Irish Culture and Wartime Europe, 1938-1948
Edited by Dorothea Depner & Guy Woodward
Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015
Hardcover. 205 p. ISBN 978-1846825620. €55
Reviewed by Bertrand Cardin
Université de Caen
This book explores the effects of the Second World War on Irish literature and culture. The thirteen essays in this collection address Irish writers including Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh, Francis Stuart, Kate O’Brien or Louis McNeice, but also non-Irish writers – Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh or W.G. Sebald – as well as other artists such as the painter Nevill Johnson.
It aims to show that Ireland’s isolation in the 1940s was only political and that, simultaneously, the artistic world was engaged in a fruitful dialogue with foreign countries. This theory questions the great narrative of Ireland’s neutrality and highlights the gap between politico-diplomatic and cultural spheres. As the authorities were showing interest only in their own country and refused to be involved in international activities, many cultural links were being woven between Ireland, Britain and Continental Europe.
The book has the virtue of analysing the cultural dialogue of those days not only through literary works, but also through alternative sources that have not fully been exploited so far, such as manuscripts, letters, notebooks or private diaries, which let the writer’s thoughts show. These primary sources make it possible to (re)read the works in the light of their authors’ wartime experiences.
The artists’ reactions to the conflict are more or less explicitly compared to the responses of foreign artists living in Ireland during that decade. Likewise, the writers behave differently according to their religions: R.F. Foster remarks that the response of writers from an Irish Protestant background to the war was more committed and less ambiguous than writers whose traditions were Catholic and nationalist. Of course, the reactions of artists from Northern Ireland (Louis McNeice in particular) are inevitably connected to their stands in the periods of political violence that affected them more directly, in the 1920s or 1960s. Such approaches provide stimulating issues which invite readers to examine the way artistic creation, history and society are linked.
This collection of essays has its genesis in a symposium entitled “Writing Home : Irish Culture and Wartime Europe, 1938-1948”, which was held at Trinity College Dublin in 2013. It is edited by Dorothea Depner and Guy Woodward, who were both awarded doctorates by Trinity College a couple of years ago. This is probably why 9 contributors out of 13 are from this very college. In addition to a Northern-Irish contributor, only three authors of essays are from abroad (England, Austria, Bosnia). It is unfortunate that the nationalities of the contributors are not more diversified. In view of the general theme of the book, a larger sample of Continental researchers would have been relevant, particularly to enrich the exchanges of views.
Furthermore, besides Kate O’Brien, whose work is studied in one essay, all of the writers addressed here are men. It would have been apposite in this respect and scientifically appropriate to accord a greater place to women writers. For example, an essay on Elizabeth Bowen, who was such an activist that she was accused of being a spy, would have been justified in such a book. Bowen is quoted in the foreword and repeatedly evoked in the collection, but these sporadic references are insufficient.
Regardless of these reservations, this book is a most valuable contribution to wartime cultural Irish history. It gives readers the opportunity to reconsider a fertile decade for literature and make, as R.F. Foster puts it, “a suggestive exploration into an imaginative territory which has been too long left uncharted”.
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