Reimagining Irish Studies for the Twenty-First Century

by Eamon Maher (Volume editor) Eugene O'Brien (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection XXII, 362 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 100


This landmark collection marks the publication of the 100th book in the Reimagining Ireland series. It attempts to provide a «forward look» (as opposed to what Frank O’Connor once referred to as the « backward look») at what Irish Studies might look like in the third millennium. With a Foreword by Declan Kiberd, it also contains essays by several other leading Irish Studies experts on (among other areas) literature and critical theory, sport, the Irish language, food and beverage studies, cinema, women’s writing, Brexit, religion, Northern Ireland, the legacy of the Great Famine, Ireland in the French imagination, archival research, musicology, and Irish Studies in North America. The book is a tribute to Irish Studies’ foundational commitment to revealing and renewing Irishness within and beyond the national space.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Message from the Series Editor
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Foreword: Future Perfect
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: – Reimagining Irish Studies for the Twenty-First Century
  • 1 Applying a Food Studies Perspective to Irish Studies
  • 2 Archives in Irish Studies: Locating Memory and the Archival Space1
  • 3 Between Britain and Europe Once More: The Significance of Brexit for the Reimagination of Ireland
  • 4 Catching the Mood: George Moore’s Fin-de-Siècle Involvements
  • 5 Drinking Spaces in Strange Places: New Directions in Irish Beverage Research
  • 6 Ecotheory and Criticism
  • 7 Poverty-Trapped: French Traveller Accounts of Poverty in Ireland over the Centuries
  • 8 Irish Studies in North America: Reflections
  • 9 Irish Women’s Writing
  • 10 ‘Monuments of Its Own Magnificence’: Musicology within Irish Studies
  • 11 New Directions in Short Fiction
  • 12 No Country for Young Girls?: Representations of Gender-Based Violence in Some Recent Fiction by Irish Women Writers
  • 13 Northern Ireland’s Future(s)
  • 14 ‘Real’ Language Policy in a Time of Crisis: Covid-19, the State and the Irish Language
  • 15 Reimagining Irish Film Studies for the Twenty-First Century
  • 16 Religion in Irish Studies
  • 17 Sport and the Irish
  • 18 The Dawning of Difference: Literary and Cultural Theory in Irish Studies
  • 19 ‘The Words Will Come’: Today’s Legacies of the Great Irish Famine1
  • 20 Language, Time and the Improbable in Contemporary Ireland
  • 21 ‘What Would I Say, if I Had a Voice?’: The Irish Novel and the Articulation of Modernity1
  • Notes on Contributors


Foreword: Future Perfect

This will have been a happy day

– Samuel Beckett

There was a time – within the living memory of some contributors to this excellent volume – when there was no such thing as Irish Studies. If you wanted to buy a novel by Kate O’Brien or Ben Kiely, you sought them out in the general fiction section of a good bookshop. If you wished to read about Parnell, you would as like as not find the desired book on shelves headed ‘biography’ or ‘history’.

All that changed with the foundation in the 1960s of special chairs devoted to Anglo-Irish Literature or Irish History and Political Science. Slowly, other sub-categories emerged: anthropology, sociology, geography and musicology. Some disciplines are still nascent: for years, certain people denied that there was a distinctive Irish cuisine, and, though you can hardly cross a major city now without passing an Irish pub, it will be some time yet before the texts produced by Alison Armstrong, Darina Allen, Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire or Rhona Kenneally generate a clearly themed range of Irish restaurants, not to mention a set of university examination papers interrogating the provenance and meaning of Irish food.

I am – like the contributors to all hundred volumes of this fine series – speaking solely of curricular university study. However, there is a deeper sense in which many of us were practising Irish Studies from the moment we entered primary school; there were times when, in the first five decades of the new state, with all the hours devoted to the Irish language, history, religious past, geography, folk and culinary traditions, we seemed to study little else. Even the syllabus of the English language was a sort of crash-course in Anglo-Irish poetry from William Allingham to Aubrey de Vere and the younger W. B. Yeats.

