “lit-crit” training by acquiring some context, it had better be one I could half understand. Reverting to my past as well, when I started teaching, I concentrated on poetry. Yeats had been the subject of my senior thesis at Mount Holyoke and my putative reason for studying abroad. So, when I started teaching American Literature, I naturally concentrated more on the poetry than the prose, with the major exception of Hawthorne and his crowd, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, etc. Poetry had been my explosive discovery at Mount Holyoke. But I had gravitated specifically toward Yeats because as a restless, lapsed Catholic, I was on the prowl for hypnotic voices, the aural equivalent of incense. I also sought poets who, like Blake, conveniently provided a ready-made, entire cosmological system.(I had no idea in South Hadley Massachusetts in 1963, cocooned in New Criticism and my library carrel at Mount Holyoke, that the words “Yeats” and “Catholicism” don’t trip readily off the knowledgeable tongue in sequence. Blithely a-historical, I’d never even heard the term Anglo-Irish. Furthermore, the contradiction of Yeats being taught then in America as an English poet and presenting himself in print as an Irish one didn’t trouble me in the slightest.) Once settled and teaching in Dublin, I was trying both to fill in one of my history gaps and forge a continuity with my past.  I was crazed, therefore, by two needs that in no way appeared incompatible: to contextualize and systematize. I hunted down those Puritan ghosts not just up and down the alps of Transcendentalism but on to the flatter, more subtly modulated terrain of American Modernism.

I couldn’t have enjoyed this eccentric experiment without the indulgent support of my extraordinary students in Trinity. Many of them have gone on to write scholarly books, novels, plays and poems, people like Ron Callan, Domnhall Mitchell, Declan Hughes, Lynn Parker, Peter Fallon, Anne Enright and Deirdre Madden. None of these exemplary, young scholars – perish the thought! – but surely many of their peers regularly begged with irresistible charm for generous extensions on their essays, the better to birth their juvenilia. Punctilious or not, they all had the robust intelligence and staying power to excavate every last nuance from a poem. At the time, performing this exercise loomed for me as something more than a life or death matter. New Criticism with its relentless pursuit of ambiguity was nothing compared to the zeal of my home-spun methodology based on Covenant Theology, predicated after all, on the Word, both read and spoken, being the key to salvation. (Miss Dickinson would not have approved. Or would she have?) In those seminars on American Modernism in the 1970s we read every syllable as though our souls depended on it. It was a rapturous myopia, for me at least; but I also demanded, as I recall or would like to recall, a hefty amount of reading in American history. Naturally, I never for one moment heeded the warning my own experience in UCD should have constituted. I showed singularly little empathy with my students in their efforts to absorb another culture. They were so capable they never gave me any reason to suspect their mastery of that foreign material. We spent most of our time, however, being literary but in a Puritan way, considering, for instance, such issues as the moral implications of Imagism and Objectivism, especially William Carlos Williams’ abhorrence of the mendacity in sloppy or wholesale figuration. We traced every twist and turn in Wallace Stevens’ anfractuous, angst-ridden trek toward the always elusive Absolute. We counted Marianne Moore’s parsimonious syllables and followed the chain of her endless qualifications in the name of accuracy. It was the first time I understood in a visceral sense how culture presses on literature.

Then in the seventies, Northern Ireland burst into violence and a florescence of poems occurred too, and essays published north and south of the border relating culture and politics. In the late seventies and early eighties, I often found myself rushing out to Fred Hanna’s bookshop on Nassau Street, just across from the new Trinity Arts Block, to buy the latest Crane Bag or Field Day pamphlet. I was magnetized by this first-hand display of history and politics determining the very timbre of poetic speech, making every word more consequential than I could ever imagine possible. By contrast, American Modernism seemed for a time precious, my Covenant Theology quest then and forever more quixotic. But still, the cultural revolution at my feet did not seem mine, as it did to the authors of those pamphlets and poems. I was witnessing history, but standing on the bank as it rushed past. This was also a time, in fact 1972, when the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, made his withering remark about “blow-ins,” foreigners in Ireland with no right to have a stake in or even comment on political life.

It was a xenophobic as well as highly misogynist time in Ireland. As personally alienating as these forces were, though, it was also clear that America with its Civil Rights Movement was part of, in fact a backdrop to what was happening then in Derry and Belfast. I’d left America in 1967. John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been assassinated in the fall of my first year in college, 1963. Particularly for those often young Americans who’d become politicized by this Irish Catholic’s unprecedented candidacy and successful election, that cataclysmic event immediately produced an inchoate loss of innocence. This foreboding would take several years to shape itself into its full horror and counter-cultural hope. In quick succession, of course, in the spring and summer of 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The massacre by the Ohio National Guard of four students protesting the Viet Nam draft at Kent State occurred in the spring of 1970, all verifiable precursors to the Northern Irish “Troubles.” Throughout this time, I was in Dublin.

