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“Remembering & Imagining Irishness”, Third Thomas Flanagan Lecture

American Historcal Society, New York, 1st May 2012

Mr President, distinguished guests,

It is an honour and a pleasure to be with you this evening for this third Thomas Flanagan Lecture. Thomas Flanagan was a pioneering historical novelist, critic and great friend of Ireland and Irish scholarship. His critical work on Irish writers and fiction included the Irish American contribution such as that of Eugene O’Neill. It is appropriate that he is remembered by a lecture series and I am so pleased to be part of that.

I should begin with a note of thanks and appreciation.  It was customary in the Gaelic tradition to offer a praise poem to a generous host and benefactor.  As our subject tonight was not a poet but a great writer of prose, let me praise – in prose – Dr Kevin Cahill who has led this Society for many years.

John McGahern once remarked that Ireland is composed not of one but of thousands of tiny republics each with with their own manners and rules.  I realised the truth of this when I was told that Dr Cahill, among his many accomplishments, is also Uachtarán of Sliabh Luachra, that as far as the people of that part of Kerry were concerned, he bore the title of President many years before I did.

I want to extend our heartfelt appreciation to you Kevin, not only as the embodiment of the spirit of this Society, the man who has done more than any other to secure its future and that of its beautiful home but also as a great teacher, physician and humanitarian who has generously given of his skills not only in the United States and Ireland but globally. Tréaslaím leat as ucht d'obair agus gabhaim buíochas leat.

I have given the title “Remembering and Imagining Irishness” to my remarks as I believe that, poised as we are within a decade of commemorations, a reflection on the ethics of memory and how we might construct our complex history is a necessary preliminary to how we should envisage our future with courage and confidence.

I want to take advantage of this opportunity to consider how Ireland has been  - and must now again be – renewed through memory and imagination.  Renewing Ireland and with it our sense of what it means to be Irish is one of the most urgent challenges facing us at present.  It is a challenge which encompasses and underpins economic renewal but also which goes beyond it.  It is an exercise of empowerment in constructing an ethical relationship with others and it can be emancipatory in freeing us from models of economy and society which are not only failing but which are disastrous in their social consequences.

This is neither a new exercise or a new challenge for Irish people. I suggest that the Irish have repeatedly mined the past to meet the needs of its present.  We have done so, not as sentimentalists but as modernisers.  Contrary to the caricature often drawn of us, we are among the greatest of modernisers – innovative and adaptive to a rare degree.  This is an insight which is perhaps better preserved among the Irish disapora than in Ireland itself. 

What remembering and imagining have in comon is mythmaking: the one, remembering, is often initiated so as to achieve a healing; find a rationalisation; construe an event in such a way as to be both a warm cloak for the self and a dagger for the threatening other; the other imagining, needs myth to retain belief, not merely as assurance or reassurance, but as a mechanism for the retention of hope in the unrealised possibilities of being human, truly free, in emacipatory, celebratory, joyous co-existence with, and through, others on this vulnerable planet on which we share life.

Mythmaking is not confined, as practice or admission, to us Irish. But I think we can immodestly claim to have excelled at it in our different ways, in different times, and from different sentinel outposts, and so often the consequence of having invented instruments invoked for defence, that ended up being destructive not only for those we opposed but for ourselves. It is in literature that we Irish have perhaps laid bare the full creative potential of mythmaking.

That achievement is not divorced however from historical context. It carries the burden of history but flies from it, making something new.

James Joyce, for example, draws on so much of what there is in the memory baggage of his people yet he did not seek to place it, or surrender it, to what he inherited as the form of the novel as it prevailed in his time. The excellence of imitation that was available to him within the prevailing genre was not chosen. Rather he, in his novel Ulysses, brought something entirely new into the world.

An ancient myth transacted in oral tradition, soiled, reworked and reworn became a frame for something contemporary and mould-breaking. It became a vehicle for what silences had sought to cover, for intimacies forbidden, racisms thinly disguised and faiths no longer trusted but then not easily discarded and never forgotten. In their mythmaking, Irish people have had to be modernisers again and again in different circumstances of adversity at home and abroad and in truth circumstance has given them rewards from both its necessity and its promise. It is in transcending the challenges of transience of migrants that Irish people have through famine, migration, exile and colonisation been forced to be modernisers again and again.

