Category Archives: Irish Writers

Echoes of Joyce, A Morning in Dalkey and Sandycove

Places generate their own atmosphere. Dalkey’s is particularly intense, signalled by a street sign that brazenly says Atmospheric Road. Its narrow winding streets are lined with probably the most varied, personable, and charming collection of dwellings in Dublin, hunkered together at the edge of the sea. The street is patterned like some maze around the village centre.   Even the most humble of cottages has been gentrified, with tiny gardens bursting with flowers. They hold their own with the mansions, manses and tony new builds. The crammed and crowded little restaurant, the Corner Note Cafe (, echoed Dalkey’s jumbled charm as it served hearty breakfasts for the Sunday crowd.

Breakfast in Dalkey is as good a way as any to start a trip to the museum at the Joyce Tower, Sandycove (@JoyceTower and  It is free to the public and its attendants are a welcoming and informative bunch. A treasure trove of artefacts awaits: books, letters, and photographs of the great man and his circle are within inches of scrutiny. Joyce’s guitar is there with his cigar case, his last walking cane, even his hunting waistcoat made by his grandmother and passed on from his father.

Joyce’s death mask is startling; his blighted eyes look small and shrunken under tiny lids, his nose is strong with a deep dent from a lifetime of wearing glasses, his cheeks hollow.  But death couldn’t dent that chin, strong as an iron mandible. A strong chin was a fitting gift from nature because he led with it for most of his life, challenging the literary orthodoxies and social mores of his time.

However, the true prize is the tower itself. Its thick solid blocks of Wicklow granite were fitted together into a short stump strong enough to withstand a canon ball from a Napoleonic fleet. Its walls are so thick that it seems capable of standing against pretty much anything. The narrow spiral staircase looks like a granite digestive tract. The first landing opens to the famous room featured in the opening chapter of Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus spent an unsettled night.

The narrow and steep staircase continues, leading to the stairhead and round roof top. It is from this stairhead that Buck Mulligan emerges as the great novel begins. I have to say that if Buck Mulligan did indeed walk those perilous stairs delicately bearing a bowl of lather with mirror and razor crossed on top, he was an agile fellow, plump or not.

Being in that room and emerging from the stairhead feels like a significant act, a portal between the real and the fictional. It is as close to actually entering the narrative of Ulysses as one is likely to experience.

The Martello tower at Sandycove is but one of a series built around the Irish coast (except in the northeast, naturally) during the Napoleonic Wars and designed to warn of a French invasion. The gun mounted on top could turn 360 degrees which was probably an added advantage if the natives turned restless.

From the roof one can see men and women diving into the Forty Foot, another star location in Ulysses. It is a gray yet balmy day and indeed under leaden skies the sea in parts is snot green. But here we must part fact from fiction if we can. I, like many people, assumed that ‘forty foot’ referred to the depth of the inlet but my grandfather told me that in fact it referred to the British Army unit stationed at the tower, namely the Forty Foot and Light.

And Atmospheric Road?  Alas no reference to Dalkey’s charm but an inheritance from history when it served as the terminus for the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in the mid-1800s.



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Sebastian Barry and the Re-Stranding of Ireland

There is a pivotal observation by Dr Grene in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture that ‘it is sometimes forgotten the effort that was made in the twenties to include all shades of opinion in the first Irish senate, but it was an effort that soon lost heart. Our first President was a Protestant which was a beautiful and poetic gesture. The fact is, we are missing too many threads in our story that the tapestry of Irish life cannot but fall apart.’

Irish life is not falling apart because we are in fact re-stranding Ireland in a process of reflection and recovery thanks to the centennaries that are now upon us. As a writer, Barry fearlessly explores what history did to the Irish in the mid-twentieth century.  He has few equals when it comes to summoning into daylight Ireland’s secret histories. In his interlinked novels centred on the McNulty family from Sligo, these secrets and their cruelties are generated for the most part by the dislocations of revolution and the highly straitened and oddly self-conscious society that was Catholic Ireland after indepedence.

For Barry’s central male characters, their tragedy is borne of the changed power structures after British withdrawal. In the novels, men are cheated of a place at home by the sudden turn of history that reshapes the meaning and implications of loyalty; they go to war in British uniform and return to an Ireland in which British service is no longer acceptable (Long Long Way; and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty).  Their fate is to be an emigrant, an exile or even an outcast.

