Here is another cliché for upwardly mobile Irish writers: struggling, but not to the point of discomfort, in your career as civil servant, journalist or whatever, you get a foothold through publication in a second-rate Irish journal or newspaper, make a few literary friends, and eventually get a publisher for your book about homosexuality in Wexford, the 1798 rebellion, family breakdown or whatever.
You embrace a right-on, left-liberal, anti-Church/Civil-War-Party attitude in politics. You get favourably reviewed in the Irish press for your shiny modern politics and avoid analysis of your plot or especially your prose; somehow an Ireland-friendly writer picks you up for favourable review in the Ireland-friendly Guardian; marhalling all this your agent gets you reviewed by a usual-suspect Irish author in the New York press or academic journals.
And suddenly you’ve won the Man Booker/Impac or American National Book award.
France has made you a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. Although you write in English at least you’re not American or English, they think, and actually that’s the only reason you’re there.
But back in Ireland they’re speaking of you in the same sentences as Yeats. Joyce and Beckett. Though really you’re more Maeve Binchy.
And you’ve never had to stop off to realise just how contrived the conveyor belt that took you to a forgettable international celebrity was. With the baubly imprimaturs over your desk, in your free time you can work on your jowls, a literary residency and churning out over-generous reviews of the works of those who got you where you are, and their predictable successors.
Fintan O’Toole, Colm Tóibín, Roy Foster, Diarmaid Ferriter, Joseph O’Connor are princes at Ireland’s tentacular literary court.
Elevated, mostly peripatetic eminences, they reach to the national consciousness, the national conscience, and beyond.
The Irish Times is the arch facilitator of an unsavoury epochal orgy of niceness and respect for and among these personages.
O’Toole as Literary Editor at the Irish Times is the brain of the great revisionist octopus– in succession to John Banville whose role was indistinguishable. Outliers good for some fraternal (funny that) laudation are Roddy Doyle, Colum McCann, Frank McCourt, Joe Lee and Terry Eagleton. The last four are gratifyingly offshore and open easy ‘entrées’ for international pick-up.
The Irish Times will adulate as marvellous, wonderful and masterful (masterful, ideally) the literary fruits of these historico-literal buddies, even if they turn out books on travel, cookery or gardening. The prose in the reviews rarely scintillates or elevates.
The jalopy for the boosterism is ‘review-as-blurb’. Superlative-dripping blurbs are product placements for intellectuals, with quiescent publishing houses the more mercenary beneficiaries.
There is of course an ideological underpinning to the brotherhood. You must have adopted the idea that (per Ferriter in 2012, O’Connor when on the radio, and O’Toole passim) the state is not just economically but…morally bankrupt. You must invest the sentiment every time you lead it out with a sense that this is an original epiphany.
You will like Europe and be sceptical though certainly au fait with the United States. Antipathy to England (or indeed the English) is out. You, dear reader, if you want to rise to a new literary station can play the game at home, on your typewriter.
Roy Foster is perhaps the most coruscatingly tribal (or more properly anti-tribal) of the cabal. Professor Foster effects a repressive historical revisionism in particular. So Brendan Bradshaw, Director of History Studies at Cambridge, for example accuses him of a “natural anti-Irish bias”.
Amplifying suspicions that Foster elevates ‘the Ascendancy mind’ over that of the common or garden Celt, in ‘Modern Ireland 1600-1972’, the Young Ireland Movement as defined by him had “an insurrectionary ethic founded in an almost psychotic Anglophobia”. And for Foster the revolutionaries of 1916 are rebels with “atavistic Anglophobia” (as opposed to the “atavistic Anglophilia” of others). Ramming it home, he castigates the Irish as part of “a competitive victimhood in the history of colonised nations”. This is wilfully cruel.
Foster’s history is best digested in Oxford with tea and cake as the punts flow past with their enviable youthful cargos.
None of the gang looks into the unreconstructed Irish soul with much sympathy. Tóibín has written sympathetically of Banville’s 1973 novel ‘Birchwood’: “Here, Irish history was an enormous joke, a baroque narrative full of crack-pot landlords and roaming peasants and an abiding sense of menace and decay”. Tóibín (who co-wrote ‘The Irish Famine’ with Ferriter) shares Foster’s magnificently patronising revisionism on the Famine and the 1916 revolutionary tradition. For example, as Foster sees it, during the Famine, landlordism was “seen as to blame for the catastrophe by many – illogically, but understandably”.
If you ever subvert anyone else in the fraternity you risk banishment (the Weekend Review in the Irish Independent?) and there is also as with any gang a need to keep other boys out. John Waters is of course not in; nor is Tim Pat Coogan. Desmond Fennell: out. A particular antipathy envelops Seamus Deane (famous Seamus was of course the revered preference).
Poor Fiach MacConghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre was outmanoeuvred by a lethal axis of Foster who took part in a review of the oeuvre of the theatre teeing up a sniffy O’Toole to report it and castigate the vacuous standards there, in the Irish Times.
Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil are nasties. The Catholic Church monstrous. Protestantism is OK, Labour is better, the Irish Times ideal.
Whether history will be kind to this exclusionary perspective is another matter.