A people who have had an oral tradition that demanded the celebration of both victory and the horror of defeat in such verse as could defeat the passing of time. The people whom the verse served had had to suffer dispossession, exile, emigration and the regular experience of famine culminating in the Gorta Mór – the Great Famine of 1845 - 1847.  The emigration of almost 2 million people in the decades that followed the Great Famine required a new rendering of the inherited myths including the myth of exile.

Well before the Great Famine, Irish people had in large numbers substituted the state language of the coloniser, English, for their own ancient language, which for many of them was the language of the poor. Survival, either in a precarious existence at home, or as a migrant in America, demanded a new language to enter the society to which one had migrated. That language was the state language English – the vernacular required for law, for school, for church, for emigration and the letter that was precious from the emigrant.

Later Irish people would take that adopted language, adapt it, stretch it for ironies, and make something entirely new of it, and as a final flourish, use its new form to invoke both ancient versions of independence, and new forms of republican existence. In this they would be assisted again and again by Irish Americans.

We are now in a time which needs new mythmaking, including a myth for our Irishness and I believe that this involves both the ethics of memory and the courage of imagination. What should we remember, and how, what might we come to know, imagine, dare to hope and offer such an Irishness for new times as would be authentic and sustainable?

I can think of no better starting point for a discussion on how Ireland might be remembered and imagined than with consideration of Thomas Flanagan and his work.  He defies all attempts at categorisation. 

He was a great American writer who wrote a trilogy of great Irish novels.  The grandson of Irish immigrants who, by his own account, was only pale green “to the point of translucency” as a young man, and yet who devoted much of his life and writing to recovering the Irish historical experience through his fiction, and then as a literary critic, he was balanced, wise and understated. He was as much at home discussing Yeats and Joyce as he was discussing Ernest Hemmingway and  William Kennedy.

A great rescuer, he recovered from neglect and restored the work and  reputations of Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan and William Carleton.

Most of all Tom Flanagan was the teacher who warned against any simplification of Irishness.  “My Irish American identity” he said, “is typical only in the sense that there is no such typical experience”. Identity, he added, is a personal matter, complex, slanted, convoluted.

What better starting point then for a reconsideration of Irish identity in all of its complexity, its slantedness and convolution. 

If  identity is always complex, the issue for immigrants – and the choices required of them – are even more so.  For many, it was easier to put on and wear the mask expected of them than to shape a new identity at once.  Shaping a new identity took time and was itself fraught.  Thomas Flanagan notes that the experience of many immigrant communites was a ghetto experience for the first two generations and that this was often succeeeded by a self-ghettoisation, or a withholding from a mainstream and official culture seen as unwelcoming or elitist.

William Kennedy has painstakingly recorded a lost and wholly Irish American world where – as Tom Flanagan shrewdly observes:

“Protestants, rarely glimpsed, are like unicorns, comely and delicate of bone.”

Here Irish Americans felt themselves caught in a double bind: enter the establishment culture and they cut off their roots and the source of much of their vitality.  Refrain from doing so and they remain in a cultural province.

At the same time as they were refashioning the societies they had entered, Irish immigrant communities were also refashioning what it meant to be Irish, feeding the sources of emergent nationalism.  The impact of the Irish immigrant experience on Ireland itself was creative, profound and lasting.  Modern Ireland was constructed as much in Edinburgh and New York as in Galway or Dublin.

Though the immigrant mask at its point of destination may have been seen as conservative and backward looking, in reality the Irish proved to be great modernisers, many having chosen, as I have said, to learn English in Ireland. Some did this so as to prepare their children to survive and succeed, perhaps overseas, or in an Ireland where English was the key to both defence and literacy. The value that they set on education in their new land can be traced in bricks and mortar in countless High Schools in all of New Yorks Boroughs and in the Colleges of Fordham, St Johns, Manhattan.  By the 1890s the Irish language was spoken in Ireland  as a main language by less than 5% of children under 10. For older children and adults the proportion was higher, but the Irish language was in decline. The great task of saving the language was undertaken by the Gaelic League led by my predecessor Dubhglás de hÍde. 