The cruelest fates await Barry’s tragic women. Women are particularly put upon: in post-independent Ireland young attractive women are the dangerous innnocents, liable to incarceration of various sorts (mental institutions or convents) or exile (The Secret Scripture). Most innocent of all were the children born out of wedlock and therefore into shame. Secrecy was shame’s antidote, though the price was heavy. As Roseanne writes of Sligo’s Garravogue river, in The Secret Scripture, the river ‘took the rubbish down to the sea… bodies too, if rarely, and poor babies, that were embarrasments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend of secrecy.’

Secrecy indeed, the heavy price of shame: Shame and secrecy were double entries in the ledger between family and Church. In The Secret Scripture, the terrifying Father Gaunt, whose intense accountancy of public morality and norms has fed his lust for power just as surely as it has strangled any instincts he may have had for mercy and compassion, appears briefly but devastatingly. Not since Bram Stoker created Dracula has Irish fiction produced such a monster.

Jack McNulty, Eneas’ brother, is the narrative voice of Barry’s latest novel, A Temporary Gentleman. Jack’s sad fate is largely of his own making thanks to gambling and alcholism. His larger crime is his capacity to excuse and elude the consequences of his own actions. Only in forcing himself to write an account of his life in the steamy obscurity of a small African town does he find some way to assess it.

For a number of Barry’s characters, the true confessional is not in the Church but in the act of writing. There may be a broader point too; Ireland’s literary tradition is a form of redemption, a corrective commentary and assessment of the more oppressive expectations and narrow official narratives of mid-century independent Ireland.

One could say of course Barry has consigned unflattering roles to the architects of independent Ireland – the revolutionaries, local politicians and priests who define and rule their fiefdoms after the ebb and flow of the struggle for independence. But his novels and his importance as a writer are the richer for that; his very iconoclasm when it comes to the paragons of Irish independence is what give us pause for reflection. Moreover, if the soldier deems to take life, the priest to judge it and the politician to lead it, then they can at least suffer such interrogations in the corrective narrative of Irish fiction.

Association with or service in the British Armed Forces features heavily in Barry’s novels.  It is interesting to reflect on the distance that Ireland has travelled on this issue. Post-independent Ireland’s definition of nationalism was perforce too narrow to embrace the varieties of identity. For as Ireland struggled to free itself from the insistent embrace of the British Empire, a dialect process was set in play that frustrated the moderates and emboldened the radicals who were committed to republicanism and the use of force. Prevarication and delay in promulgating Home Rule (since it had been put on the agenda generations earlier by O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond) had fatally rationalised the arguments of Irish republicanism in favour of armed rebellion, just as machismo, militarism and romantic notions of the battlefield were reaching a climax across Europe.

One of the main casualities of this “de-stranding” of Irish identity in the twentieth century was British Ireland, the web of private associations created by individuals through family heritage, connection, career choice or emigration. It was only in the latter half of the 1980s that Irish service in foreign armies was begun to be officially commemorated in Ireland. As a new diplomat serving in Anglo-Irish Division at the end of the 1980s I recall the novel and delicate consideration of the new protocols of the remembrance service for those who served in the armed forces of other states.

Truth be told, we were only really sensitive of the British services. For in reality a good portion of this sensitivity arose from the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland during the conflict.  The Northern Ireland Peace Process has cleared the space for the current reflection:  Think, for example, of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday and its redemptive effects.

Remembrance today now unashamedly embraces those Irish who served with the British military. One of the highlights of my time as Ambassador in South Korea was in 2013 when we welcomed Irish veterans who served with British units in the Korean War, mainly in the Royal Ulster Rifles. They and their units had distinguished themselves in the grim pivotal battles to save Seoul. Being part of such events and commemorations is now a regular and welcome feature of the public activities of Irish Ambassadors around the world.

The Ireland-Britain nexus is a much wider community than those who served in uniform, or even the wider catchment of the Anglo-Irish. It embraces all those who, comfortably or not, moved between both worlds even as they kept their travels across the Irish Sea secret or at least discreet. It includes too all those Irish who have made Britain their home and who felt a powerful liberation during President Higgins’ state visit to Britain last year. His visit, and the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2011, were both profound waypoints in our development as a nation, our understanding of the past, and the re-stranding of Ireland.

