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This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours
TERRY EAGLETON, English professor at Oxford University, has just published The Truth About The Irish. But is it fact or fiction? NIALL STANAGE investigates. Pics: Cathal Dawson.
Niall Stanage, 12 May 1999
A book entitled The Truth About The Irish? Written by an Englishman? It seems guaranteed to raise the hackles, but then considering that the author in question is Terry Eagleton that should come as no surprise. Eagleton is an unusual combination. Originally from a working class background in the north of England, he is Warton Professor of English at Oxford University. He is also a committed Marxist.
Throughout his career has has delivered lectures and written books which have apparently had one common purpose to liberate complex ideas from the ivory towers of elitist academia, and make them easily accessible. He seems to have been successful in doing so, since his Literary Theory An Introduction is one of the best selling academic books ever. He has also written two previous studies of Irish culture Heathcliffe And The Great Hunger and Crazy John And The Bishop.
The Truth About The Irish is his most populist book yet. Written as an A-Z guide, it is essentially intended to help the outsider get a grasp of Irish culture beyond the hopelessly hackneyed images of sweet colleens, drinking and 'Danny Boy'. Throughout, Eagleton utilises his trademark breezy style to make both serious and humourous points. Pithy observations about our treatment of travellers and immigrants sit surprisingly comfortably alongside statements like, One of the mysteries of the Republic Of Ireland is that there is nothing in it of any significance whatsoever beginning with the letter Q. Or this (under the entry for 'Begorrah'): Nobody in Ireland has ever been known to use this word. If you hear anyone say 'Begorrah' during your stay you can be sure that he's an agent of The Irish Tourist Board, pandering to your false expectations.
Eagleton has lived in Dublin, where his wife teaches, for the past three years,commuting to Oxford when required, as well as making regular academic sojourns to the US. His connection with Ireland stretches further back, however. All of his grandparents came from here (two from Ulster, two from Tipperary), and emigrated to work in Lancashire and its surrounding areas. Eagleton recalls Irish culture being very much a fixture of his early life. But, nevertheless, was the fact that his formative years were spent in England a help or a hindrance in writing a book like this?
I think it's important that the book is written by a semi-outsider, he replies. They know the kind of things that someone would want to know, beyond the usual tourist guidebook stuff. I suppose it's really the advantage of having a foot in both camps.
With the book being written as an A-Z list of 'buzzwords', was it difficult to decide what to leave in or take out?
Not really. It's a useful framework because, of course, it's a very flexible one. It's a kind of patchwork and I was able to keep going back to it. Also, it's more reader-friendly, he continues. As you know, I write popular writing in academic books. And I like popular writing. I believe in it, I think it should be done, and I think too few academics do it. But I hadn't really written what's supposed to be a purely popular book before. This is the sort of book that they [the publishers] have to get into a small sweetshop in Mayo.
There are those who would regard talk of The Irish as condescending, or even having an undercurrent of racism. It carries a vaguely similar tone to speaking of the Blacks or the Jews . It is a difficulty which Eagleton is acutely aware of, referring to it in his introduction to the book, and expanding on it in conversation:
In this type of project there is always a very great danger of stereotyping. Stereotyping can be very dangerous, has been in Ireland, and still is, he says. But at the same time, I don't think I agree with the simple liberal response to that, which is, you know, 'we're all individuals, and can't be discussed in any more social way'.
By this is he referring to his statement in the book that people who share the same conditions of life for a long time also tend to develop certain social habits in common. It's as wrong-headed to overlook that as it is to imagine that one Irish person is just a clone of another ?
Yes. I think Ireland has certain cultural differences, which are not just individual, but are very obvious. To that extent I think one can talk about 'The Irish', provided, firstly, you're aware of the dangers and, secondly, that you talk about the variety of the society, the differences.
But is the title of the book a typical Eagleton attempt to stir things up a little?
There's a certain provocative quality about the title. It contains two phrases that any good post-modernist would object to, he smiles, 'The truth' and 'The Irish'. But I'd certainly suggest that while there may not be a truth about the Irish, there are some truths.
And did he find it difficult to encompass both 'serious' and 'humorous' truths within the same piece of work?
No, I can't say I did. I think that's something that's in my natural style of writing. I like to try to be informative and entertaining at the same time. I genuinely want the book to be informative. I don't want it to be just a satirical sally or a series of jokes. I think, incidentally, that mixture of seriousness and comedy is actually there in Irish writing to some degree, with Shaw and so on.
Moving away from specific points raised in the book, what does Eagleton make of the changes which have swept Ireland with apparently ever-increasing momentum within the last generation?
I first started coming to Ireland in the early '60s, he begins. At that time Ireland had a definite third world quality about it. The stagnancy, the backwardness leapt out at you, perhaps not so much here [Dublin], but certainly in rural areas.
So I've seen tremendous changes. Dropping in and out, as I have done, those changes are perhaps more obvious to me. I come from a society where modernity happened a very long time ago. So it's interesting to come to a society which is just now going through this exciting, and to some degree, alarming process.
What does he see as the alarming aspects to these changes?
Those who think that Ireland will have achieved it's full identity when it ends up exactly like Switzerland, he responds immediately. You know, that kind of bland, uniform thing. I think that the anxieties of modernity are as real as the opportunities, but I suppose in the end you just have to make some kind of balance sheet of that.
And within the Irish character as he perceives it, what does Eagleton personally respond to most positively and negatively?
The positive things again border on the stereotypes I mention in the book 'craic' has become almost as clichid a term as 'begorrah'. But I think that compared to puritan societies, and I'm thinking here more of the States, [I dislike] the sheer difficulty such societies have with having fun. The Americans now all go to bed at 9.30 having had a single small, dry sherry! he laughs.
It's very nice to be in a society which has a capacity for enjoyment. And also, on the whole, it is pretty non-censorious, he continues. One of the incongruous things about Ireland is that although morality and religious authority and spiritual authoritarianism have wreaked so much havoc, and still are doing so, there is a gap, it seems to me, between that and the popular culture, as there is in Ireland so often a gap between the official and the popular.
And what about the downside?
Perhaps the more claustrophobic nature of society. Being a semi-outsider you can avoid some of that, but I have Irish friends who have read the book and said, 'why didn't you really put the boot in. It's far too polite'.
Another area where Eagleton certainly does not put the boot in, is in his presentation of the northern conflict. For a man of his ardently-held political beliefs, it is extremely even-handed.
Oh, hopelessly balanced, I would say, he interjects laughing. I have some of the same feelings myself, but I did feel some responsibility to set out the opposing argument for someone who was coming in new to this, not least because if one's own view came across too strongly one could rightly be accused of bias.
He also points out that he has addressed this issue in much more opinionated fashion elsewhere. One of the qualifications he includes in the introduction to The Truth About The Irish, though, is that in this context 'Ireland' is taken to mean only the Republic of Ireland. Would he have any plans to write anything similar about the north?
I don't think so. Politically perhaps; culturally no. It's a kind of no-win situation at this stage. If you don't write about the north, you could rightly be accused of exclusion; if you do, you could be accused, in this context, of over-stressing the similarities between it and the Republic. Perhaps I took the coward's way out.
Ultimately, then, how would the book's author like The Truth About The Irish to be regarded?
I think the Irish rightly object to the way they've been romanticised and idealised, he responds. And I object to that in the book myself. But now we'll see . . . if they can take a bit of criticism (laughs). I hope the book is both critical and approving. I just tried to write what I saw and what I felt. I'll leave the overall effect to the reader."
The Truth About The Irish by Terry Eagleton is published by New Island Books, priced # 6.99.