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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 Three ‘I’ Land: The Self Alone in Independent Ireland 99


Chapter Three ‘I’ Land: The Self Alone in Independent Ireland That Ireland which we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis of right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age. — St Patrick’s Day Address, Eamon de Valera, 19431 De Valera’s dream of a faultless Ireland, embedded in the clichéd imagery of this repeatedly cited speech and in the principles of the 1937 Constitution, was built on the foundations of ‘traditional family values’. It promoted an Ireland in which health, youth, and Catholic morality would be mar- keted as the preferred alternatives to wealth and economic prosperity. This was an optimistic fantasy, but one distinctly lacking in ambition; as Peter Somerville-Large observes, de Valera’s fault lay in ignoring ‘the thin line between frugality and poverty’.2 Identifying the failures of de Valera’s Ireland of the imagination has become commonplace amongst critics who seek to pinpoint it as a source for subsequent national malfunction. As Senia Pašeta firmly states, during the mid-twentieth century ‘Ireland failed to live up to the ambitions of its hopeful founders’, listing as cases in...

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