Tolstoy once wrote that “A historian has to do with the results of an event, the artist with the fact of the event.” As a novelist, Barry does this fearlessly, poignantly and beautifully.

Eamonn McKee

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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces III: Revolution, Partition and Independence

This third piece in the series is a complicated one but it concerns a tremendously exciting, romantic, tragic and formative period.  In covering the ideological roots of Irish republicanism and unionism, I have to detour you back before the Great Famine and then rejoin the process that created not just independent Ireland but Northern Ireland.

The years between 1916 and 1922 are probably the most studied of modern Irish history, graced as they are additionally by the literary ferment that accompanied the action, most memorably Yeats’ magnificent poem ‘Easter 1916’.  Here Yeats intones some of his most famous lines, including his prescient realization about the Easter Rising;  “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”


The rebels struck at Easter1916, seizing a ring of key points around Dublin and taking the British completely by surprise.  When the Rising’s front man and ideologue Padraig Pearse read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the steps of the rebel headquarters at the General Post Office (GPO), he set in motion a sequence of events that would reshape Ireland.  In Yeats’ lapidary phrase, “a terrible beauty” had been born.  The fighting between the rebels and the British Army was fierce; the destruction of the centre of the city very considerable; just over half of the 485 fatalities were civilians; and the shock at the turn of events was followed quickly by public distress at the execution of most of the leaders.

Here we must pause to consider an ideological seam in Ireland that had its roots in the French Revolution and survived the 19th century, only to explode into catalytic significance in Dublin in 1916 and in Northern Ireland in 1969, namely Irish republicanism.

The notion of a republic of course dates back to ancient Greece and was adopted by 18th century European revolutionaries as an ideological alternative to the oppressive anciens régimes of Europe.  It was a rights based ideology, vesting in the individual inherent rights to determine the political order through democratic means, to personal liberty and to equality.  America adopted it in its struggle against their British rulers.  It reached its greatest clarity, potency and drama in the French Revolution.  Irish intellectuals in the late 18th century watched the events in Europe keenly and saw in republicanism an ideology that could transcend the inherited divisions between native and settler, Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist.

For a brief period it seemed to point the way to the future as the late 19th century Irish Volunteers united in demands for greater powers for the local Parliament in Dublin.  However London wakened to the dangers and played on the fears of the Protestants in Ireland, convincing them that only British rule in Ireland could guarantee their social and economic interests at the top of the social pyramid.

So where the Protestant Scots-Irish settlers became the most ardent of revolutionaries in America, in Ireland they became the chief bulwark of Britain’s colonial rule.  They would sublimate the attractions they found in republicanism in the alternative virtues of the freedoms won in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of King William and his defence of Protestant liberties against the conniving schemes of Roman Catholic ‘popery’.

Such dilemmas did not affront those native Irish who adopted republicanism as the core ideology in their struggle against British rule. Figures such as Wolfe Tone forged links with the French revolutionary regime, notably under Napoleon, and secured the launch of French military expeditions to Ireland; General Humbert actually landed in Mayo in 1798 to assist the Irish revolutionaries who had just launched their insurgency.

The insurrection of 1798 was heroic but too weak against the British and its local Protestant militias.  It was violently repressed and militant republicanism was driven underground, becoming a preoccupation for a very small but determined group that would pass on their ideological commitments down the generations.  Robert Emmet gave revolution one more effort in 1803 in Dublin but it was a small and thwarted affair that led to his execution, his indictment hallowed by his famous speech from the dock.

By then London had connived and bribed the Parliament in Dublin to abrogate itself, the furniture of benches and accoutrements was ripped out (of what is now the Bank of Ireland in College Green) and the Act of Union of 1801 was passed to secure Ireland as part of the British Empire.

Irish republicanism in the form of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB) aka the Fenians, would subsist and scheme, guided by the motto that “Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.  Fenianism crossed the Atlantic along with the post-Famine emigrants and there form a crucial nexus of support for efforts to support the struggle of the ‘old country’ against British rule.

