Geographical metaphors and historical geographies; interviews with Irish writers

In The country and the city, the literary scholar Raymond Williams (1973) wrote about the many ways that British novelists and poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used the opposition of town and country to think about the dilemmas of modernity. Certainly both city and country were transformed by capitalism and industrialism but, argued Williams, people tended to think of the rural as the past, and the city as the present, looking to the countryside as a repository of traditional civility and fearing the city as the source of dangerous instability and innovation. By describing how both town and country were being changed, Williams reminded us that social and economic questions are a matter of political choices rather than of a more or less irresistible geographical teleology. Yet, since social and economic changes do indeed have geographical dimensions, the transformation of places can be a valuable way to think about some of those changes. Instead of allowing ‘town’ and ‘country’ to become mere labels for idealised spaces that bear little relation to material places, their spatial relations and environmental circumstances, we might instead ask whether a richer understanding of historical geographies might allow us a more sophisticated and effective grasp on social and economic transformation.

I was prompted to think about these issues again when reading Jody Randolph’s wonderful collection of interviews with modern Irish writers (Close to the next moment: interviews from a changing Ireland, Manchester UK, Carcanet, 2010). The interviews cover the period 2008-10 and each writer was asked to reflect a little on how Ireland had been changing and how these changes were taken up in their own work. It is striking how frequently the writers describe social and economic change in geographical terms. Anne Enright speaks of the trajectory of her cohort in distinctly geographical terms. They were middle class children brought up in new suburbs during the 1960s and 1970s and they were all destined for emigration. She also speaks of cultural shifts in geographical terms, describing a modernizing trend in Irish fiction of the 1980s signaled by a new turn away from the country towards the town. Enright is explicitly interested in rewriting history but she is also contesting received geographies. Thus, she is disappointed with common cultural representations of the Irish countryside for the impression given by works such John B. Keane’s The Field that rural society was resolutely patriarchal since by her lights rural Ireland is in many respects a matriarchal society. She is also discontented with common understandings of the suburb, which she sees as based too narrowly on a North American model. The Irish suburb, she insists, is not really like the American suburb but is rather a staging post for a people on the move from the country to the city. In other words, by interrogating the nature of the Irish cities, suburbs and countryside, Anne Enright questions again the nature of the Irish past and of the future possibilities opened up or closed down by recent transformations.

For Paula Meehan, poetry can memorialise place, translating it into language and allowing it to be used to measure future change. Whereas Enright uses the rural-urban continuum to think about Irish modernity, Meehan highlights two other issues that require a subtle grasp on past and present, place and space: immigration and the environment. It has long been clear from work in Irish historiography that invasion myths were important parts of the self-justifying stories told by tribes and kingdoms about their past (see, for example, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, ‘Ireland, 400-800,’ in Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (ed.), and Early Ireland, Oxford UK, Oxford University Press, 2005, 182-234). Invasion and conquest imply the replacement of a past order with a new one and thus they discount continuing negotiations between different sources of legitimacy. In other words, for the temporarily powerful, these invasion myths are claims to legitimate and unquestioned authority, while for the host society witnessing the incursion of a different group, the invasion or swamping myth conjures up an existential threat that should surely be resisted with all means necessary. But, listen to Meehan reminding us that immigrants are surely no more than ‘people who left their own countries to find work and make lives among us’ (Randolph, p. 34). ‘Living among’ offers new perspectives upon Irish places past and present as well as upon the lives of the diasporic Irish who surely did nothing different although they too were often seen by their new neighbours as invaders.

Marina Carr speaks, like Paula Meehan, of turning to environmental questions in her art. The environmental turn is likewise understood in geographical terms as a movement from a concern with place in works that took bogland as their metaphorical landscape, to recent works, such as Marble (2009) set in a rather placeless city. She imagines the planet as getting old. In this way she refuses the image of nature as an innocent garden. A call from innocence to responsibility is explicit in Paul Muldoon’s insistence that the United States is not a young country, that 9/11 was certainly not its first atrocity. Hugo Hamilton worries that in Ireland the landscape is losing its memory and that a prevailing sense of victimhood is shielding Irish people from a clear understanding of the harm they do to themselves and to their environment. The landscape memory needed for this self-awareness, to cultivate the necessary sense of responsibility, and to develop the future-oriented political vision that Meehan calls for, must build upon a historical geography of the creation of what Hegel referred to as ‘second nature,’ but it will also need to recover alternative ways of thinking about the relations between people and the other living things that coexist with us on earth. In this respect, Conor McPherson’s reminder that pagans did not put humans at the centre of existence or of the universe invites us to think about varieties of prehistoric post-humanism. These are sets of geographical metaphors that escaped the attention even of Clarence Glacken, our most attentive historian of geographical thought to date.

We will probably continue to use geographical terms to describe the trajectory of our societies. The more we can invest these terms with careful readings of historical geographies, the better these terms will serve as metaphor or description.

Gerry Kearns

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