Yet, it was English that became the language of Irish separatism.  Gradually, writers  took control of our own story – through journalism and creative writing.  Stephen Dedalus’ determination “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” was shared in a different medium by journalists such as John Boyle O’Reilly, John Devoy, Finlay Peter Dunne.

Emigration taught the Irish a further skill – the ability to maintain poise in the face of change, to live in two or even more worlds at once, to adapt and to broker.  This is the migratory experience, the marginalisation of consciousness, caught in literature but so often missed in the social sciences.

“To be an American conscious of his Irish identity,” Flanagan once wrote, “ is to exist within complexities, paradoxes, contraries, ambiguities, ironies, and, perhaps, a few pitfalls”.

The use of memory as both succour and dagger is at the heart of some of the finest writing in Irish America. Eugene O’Neill mined his family’s immigrant experience and in the process revolutionised American theatre.

“The thing that explains more than anything about me,” he once told his son, “is the fact that I’m Irish.”

It is a hundred years since the first Abbey Theatre performances in New York. Those performances transfixed ONeill, then a 23 year old part time sailor living in a boarding house and coming to terms with a failing marriage.  So a theatre company that had revolutionised Irish theatre exerted a profound influence on a writer who revolutionised American theatre. Great things indeed happen when cultures converge and influence each other.

We are inclined to think of innovation in the cultural sense, for example, James Joyce, the innovator who revolutionised the English language from within. But innovation is a characteristic of Irish history across all endeavours.  John Scottus Eriugena stands unique among western thinkers of the early middle ages in the linguistic ability and intellectual daring that enabled him to synthesise strands of thought from West and East into a coherent system of thought that is probably without comparison in the seven centuries between Augustine and Aquinas.

We are correctly proud of Shaw, Yeats, Beckett and Heaney when nobel laureates in literature are mentioned. When Irish nobel laureates are ennumerated, Ernest Walton, born in Dungarvan and joint developer of the first particle accelerator that split the atom in 1931, is often overlooked.  Perhaps that is because it is easier to appreciate a poem by Yeats than to condsider the disintegration of lithium; but William Rowan Hamilton in mathematics, Robert Boyle in Chemisty, astronomer Agnes Mary Clerke and John Tyndall in light physics are part of the Irish mind as are so many Irish scientists, technologists and innovators, so many of whom teach, research and work in the United States. Creativity can have many manifestations – a poem or a painting but also a new business model, medical treatment or nano-plastic composite. 

But I want to return briefly to an example, both principled and pragmatic, of the role that memory plays in imagination and renewal.  I want to return to that snowy January night in Boston in 1897 when some fifty men gathered to found the American Irish Historical Society. 

Their purpose was to challenge the monolithic view of American history that diminished the role played by emigrant groups in favour of an anglocentric narrative. They included Catholic and Protestant, some born in Ireland, others from families long established in this country.

Henry Stoddard Ruggles claimed descent from an Irishman who had come to America in 1657.

Theodore Roosevelt – who became President of the United States four years later - claimed descent from the Barnwall family, associated with Drimnagh Castle in Dublin. 

Augustus St Gaudens, great American sculptor and creater of the Parnell monument in O’Connell Street, was born in Dublin to a French father and an Irish mother.

John Boyle O’Reilly, born in Dowth County Meath, had been a trooper in the 10th Hussars before he was a Fenian, convict, fierce patriot and, later, newspaper editor.

John Devoy who Thomas Flanagan has described as that “fierce and splendid old Fenian rebel”.

The AIHS, founded by these great supporters of Irishness at home and abroad, was as much about the future of America as about the history of the Irish in America. 

Like Pearse and Joyce in the decades that followed, its founders were exercising choice over what was remembered, what was retrieved from the brutal editing of history, mining the emigrant experience to replenish this country while also contributing to the construction of an emerging Irish identity.