Back in Ireland, the IRB saw an opportunity with the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1914.  They maneuvered their personnel to take over leadership positions in the new movement.  In 1915, with war raging in Europe, they began to actively plan for rebellion.  Quite accurately1916 has been characterized by historians as having been organized by a minority of [the Irish Volunteers] of a minority of [the National Volunteers] of a minority [of nationalists].

The 1916 Rising was as seminal an event as had been hoped by its organizers.  The rebel leadership had anticipated that their willingness to sacrifice their lives would in some way sanctify and authenticate the claim to independence.   Its impact was more deeply impressed on the nationalist conscience – to what extent is impossible to assess – by the execution of the Rising’s leaders by the British.  Two men the British did not execute would go on to play decisive roles in the ensuing struggle for independence; Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins.

The end of World War I precipitates a series of dramatic and historic events.  The revolutionary impact of the Easter Rising is seen in the results of the 1918 elections.  The Irish Parliamentary Party is wiped out and Sinn Féin candidates sweep the board: while Sinn Féin had not been involved in the Rising, as the most nationalist of parties it rode the wave of popular support.  For the Rising has caused a paradigm shift in Irish views of its relationship with the British Empire.  The genteel campaign of persuasion for Home Rule was cast aside in favour of an outright demand for independence, validated not simply by the Rising but the landslide election of 1918.

The struggle for independence takes two tracks.  On the political track, Sinn Féin’s successful candidates boycott Westminster and form their own First Dáil (assembly or parliament) in Dublin in January 1919, deemed of course “illegal” but the British.  On the second track, units of Volunteers take action against the British in what was to become the War of Independence.   Eventually those fighting would become the army of the republic, the Irish Republican Army or IRA.  The British responded to the guerrilla war by deploying veterans of the World War in units that became infamous for their savagery, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries.  As Minister for Finance in the First Dáil and effective leader of the IRA, Michael Collins embodied both fronts in the struggle for independence.  The President of the First Dáil and leader of the country was Eamon de Valera who spent much of the war in the US drumming up support.

In a blatant contradiction of the ostensible cause of the Great War (defending little Belgium) and respect for national democracies that lay at the heart of the new world order being negotiated at Versailles, Britain fought a bloody war of counter-insurgency in Ireland between 1919 and 1921.  The British priority was to accommodate unionist resistance to Irish home rule, which meant inexorably partition.  When the British convened the first Northern Ireland parliament in Belfast in June 1921 – its jurisdiction over six counties designed to create an unassailable unionist majority in perpetuity – they were free to pursue a truce with the IRA, which was agreed the following month.

The Treaty negotiations with the British continued in London until the end of the year, first under de Valera and then by a team headed by Collins.  British Prime Minister Lloyd George led a formidable British team.  The Treaty was agreed and signed in December.  On return to Dublin Collins and his delegation found two diametrically opposed views of the Treaty.  For Collins and those who supported it, the dominion status offered – Ireland would be the Free State – was short of a republic but a crucial stepping-stone to independence.  For de Valera, Collins had contravened his instruction not to sign anything; and the terms themselves betrayed the republic.

The Government of Ireland Act was passed by the British parliament in December 1921 and the following January Collins oversaw the withdrawal of the British Army and administration from an Ireland that now comprised twenty-six counties as a result of partition.  For republican veterans of the War of Independence the Treaty’s provisions fell too far short of the republic. The “Free Staters”, who supported the Treaty as unpalatable but sufficient for now, were pitted against Republicans in a vicious civil war between 1922 and 1923 that claimed the life of Michael Collins.

Some salient points about the struggle for and achievement of Independence are worth considering.

The first is that the Treaty itself did not survive its own contradiction and de Valera essentially unpicked it with his 1937 Constitution.  What did survive of the Treaty was the caesura it and the ensuring civil war had inflicted on Irish politics.  The split over the Treaty was to become a foundational one and the primary source of political difference between Fine Gael (tracing its roots to the Free Staters) and Fianna Fail (tracing its roots to the Republicans and their leader, Fianna Fail founder Eamon de Valera).  This has been pointed to as explaining the absence of a meaningful left-right divide in Irish politics and the loss therefore of all the attendant socio-economic policy choices.

