Aidan Beatty is originally from Loughrea and now teaches at the Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh.  He is the author of Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism (2016) and co-editor of Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture (2018). His work has appeared in Journal of Modern History, Irish Historical Studies and the Journal of Jewish Studies.

The need to reconceptualize Ireland’s place in the world

By Aidan Beatty

Book review: Routledge International Handbook of Irish Studies

The last year or so has seen a steady trickle of newspaper articles and vaguely academic think-pieces about the need to reconceptualize Ireland’s place in the world.  With emphases on imperialism and racial identity, this coalescing debate is clearly influenced by Black Lives Matter in the US and post-Brexit goings on in the UK.  At times these articles have been marked by a barely concealed nostalgia for empire that is probably imported from Britain, or by a self-serving Twitter loud-mouthedness.  More serious voices – those actually doing the hard work of redefining Irish Studies or establishing new academic fields in Ireland – are at risk of being drowned out amidst this noise.       

The newly published Routledge International Handbook of Irish Studies represents a far more productive iteration of this debate, stacking up an expansive set of essays on the study of Ireland’s past and present.  The general tone is one of thoughtful engagement and a commitment to incorporating new theories and vocabularies, particularly those addressing questions like race, capitalism or the Anthropocene.  The intellectual traditions and methodologies in which the collection engages are impressive in their diversity; inter alia, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, queer studies, sexuality studies, memory studies, critical whiteness theory, anthropology, sociology, musicology, philology, animal studies, architectural theory. Thematically, the collection addresses topics as disparate as sport, the Irish language, the relationship between the Irish state and official versions of Irish history, clerical child sex abuse, Brexit, right-wing populism, Ireland’s tax status, changing legal definitions of citizenship, contemporary poetry, and the ongoing series of nationalist commemorations. The quality is consistently high, though, for sure, not all these offerings could all be of equal interest to all readers.

Some of the highlights (a list that almost certainly reflects my own biases and academic background) are Eoin O’Malley’s accounting of the Celtic Tiger and how best to define the beginning and end of this period; Diane Negra and Anthony McIntyre’s dismantling of “Ireland Inc.”; the rapid-fire overview of the history of Irish Studies in the United States by John Waters (not that John Waters); and Nessa Cronin’s investigation of Irish “Environmentalities”.  Also worth mentioning are Sarah Townsend’s discussions of Irishness, whiteness and changing ethnic profiles in the Corktown neighbourhood of Detroit and Malcolm Sen’s coda-like closing essay on COVID-19 and Irish Studies.  (Sen and Townsend are perhaps the only two non-white contributors and the lack of any chapter dedicated to the probing of non-white varieties of Irishness remains the only major oversight across the thirty-seven chapters).  As with all the other contributors, these are some of the leading voices in their fields, in the main drawn from an array of universities in Ireland, Britain, and North America.  A book like this could easily have become an eclectically messy grab-bag.  But with the two traumatic ruptures of 2008 and COVID-19 looming large over all this, the three editors – Renée Fox, Mike Cronin and Brian Ó Conchubhair – have clearly had a mind to recognize that changed global conditions require systemic changes in how we think about Ireland, Irish identity, and Irish culture.  This desire for new methodologies provides the architecture that successfully unifies the assembled papers. 

During the super-charged revisionism debates of the ‘80s and ‘90s, revisionism set itself against an older nationalist/republican tradition of history-writing that often romanticized Ireland’s past.  In contrast, revisionism promised a dispassionate, and so, supposedly, a more accurate conception of Irish history.  Yet, for all their differences, both sides had boring and unimaginative methodologies and a singularly inward-looking focus on Ireland and Ireland alone – an  example of what the editors, in their introduction, call ‘the inward-looking focus of Ireland’s self-reflective cultural development’.  This resulted in a mainstream academic history that was intellectually dry to the point of sterility and with a published output that rightfully attracted little to no international readership.   Oddly, this was the also period when the study of Irish literature made global connections and both drew from, and challenged the limits of, postcolonial studies.  If a new round of debates about how to conceptualize the Irish past are indeed upon us, this Handbook provides a useful and timely service.  The essays here, taken as a whole, show how both Irish history-writing, and the multidisciplinary field of Irish Studies more broadly, can move beyond insular and old-fashioned ways of writing about modern Ireland and how Irish academics can learn from and meaningfully engage with the rest of the world.