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Authority and Crisis


Edited by Carine Berbéri & Martine Pelletier


Reimagining Ireland Series, Vol. 70

Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015

Paperback. xii+296p. ISBN 978-3034319393. £43


Reviewed by Christophe Gillissen

Université de Caen-Normandie




The dynamism of the “Reimagining Ireland” series edited by Dr Eamon Maher is impressive: eleven volumes were published in 2015 alone, among which this selection of proceedings of the annual conference of the French society for Irish studies (SOFEIR) held in Tours in 2012. The general theme of the volume, authority and crisis, is based notably on two essays by Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education” (1958) and “What is Authority?” (1954), in which she distinguishes authority from coercion, and authority from persuasion, considering that authority derives from a shared sense of foundation. Those notions of authority and crisis constitute the thread of the fourteen chapters, which are divided into two sections of equal length, one dealing with literary studies (“Crisis, Authority and Literature”), the other with social, political, economic and historical issues (“Society in Crisis: Challenges to Authority/ies”).

Those concepts prove remarkably effective, both in buttressing the unity of the volume and in proposing fertile angles for research in Irish studies. One cannot comment on each of the fourteen chapters in detail in a review of reasonable length, so a few examples must suffice to give an inkling of the contents.

In the section devoted to literary studies, Nicholas Grene (“Irish English as a Literary Language : Authority and Subversion”) explores the way in which “the authority of standard forms of written English are subverted by an Irish oral demotic”, from the “blarney” of Boucicault’s comic heroes to Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, going through Synge, Joyce and Roddy Doyle. He argues convincingly that “the subversion of the authority of correct print forms is a claim instead for the authority of the literary” [15].

Bertrand Cardin’s contribution (“Authorities in Crisis and Intertextual Practice : The Example of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin”) focuses on the relationship between intertextuality and the crisis of authorities – the crisis of the author, whose death was famously proclaimed by Roland Barthes, and that of the text. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin is a revealing case study insofar as the novel abounds with references, notably in its title taken from a poem by Tennyson. The chapter demonstrates how productive intertextual practices can be, because “not only does the first text direct the reading of the second, but the first one can also be read in the light of the second” [57]. This leads potentially to a utopian vision in which “all publications are but one, endless big book and all authors are one” [64].

Other chapters in this literary section propose studies of Owen McCafferty’s Mojo Mickybo (Brigitte Bastiat and Frank Healy), Colum McCann and Keith Donohue’s new readings of the Yeatsian motif (Audrey Robitaillé), John Banville’s Shroud (Mehdi Ghassemi), Denis Johnston’s plays (Virginie Girel-Pietka), and three of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s works (Chantal Dessaint).

The second section is just as stimulating as the first. Valérie Peyronel (“The Banking Crisis in Ireland and its Resolution : Authority(ies) in Question?”) reviews the recent banking crisis in the light of the writings of Max Weber and Michel Crozier. If “exercising political authority in a globalized and international context” is a considerable challenge, trust remains an “essential ingredient” in the exercise of such authority [176]. When a national government no longer enjoys such trust, authority is transferred to a higher level.

Marie-Violaine Louvet (“Challenging the Authority of the Irish State on the Question of the Middle East : The Two Gaza Flotillas of May 2010 and November 2011”) deals with civil society associations acting as “competitors to the state” and calling “into question its authority and legitimacy to speak in the name of citizens as far as foreign policy was concerned” [193]. Their aim was to denounce the Israeli blockade of Gaza by shipping humanitarian aid there, but if they did attract media attention, the cost of the operation proved much higher than expected and in the end they had to rely on the government to see to their safety.

Michel Savaric (“The IRA and ‘Civil Administration’ : A Challenge to the Authority of the State?”) looks at the way in which the IRA took over the administration of law and order in several Catholic working-class neighbourhoods from the late 1960s onwards. Its objective was to propose an alternative to British rule in Northern Ireland, but British authorities provided some support to this strategy, notably by financing “incident report centres” in 1975 [201]. Their aim was to encourage the development of the IRA’s political wing, and thus to ultimately bring the Republican movement into the fold of constitutional politics.

Fabrice Mourlon (“The Crisis of Authority in You, Me and Marley”) also focuses on Northern Ireland, but through the prism of a TV drama commissioned by the BBC and released in 1992, at a time when Northern Ireland seemed to have reached a dead end. Three young people engage in joyriding, an activity that may be seen as a challenge to various authorities: the army, the police, and the IRA. They are eventually killed by the army at a checkpoint, but the senseless violence reflects the all-too-obvious lack of authority in Northern Ireland at the time. 

The chapter by Mathew Staunton and Nathalie Sebbane (“Authority and Child Abuse in Ireland : Rethinking History in a Hostile Field”) touches on a field where questions of authority loom large: who can decide whether abuse took place or not? What authority can different sources – notably the testimony of victims and official archives – claim? After a comprehensive review of the literature on the issue, the authors make methodological suggestions in a piece that has already established itself as essential reading for anyone working on the history of child abuse.

Two other chapters usefully complete the chronological spectrum of this section, by proposing studies of Ireland at the time of the Union: “An Old Kind of History : The Anglo-Irish Writing of Irish History, 1840-1910” by Ciaran Brady, and “ ‘Through Darkest Obstruction’ : Challenging the British Representation of Ireland (1880-1910)” by Claire Dubois, two equally stimulating and worthwhile contributions to the book. 

The volume, which has been the object of careful proofreading and editing (the present reviewer did not find a single mistake or typo), also includes a list of abbreviations, a general introduction on the themes of authority and crisis, notes on contributors, and an index. It demonstrates with undeniable authority that despite – or because of – the numerous crises experienced in Ireland, Irish studies are in full bloom.


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