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Borders of Feeling: Teaching Contemporary Irish Writing in Britain by Declan Kavanagh

Submitted by site_editor on Tue, 2015-11-10 18:03

“How do you read this line of the poem, Niamh?”

It is a Tuesday afternoon during the first week of the new academic year; I am sitting at the end of a long table, patiently watching an unfamiliar cohort of students stare at their editions of Seamus Heaney’s North (1975). I met this group of students earlier that day for the first of the course’s bi-weekly workshops, however, there was little interaction between us; I delivered an introductory lecture and we then silently watched some of that wonderful 2009 documentary on Heaney, Out of the Marvelous. The seminar is when we really get to grips with the material. Usually the first meeting can be quiet; students are sometimes shy, and I appreciate that it takes time to cultivate the right kind of space. However, a couple of awkward seconds have now elapsed and I can start to feel my face burn slightly. This ensuing silence tells me that something is amiss. I know that the student has definitely heard me, because she was staring in my direction when I spoke. I always address as many people as possible by their forename; I do this tactically to build up rapport, to establish connections and presences. It involves some amount of preparatory glaring at the seminar group record, connecting names with faces and memorising the links. Yet, the records are often dated pictures from first year, and when the final year arrives, students can look radically different. I begin to think that I’ve been too assured in my questioning; I’ve clearly gotten this student’s name wrong. She begins to speak, then decides to stop. I resolve to address the problem before she makes her comment:

“Sorry, I think I’ve mixed your name up, first week…”

“No, you’ve said it right; you’re the first seminar leader to ever say ‘Niamh’ right”

I’ve taught this course, entitled “Contemporary Irish Writing”, twice, and both times, the cohort of students who enroll are of roughly the same complexion. The class demographic is largely made up of English students of Irish parentage from London and the South East and visiting North American students with Irish heritage. Rarely do I come across a student who has no personal connection to Ireland, but it isn’t a prerequisite, it can happen. Gradually, over the span of the term, the threads of these connections get spun out in seminar presentations, in office-hour discussions about chosen essay topics, and once, in a late-night email, which ended with: “thanks for introducing me to The Blackwater Lightship (1999); I have grandparents in Co. Wexford, but never visit them”. Each time that I teach this course, I am made aware of the fact that the work of reading, for most of these students, is deeply imbricated in personal processes of emotional excavation. Everyone’s process is unsettling; everyone’s Ireland is different. The set texts on the course don’t always reflect the Ireland that these students have previously imagined. I half joke that the journey set out for them will be a bit like Gulliver’s Travels (1726); that they, like Lemuel Gulliver, will trip into complex worlds, in their case, worlds constructed by writers as diverse as Brian Friel, Eavan Boland, Marina Carr, and Oona Frawley, only emerging at the end to find their previously imagined Irelands suddenly strange and unfamiliar. Together, we take apart assumptions and we begin to posture new questions. The feedback that I receive from the automated online survey often relates the view that the course has deepened, but also changed, the students’ knowledge of Irish culture. 

The process is not entirely one sided. My experience of teaching Irish literature in an English university has prompted me to review how I’ve always taught the subject. When I taught Yeats in Ireland, I frequently assumed that my students would have some prior knowledge. I’ve learnt that the only way to teach is to assume zero prior knowledge; students will tell you out straight if they already know something, however, they are less likely to tell you that they don’t know something. I always start the introductory lecture on Heaney with the same opening sentence: “When we talk about Ireland – the island of Ireland – we must remember that we are still talking about a partitioned island”. I don’t say this to be controversial; instead, I recall the border as a way of critically signposting the hybridity and complexity that always attends representations of Ireland. Talking about borders paradoxically has a leveling effect. For instance, I learn that some students don’t know that Northern Ireland exists; others think that the Republic is part of the United Kingdom. I take nothing for granted and students with varying levels of knowledge feel comfortable that everyone is starting off together from the same place.

I also personally feel the burden of canon formation. There is something different at stake when I teach Irish writing here. I never set out to teach Irish literature in my current post. Most of my teaching here in England is in the area of the eighteenth century. I initially found it bizarre to be not teaching Irish literature for so long as I had been so used to it back in Ireland. One day I happened upon a course listing that featured the module. I found out that it was an old listing but that the course was due to re-offered. I contacted my colleague who was convening the module to offer some guest seminars; I thought that the schedule would benefit from a seminar on queer Irish writing or the global Irish novel, perhaps. Before I knew it I had talked myself into taking on the entire module. I found it daunting – the most contemporary text on the course was circa 1996 – I needed to find a way of bringing the module up to date. The sheer wealth of new Irish writing ensures that this is an ongoing process; for example, I am due to teach Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (2012) this term, however, this is a new addition, which I decided upon after looking for a text that would allow us all to think through the recession. I’ve kept Heaney, Friel, Deane and Boland as canonical touchstones that students encounter early on. However, mid-way through the course, we break new ground by reading Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010), a novel that manages to evade Ireland, even though critics have attempted to emplace it as an ‘Irish’ text.

I like to wed unlikely texts together to see what will happen. I teach Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship alongside Rory O’Neill’s Woman in the Making: A Memoir (2014), prompting the students to contrast Tóibín’s fictional portrayal of Declan’s illness with O’Neill’s real account of his own HIV diagnosis in Ireland in the early 1990s. Marina Carr’s Marble (2009) introduces the students to an important Irish playwright, whilst also resonating with themes explored by Ryan, and to a large extent, found in many of the short stories in Thomas Morris’ (ed.) Dubliners 100 (2014). In the workshop that week I show the 2014 documentary, One Million Dubliners, directed by Aoife Kelleher, and I invite students to make their own links between cultural productions, both visual and textual, that share the name Dubliners. It has yielded surprising and moving results in student presentations. I’ve always concluded the course by reading Oona Frawley’s beautifully written novel Flight (2014). This is a novel that is as much about Irish writing as it is about Ireland; its characters challenge my students to think beyond binaries of Irish/English or tradition/modernity. Frawley makes us all think critically about the borders of feeling that determine whether or not communities are inclusive or exclusive. Most of all, her novel prompts my students to take critical flight, to re-assess Ireland, but also Britain and the rest of Europe; to think about their own place within a global situation that is shifting, and increasingly precarious, for some much more than others.


Declan Kavanagh

University of Kent