Though largely genteel, they are not beyond occasional deterrent salvos of street-fighting. So Diarmaid Ferriter lashed out at fellow De Valera biographers Tim Pat Coogan and Anthony Jordan when his own pictorial book, ‘Judging Dev’, was questioned by them:
“Mr Coogan wrote two critical reviews of the ‘Judging Dev’ book which, in my view, were fuelled by his personal antipathy to de Valera and because my book dared to challenge the conclusions of his own biography of de Valera. Mr Jordan, as he states in his letter, offered his own biography of William Cosgrave to the Department of Education for distribution to schools and he is annoyed it was rejected”.
Jordan had exposed the commercial vested interest of RTÉ as co-publisher giving much favourable exposure to ‘Judging Dev’ and the advantage afforded it by the decision of Education Minister Mary Hanafin to ensure every school in the country bought it. Another atavistic (that word again) DeValerian Ryan Tubridy, inevitably and quite irrelevantly, pronounced it “a watershed in the telling of Irish history”. Coogan had been irritated when this was pointed out after he had participated in an RTé programme on the book, ignorant of the connection.
But here I want to look beyond their reach to the mere national conscience, to their reach to each other. It is useful sometimes to follow the thread to its end. So Tóibín praised O’Connor’s ‘Ghost Light’ an historical fiction, the favoured metier of this duo. It had “an astonishing command of voice, using tones that are both tender and powerfully emotional, with a brilliant command of the period”. Reciprocally O’Connor cited a “masterful” touch from Tóibín’s ‘The Master’, a bowdlerised history of the novelist, Henry James, who awakens from a dream “like an old door’”. The style!
O’Connor gushed over Tóibín’s ‘The Testament of Mary’ even to the point of surely underestimating his own hyperbole. “I cannot praise this book highly enough; the voice of Mary is so clear”. Tóibín upped the stakes to praise O’Connor’s story collection ‘The Thrill of It All’ as “playful but also at times sorrowful; it allows in great quantities of life”. For Roddy Doyle O’Connor’s ‘The Star of the Sea’ is very, very [yes two verys] clever”. This for the ‘novelist’ who grounded the literary tomahawk that was ‘Cowboys and Indians’.
The pulsing heart of the pack is Tóibín and O’Toole who manage to spend regular sabatticals in the States and who recently did an ‘in conversation’ love-in in up-state New York (Tóibín’s also done one with Foster, in Manchester). Both are backgrounded in current-affairs journalism – they both edited ‘Magill’, and there is no recorded instance of them disagreeing on anything. Of course it is officially impolite to disagree with Tóibín on anything anyway.
O’Connor is often afforded a political pass (because of his literariness?). So much of last year ‘Drivetime with Mary Wilson’ on RTÉ’s Radio 1 was laden with the monologous – never less than fashionably liberal – thoughts of the oleaginously smug history author.
After Fintan O’Toole recently got Colm Tóibín to review – rapturously – ‘Ireland in the 1970s’ by Diarmaid Ferriter, Ferriter bestowed on O’Toole’s own book ‘Up the Republic’, a review of impressive generosity in the Irish Times in September 2013. Tantalisingly, the review may have been commissioned by the paper’s books editor, Fintan O’Toole. Or perhaps the Irish Times, like Arthur Cox, operates Chinese walls in these important matters.
There was also an actual extract of Ferriter’s book in the Irish Times, before all this, in which he just happened to praise two of the emerging intellectual writers of the edgy 1970s – Fintan O’Toole and Colm Tóibín. But as O’Toole has so definitively put it “for anyone tempted by the sin of nostalgia, Ferriter’s superbly researched narrative is a powerful prophylactic”.
In 2009, O’Toole reviewed ‘Occasions of Sin’ by Diarmaid Ferriter, though he had also launched it, in UCD. He was kind: “A groundbreaking analysis of sex in Ireland lays bare the devastating consequences of more than a century of oppression”. The book then used O’Toole for some blurbing. [The] superbly researched narrative is a powerful prophylactic [to nostalgia]”.
O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times said ‘The Irish Story’ [hammily head-titled ‘Luck and the Irish’] was “brilliantly scathing … and immensely enjoyable”.
In the same vein both ‘The Irish Story’ and ‘Modern Ireland 1600-1972’, according to Tóibín in the London Review of Books (in 1993), rank Foster as “certainly the most brilliant and courageous Irish historian of his generation”. As one master on another he has written (without citation) that ‘Modern Ireland’ would be “declared a masterwork by most historians who reviewed it”.
Roy Foster considered Ferriter’s ‘The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000’ “ judicious and empathetic … a rich and provocative study. This will be an influential book, and is a remarkable achievement”. Tóibín then puffed it (for its front cover) as “a landmark book” while on the back cover there is space for an extended fawn: “a timely and masterful new survey … a transformation in historical methodology”. Tóibín’s sycophancy was sufficiently alluring that Profile Books re-used this block-quote on Ferriter’s book on Ireland in the 1970s, ‘Ambiguous Republic’. A conveyor belt of laudation.
The gang effect a rarefied disdain for political nepotism and an exquisite taste in social integrity.
Readers, though not of the Irish Times, will make up their own minds whether these standards are maintained in their own workaday lives as critics.
These few who rarify our national intellect might just consider that their shared appreciations appear to outsiders as not just cowardly and bad, but in language that they will understand and which will cut, as