A History of the Irish Novel

A whistle-stop tour of Derek Hand's thesis, touching on Edgeworth, Joyce and Bell

Several people arrive at the Crescent Arts Centre early for this lecture on the history of the Irish novel, and, appropriately, browse the stand of Irish and Northern Irish books and poetry collections by reception. It’s an interesting selection - featuring Carlo Gebler, Moyra Donaldson, Glenn Patterson and others - and a thought-provoking distraction before the main event.

Derek Hand has come all the way from Drumcondra, County Dublin, where he works in the English Department of St Patrick’s College. His recent book, A History of the Irish Novel, is described in the programme as ‘the first study of its kind’. No doubt it’s a well-researched tome, but somehow that claim does not sit well…

Hand begins by listing six examples of the form: Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1918), Sam Hannah Bell’s December Bride (1951), Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), Benedict Kiely’s Nothing Happens in Carmincross (1985) and John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002).

These works, he argues, chart the progression of the Irish novel, from Edgeworth’s satirical, generation-spanning saga about inept landlords - which is concerned with the ‘national’ narrative as much as the ambitions of its characters - to McGahern’s relentlessly ‘individual’ story, That They May Face the Rising Sun, which is built not around the past or the future, but, says Hand, 'the eternal now'.

Hand describes how Edgeworth claimed that no true novel had been written before hers (all good novelists are shameful self-publicists, Hand admits, hence his own lofty declaration in the programme, for which we all now forgive him). And a quick browse at Edgeworth's Wikipedia entry shows that history bought it.

Later, Hand contends that the Irish short story is held in such esteem - is considered perhaps the most effective creative form through which to assert and learn about the Irish national identity - because short story writers have focussed, time and again, on the individual. But, he argues, the novel - as a mirror to the self - has equal merit.

Novelists like Joyce and Kiely broke the rules, subverted the form (perfected it?). They wrote about 'human beings', how nature and human interaction shaped their outlook and, in turn, the politics of the island of Ireland. Their protagonists told us about themselves, their fears, desires and inconsequential everyday thoughts. Such writers, according to Hand, wrote novels that were and will always be considered peculiarly 'Irish'.

Hand's delivery is, perhaps understandably, formal and academic. Throughout he reads from notes, and rarely deviates or catches the eye. One of the few jokes delivered is not his own, rather a quip from one of Ireland's greatest egos. 'I'm a drinker with a writing problem.' Bell, Moore, Kiely et al were content to produce work in solitude. Brendan Behan, on the other hand, was not content unless everyone knew about it.

It's a whistle-stop tour of Hand's thesis, and certainly we could not have expected him to touch on everyone's favourite Irish novel. He receives a warm applause for his efforts nonetheless - and, as a consequence, perhaps, earns the Crescent Arts Centre a few extra pounds at reception afterwards.

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