In recent years, Irish Studies has developed significantly as a field in which literary theory has offered helpful new readings of canonical texts as well as foregrounded the works of writers who might not previously have been widely studied. Feminist theory and postcolonial theory in particular have been applied usefully to the study of Irish culture and literature, and some of these texts have become definitive sources in the field: Elizabeth Butler Cullingford’s Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry (1996), Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (1995) and David Lloyd’s
Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (1993), to name a few, have shaped contemporary readings of Irish literature and influenced the scholarship of several generations of Irish Studies academics. The revitalization of the field that can be attributed to these and other contemporary texts seemed to lose momentum at the end of the decade and, although the field has remained vibrant, Irish Studies scholars continue to unpack the work of these critics. Rather than indicting current scholarship, however, this trend demonstrates the vast applicability of the work of that generation of scholars, particularly those who argued that postcolonial theory is a useful and relevant means of approaching the study of Irish culture and literature.
As feminist and postcolonial readings offered new lenses through which to read Irish texts, the study of canonical works, especially those of Joyce and Yeats, became more challenging as new ways to reread seemed to have been nearly exhausted. Consequently, Joseph Valente has a very difficult task in presenting a new reading of Dracula in his Dracula’s Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood. To reread a text that has been deconstructed and read as feminist, anti-feminist, colonial, postcolonial, nationalist, antinationalist and Marxist, Valente must grind a new lens. Using as a foundational concept the fact that, as a result of the 1800 Act of Union, Ireland “ceased to be a distinct if colonized geopolitical entity and assumed the unique and contradictory position of a domestic or ‘metropolitan’ colony” (2002, 3), Valente reads Dracula as a text shaped by its “metrocolonial” means of production, arguing that, rather than being read as Irish, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon or subaltern, “the Irishness of Dracula should be read and understood in light of what I call its metrocolonial conditions of production, which function at both the collective level, shaping the cultural and political identity of the Irish people, and at the individual level, giving a peculiar slant to the psychic terrain of Stoker himself” (3). This notion of the metrocolonial is defined not only in relation to Ireland’s unique status as a “domestic” and “metropolitan” colony but also to the role of Ireland as “participant-victim” in the imperial enterprise (3). Working with the concept of Ireland’s unique colonial status, Valente examines the intricacies of Stoker’s “interethnic” Anglo-Celtic identity and how it affects the text. Though readings of Stoker’s hybrid cultural identity have abounded in studies of the novel, Valente coins a term that offers a semantically flesh concept.
The “question of blood” is one familiar approach to Dracula, and Valente’s slant is that the question of blood represents not merely the Victorian fear of racial mixing but a critique of “racialist paranoia” (2002, 5). To clarify this subtle distinction, he argues that the traditional “Irish” reading of the text has focused on the pollution of the race, whereas a more “nuanced explication” of the text identifies the villain of the novel “as racialized anxiety itself” (5). He reminds readers of important facets of the novel’s construction, arguing, for example, that its point of view is not necessarily sympathetic to Harker, Seward and Van Helsing, who collectively represent Western European authority. Rather, he suggests, “the cleverness of Stoker’s narrative method consists in striking an unstably ironic attitude toward his characters’ moral and political assumptions, sentiments, and dispositions, even while maintaining a certain patina of the righteous and the heroic about them” (5). Separating Stoker from the Victorian imperialist mindset, Valente offers a more complex (and very postcolonial) reading of Stoker’s authorial role, suggesting that he “writes back” to the cultural limitations placed upon him by Victorian society.
Valente further contextualizes the notion of Dracula as a metrocolonial text within a psychoanalytical framework. In his reading of Stoker’s short story “The Dualitists; or, The Death Doom of the Double Born” he argues that “to be a metrocolonial subject is always to find oneself inculpated in some unconscious way or at some unforeseeable point in one’s own victimization” (2002, 48). However, the argument may also be applied to Dracula, in which the Count embodies not only “a fantasied threat posed by subdominant peoples to the ethno-national health and vigor of the English” but also “the ethno-colonial threat posed to subdominant peoples by the English” (62). Perhaps where he most importantly distinguishes his reading from those of his predecessors is in noting that
Dracula does not dramatize a reverse colonialism, pace Arata's well-known argument, but rather an impacted colonialism, which registers the impact of a colonialism enacted within an officially metropolitan state and of the inscription of racial and cultural difference within the space of national self-identity. This problematic is likewise encrypted in the name Transylvania, which might just as easily be translated "across the forest," athwart rather than beyond the Pale. (Valente 2002, 72)
Offering a new reading of a text that has been so thoroughly mined for readings focusing on gender politics, racial anxiety and colonial politics is a challenging task and, though much of Valente’s reading feels familiar, he synthesizes a feminist reading of Mina Harker, a postcolonial reading of both Dracula and Stoker and a critique of the “question of blood” that permeates the novel. Though the densely theoretical prose of this volume demands a good deal of unpacking at times, Valente seems to enjoy his task, and subtle observations like his reference to Harker’s observation of “the chilling spectacle of a younger, sprucer Dracula mixing easily in the street life of the metropolis” (2002, 89) give a reader of Valente’s text the sense of revisiting the novel under the direction of a knowing and affable textual guide. Though his approach to the novel is not entirely new, Valente offers new terminology through which to understand Stoker’s work in a comprehensive, full-length study, and his text will be helpful for serious Stoker scholars.
