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Irish Autobiography

Stories of Self in the Narrative of a Nation


Claire Lynch

Ireland has passed through numerous identity crises in the last century, keeping the meaning of Irishness in constant flux. This book explores how diverse writers have positioned their life stories within the wider narrative of the nation’s development. Examining the wealth of autobiographical texts written by Irish writers in the twentieth century, including W.B. Yeats, Tomás O’Crohan, Frank O’Connor, Brendan Behan, Frank McCourt and Nuala O’Faolain, the study highlights the plurality of Irish identity and the main characteristics which typify the genre of Irish autobiography.
In charting the social and cultural history of Ireland through the first-hand accounts of the country’s most celebrated writers, the author also identifies important overlaps between fiction and memory, finds intersections with folklore and the short story, and draws out relationships within and between texts. The book repositions the important and often overlooked genre of Irish autobiography by highlighting its importance within both Irish Studies and the field of Autobiography and by opening up the ways in which lives can be written and read.


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Chapter One Ireland: Locating the ‘Cinderella Genre’ 7


Chapter One Ireland: Locating the ‘Cinderella Genre’ There is no singular text of self, no autobiography that does not imbri- cate other narratives in its own […] Repeatedly, we come upon acts of self-portraiture that show subjects taking a paradoxical delight in doubleness and ambivalence, even as they strive for self completion, suggesting that the Irish autobiographical self is most itself in the very process of becoming. — Liam Harte (2007)1 In his 2007 study of modern Irish autobiography, Liam Harte contends that ‘if, in these days of voluminous literary criticism, Irish literature can be said to have a Cinderella genre, then surely it is autobiography’.2 Like the downtrodden protagonist of the fairytale, autobiography has remained in the background of Irish literature, its existence taken for granted and rarely remarked upon in critical studies. Harte uses the term to refer to the critical neglect and marginal literary status awarded to Irish autobiography, but by extending the analogy we may gain further insight into the genre. That is, whilst a limited scholarly commitment to Irish autobiography might lead us to consider it a ‘Cinderella genre’, evi- dence to the contrary is ironically found in considering it ‘Cinderella-like’. The generic narrative structure of an individual overcoming adversity to achieve unprecedented and unexpected personal success, for example, is equally familiar in both autobiography and the fairytale, as is the theme of a concealed identity. Fairytales depend upon people and things that appear to be one thing only to be revealed to be another, just...

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