Ireland: Authority and Crisis

by Carine Berbéri (Volume editor) Martine Pelletier (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection XII, 306 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 70


This volume sets out to investigate how various forms of authority in Irish culture and history have been challenged and transformed by a crisis situation. In literature and the arts, a reappraisal of the authority of canonical authors – and also of traditional forms, paradigms and critical discourses – principally revolves around intertextuality and rewriting, as well as the wider crisis of (authoritative) representation. What is the authority of an author, of a text, of literature itself? How do works of fiction represent, generate or resolve crises on their own aesthetic, stylistic and representational terms?
The Irish Republic has faced a number of serious crises and challenges since it came into existence. In recent years, the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has acted as a catalyst for change, revealing various structures of political, religious and economic authority giving way under pressure. In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement has led to major developments as new authorities endowed with legislative and executive powers have been set up. In its focus on the subject of authority and crisis in Ireland, this book opens up a rich and varied field of investigation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Carine Berbéri and Martine Pelletier - Introduction: Authority and Crisis, Authority in Crisis
  • Part I Crisis, Authority and Literature
  • Nicholas Grene - Irish English as a Literary Language: Authority and Subversion
  • Brigitte Bastiat and Frank Healy - Mojo Mickybo by Owen McCafferty From Written Translation to Stage Interpretation
  • Bertrand Cardin - Authorities in Crisis and Intertextual Practice: The Example of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin
  • Audrey Robitaillié - ‘Come Away, Stolen Child’: Colum McCann’s and Keith Donohue’s New Readings of the Yeatsian Motif
  • Mehdi Ghassemi - Authorial and Perceptual Crises in John Banville’s Shroud
  • Virginie Girel-Pietka - Looking for Oneself in Denis Johnston’s Plays: Authorities in Crisis and Self-Authorship
  • Chantal Dessaint - ‘Suffer the little children …’: Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Strategies of Subversion
  • Part II Society in Crisis: Challenges to Authority/ies
  • Mathew D. Staunton and Nathalie Sebbane - Authority and Child Abuse in Ireland: Rethinking History in a Hostile Field
  • Valerie Peyronel - The Banking Crisis in Ireland and its Resolution: Authority(ies) in Question?
  • Marie-Violaine Louvet - Challenging the Authority of the Irish State on the Question of the Middle East: The Two Gaza Flotillas of May 2010 and November 2011
  • Michel Savaric - The IRA and ‘Civil Administration’: A Challenge to the Authority of the State?
  • Fabrice Mourlon - The Crisis of Authority in You, Me and Marley
  • Claire Dubois - ‘Through Darkest Obstruction’: Challenging the British Representation of Ireland (1880–1910)
  • Ciaran Brady - An Old Kind of History: The Anglo-Irish Writing of Irish History, 1840–1910
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Introduction: Authority and Crisis, Authority in Crisis

In every crisis a piece of the world, something common to us all, is destroyed. The failure of common sense, like a divining rod, points to the place where such a cave-in has occurred.1

The cynics may be able to point to the past. But we live in the future.2

Practically as well as theoretically, we are no longer in a position to know what authority really is.3

In her influential and still highly relevant 1954 essay, ‘What is Authority?’ Hannah Arendt discusses what she calls the ‘constant, ever-widening and deepening crisis of authority [that] has accompanied the development of the modern world in our century.’ Her contention that ‘authority has vanished from the modern world’4 and the theoretical framework provided by ← 1 | 2 → her collection of essays published in 1961 under the title Between Past and Future have inspired a number of the contributors to the present volume, and offer the theoretical framework for this introductory chapter. It is worth noting that when discussing authority Arendt often invokes the idea of a crisis, whether of education, of culture or indeed of authority itself. While many contributors have sought to define ‘authority’, often turning to Arendt’s seminal and, dare we say, authoritative essay on the subject, the other key concept, that of crisis, has generally been left to speak for itself, as it were. The OED defines crisis as ‘the point in the progress of a disease when an important development or change takes place which is decisive of recovery or death; the turning-point of a disease for better or worse; also applied to any marked or sudden variation occurring in the progress of a disease and to the phenomena accompanying it’; it is also, by extension ‘a vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied especially to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce.’5 In recent years the word crisis has been much used and abused in Ireland and beyond.6 Turning once more to Hannah Arendt, this time her essay ‘The Crisis in Education’ also collected in Between Past and Future, we may ponder the opportunities paradoxically afforded by such moments of crisis:

And that is the opportunity, provided by the very fact of crisis – which tears away facades and obliterates prejudices – to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter […] A crisis forces us back to the questions themselves and requires from us either new or old answers, but in any case direct judgments. A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices. Such an attitude not only sharpens the crisis but makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides.7 ← 2 | 3 →

The starting point for this volume – and for the French Association of Irish Studies conference where the various contributions were initially delivered – was a desire to analyse the ways in which a situation of crisis could challenge and transform various forms of authority whose efficacy and legitimacy thus became liable to rejection or renewal. In terms of cultural, social and political practices, the analysis of possible relationships between authority and identity is framed differently today: from Cultural Studies, Gender Studies and Postcolonial Studies to political multiculturalism and what is commonly referred to as ‘Identity Politics’, the critique of specific types of social, cultural and political authority is usually linked to particular definitions of ‘identity’ and has proved most relevant within the framework of Irish studies.