I can still recall John McGahern urging a class of solemn 8-year-old boys to ‘put a bit more jizz’ into a recital of ‘Up the Airy Mountain’ – and following it with a discourse on the Halloween rituals of rural Ireland. That was in 1959. Nowadays, university students in South Bend and Kyoto study these matters. So, my mother wasn’t wholly wrong when, on being asked what she thought of my book Inventing Ireland, she giggled and said: ‘Ireland always existed, Declan – you know that’.

Doubtless, the decades preceding and following independence witnessed a tremendous intensification of Irish Studies in the nation’s primary and secondary schools. The leaders of the cultural revival made a point of familiarising themselves with a set of codes that seemed to be dying and being reborn at one and the same time: to such an extent that one Aran Islander told a visitor that the native language could never die: ‘Believe me, Mr Synge, there are few rich men in the world who are not studying the Irish’.

This process – mostly internal to Ireland itself between the 1890s and 1960s – seemed to go global thereafter. The decades of national revival had prompted overseas intellectuals to take an interest in the lore of the island: from Heinrich Zimmer and Kuno Meyer, through Simone Téry and L. Paul-Dubois, to Langston Hughes and other exponents of the Harlem Renaissance. But these were for the most part exceptional individuals, who sought in Ireland some deeply personal qualities which connected them to their inmost psychic needs. It was only in and after the 1960s that Irish Studies emerged as a widespread global practice, taken by many as a test-case of the modernising world – for the French, a process of secularisation; for Irish-Americans, a myth of self-explanation; for South Americans, a repository of magic realism; and for almost everyone, an early example of that postcolonialism suddenly manifest to academics in works by Senghor, Cesaire, CLR James and so on. As far back as Edmund Spenser’s disquisitions, and much later in those of Matthew Arnold, the curricular study of Irish texts in overseas universities has been a crisis-driven discipline, designed to explain (especially to the English) the strange psychology and even stranger politics of a baffling peripheral people; but once the Troubles erupted in a new form after the civil rights agitation of 1968, Ireland became a fashionable subject for commentators as different as Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said.

There had always been intrepid individual scholars whose deep interest in, for example, Jonathan Swift, had led them to a wider engagement with the matter of Ireland. At the US university of Notre Dame in the early 1980s, Christopher Fox was one of the first commentators to notice how Swift had portrayed Ireland as a martyr to malformed theories of development and modernisation. In Fox’s view, that army of writers who thought that Swift could be explained outside his Irish contexts was missing the main point. They took Swift, as similar critics take today’s anti-colonial insurgents, as a study in the pathology of a sick person rather than as a symptom of a distressed society.

Such naïve critics often missed the fact that Swift was, with his strong sense of the future, not only one of the founders of Anglo-Irish Literature, but also an early satirist of those methods of quantification which not only immiserated his Dublin but now threaten also the very future of humanistic studies across the globe. Ireland was indeed interesting as a laboratory in which deranged futuristic experiments could be tried out. It was a victim of the crazy theories of the Penal Laws – Sir William Petty thought it useful in the 1690s to calculate the amount of lands confiscated from Catholics; but it also became a testing-ground for all kinds of decolonial theories in the 1960s. As one of Beckett’s monologists wearily observed: ‘Extraordinary how mathematics helps you to know yourself’.

In many third-level colleges across the world, after the 1960s, charismatic individual teachers of Irish subjects such as history, literature or sociology, began to build wider multidisciplinary projects, as the number of students expanded and ‘theory’ took hold to feed their desire for a course which would somehow integrate all those disparate subjects. Once a victim of misplaced theory, Ireland for a few years became a beneficiary of smarter theorists. It offered a knowable community to idealistic visitors – strife-torn, yes (which made it doubly interesting), but also friendly, studiable and eloquent.

Some who analysed the island’s conflicted nature did not always recognise how unstable their own countries of origin were, though the shrewder among them must have seen in Ireland’s ‘quaking sod’ a fore-image of what might happen in the wider world, under the predations of a casino capitalism after the crash of 2008.

