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Irish Literature and the First World War

Culture, Identity and Memory


Terry Phillips

This book analyses poetry and prose written by combatant and non-combatant Irish writers during the First World War, focusing on key works influenced by Irish, English and European literary traditions. It highlights the complex positions adopted by writers in relation to the international conflict and to Irish debates about nationhood, which resist reduction to the simple binaries of Unionist/pro-war and Nationalist/anti-war. The book goes on to discuss the literature of the decades following the war, looking at how the conflict was remembered in the two parts of the now divided island, both by individuals and collectively, and investigating the dynamic interrelationship between personal recollection and public memory. In conclusion, the author discusses contemporary literature about the war, which often examines family memory as well as collective memory, and explores its role in the narrative of nationhood, both north and south of the border.


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Section II. Remembering War


SECTION II Remembering War This was not a scene of bravery, but it seemed to Willie in his fear and horror that there was a truth in it nonetheless. It was the thing before a joke was fashioned about it, before an anecdote was conjured up to make it safe, before a proper story in the newspaper, before some fellow with the wits would make a history of it.1 This reflection by the central character of Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way succinctly suggests the mediated quality of memory and the variety of cultural forms such mediation might take. Over recent decades there has been a considerable growth in interest in the concept of memory, what has been termed the ‘memory boom’.2 The following chapters, the first two dealing with memory in Ireland in the two decades following the war, and the final two with more recent literature, draw on some of this recent writing about memory. It is important to acknowledge that memory is always mediated, if only by the mind of the individual, and even over the shortest of timescales.3 Some of the texts considered in this section explicitly acknowledge this limitation, for example Christina Reid’s play, My Name Shall I Tell You My Name? and Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom, as does some of the poetry of Michael Longley. Memory of the First World War, 1 Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way (London: Faber, 2005), p. 111. 2 Jay Winter, Remembering War (New Haven and London:...

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