Appealing to a broader audience, Colin Graham’s Deconstructing Ireland takes as its central motif the image of the simultaneously constructed, evolving and deconstructing “Ireland” of Irish Studies and argues that, “while historical change is apparent in the conditions of production which affect what ‘Ireland’ is, there are consistently recalcitrant tropes which embody the ever-present tensions of narrating the nation, of promising a future, of informing and being a culture without appearing to be produced” (2001, 7). Examining the geopolitics of Ireland’s status as a “floating signifier” and recent applications of feminist, postcolonial and post-national readings to Irish literature and culture, Graham examines the complexities of the search for an “authentic” Ireland and argues that “such a process of semiotic control is likely to find itself overstretched and internally riven” (134). Illustrating this claim with examples ranging from the speeches of Eamon de Valera to the fiction of Gerry Adams to a television commercial for Smithwick’s beer, Graham reads the signs and symbols that have built on the search for and return to a “utopian” Ireland, which, as he argues, offer “ironic parallels to the future nation-state, and parodies of utopia itself” (6).
Citing de Valera’s 1943 St. Patrick’s Day broadcast, Graham isolates the reference to the “laughter of comely maidens” as one that reinforces the status of Irish woman as a “linguistically silenced subject” (2001, 107). In this case, as in the Constitution’s mandating the maintenance of home and hearth as a national imperative, the intersection of womanhood and nationhood raises questions about the effects of women’s politicization. As Graham argues, “Nationalism (or the nation-state), in this configuration, is complicit in assuming and enforcing the subaltern status of women and other marginalised groups” (107).
Through the example of Adams’ 1992 story “The Rebel,” Graham shows how the politicization of the female protagonist, Margaret, both challenges and reinforces the iconic images of Mother Ireland and the feminist revolutionary. For Margaret, who “became a rebel … 2 July 1970 at about half-past two in the afternoon” and whose public activism is motivated by her son’s imprisonment, the political is always personal, and Margaret’s involvement in nationalist politics is always interwoven with her identity as a mother; indeed, Adams’ narrator wryly remarks that “t can be hard to be a rebel with so many mouths to feed and so many bodies to clothe” (qtd. in Graham 2001, 113). Graham argues that, despite the story’s attempt to “include and in places elevate the subalterneity of women” it ultimately “replicates the gendered division of labour inherent in nationalism” and “allows the subaltern position of women to be stated within a ‘national’ discourse” (115). Margaret, described by one of her daughters as a “woman’s libber” is ultimately an embodiment of Mother Ireland and all the connotations of that nostalgic image.
The search for an authentic Ireland often looks back, as the two previous examples show, and a third example of the ways Ireland is constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed is through “Ironic Authenticity” a concept Graham illustrates with a 1994 television advertisement for Smithwick’s beer. In contrast to “Old Authenticity” which looks to history and reclaims an earlier authentic identity (as in the case of Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry) and “New Authenticity,” which “peddles” the formerly colonized and recently reborn “authentic” (as in the case of a Heritage Island marketing brochure), “Ironic Authenticity” looks “to new forms of culture as a means to disrupting the influence of old authenticities and their new forms” (2001, 147). As a revisionist response to the Yeats collection and the tourism industry, each of which prompts the same questions raised by the de Valera speech and the Adams story, Ironic Authenticity challenges the dependency on residual remnants of an idealized essential Ireland and offers what Graham calls a “possible alternative formation of the authentic in Irish culture” (147).
The Smithwick’s ad, which aired on television and in theaters in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, engages in “overt iconophilia” in its use of a four-square screen featuring images of a rural landscape, a stained glass shamrock, a Celtic cross and a neon sign for “Home Cookin'” (Graham 2001, 147). These images, located in the framework of the four green fields, are accompanied by a North American voiceover, which sets the stage for the subsequent four images: Ronald and Nancy Reagan drinking Smithwick’s, three pints of Smithwick’s, a fiddler, and a neon sign advertising the beer. These are then replaced with images of football, John F. Kennedy and the Statue of Liberty. This series returns to older authenticities–representations of sheep, waves, a dancer, a map of Ireland, a dove, a red hand and a harp–all made ironic through images of a map representing the unemployment rate in Ireland, paper money slipping off the map, an image of a banana supplemented with the word “Republic,” and a condom advertisement. Graham’s reading further demonstrates the irony of what appears to be authentic in this ad: as he points out, the Reagans “actually drank Guinness –the Smithwick’s is self-consciously, badly airbrushed in” (148). The aforementioned harp, in addition to having obvious nationalist connotations, is the logo of Guinness, the parent company of Smithwick’s. The Ironic Authenticity presented in this ad employs newness in a way that even the postmodern travel brochure does not; in addition to challenging old and new authenticities, Graham suggests, “its irony is finally turned on itself” (149). The ad, simply titled “Ireland,” ends with the North American narrator observing, “aybe that’s just Blarney” (149).