In general, however, those scholars who visited and studied the country had a tonic effect on the practices of academia in Ireland. Even after the liberations of the 1960s, many professors had prosecuted intense turf wars to defend the ‘integrity’ of their particular discipline, fearing that it could be destroyed by the promiscuity of a multidisciplinary approach. Yet it was becoming ever more clear that the great intellectual advances in, say, economic history or studies of folk environment, had been made by multilingual scholars such as Cormac Ó Gráda or Angela Bourke, just as literature departments awoke suddenly to the sheer fecundity of bilingual writers from Samuel Beckett to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. It became a matter of some urgency to take the various disciplines out of their self-imposed quarantines. Yet what Edward Said had once observed of Arabic Studies was also true of Irish Studies; they often emerged earlier, and in more developed form, in overseas locations rather than in their homelands; and frequently as a way of responding to a political crisis that was often deeply cultural in its sources.

It would be as naïve now, as it was in 1921, to announce that the political crises of Ireland have been resolved. The implications of Brexit alone would make a mockery of such a contention. One irony has been the vast alteration in the position taken by once-leading scourges of nationalist tradition. As soon as the current peace seemed to have been secured, many of them took starring roles in the 1916 commemorations at the National Concert Hall; and some went on to issue scathing denunciations of the Brexiteers, as if those very English in whom they had invested their fondest hopes, during the period when John Bull’s interventions in Irish affairs were recast as ‘a shared experience’, had now contrived to let the side down. Meanwhile, the more level-headed leaders of Irish opinion have quietly abandoned many nationalist nostra, as they seek further integration into the European Union and a sensible working arrangement with a less insular Britain (in which both Scotland and Wales often look to Ireland as a model). Perhaps the real meaning of Brexit in 2016 was that England at last confronted a long-deferred national question, which the Irish had faced exactly 100 years earlier.

Nationalism had begun to fade slowly in the Irish Republic with the negotiated accession to the European Union in the early 1970s. What little opposition there was to that accession came less from narrow-gauge nationalists than from worried socialists such as Michael D. Higgins, who has long since anyway become an ardent Europhile and a comrade of its social democrats. The final evidence of this fading was the withdrawal of the historical claim on the six northern counties by a huge majority vote in 1998.

But nature abhors a vacuum; and, even in its most militant form, nationalism has usually been a secondary formation through which a frustrated cultural identity seeks expression. With traditional religiosity also in free fall, it may well be that culture will become the site and stake of future Irish debates – albeit in globalised versions of the novel and drama, or in assertions of the civil rights of Irish speakers alongside those of other ethnic groups who have enriched the tapestry of the contemporary island. As the short stories of Dubliners are rewritten by young Polish immigrants in a contemporary idiom, or as the transatlantic novel or pan African lyric reappear in an Irish mode, we can be sure that fusion food and fusion music point the way forward. Ever since Gulliver’s Travels, a gift for cultural comparison has characterised Irish writing. There may be no such thing as an Irish mind but, as Conor Cruise O’Brien once said, there has long been an Irish condition, productive of common and recurring characteristics in those caught up in it.

The heroic phase of Irish Studies in universities is probably winding down, but the post-Ireland of which artists write is under the sway of forces which may clarify themselves only in the future. In a primary school on the edge of Balbriggan, a Romanian child may already be narrating a new, unexampled version of the story of Cuchulain, under the amused eye of a teacher who could be the next John McGahern. There is an ideological and emotional surplus in all present moments which suggests that there will always be unfinished business, a future exciting to precisely the extent that it is unknown.

So, we beat on, boats against the current, on a journey with no destination, to continue our study of a people who never quite knew home or how to stay in it, searching for something, as the great Scott Fitzgerald said, commensurate with our capacity for wonder. Whether we are tenth-generation natives of Carraroe, readers of Joyce in Trieste, or that Romanian child pondering Cuchulain in Balbriggan, we are all embarked on the search for a version of this country which none of our ancestors had ever known.