In all parts of the island of Ireland, the ambiguous relation with a political authority which was long seen as illegitimate, hegemonic and contested by virtue of a colonial past is a moot point. The strategies used over time by advocates of Irish autonomy and independence to fend off the ruling authorities and destabilize the colonial regime certainly offer a wide scope for investigation. From a historiographical perspective, the discourse that was seen to define and legitimize the nation has frequently been challenged in its claims to be authoritative. In the Republic of Ireland the crisis of the mainstays of the modern state is manifest when looking at the advent of the Celtic Tiger and the ensuing recession with the emerging critique of the prevailing liberal economic model; the declining influence of traditional political parties; the evolution of legislation in the fields of private morality (divorce, homosexuality) as a rapid process of secularization got underway; the challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church following various scandals and the publication of the Ryan Report. To what extent did the 2008 crisis that so badly affected Ireland – and many would argue still affects it today – act as a catalyst, showing various structures of authority giving way under pressure? The Good Friday Agreement (1998) has led to major changes for Northern Ireland as well as for the Republic: new authorities endowed with legislative and executive powers have been set up, entailing a radical transformation for the forces of law and order, as a result of the replacement of a military-type authority by civilian authorities striving to win the support and trust of both communities. ← 3 | 4 →

Beyond the somewhat simplistic ‘authority versus liberty’ dichotomy – after all Arendt has argued quite forcefully that ‘we are in fact confronted with a simultaneous recession of both freedom and authority in the modern world’8 and that ‘authority implies an obedience in which men retain their freedom’9 – looking at authority in a context of crisis enables a rethinking of the relationships between the known and the new, between primary and secondary sources, and the ways in which these come to be articulated. In literature and the arts a reappraisal of the authority of canonical authors, traditional forms, paradigms and critical discourses mostly revolves around intertextuality and rewriting, as well as the wider crisis of – authoritative – representation. It is worth engaging with those moments when the authority of an artistic form or a discursive mode, or the central position of the figure of the author comes to be challenged through the emergence of new paradigms claiming in their turn to be ‘authoritative’. Models and their reproduction or critique, rewriting and translation issues all presuppose an analysis of how underlying mechanisms operate to legitimize or undermine a previously acknowledged, or already failing, authority.

The first part of the volume is entitled ‘Crisis, Authority and Literature’ and collects essays that discuss crisis and authority from a range of complementary perspectives in literature. What is the authority of an author? Of a text? Of literature itself? Is their authority in crisis? How do works of fiction represent, generate or resolve crises on their own aesthetic, stylistic and representational terms?

In the opening essay, Nicholas Grene considers ‘the authority of English English as a standardized form of the written language and its subversion by the oral in Irish English writing’ arguing that ‘this subversion of the authority of the written by the spoken comes to carry with it a claim to another form of authority, the authority of the literary.’ Moving from Boucicault’s comic use of Irish-English speech to the tactics of the national theatre movement and the Literary Revival, Grene shows how Synge’s ← 4 | 5 → language succeeded in transvaluing ‘the previously mocked Irish English dialect forms into a style to be perceived as poetic’ and thus endowed with its ‘own sort of literary authority.’ James Joyce, Roddy Doyle and Seamus Heaney provide further instances of the ability of many Irish writers to forge a language that, through the ‘subversion of more correct, proper English actually carries its own sort of authority.’

Where does authority lie in the matter of translation? Does a double transfer, from written translation to oral interpretation and from one language to another, create a possible conflict of allegiance or potential crisis? Brigitte Bastiat and Frank Healy recount the circumstances which led them to translate Owen McCafferty’s play Mojo Mickybo into French. Discussing the authority of translation and translators they note that ‘the concept of the functional authority of the source text has been undermined as the translator now seeks to respect and show linguistic, cultural and historical otherness’. Using the work of Lawrence Venuti, and in particular his 1995 book The Translator’s Invisibility, they claim for their own translation the right not to defer wholly ‘to the authority of the source text’ and argue that ‘in a translation for the theatre, the stage and the oral performance should have authority over the written score’, thereby concurring with Nicholas Grene’s earlier analysis which finds itself validated by the translators’ practice.

