The Irish art of controversy

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

The Irish art of controversy
Lucy McDiarmid
(Lilliput Press, E20)
ISBN 1843510693

On 4 June 1957 the British ambassador in Dublin, Sir Alexander Clutterbuck, writing to Sir Charles Dixon at the Commonwealth Relations Office, commented:

‘Apart from partition itself, the two main “official” grievances in this country against us are the Lane pictures and Casement, and it is probably true to say that whilst there are more reasonable people who feel that we ought to give up the Lane pictures, the Casement issues, and particularly the diaries, arouse more passion and the attitude of the British government is more difficult to explain.’

In her analysis of The Irish art of controversy—including chapters on both the Hugh Lane pictures and the Casement diaries—Lucy McDiarmid considers controversy as a shifting cultural dynamic between the loci of power and the spirit of resistance. Controversies help define both public and private spheres in Ireland. Her research allows reconsideration of the dynamics of intellectual subversion, and those intractable intersections between history, myth and folklore. Controversies become symbolic sites and remain contested spaces. The examination of five intertextual disputes from the years of the cultural revival forms a witty and appealing insight into the pre-1916 era and its unsettled aftermath. To maintain the high ground, controversialists used all tactics: Ireland’s destiny lay in the hands of whoever could control the discourse of nationality. And like state trials, controversies are largely about performance, and her research reveals some very great Irish performances indeed.
Dublin art dealer Hugh Lane’s brand of nationalism involved an aesthetic vision: he believed that Ireland could be changed by beautiful objects. His plan to have a Lutyens-designed gallery built on the Ha’penny Bridge over the Liffey to house his collection of 37 paintings invoked the wrath of the industrialist William Martin Murphy. After much public arousal, part one of the controversy ended with Lane’s early death aboard the Lusitania in 1915, but his unwitnessed codicil led to another stage of rancour, and years of dispute between London and Dublin over where the paintings should hang.
Of more serious concern to the wider nationalist movement was the campaign by the Revd Dr Michael O’Hickey to make the Irish language a requirement for entrance to the new National University. His pamphlets, speeches and orations, attacking the clerical authority at Maynooth, resulted in his dismissal from the chair of Irish at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. After a long appeal to Rome, he eventually died in late 1916, somehow victorious in his defeat.
O’Hickey’s sincerity contrasts with another 1909 spat over the staging of George Bernard Shaw’s play The shewing up of Blanco Posnet, deliberately scripted to antagonise the British censor. Lady Gregory’s collaboration with Shaw resulted in a defiant campaign intended to expose the hypocrisy of a decrepit bureaucracy ‘and the whole silly decaying royal apparatus of containment’. The Blanco Posnet crusade is contextualised as part of a tradition of anti-censorship activity that prefigured the furore over the 1957 production of Tennessee Williams’s The rose tattoo.
In the next essay, on ‘Save the Dublin kiddies’, McDiarmid is at her most eloquent, using gender theory and knowledge of folklore to empower her analysis with stimulating theoretical twists. At the heart of her story is Dora Montefiore, witness to the appalling conditions of Dublin slums, which inspired her to start a campaign to find temporary accommodation in England for the children of workers affected by the Dublin Lockout. As an English Protestant, committed socialist and feminist, Montefiore’s efforts disintegrated before the wrath of William Walsh, Catholic archbishop of Dublin, who appealed to Ireland’s mothers to do their duty and hold on to their children for the sake of their souls.
In her final essay, on Roger Casement’s afterlife, McDiarmid’s scholarship might itself be read as controversial. The diaries’ disagreement, unlike her other chosen subjects, remains a live issue, and McDiarmid has herself been a very significant participant, or ‘Casementista’, in the recent round of this feud. An argument can be made that the real work on Casement has only just begun, with the final release of so much classified documentation about his life and an increased awareness of issues such as First World War propaganda, archival management, the silencing of the past and official secrecy.
The prevailing relevance of Casement to Ireland in recent years has been to open up different avenues of discussion on sexuality and to expose an entrenched homophobia surviving in some recalcitrant corners of nationalist thinking. That bout is now exhausted. Since 1993 homosexuality is legal in Ireland: Roger Casement is heralded as a ‘gay’ rebel. The diaries have now taken on a different relevance as historical documents, and not simply as unexamined texts in the battle over a man’s sexual authenticity.
McDiarmid’s analysis of the debate is wrapped up in several unexamined structures that packaged Casement ‘the traitor’ for public consumption in 1916 and have privileged that narrative ever since. Her wider argument has not moved on from her essay on ‘The posthumous life of Roger Casement’, published in 1997 in Gender and sexuality in modern Ireland, edited by Anthony Bradley and Maryann Valiulis. Casement studies, on the other hand, have moved on hugely between then and now. The argument is not as ‘definitive’ as the cover of the book claims. Her hyperbolic comment that Casement left behind him ‘the world’s biggest paper trail, a trail too exhausting for even a few hundred people to follow’, suggests that the Casement story is still far from being fully told.
Like fairy tales, McDiarmid’s essays tend towards happy endings. Most of the Lane pictures now hang in Dublin. O’Hickey was rehabilitated after the discovery of a manuscript, allowing for his reconciliation with the church hierarchy and the unveiling of a statue in his home town of Carrick-on-Suir. The heavy state censorship enforced after 1922 was eventually overthrown thanks to the example set by Shaw and Gregory. Women’s social work of the early twentieth century prefigured current international global governance by non-government organisations (NGOs). Through the looking-glass of McDiarmid’s scholarship, Irish modernity has triumphed over the ashes of international socialism, nationalist utopianism, clerical conservatism and revolutionary republicanism. Clearly, controversy has much to answer for.
Angus Mitchell

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