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Ireland: Art, Literature & National Identity, Vol 112, No 447

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The emergence in recent decades of what Jürgen Habermas calls a ‘cosmopolitan Europe’ has certainly helped to dissipate the more aggressive energies of the older order of fully sovereign nation-states, but it has not erased the sense of national consciousness in each of the states within it. We still speak meaningfully of the art or literature of France or Italy or Ireland, and we understand it to mean that nationality, to some extent at least, has a shaping role in artistic composition. There need be nothing hubristic or xenophobic about this. Recognising a kind of ‘national character’ or Volksgeist, to use the language of Johann Gottfried Herder, the eighteenth-century critic of the Enlightenment, may simply be about esteeming cultural diversity and acknowledging that the language, the collective historical memory, the received habits of mind, and even the landscape of a country may have a bearing on the native imagination and give its aesthetic productions an exceptional character. In other words, it can be thought of in cultural rather than political terms.

Which is not to say, of course, that it is not problematic. The cultural can quickly become political. The nineteenth-century Romantic spiritual descendants of Herder drifted with unnerving ease into ethnocentrism, nationalist exceptionalism, and racism. Habermas, who has frequently addressed the knotty issue of cultural diversity, notes that historically European nation-states ‘set themselves apart from one another polemically’. Cultural difference degenerated into a destructive nationalism; and since 1945 Europeans have had to learn ‘the painful lessons of how differences can be communicated, oppositions institutionalized, and tensions stabilized’. Habermas’s hope for the European project lies in his belief that ‘the recognition of differences, the mutual recognition of others in their otherness, can also become a distinguishing mark of a shared identity’.

No doubt Ireland’s colonial experience intensified the native sense of the ‘national character’. In his 1997 book Strange Country, Seamus Deane noted Ireland’s historical refusal to ‘surrender its particularities’, viewing the absorption of Irishness into some larger transnational or universal entity as ‘an impoverishing process that eliminates traditional practices and customs … that are vital to the preservation of the native community’s distinctiveness’. What must be remembered, however, is that distinctiveness does not imply isolatedness. Irish culture has always been interconnected in many ways with many other cultures – has always gained its distinctiveness from the specific ways it has received, responded to, and contributed to the greater human enterprise of imagining and articulating the experience of human existence. Cultural interconnectedness is not merely a product of late modern globalisation.

Consider Ireland’s illuminated gospel manuscripts from the early middle ages – the books of Durrow and Kells, for example. In many respects they appear as quintessentially Irish, yet the interplay of cultures in these works is complex. They merge pre-Christian Celtic art – itself already indebted to earlier La Tène traditions – with artistic elements from the Picts, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Celtic Britons, as well as from Gaul, Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. As historian Jennifer O’Reilly summarises, these features were not slavishly copied in the Irish scriptoria, but ‘quite transformed and exuberantly assimilated into the Insular repertoire and idiom’. She notes the paradox that the Celtic art of these manuscripts was ‘energised and … brought to its greatest period of creativity and originality by cross-fertilization with other traditions, both from neighbouring regions and from the Mediterranean world’. There is probably no period of Irish art and literature about which this could not also be said.


The web of indebtedness into which Irish art and literature is woven extends over many centuries just as it does over many lands. In T. S. Eliot’s famous essay on ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ he asserts that for a poet to enter into the tradition they must acquire what he calls ‘the historical sense’. It ‘involves a perception’, he says, ‘not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order’. By this measure (excessively conservative though it may be), James Harpur’s poetry is deeply ensconced in the tradition. In ‘Imagining Kells: A Poetic Meditation on the Book of Kells’, he brings us through his creative process as he penned ‘Kells’, the centrepiece of his 2018 book of poetry, The White Silhouette. The poem brings together four distinct voices in relation to the composition of the book. Two of these voices belong to its creators, an illuminator (‘Goldsmith’) and a scribe; and then we have two witnesses, the twelfth-century priest and historian Gerald of Wales and the poet himself in the twenty-first century. Writing, reading, responding, meditating, all come together and achieve a unity of tradition and contemporaneity.

In ‘The Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts: 200 Years of Social and Artistic Change’, John Turpin recounts the chequered history of the RHA on the occasion of its bicentenary. The purpose of the RHA, like that of the Royal Academy in London, was to foster the development of art in the country, cultivating public art education, attracting patronage, and exhibiting artworks. What is apparent is that Irish artists associated with the RHA tended to look abroad for their stylistic guides: touring Italy for a general artistic education, emulating English portraiture or French landscapes, or taking up avant garde or modernist notions. But the development of an Irish-Ireland ideology gave rise to an anxiety about ‘official’ Irish art especially after the foundation of the state. Should Irish art not define national identity? This question has lost its relevance in more recent times, especially thanks to the globalisation of art.