Their intent was to create a United States that valued and welcomed diversity and that built its narrative on genuine historical integrity, on what Tom Flanagan described as “the enriching actualities of the American cultural experience”.  They initiated their work in the same year that Yeats and Lady Gregory began the partnership which led to the foundation of the Irish National Theatre two years later.

The foundation of this Society was no isolated phenomonen but part of a wider appreciation that something very precious was disappearing and would soon be irretrievable.  It was also part of a process aimed at bringing the immigrant experience into the mainstream of American memory.

In another area, in a different city, a valuable act of cutural retrieval was underway. By the time the founders of the AIHS had come together in Boston, an Irish born Chicago police officer, Francis O’Neill, had set about retrieving  a different wealth, recording the work of some of the innumerable traditional Irish musicians who had emigrated to that city but whose repertoire was fast disappearing. 

Music may be the most portable of art forms. While depending for its survival on an appreciative audience, among emigrant communities that audience for the music in its arrival form diminishes as new generations busy themselves with the task of integrating.  But then the permeability of music to other forms of composition and performance may also mean, as happened in the Irish case, that it comes back home enriched.

The link between music and place also renders it fragile when displaced.  Eavan Boland, herself no stranger to displacement, has described how song, sea, weather and home become one in the singers of the West of Ireland of whom:

“Every night their mouths filled with

Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars

And exhausted birds”.


We should all be grateful to Francis O’Neill for initiating one of the greatest works of cultural retrieval saving for posterity countless melodies that would otherwise have been lost. 

We should remember too that the famine emigrants to Boston brought valuable fragments in their bundles of possessions, manuscripts copied and shared, such as by Padraig Ferriter, some of which are now in the Athenaeum in Boston.  What was retrieved, by O’Neill and others, is probably only a small fraction of what was lost in the decades following the Famine when New York resonated to the sound of Irish – both spoken and sung.  Graffiti in Irish, etched in plaster on a wall of what is now the Southstreet Seaport Museum in Lower Manhatten, is one of the few physical remains of a chapter in the history of Ireland and New York now largely lost to time.

There is much that has been lost of the words of an oral tradition even if more of the music survived. Eavan Boland puts it well when she speculates that Atlantis is less a place than a metaphor for what is lost irretrievably:


what really happened is

this: the old fable-makers searched hard for a word

to convey that what is gone is gone forever and

never found it. And so, in the best traditions of

where we come from, they gave their sorrow a name

and drowned it.”

This preoccupation with memory and retrieval is common to many Irish American writers too.  William Kennedy’s painstaking reconstruction of Albany in the late 19th and early 20th century is comparable in its own way to Joyce’s reconstruction of Dublin. 

But the traces of lost lives go back far beyond the Famine, and can be located in the most unexpected places and recovered in the most surprising ways.

Perhaps a serendipitous finding might illustrate. Deep in the Rappanhock Valley in the tidewaters of Virginia a cabinetmaker in the eighteenth century used a distinctive design known as the trifid foot.  It is virtually unknown in Virginia outside the Rappahanock Valley and unknown in England but is a common form in Irish furniture.

It is the signature only recently identified of an Irish craftsman who arrived in the valley sometime in the 1760s or 70’s.  It is a reminder that the Irish emigrant experience is rich and various. Fifty years before the Famine, New York’s most vigorous trading community hailed from the northern counties of Ireland and occupied itself largely with the trade in flax seed from the Hudson Valley.

I want to, however, invoke this evening, the act of remembering, not just as act of retrieval but as a forward-looking act, as an exercise of will and of conscious choice, an essential part of the process of renewal, a recovery of such words of ethical life as might reveal an illumination of the unrealized possibilities of a future Irishness – na féidireachtaí gan teorainn.

Such a creative impulse as we need now, not only for economic recovery, but for humanity, is one that will relocate economics for example, in a moral ethical context that is scholarly, reflexive and genuinely emancipatory, an economics within a culture.