Declan Kiberd

Clontarf, Dublin

16 November 2020.


The editors are infinitely grateful to Professor Declan Kiberd for agreeing to write the Foreword to this landmark publication. Having the leading Irish Studies scholar endorsing the book is a wonderful boost.

Professor Victor Merriman offered us invaluable advice when we were planning the collection and suggested topics and authors that enhanced the final version immensely.

We would also like to express our heartfelt thanks to the specialist authors for agreeing to be involved in the project. In spite of the huge stress and anxiety occasioned by the effects of the coronavirus, they succeeded in producing what are, by any standards, superb contributions to the mapping out of possible developments within Irish Studies in the twenty-first century.

We wish to thank Tony Mason and all the staff at Peter Lang, Oxford, for their enthusiasm and support with regard to the series, and to the 100th volume in particular.

Finally, Paul Butler has provided a stunning image to adorn the cover of the book for which we are greatly indebted.



Introduction: – Reimagining Irish Studies for the Twenty-First Century

To mark the milestone 100th book in Reimagining Ireland, Peter Lang commissioned a special volume offering both a retrospective on what has been achieved to date in the series, and an outline of future possibilities. Clearly, Irish Studies is a discipline that has blossomed over the past number of decades. This flowering was assisted greatly by the emergence in the 1960s and 1970s of ‘area studies’, or area-based programmes, which emphasised that knowledge of the literature, culture, history and diversity that shape and mould various specialisms should be an essential ingredient of university courses. Hence, French Studies, Peace Studies, Women’s Studies, European Studies, and Postcolonial Studies, to cite but a few examples, all came to the fore and proposed a broader menu for exploration than had heretofore been the norm. In one of the first attempts to define this new phenomenon in 1988, the editors of Irish Studies: A General Introduction noted a ‘quickening of interest in Irish Studies as an integrated, multi-disciplinary programme of learning’ from the 1960s onwards, particularly in the United States.1

The term ‘Irish Studies’ covers a multitude: literature (in Irish and Hiberno-English), the postcolonial experience (only valid for the twenty six counties that currently constitute the Republic of Ireland), the Irish diaspora, religion, politics, sociology. As the editors of the collection mentioned above remarked: ‘The nature of Irish Studies remains a subject of debate and its limits are fluid rather than fixed’.2 Taking the ‘fluid’ rather ←1 | 2→than the ‘fixed’ view on board, this collection appreciates that the task it has set itself is not a simple one, mainly because of the vastness of the topic. But the aim was never to provide an exhaustive encyclopaedic overview of Irish Studies. Rather, the idea was to provide a ‘forward look’ (as opposed to what Frank O’Connor once called the ‘backward look’) at how Irish Studies might develop in the twenty-first century.

The fact that there are now 100+ volumes in Reimagining Ireland, a series that published its first book in 2009, shows the rude good health of the field. And it is far from being alone in this regard. There are several university presses that also publish Irish titles, most notably Cambridge University Press, where there is obvious strength in literary and cultural studies; Cork, with a Books of Irish interest series, featuring most notably the Atlas of the Irish Revolution – they also have responsibility for the Irish Review; Edinburgh, which brings out the Irish University Review and has recently announced the establishment of Irish Studies Now, a series that will be edited by Emilie Pine; Liverpool, which has a long track record in the area, and whose Reappraisals in Irish History and Studies in Irish Literature series are gaining traction; Manchester, a significant player that has brought out many titles concentrating in the main on sociology, history and politics; Oxford, which has no designated Irish Studies list, but which regularly publishes books of Irish interest; Syracuse, whose Irish Studies series is probably the longest-running in the area; and UCD Press, which publishes various monographs and has the Classics of Irish History series.


XXII, 362
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
: Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XXII, 362 pp., 12 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Eamon Maher (Volume editor) Eugene O'Brien (Volume editor)

Eamon Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in TU Dublin and General Editor of the Reimagining Ireland series with Peter Lang. Eugene O’Brien is Head of the Department of English Language and Literature in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and Director of the MIC Institute for Irish Studies.


Title: Reimagining Irish Studies for the Twenty-First Century
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
386 pages