Declan O’Keeffe, in ‘Frances Biggs and the Windows of Gonzaga College, Dublin’, examines the life and work of Frances Biggs, one of the many great stained glass artists that twentieth-century Ireland produced. Biggs was primarily a musician, playing in the RTÉ symphony orchestra for forty years, but for her, music and colours were always intimately related. The sounds of musical instruments appeared to her mind as colours – synesthesia, this is called. Her stained glass windows in the chapel of Gonzaga College, Dublin, where her husband, Michael Biggs, was commissioned to do the sculpture, displays her heightened sense of colour. A detail from her ‘Last Supper’ window is on the cover of this issue of Studies.

The complexities of Irish national identity are apparent in David Clare’s ‘Maria Edgeworth: Distinguishing the Irish Anglican Ascendancy from the English’. ‘In Irish theatre and film,’ Clare notes, ‘there is a long history of getting English actors to play Irish Anglican parts, without getting them to adopt even a hint of Irishness in their embodying of the parts.’ But Maria Edgeworth’s novels convey a very different sense of the members of the Anglican Ascendancy. In her work they are decisively Irish, as distinct in their vices and their virtues from the English people of their time as the Irish Gaelic Catholics were. And for the most part, Edgeworth, herself a member of the Ascendancy, tended to portray the members of her class as ‘inescapably Irish’ but, just like all Irish people, capable of being ‘improved’ by being ‘exposed to enlightened ideas from other places, such as England, France, Switzerland, or Italy’.

Seamus Heaney, who died ten years ago this August, spoke on various occasions about the problematic nature of his Northern identity. His passport may have been green, but he stood opposed to bigotry, to what he called ‘the furious characterisations of the Unionist, Protestant collective in the North’. In ‘Seamus Heaney and Education: Student and Teacher’, Bríd McGuinness does not deal directly with this tension in Heaney’s sense of his identity, but she discusses the fact that he was ‘constantly aware of dualities throughout his life’. Central in his psyche as a poet is the sense of being ‘in between’ and of attaining balance. And in his literary education, what dominated was openness to the world beyond the North, beyond the island of Ireland. McGuinness quotes Heaney’s address to the Swedish Academy: by encountering ‘the gutturals and sibilants of European speech’ as he listened to the family wireless as a child, ‘I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world’.


Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries draws to a close. One last political event that merits commemoration is the 1923 General Election, which marked the nervous beginning of normal politics in the new state, just four months after the end of the Civil War. In ‘The Dáil General Election of August 1923’, Anthony White maps out the issues and the outcomes of this election. He identifies a number of reasons for its considerable importance, not the least of which is the fact that partition did not figure as a major issue even though the civil war, which formed the background to the election, was precisely fought over the question of the North-South border.

Séamus Murphy SJ’s ‘Confronting the Past for the Sake of the Future’ also considers Ireland’s fraught legacy of political difference and violence. Ireland’s past, he argues, quoting Hannah Arendt, needs not only to be understood but to be confronted. In particular, he insists that commemorations of the events of 1912–1923 failed to revise interpretations of Irish history, as they ought to have done, in line with the endorsed principles of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Fiachra Long, in ‘Gnostic Currents in Our Avatar Culture’, addresses the timely and critical question of how we ought to respond to the threat that Artificial Intelligence ‘might push an increasing number of situations beyond the scope of human judgement’. Are there certain choices that should be reserved to humans? And what in particular should we make of ‘conversational avatars’, imaginary personae that mimic human beings down to the last detail? Long detects the presence of a deep Gnosticism in such a separation of the human mind and body, a seductive promise of being freed from materiality and encounter.

In ‘Cardinal Owen McCann, Angola and Mozambique: Greater Ireland Meets Greater Portugal’, Alexandra Maclennan presents the story of South Africa’s first cardinal, the second-generation Irishman, Owen McCann. She traces his progress in the ecclesiastical world and pays close attention to his initial fascination with the Christian corporatism of Portugal’s long-standing conservative Catholic prime minister, António de Oliveira Salazar. McCann did eventually turn away from ‘the shadows of Salazar’s failed corporative utopia’ and began to espouse, not liberation theology, but a Christian anthropology that opposed injustice in southern African countries, especially in the context of Portuguese decolonisation.

In ‘The Enduring Relevance of Catholic Social Teaching’, a review article of two books on Catholic social teaching, Mark Bell recommends them both unreservedly. Anna Rowland’s Towards a Politics of Communion: Catholic Social Teaching in Dark Times provides a deep and up-to-date perspective on the broad field of CST. She stresses the foundational principles of human dignity, communion, and the universal destination of the goods of the earth, and she echoes Pope Francis’s strenuous opposition to globalised capitalism and other forces that fail to show solidarity with migrants and other marginalised persons. Anthony Annett’s Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy tackles a narrower field, how CST can be applied to the world’s most pressing economic problems, such as global inequality and environmental sustainability, and he does so thoroughly. Both works, Bell says, are to be commended for being, ultimately, ‘underpinned by hope’. Catholic Social Teaching, both authors hold, can indeed help in navigating a path out of dark times.

I would like to thank Digital Collections of the Library of Trinity College Dublin for their work in providing us with the images of three folios from the Book of Kells and their kind permission to publish them in this issue.


