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Routledge, 2010, pp. 251 £76.00 HB / £21.74(Kindle)

At the conclusion to her extraordinarily timely work Gender, Ireland and Cultural Change, Geraldine Meaney makes reference to a television documentary broadcast on RTE the Irish national broadcaster in 2009. The series, titled Blood of the Irish, was billed to be an exploration of the first inhabitants of Ireland, conducted through the lens of modern genetics.  Cutting from today’s multiethnic city streets of Dublin (including an image of the columns of the GPO, the iconic site of Irish nationalism) the opening credits light on a windswept beach and the familiar television presence of Diarmuid Gavin (more familiar possibly to watchers this side of the Irish sea from garden makeover programs and the Chelsea flower show).  Later Gavin is shown rowing a boat at sea whilst reflecting on the arrival of the first Irish settlers.  A visual sequence ensues in which a father cuts his hand with a knife and places the bloody imprint on his son’s forehead.  This is accompanied by Gavin’s voiceover, “These are our ancestors and, for me, the most extraordinary discovery is that their blood still flows in our veins.”  Meany points out that depicting a birth on the shoreline might have been equally (if not more) dramatic but despite the apparent emphasis on genetics what is really at stake in this particular iconography are social and symbolic ideas of kinship as a ritual between fathers and sons. The lens of modern genetics is in reality a prism.

Recourse to this program provides a fascinating insight into the “continued conflation of race, nation and gender in Irish popular culture”.  This apparent detour at the conclusion of her work is a perfect coda to all that has gone before.  It indicates the pernicious essentialism of images that are all too often given uncritical use in popular circulation in notions of national and in this case Irish identity.  Behind Meany’s concern is the documenting of change from a feminist perspective, that is, “the cultural processes and social movements that have impacted on the most intimate experiences and the most deeply held senses of identity”.

To do this, the book engages with a broad range of texts throughout, texts not normally included in the category of literature.  These are predominantly narrative fiction, in film and television form, but occasionally also folk songs, ballads, documentaries and even devotional literature.  Not so surprising given the conflation of nationalism and Catholicism which, from the Southern Irish states inception provided the primary focus of identification.  Poetry and painting also figure.  As Meaney qualifies, “the focus is on the stories we tell ourselves and have told about us and that enable us to imagine who we are, whatever we mean by ‘we’”.

And so a great deal of this analysis of gender and culture in Ireland is concerned with addressing the concept of Irish nationalism that gave birth to the Southern Irish state in 1922 after a bloody revolution and civil war.  Meaney is forthright from the start proposing no easy explanatory function for this particular narrative but instead treating it as a category that of itself demands explanation.  Following on from this demand is perhaps then the central project of the book: an analysis of the derealisation of motherhood in the ideology of that state.  Through her close psychoanalytical reading of the numerous texts chosen Meaney constructs a convincing argument as to the way in which the, “often-violent rejection and repression of the maternal body became a spectre haunting national consciousness”.  This is taken up for example in her discussion of James Joyce’s story The Dead which has come to occupy a central position in Irish cultural criticism in its quest to define itself and in the process Ireland.

Least successful are the chapters discussing the depiction of the troubles in Hollywood action movies such as, The Devil’s Own and Patriot Games and further depictions of masculinity in the American TV dramas The Wire and Rescue Me.  Yet, within these transatlantic readings of film and TV narrative the ambitious scope of this book is brought home from sea to shining sea.  The current collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy, baptised as it was at the font of global capitalism ensures that the ensuing panic that focuses on the perceived threat of immigration remains strangely silent on a history of emigration that has been the chief commodity of that state for years.  This contradiction at the heart of narratives of Irish identity or indeed any identity does well to remember as Meany does with recourse to Kristeva, we are strangers to ourselves.

Rowan O’Neill

Rowan O’Neill is a writer and performance maker from Felinwynt.  She is currently studying for a PhD at Aberystwyth University, researching the archive of the artist and theatre director, Cliff McLucas.