I would live out my own country’s engagement with Civil Rights and a draining war in the mirror of similar and at the same time unique events taking place at a much slighter distance, but still at a distance, in Northern Ireland. As Viet Nam sucked the life, tens of thousands of actual lives but also the moral vitality out of my country, so “The Troubles” seemed at the time to sap Ireland, north and south, if to very different degrees. The connection with events in America became patent for me through Seamus Heaney’s article in the Guardian in 1972 with its reference to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. In that piece Heaney recalls reading aloud at a “carol service” in Queens University those fabled words by Dr. King with their clear application to Northern Ireland at that pivotal moment: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the full meaning of its creed […] Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty free at last.” It is embarrassing to recall, however, the way I could avoid the North back then out of fear. I remember, for instance, an IAAS conference, perhaps at Jordanstown, that I didn’t attend because I so dreaded going up and down on the train, the infamous Enterprise, which was frequently threatened by bombs or by stones being thrown along the tracks.

By the time I was preparing to leave Ireland in the mid eighties American culture was coming closer to it, not least through the Women’s Movement. Since I was then in the legal limbo of being a separated woman in a country with no divorce, I was acutely and increasingly conscious of both my gender and my status as a foreigner. On the very day that I left Ireland in June of 1986 to scout out a new life in America, the Aer Lingus pilot on EI 133 from Dublin to Boston announced the outcome of the vote on the first divorce referendum. The result was negative.

If the seventies had been volcanic because of the North, the eighties were so for the gender wars. It was a time when the body politic was scarred more and more by violent events involving women. In January of 1984, Anne Lovett, the pregnant teenager, had been found in Granard, County Longford, dead alongside her miscarried child in a church grotto at the base of a statue of the Virgin Mary. That April the Kerry Babies case blew up, a bizarre and harrowing story of two instances of infanticide, unrelated in fact but not in the patriarchal, legal imagination. By the summer of 1984, Ireland was witnessing the social atavism of multitudes traveling to rural churches where a statue of the Virgin was reported to have moved, perhaps flicked a finger. Anthropologists explained that the chasm of this mass hysteria had opened up because of recent, repeated ruptures in the traditional landscape of Irish sexual mores. Just as the violence in the North created its own poetry, a new poetry by women emerged out of this rift.

One of the first poets I encountered in Ireland in my earliest days was Eavan Boland. With my admiration for Yeats, I read her first, metrical, myth-suffused book, New Territory, with rapt admiration. In the early seventies, however, she had begun to affiliate herself with the group of women, including future Irish President Mary Robinson, who met regularly in Gaj’s café on Baggot Street for those seminal meetings of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. Boland would become very influenced by American feminism, especially the writings in prose and poetry of Adrienne Rich. Returning in the fall of 1973 from a year spent with my family in a college town outside Philadelphia, a year that still reeks of Patchouli and unreels to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell’s album Blue, I was astounded to find Dublin suddenly coming down with women’s consciousness raising groups. All the fantastic talk I’d encountered on the other side, all those seductive buzz words – objectification and appropriation – were in the air everywhere. One of the most intriguing and personally gratifying aspects of the Feminist movement in Dublin at that time was just how many “blow-ins,” like American Mary Maher and Englishwoman Elgy Gillespie, stood as equals alongside Irish women asserting their equality with Irish men.

The ironies continue. I am back in America and now most of my female students are adamant post-feminists convinced of the fun in being “gurls”. And in truth the Irish female poets who most stimulate me now are less reactive to a patriarchal cultural dominance than joyously creating like Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin their own myths, drawing sustenance from their own models, such as her truly radical saints and nuns. The monumental Field Day Anthology of Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions, volumes IV and V, replete with examples of the foundational research in native Irish female culture performed by scholars like Angela Bourke, Maria Luddy, and Maírin Ní Dhonnchadha, has provided an invaluable context for understanding Nuala Ní Dhomhnail’s evocations of the Sovereignty Goddess and Medbh McGuckian’s erotically charged, electrifying laments. In my work here at the University of Massachusetts, where my students male and female come from every possible ethnic, racial, and class background, the work of these female poets exhibits new strategies for expressing material that eludes the still largely confessional confines of American poetry. These Irish writers offer fresh ways to speak the unspeakable depredations of violence and injustice. And they frequently do so with a life-affirming humor. Young writers here, especially African and Native Americans, whose birthright includes strong oral traditions and fantastical figures within those stories and poems who occupy liminal spaces and wield supernatural energy, find a great deal to emulate in the new breed of Irish woman poet.

But perhaps the example that has the most power on a day-to-day basis to encourage my students, often the first generation in their family to go to college, is that of Seamus Heaney, a man from a “bookless background” winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. It gratifies me to be able to pass on the same boost in self-esteem and ratification for my instincts as a reader that I got from Heaney. His discernment about his first reading encounter with Keats stands as one of the most liberating and honest admissions possible: that the adolescent proto-poet admired the great, English poet but couldn’t identify with him, felt “force-fed” on him rather than nurtured by him. If only I could have said or heard such a thing at Mount Holyoke. Then again, in the unsystematized way life actually happens, it has turned out just fine to occupy both sides of a once divisive ocean, as I stand in the classroom now. For me at least, it helps to heal a number of rifts.