The next two chapters, by Bertrand Cardin and Audrey Robitaillié, share a concern with intertextuality and an interest in Colum McCann’s fiction. Bertrand Cardin wonders: ‘Does the author actually have power and authority?’ The question is further complicated when there may be several ‘authors’: ‘isn’t the authority of the quoting author put in the shade by that of the quoted author or vice versa?’ The chapter convincingly explores the possibility that intertextual practice may be ‘a sign that authority is in crisis.’ Before focusing on Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin, and revealing its intertextual playfulness and indebtedness, Cardin reminds us that intertextuality came to prominence in critical discourse in a context of crisis and rejection of authority – 1968 – and is inextricably linked to the ‘death of the author’ theory as authority for the production of meaning in a text shifted from the author to the reader.

Audrey Robitaillié further teases out the possibilities and complexities of intertextuality by looking at the ways in which Colum McCann and ← 5 | 6 → Keith Donohue have revisited and appropriated the traditional motif of the changeling story. McCann’s short story, ‘Stolen Child’, and Donohue’s first novel, The Stolen Child, explicitly share an intertextual reference to Yeats’s poem. She reads their work as ‘challenges to Yeats’s canonical use of the motif in an attempt to (re)define their own Irishness’. In choosing to position themselves in a tradition that stretches back to Irish folklore, McCann and Donohue acknowledge Yeats’s authority while working also to subvert it through a form of parody that may suggest a crisis of his literary authority. What is more, they ‘appropriate Yeats’s canonical motif, by relating it to themes that are significant for them such as exile and identity’.

John Banville’s fiction provides fertile ground for Mehdi Ghassemi’s investigation into ‘authorial and perceptual crises.’ In Banville’s novels, the authority of the narrators is undermined at the level of personal experience, that is, their most immediate and intimate interiority. Banville’s 2002 novel Shroud is read ‘in relation to Paul de Man’s “history” as well as his theory of representation’ and Ghassemi traces the consequences of introspection for the narrator’s subjectivity, arguing that what could first appear as ‘a crisis of authenticity’ may really be ‘a crisis of authorial (as well as authoritative) perceptions in which Vander’s very sense of self as well as his grip over reality are undermined.’

Virginie Girel-Pietka’s essay is devoted to the playwright Denis Johnston and the ways in which the characters in his plays keep ‘challenging authority, disowning the collective images put forward by the communities they belong to, and undoing canonical stage characters’. Writing in the turbulent period leading from the Irish War of independence to the aftermath of the Second World War, Johnston was ‘concerned about authority, laws, national policies and traditions as both conditions for and threats to individual freedom and self-expression’. When society is in turmoil, as it was all too often in those tragic decades, authorities face a crisis ‘when their subjects are led to question or overthrow them, either because they are too weak and can no longer be taken seriously, or when they overstep their power and impose normative and actually crippling rules on individuals’. Johnston is of interest in Irish theatre history not only because he staged individuals challenging authority but also because of his own relentless rejection of the dominant theatrical mode in Ireland at the time, realism, ← 6 | 7 → and his exciting – though not always popular or successful – quest for new forms to better express the complexities of the time. Virginie Girel-Pietka concludes by calling for Ireland’s theatre, in these times of crisis, to rediscover an artist who was on a permanent quest for ‘an authoritative stage’.

Chantal Dessaint’s ‘“Suffer the little children…”: Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Strategies of Subversion’ approaches Ní Dhuibhne’s fiction from the angle provided by the crisis brought about by the loss of authority of the Catholic Church in the wake of the various scandals over child abuse. Using ‘mainly indirect and subversive strategies that range from irony, the use of a colloquial language, to tropic transfer’, the writer is able to delve with great delicacy and occasional gusto into the hidden emotional depths of characters who suffered from and resisted the puritanical excess of an educational programme promoted by Church and State and aiming, ludicrously, ‘to eliminate sex from the Irish way of life.’ Her female protagonists and narrators challenge authority and Dessaint analyses how the writer empowers those submerged, often silenced female voices as they ‘resist the insidious indoctrination operated by Church and State, particularly in matters of language and sexuality.’ Thus The Dancers Dancing ‘is more than just a bildungsroman about adolescent girls: it also proposes a subversive message where the linguistic and cultural program contrived by Church and State in order to tailor those teenagers into good Catholic citizens turns out to be their very means of liberation and provides them with the opportunity to challenge the figures of authority that endorse it.’


XII, 306
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
IRA Celtic Tigers irish history
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XII, 306 pp., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Carine Berbéri (Volume editor) Martine Pelletier (Volume editor)

Carine Berbéri is Senior Lecturer in British Studies at the University of Tours. Her research interests and publications are principally in the field of British politics, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Britain and Europe. She is also working on the impact of British devolution and its links with European integration issues. Martine Pelletier is Senior Lecturer in English and Irish Studies at the University of Tours. She has published widely on Brian Friel, Field Day and contemporary Irish and Northern Irish theatre. She wrote the prefaces to Alain Delahaye’s recent French translations of Brian Friel’s plays.


Title: Ireland: Authority and Crisis
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318 pages