The second is that Northern Ireland did not really feature in either the Treaty negotiations or as a contributory cause of the civil war.  Indeed, for the opening fifty years of the new State, Northern Ireland did not intrude on the South’s affairs, or even much of its attention.

The third point is that the revolution was a political one without any redistribution of wealth or change in socio-economic relations.  Certainly the 1916 Declaration made fine references to treating all of the nation’s children equally and suggested that the nation’s natural resources were a public good, but these remained declaratory and were never interpreted as directive.  The more radical republican wing of the nationalist struggle had lost the civil war and many of its veterans would quietly leave for America and speak no more of their early revolutionary adventures.  Those who assumed the reins of power in 1922 had had to fight and win a civil war as well as grappling with the demands of establishing a national government.  Earning respect as a nascent state was a vital validation of the long struggle.  Their signal achievement was independence and the establishment of a truly democratic state that could and did weather the ideological buffeting that lay ahead for Europe in the 1930s. Irish revolutionaries were in essence conservative, correcting the aberration of colonization.

The fourth point was that partition left the new state without the industrial base of Belfast and its environs.  There was some small local manufacturing but nothing close to the industrialization in the twenty-six counties.  Independent Ireland’s economy was really one big farm supplying Britain’s urban centres with meat and dairy.  Economic opportunities in Ireland were limited and emigration therefore would continue unabated, independence or no.  By the 1950s, as the State’s population dropped to below 3 million, there would be real fears that the country was unsustainable.

The fifth point, also due to partition, was that the new State was overwhelmingly Catholic in population, with an already entrenched Catholic Church now matched by a pious and respectful national government that was happy to leave education and health services (not to mention youth detention) to the Church, that was relieved to do so, that probably could not conceive of any alternative and certainly believed it could not afford to provide such services from tax revenues.  More broadly, the demographic dominance of Catholicism fused with the nationalism that emerged from the struggle for independence.  The long frustration of the Home Rule movement had led to the emergence of a singular form of nationalism that ignored the fact that Irish society was composed of many strands of identity, tradition and loyalty.

Finally, Independent Ireland had been formed amidst global upheavals and opportunities that would continue for the rest of the century, including the Great Depression, WWII, Marshall Aid, the establishment of the United Nations, the Cold War, the decolonization of former empires, economic development, conflict in Northern Ireland, and the creation of the European Economic Community, later to become the European Union.  Independent Ireland and the apparatus of State would grow and develop as it met each of these challenges, admirably filling the void in self-governance left by centuries of colonization.  By the end of the twentieth century, nationalist Ireland had achieved its long sustained ambition that Ireland take its rightful place among the nations of the world.

At home, two great challenges faced independent Ireland; the unfinished business of Northern Ireland and economic development.  We will look at these two issues in the final two pieces.

Eamonn McKee

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News from Ireland as Spring Beckons, Ambassador’s Message, 11th February 2015

My colleagues and I in the Irish diplomatic service are the swallows of St Patrick’s Day, necessarily planning ahead for the celebration of our National Day.  I thought this article in the New York Times was a delightful preview of the coverage of Ireland that comes with March 17th.  Initially I feared that it would be twee reportage of quaint rural Ireland with twinkly-eyed natives.  In fact it captures the new and old Ireland, the impact of social media in rural matchmaking, the accommodation of gay rights and reflections on an Ireland where “lol” can still mean “lots of land” when it comes to finding a romantic partner:

It seems apt too to remark at this time of year that there is a spring to the Irish economy.  The European Commission is predicting 3.5% GDP growth in Ireland in 2015, possibly the strongest in the EU.  Since 2012, an extra 80,000 people are at work and unemployment has fallen from 15.1% to 10.6%.

This is some achievement against a background of austerity at home and either sluggish growth or real deflation across the EU, our largest trading partner: press report here

The government has set a new target of full employment by 2018. Measures in place include regional enterprise strategies with competitive funding initiatives of up to €25million; a new SURE tax incentive for start-ups; a National Talent Drive, including a 60% increase in the number of ICT graduates by 2018; Enterprise Ireland to support exports by Irish companies, expected to hit a record €19 billion during 2015.