Graham’s compelling look at recent constructions of an authentic Ireland, which draws on Jacob Golomb’s In Search of Authenticity and Baudrillard’s Simulations, dovetails nicely with “Punch Drunk: Irish Ephemera,” the last chapter in the book, and its examination of kitsch, examples of which include “model country cottages which burn tiny blocks of peat to recreate the smell of ‘real’ Ireland” and “a door mat on which are the words ‘Cead Mile Failte’ and which plays ‘Danny Boy’ when stepped on” (2001, 167). As Graham argues, finding meaning in such signs is “troublingly paradoxical,” in part because the kitsch Ireland “has the ability to undermine the very nature of critique itself and throw the critical voice back at itself in a form of self-parody” (171). Despite its tendency to resist serious analysis, however, “kitsch is closer to ‘Ireland’ than it might seem, because kitsch is the knowledge, the panic, and the relief that the future ‘Ireland’ is never going to remove its marks of citation” (172). In other words, by selling an authenticity that is at once old, new, and ironic, “kitsch recognizes the brand name as the sign of a never-to-be-realised and this never-to-be-broken promise. And so our leprechaun can continue eternally in his plastic bubble, smiling forever, at snail’s pace, while any stimulation allows his gold coins to float around him” (172).
The search for an “authentic” Ireland is fraught with pitfalls, as Graham demonstrates. Even more problematic, he argues, is the possibility of finding such a thing. For that end, he argues, “carries with it the death of ‘Ireland’ as foundation” (2001, 67). This claim carries serious implications for any text seeking a narrative of Irish history because “narrative time” as Graham argues, “is the way in which ‘Ireland’ escapes and puts off definition, ensuring its place as an absent presence now, and a promissory repletion later, when time itself is full and ‘nostalgia’ no longer has a role” (67). This allusion to a nostalgic, utopian “Ireland” calls to mind the spate of Irish-themed films released in the 1990s. Into the West (1992), The Secret of Roan Irish (1994) and Waking Ned Devine (1999) reflected what could easily be termed “old authenticities,” reviving for new audiences the legend of Tir na nOg and images of quaint villagers bound to quaint moral principles. At around the same time, the film versions of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (1991), The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996) offered what might be called “new authenticities”: modern, urban stories of Dublin’s working class that rewrote and refashioned old identities; The Commitments’ Jimmy Rabbitte, for example, argues that “the Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland North Siders are the blacks of Dublin.” It stands to reason, then, that the musicians in the band of the film’s title relate more strongly to African American soul singers than to Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison or U2. Political films such as The Boxer (1997), Some Mother’s Son (1996), The Devil’s Own (1997) and Michael Collins (1996) sought an authentic historical Ireland, which relied in part on both old and new authenticities and, many would argue, on ironic authenticities. (Although it was most likely unintentional, the casting of the American Julia Roberts, complete with an arguably ridiculous accent, as Kitty Kiernan in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins seemed to be an ironic authenticity of the first order.)
Readings of these pop culture texts reinforce Graham’s model of the imagined, constantly reinvented, “notionally transcendent Ireland” (2001, 67), especially in light of postcolonial representations of Ireland, in which “the structural functions of Irish nationality are again and again thrust into teleologies of progress and change, so that future transcendence is the refuge for ‘Ireland,’ clearing the way for political Irelands to manifest themselves” (68). The notion of Ireland as post-anything becomes part of a loaded continuum as the search for an authentic identity looks both to the past and the future, resulting in a paradoxically static condition. As Graham suggests, “The desire for a synchronous definition of what ‘Ireland’ is remains behind as trace evidence of the continual projection forward, while the linear temporality which enthrals radical politics means that the ‘Ireland’ of Irish criticism makes promises which perplexingly are never kept” (68).
As we await the next renaissance, Valente and Graham apply the concepts of the last and offer new lenses through which to read Irish texts. Valente’s task is necessarily more difficult and takes the reader through well-covered territory of racial purity, Victorian constructions of gender and cultural anxiety in Dracula. It is an example, however, of the ways in which postcolonial theory has informed Irish Studies significantly. Graham’s study covers a wide range of subjects, as he examines historical constructions of Irishness, architecture literature and popular culture. His readings are fresh and exciting, applying postcolonial theory widely and helpfully, and the text as a whole is informative and, at many points, entertaining. Both Valente and Graham usher in a new decade of scholarship, one that seems to be Janus-faced, looking both to the work of the last generation and forward to the next.