The impulse that drove Finian to a rock eight miles from the coast of Kerry and Columbanus to what is today France and Italy fifteen hundred years ago required a vision of the future, a vision that laid strong cultural foundations across Europe. That same impulse in 1632 that drove Mícheál Ó Cléirigh and his collaboraters to collect and transcribe manuscripts from the disappearing bardic culture; that was done with an eye to the future and it made possible the imaginative reinvention of Ireland in succeeding centuries.

The Gaelic Revival was likewise concerned more with what Ireland might be rather than what it had once been. If we wish then to pass from failed paradigms, embark on the new and necessary reflections and policies that will serve us in an emancipatory way, we must realize that an amnesia to what Irishness was, at home or abroad, will not serve us well. Rather we might make an amnesty at times so as to allow for flexibility in our narratives, and such a pluralism as will allow for the narratives of others to enter our discourse, and above all allow both to change and where appropriate pardon to be made. 

One clear thread connects the foundation of the AIHS, the work of Tom Flanagan and our cicumstances today.

The AIHS came into being as Irish round the world began to prepare for the centenary of 1798.  Some of the glories in your archives relate to the United Irishmen, to Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone. That centenary, it has often been remarked, had more to do with Ireland in 1898 than in 1798.  The celebrations marked a turning point in the political campaign for self-determination after what had been a decade of relative inactivity. 

The Irish Parliamentary Party used it to build momentum towards Home Rule, overlooking the ambiguity inherent in what had been a bloody and popular uprising.  The Church recalled it as the struggle of a catholic people for religious belief, and took a muted approach to the strong strain of secular republicanism in the uprising. The century too would see a new chapter written on the theme of land. Native grazier predators would use the mask of religion and nationalism to defeat the land hungry aspirations of what was left of the cottiers, non-inheriting sons. The agricultural labourers were gone, having borne the greatest burden of the Famine and the emigration that followed it.

Eighty years later Thomas Flanagan again retrieved this episode in Irish history for a wider audience. Writing at the height of the Troubles, the episode he chose was not the rebellion in Ulster or in Leinster which, he felt, were too burdened with “a kind of sentimental nationalist cult” but the less known uprising in Mayo.

Now we are again on the threshold of the centenaries of events that shaped Ireland for much of the past hundred years.

Recent weeks have seen the centenaries of the first Unionist Rally against Home Rule, the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill into Parliament and the sinking of the Titanic.  In September we will mark the centenary of the Ulster Covenant and in coming years we will mark the birth of the Labour Party, the Great Lockout, the start of the First World War and the events that led to the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

These anniversaries are also an opportunity to reflect on the American dimension of Irishness, to consider the close connections between the Labour movements in both countries, links that brought James Connolly to New Jersey and New York as a labour organiser, that brought Jim Larkin to Bute, Montana to address some of the contradictions of class and ethnicity, of solidarity and complicity.

The anniversaries are an opportunity too to retrieve a sense of peace with our complex identities.  It seems to me that as the twentieth century progressed we became less comfortable with our complex identities.  The polarising events of a hundred years ago had the effect of fixing and freezing national and religious identities for the decades that followed in a way that was exclusive and confrontational, narrowing our horizons. It is the recovery of and respect for, complexity that will set us free.

The sense of Irishness, drawn from complex sources and experienced in complex circumstances, as a common identity across national boundaries could also benefit from renewal. We have too often fallen into the trap of uncritically allowing shallow difference to define us.  That cannot change fast enough.

The Irishness that I believe is now emerging, but the possibilities of which have not yet been fully realised, is one that will be informed by the experience of the Irish abroad as much, or even to a greater extent than it will be informed by those of us who live in Ireland. Distance grants perspective and it is not accidental that so many of our most perceptive scholars choose the lens of temporary exile, and are people of Ireland at once at home and abroad.

It is an Irishness that will be assessed in a global context and I believe that its ethical content will be one of the measures by which it will be tested.  It is an ethical content that has to be forged, drawing on the well of memory, from the richest depths of such periods as the Seventh Century when for the good not only of the oldest and widest conception of Europe, but for all humanity and the beauty and wonder of scholarship, those Irish scholars such as Columbanus set out across Europe from Ireland to Bobbio in Italy.