  • Cardinal Owen McCann, Angola and Mozambique: Greater Ireland Meets Greater Portugal

    Alexandra Maclennan

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    The first Mass in Southern Africa was celebrated by the Portuguese at Algoa Bay near Port Elizabeth, shortly after they arrived with Bartholomeu Dias in 1487. That there was a Catholic faith for the Dutch settlers to outlaw when they arrived in the Cape Peninsula in 1652 is indicative of its survival long after the Portuguese had left at the turn of the sixteenth century, and that in spite of the lack of continuity of pastoral presence and access to the sacraments. And again, in the nineteenth century, when the Irish but Lisbon-educated Dominican Patrick Griffith was sent to the Cape Colony to become the first Irish vicar apostolic in Southern Africa in 1838, and he set out to travel the length and breadth of the territory, and he found scattered Catholic families across the territory.

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  • Confronting the Past for the Sake of the Future

    Séamus Murphy SJ

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    The 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement outlined structures of power-sharing in Northern Ireland and supporting roles for the British and Irish governments. It also contained something new in Irish history, namely, a commitment by unionist and nationalist representatives to the following principles:

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  • Frances Biggs and the Windows of Gonzaga College, Dublin

    Declan O’Keeffe

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    Gonzaga College SJ, named after St Aloysius Gonzaga, one of St Ignatius’s initial companions, was founded in 1950 in the leafy suburb of Ranelagh, Dublin 6. For the first fifteen years it did not have a chapel, as other things took priority, and religious services took place in the concert hall, which required moving furniture in and out on every occasion. When Fr John Hughes SJ took over as rector in 1959, the first priority of his office was to provide a chapel. In May of 1962 a working committee was established and parents were persuaded to part with £100 each, spread over ten years. In the account of William Lee SJ, ‘[t]he quality of that cut-granite, copper-roofed building dictated to a large extent the quality of the new school Chapel. The fact that Mr Andrew Devane was architect for both buildings ensured that the standard was maintained … The sculptor Mr Michael Biggs was commissioned to do the altar, the ambo, and the tabernacle pillar … The stained glass window at the apex of the triangular building was the work of Mrs Frances Biggs.’

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  • Gnostic Undercurrents in Our Avatar Culture

    Fiachra Long

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    We are sometimes attracted by a striking, colourful and convenient initiative, but like the apparent bargain that flatters to deceive, or the colourful mushroom that turns out to be poisonous, some level of discretion is advised. The emergence of ChatGPT as the lead Artificial Intelligence platform is striking, colourful and convenient, but a high level of discretion is urgently advised.

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  • Imagining Kells: A Poetic Meditation on the Book of Kells

    James Harpur

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    In 2018 I published a book of poems, The White Silhouette, that mainly focused on Christian spirituality and mysticism. At its centre was a four-part meditative poem inspired by the Book of Kells that took me nineteen years, on and off, to complete. In this essay I hope to describe my fascination with the Book of Kells and some of the themes and questions that emerged in my poem, such as: ‘Can sacred art effect a fundamental change of consciousness in the beholder?’ ‘How much does it help to be a believer to appreciate the Book of Kells?’ ‘What is the function of the Book of Kells in the twenty-first century?

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  • Maria Edgeworth: Distinguishing the Irish Anglican Ascendancy from the English

    David Clare

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    In his 1922 novel Ulysses, James Joyce included a fictionalised depiction of the time he spent living in a Martello Tower in Sandycove, County Dublin, but he turned his real-life roommate –Samuel Chenevix Trench, a member of the Irish Anglican Ascendancy – into the Stage English character Haines. In 1983, when UTV, RTÉ, and Channel Four co-operated in creating the Irish R.M. television series, based on short stories by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross, they elected to cast the English actor Peter Bowles as Major Yeates and to change the Major from an upper middle class Irish Anglican to an Englishman.

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  • Seamus Heaney and Education: Student and Teacher

    Bríd McGuinness

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    While a visiting professor at Harvard University, Seamus Heaney was commissioned by Phi Beta Kappa Society to write a poem for their 1984 Literary Exercises, a yearly commencement event held in celebration of learning. In ‘Alphabets’, the resulting poem, Heaney decided to write about ‘making the first letters at primary school’. The poem indeed starts with a young Seamus learning shapes and symbols, before moving on to unfamiliar surroundings at St Columb’s College, Derry. In its third and final section, Heaney has come full circle, lecturing on academia’s most prestigious stages.

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  • The Dail General Election of August 1923

    Anthony White

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    The general election to the Fourth Dáil held on 27 August 1923 was significant in several ways. For the first time all Irish women over the age of twenty-one were eligible to vote. Previously only women over thirty could do so. Another important feature of the election was that for the first time since 1800 all geographic constituencies were contested.Perhaps most surprisingly in retrospect partition did not figure as a major issue in the election.

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  • The Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts: 200 Years of Social and Artistic Change

    John Turpin

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    For two hundred years visitors to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in Dublin have been attracted by the range of work on view: landscapes, seascapes, scenes of rural and urban life, portraits, still life, abstracts and subject paintings, together with various pieces in three dimensions. However, the RHA and its exhibitions were not aesthetic manifestations in isolation but were located within the complex historical fabric of Irish society.

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