What unites these initiatives is that they are all focused on the real economy.  Ireland has progressed far in sorting out our banks, though at a heavy price to our taxpayers.  We have also taken steps to ensure that banks are there to serve the economy, not the other way around.  The focus on the real economy – jobs, exports, innovation, and productivity – is the only way to generate sustained growth which is turn is the only way to lower debt-GDP ratios and keep the national finances on track.

One hundred year commemorations are now fully in train, though 1915 in Ireland was a quiet year compared to what had happened just prior with the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1912 and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.  One major event however happened just off the coast of Ireland: a commemoration on 1 February last in Cobh, Co Cork remembered the sinking of the Lusitania one hundred years ago by a German U-Boat, killing 1,198 on board:

Yeats 2015 ( is a celebration of our greatest national poet.  This Op Ed by Adrian Paterson (University College Galway) from the Irish Times captures his greatness and significance  As Paterson writes: “However we think of Yeats, poetic achievement must be at the heart of any commemoration. But Yeats was more than a poet. He was a cultural revolutionary who became a cultural entrepreneur. He began things, co-founding the Abbey Theatre, the Irish Literary Society and, with his talented family, the Cuala Press, producing designs and books from a single hand-press in Dublin.”

The writing tradition remains as vibrant as ever in Ireland.  At a reception on Thursday, 29 January Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, announced that the Arts Council has selected Anne Enright as the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction (www. )  She will hold the post for three years.

Irish literature has extended our cultural reach across the generations and the globe.  Irish diplomats are acutely aware of this rich dimension and it is a source of great pride to us when serving abroad.  A key element in our outreach has been the partnership between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Ireland Literature Exchange which has been going on now for twenty-one years.  The Irish Literary Exchange promotes the translation of Irish works through grants, bursaries and outreach ( ).

Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan marked this collaboration with a reception at Iveagh House where he noted that “From small beginnings in 1994, the organisation’s output has grown from a modest 12 works of Irish literature in its first year of activity to an impressive current total of 1,650 books in 55 languages.” (link here ).

Our newly minted Laureate Anne Enright attended the event and wrote about Irish writing in translation in this wonderfully meditative piece here  As she concluded “I think it is good for Irish readers to have a group of writers who come home to them with the smell of fresh air still trapped in their coats, who write for the whole world, starting here.”

Best wishes,


Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

Tel Aviv

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Samuel Beckett and Avigdor Arikha: The Long Friendship of an Irish writer and a Jewish Painter

“A Different Side of Sam; Beckett, Arikha and a Parisian Adolescence.”

Annual Samuel Beckett Lecture by Alba Arikha

Tel Aviv University

29 May 2014

This is the eleventh successive year of the annual Samuel Beckett lecture at Tel Aviv University.  It is the brainchild and longstanding project of Prof. Linda Ben-Zvi.  I want to thank her and the University’s Theatre Department for creating this wonderful literary bridge between Ireland and Israel.

This year the lecture will be delivered by Alba Arikha, the daughter of one of Israel’s greatest artists and the godchild of the great man himself, Samuel Beckett.  Her life, and her story of her father’s forty years of friendship with Beckett in Paris, weave together many strands; from the Irish writer’s Jewish connections and sympathies, Avigdor Arikha’s own Holocaust and wartime experiences, to their lives in Paris over the decades and the grounds for their deep friendship.

The causal chemistry of friendship is a mystery, as ineluctable as it is abiding.  But the outsider can usually trace some of the elements that forge it.

Both Beckett and Arikha found themselves deeply immersed in the great cataclysm of the rise of Nazism and World War II. Beckett fleetingly witnessed Nazi triumph within Germany during his stay there between 1936 and 1937 before moving to France and fighting alongside the Resistance, the Maquis, during the war.  Arikha survived the death camps and serious injury in Israel’s War of Independence before moving permanently to Paris.  Both men were confronted with the abject abandonment of all morality and goodness that was both a cause and a consequence of the great global conflict and its greatest sin, the Shoah.

As men of the arts, they arrived at the same conclusion about their craft and its purpose; to look unflinchingly at life and report back without artifice.

