The Literature of the Irish in Britain
Autobiography and Memoir, 1725-2001
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Paperback. xl+301 pp. ISBN 978-0-230-29636-7. £18.99
Reviewed by Sylvie Mikowski
Université de Reims-Champagne-Ardenne
Liam Harte could qualify as one of these ‘diaspora scholars’ whom he quotes himself in the introduction to this remarkable book which combines archival research, textual analysis, biography, a theoretical reflection on the nature of autobiography, while pulling up to the surface of textual visibility the ‘hidden history’ of the Irish immigrants in Britain. The book is a tour-de-force in the way the author has managed to resuscitate dozens of texts—63 altogether—, some of which were never even published as books, others which on the contrary were very successful in their time but were long forgotten, while others are still famous today, such as the autobiographies of Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen or Sean O’Casey. For each extract that Liam Harte has recovered and restored, he has provided a most illuminating introduction retracing such elements of the writer’s life as he was able to find out, and a synthetic commentary of the main stylistic or moral characteristics of the text. The general introduction to the book also provides a useful discussion of the nature of autobiography, raising the issue of the canonicity of ordinary people’s autobiographies, the textuality of any of these testimonies, and of the reliability of autobiographies as historical documents. Harte also tries to define the peculiar position of the Irish in Britain, which he strikingly defines as an ‘outsider-insiderness’, thus offering a new concept to be compared to that of ‘in-betweenness’, a notion which has often been applied to the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.
One of the greatest achievements of this book is to produce an impression of unity and continuity through time, despite the extreme variety of people represented—who range from the poorest chimney-sweeper to the nurse, the intellectual, the politician or the artist. The authors come from either Catholic or Protestant backgrounds, from the North as well as from the South of Ireland, from the country of from the city. They are scattered all over Britain, not only in London or Liverpool but also Wales or Scotland; some are second-generation immigrants. Perhaps the impression of unity is all the result of an unconscious bias on the part of Liam Harte, who like any anthologist has had to make choices among all the documents available to him, but a homogeneous, continuous narrative does arise from this medley of voices. The on-going narrative which underpins these texts is that of the necessity confronted by all the authors through the centuries to leave their homes and move towards the centre of the empire, driven out by dire poverty, famine, political turmoil, or cultural deprivation, all resulting from the colonial and postcolonial condition that Ireland was submitted to for so long.
The long span of time covered by Harte’s book, which ends as recently as 2001, shows that the tradition of emigrating to Britain is not quite yet a thing of the past. Several historical landmarks account for the amount of autobiographies written at a given time; for instance, Harte includes only two texts which predate the first half of the 19th century, but many that were published around 1850-60. The Great Famine of 1845-48 was indeed the cause of a vast wave of emigration which is echoed here by the large number of authors who had to suffer from its consequences; ‘the Irish question’ and especially Fenianism, the revolutionary movement which preceded the War of Independence, were other reasons why a lot of Irish people were forced to seek refuge in Britain in the second half of the 19th century. During the two World Wars, a lot of Irishmen, unemployed at home, found an opportunity for jobs in a country deprived of most of its manpower by war. Another major wave of emigration took place in the 1950s, when De Valera’s disastrous policy of protectionism, dictated by orthodox nationalism, was the cause of Ireland’s continuing backwardness and underdevelopment.
All through these episodes of a shared history between Ireland and Britain, there was always one reason or another for the British to look down upon the Irish with some degree of suspicion: first they were discriminated against as Catholics, then as rebels—Home Rulers or even worse, Fenians—then as potential supporters of the IRA. To a certain extent the fears of the British were grounded in some reality, as Britain was often used as a camp base for a lot of Irishmen who were actively plotting rebellion at home. Even if they were not all revolutionary, it is impressive to realise how many among the migrants whose stories are gathered here committed themselves to the Irish cause once they were over in Britain, whether as political activists, Gaelic revivalists, or trade-unionists. What comes through all these narratives—at least through the extracts which Harte has selected—is how, once they were away from home, the Irish remained obsessed by the issue of their national identity. Particularly striking in this regard is the example of Seán Mac Stiofáin, one of the founding members of the Provisional IRA, whose commitment to the republican cause was grounded on his having one great-grandparent who was originally Irish. Perhaps this questioning resulted from the prejudices endured, which led the migrants to ponder over the nature of their otherness; perhaps it was just a product of nostagia and uprootedness. However, as Harte suggests in the introductions to some of the extracts chosen, emigration was not always regarded with nostalgia and anguish. Those who emigrated in the 1950s in particular considered exile as ‘a liberation more than a betrayal’, among them a lot of women who felt hindered and oppressed by the narrow space allotted to them in the Republic.
One of the most striking features of autobiography is of course that it produces the impression of a voice speaking to us, and this impression is all the more moving in this collection as most of the people who wrote these texts suffered from exclusion, and because they very often had to struggle only to survive. Another feature of autobiography is that it always raises the issue of finding out what motivation urged the authors to write, especially again in the case, as it is here, of people who had no literary background at all. Part of the answer could lie in the stereotype of the Irish as a nation of story-tellers, so remarkable is the seemingly natural talent of some of the authors included in the volume for shaping their life-stories in the most energetic, convincing and appealing narratives. As Liam Harte suggests, telling one’s life is to endow it with value and significance. By gathering their narratives, Liam Harte has managed to increase the values of their authors’ lives even more and to confront us with the significance of so much suffering, endurance and hope in a better future.
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