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Breaking the Mould

Literary Representations of Irish Catholicism

Series:

Eamon Maher and Eugene O'Brien

Catholicism has played a central role in Irish society for centuries. It is sometimes perceived in a negative light, being associated with repression, antiquated morality and a warped view of sexuality. However, there are also the positive aspects that Catholicism brought to bear on Irish culture, such as the beauty of its rituals, education and health care, or concern for the poor and the underprivileged. Whatever their experience of Catholicism, writers of a certain generation could not escape its impact on their lives, an impact which is pervasive in the literature they produced.
This study, containing twelve chapters written by a range of distinguished literary experts and emerging scholars, explores in a systematic manner the cross-fertilisation between Catholicism and Irish/Irish-American literature written in English. The figures addressed in the book include James Joyce, Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, Kate O’Brien, Edwin O’Connor, Brian Moore, John McGahern, Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Vincent Carroll and Brian Friel. This book will serve to underline the complex relationship between creative writers and the once all-powerful religious Establishment.

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TONY CORBETT Effing the Inef fable: Brian Friel’s Wonderful Tennessee and the Interrogation of Transcendence 213

Extract

Tony Corbett Ef fing the Inef fable: Brian Friel’s Wonderful Tennessee and the Interrogation of Transcendence Wonderful Tennessee contains a large number of apparent rituals and is imbued with a mystical and religious sub-text borrowed from Greek, Celtic and Christian, particularly Catholic, traditions. Religious suggestion per- vades the play, but is treated with a deliberate and thorough ambiguity. The play constructs itself as a series of possibilities, of fered and recanted by both the characters and by Friel himself as the controlling discourse. The result is not a religious play, but a play in which religion functions as an absent presence, a deliberate ambiguity which functions as a meditation on the place of religion and the existence of the inef fable. The wilderness as a place to encounter God or the devil is an ancient motif, occurring repeatedly in the Old Testament. Moses climbs Mount Sinai to find God; Jesus goes into the desert and is tempted by Satan. Catholic tradition is littered with holy hermits, and those who retreat from civilisation to contemplate the soul. The Romantics believed in Nature as a restorative, or as a spiritual teacher. The idea of the Irish countryside as either or both, while prevalent in the Irish National myth, is an ambivalent one in Friel. Attachment to place appears in The Enemy Within (1979, repr. 1992), where Ireland is an emotional attachment that Columba is trying to transcend. The Gentle Island (1973, repr. 1993) is set on another sup- posed Eden, yet the...

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