It is not only from memory that the Irishness of a new departure will come, but from what is imagined as possibility, and capable of being brought to fruition.  This, I repeat, will not be a new task for Irish people. Ireland is not a society that has simply moved out of tradition into modernity.  As scholars such as Declan Kiberd have pointed out, Irish people have again and again been required to modernize, to adapt, to learn, create, and come through with such creativity as was necessary so as to define and deal with that which was initially strange.

To learn a new language of the State; to arrive in a new society and culture; to negotiate all the requirements of the migrants facing the new required a flexibility of mind, that today’s Irish people possess, and it is a possession enhanced by high levels of education, higher than most cohorts of the same age in any European country.  That is why I believe that the new Irishness built on an ethical base, full of creativity, will usher in a new and exciting period in Irish history – a period of authenticity built on a legacy of intellectual achievement and drawing on all our Irish capacity of imagination, innovation and creativity – an Irishness of which all Irish, at home or abroad can be proud.

Derek Mahon, Tom Flanagan’s close friend in New York, has recently written about the need to renew values in an Ireland that has seen excess.

It’s time now to go back at last

Beyond irony and slick depreciation

Past hedge and fencing to a clearer vision

Time to create a future from the past.

We are at such a point of renewal. It is a great challenge - renewing Ireland and also renewing the sense of what it means to be Irish after the events of recent years. Those outside Ireland who share a sense of Irishness are vital to that process, and as Uachtarán na hEíreann, President of Ireland, I look forward to working with them in making our new Irishness.

That process of renewal, to which I invite all of us Irish, is now one to which we must give our best efforts at home and abroad. That, after all, is simply consistent with the spririt of our constitution, acknowledging Ireland’s “special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its culural identity and heritage”.

Just as the founders of this Society helped bring the Irish immigrant experience into the American mainstream, I hope that we, working together, can bring the wider global Irish experience, its ideas and innovative talent, back into the Irish mainstream.

The Global Irish Network which was given new momentum by the gathering for the Global Irish Economic Forum at Dublin Castle last October is one element in that process. The Certificate of Irish Heritage offers a formal recognition of Irishness that extends beyond the first two generations currently entitled to Irish citizenship.  This year will see the first awards of a new Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish abroad.  These are small, but important, steps in a new attentiveness to the vital contribution that all those who belong to the Irish family can make to the process of renewal.

To return, and to finish, mar fhocal scoir, memory abounds in Seamus Heaney’s uncollected tribute, “A Night Piece for Tom Flanagan.”

In it, Heaney conjures the shades of Wolfe Tone, Maria Edgeworth, John Mitchel, George Moore and William Carleton. Then, blinking into daylight on the steps of his house overlooking Sandymount Strand, more figures from the ever-present past pause to pay tribute to the writer, Thomas Flanagan, who honoured and attended to our past.

“Think of one out walking there

With his ash-plant,

Headed from Night-town to the Tower,

By Sandymount.

Our genius loci, fount of inwit,

Our conscience-forger lifts his hat,

And tips you an old world salute

As if to say

‘Yes, yes’ to you and all you write,

Your mastery.

And now a bat flits from the trees

To grow a form I recognize,

The silent flap of W.B.’s

Great soul in flight,

He circles thrice to greet you, flies

Into the night.”

George Steiner wrote that “without the true fiction of history, without the unbroken animation of a chosen past, we become flat shadows”. 

Thomas Flanagan gave us not flat shadows but the “true fiction” of  history.  He did so with an eye fixed firmly on the present and the future.  In the last lines of his greatest novel, memory and imagination are harnessed to present purpose: and I am delighted to let him have the last word.

“It is in the brightness of the morning air, as the poet tells us, that hope and memory walk towards us across meadows, radiant as a girl in her first beauty”.

“When we hold to our ears the convoluted shell of the past,” he once noted “what we hear are our own voices.  But…..the voices….. have been instructed by all that we know about the past, all the contradictory things that we feel about it, all that we have imagined about it.  Those voices make possible for us imaginary selves, imaginary opposites, imaginary others.”

Go raibh míle maith agaibh as ucht bhur foighde agus an éisteacht a thug sibh dom. Beir beannacht.