For the writer Beckett this meant spare, even brutal prose to describe the existential absurdity of life without a god, without meaning.  For Arikha, it meant abandoning abstract art in favour of drawing from life directly and in one go.  He would use neither photographs nor memory but draw his subject – whether himself, models or the quotidian things of life like fruit, furniture, rooms, even stones – there and then in one sitting.

Indeed, Arkiha’s art has a startling immediacy, most notably in his self-portraits which are alert, even electrifying.  His many sketches of Beckett show the mastery of his craft.  Like all great art, they capture Beckett both physically – angular, slouching comfortably, smoking, peering – and psychologically: meditative, ever thoughtful, as if always on the verge of being about to say something.  You long to hover in that apartment in Paris as Arikha sketches his friend and to wait to hear their conversation.

While we can’t go back, we have an emissary from that time and that very place in Alba Arikha.  She, along with her sister Noga, grew up with her father and her mother, the poet Anne Atik, in a household that served as an intellectual and artistic hub, whose energies and emotions were coloured by the seismic events through which both her father and his close friend Beckett had lived.   It was also an arena for the struggle between a traumatised father and a young adolescent striving to create her own future and her own life, to escape what Beckett’s mentor, James Joyce, called the nightmare of history.

Her memoir, Major/Minor (Quartet, 2011), recounts her coming of age in the 1980s and her evolving view of the Irishman.  Her inclination was to dismiss him as part of that burden of history that loomed over her home until she discovered Beckett through his writings.  As she recalled of his style, “No surplus, all essentials; something to strive for, when I’m older and wiser.” She remembers him: “He had a very gentle way of talking, Beckett, very calm. He spoke slowly and there was definitely something very soothing about him, very shy about him. He never judged, really.” And he would encourage her as a writer.

In association with the Theatre Studies Department of Tel Aviv University, the Embassy is delighted to host Alba Arikha as the speaker for this year’s Samuel Beckett Lecture: “A Different Side of Sam; Beckett, Arikha and a Parisian Adolescence”.

It promises to be a wonderful evening, followed by refreshments and conversation.  Please come to join us on Thursday, May 29th at 6:00pm, Room 101 Kikone Building, Tel Aviv University.

Best wishes,


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Yeats, Eliot and the Shock of the New, 1913

2013 International Conference on W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Modern and Contemporary Poets and Writers

 Opening Remarks, Hanyang University

25 May 2013

 HE Dr Eamonn McKee, Ambassador of Ireland

 Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished academics and visitors, fellow lovers of literature, it is my honour to offer welcoming remarks to the 2013 International Conference on W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Modern and Contemporary Poets and Writers.

I want to thank Hanyang University for facilitating this Conference and The Yeats Society of Korea, The T. S. Eliot Society of Korea, and The Modern British and American Poetry Society of Korea for hosting it. 

This Conference is also made possible by the sponsorship of the National Research Foundation of Korea; the Embassy of Ireland to Korea; the Department of English and College of Humanities, Hanyang University; and Dankook University.

I am delighted that we at the Embassy have been able to provide the newly translated travelling exhibition on Yeats which is on display now in the corridor. While much of this information is not new to the scholars of Yeats attending here today, we hope that it will be of interest to the passing student and bring some more information about Yeats into Korean. We hope that it will be able to travel to many universities around Korea and it is available for this purpose.

The topic of this Conference is an ambitious one, set out in its sweeping title. The title embraces two of the titans of modern literature, both Nobel laureates.  One is an Irishman of Anglo-Irish background and sensibility and the other an American born naturalized English citizen.

They and the influence of their work are placed in both the modernist movement and in the contemporary literature of both poets and writers. In focusing on Yeats and Eliot, this Conference explores an ongoing concern of literature: how to make sense of the modern world. 

In literature, Yeats and Eliot were part of an artistic vanguard grappling with the accelerated pace of change that defined the modern age.  The art critic Robert Hughes summed this up as “the shock of the new”.  Culture, knowledge, social structures and mores, ways of life and traditions, all accumulated over centuries, were all affected by the maelstrom of the new. 

In short order, modernity would dramatically close the gap between humans and monkeys, men and women, rich and poor, the urban and the rural, the citizen and the monarch, the imperial and colonized, the sacred and the secular, the divine and the scientific, man and the machine. 

Amidst all this chaos, where lay truth?  Indeed beyond subjective experience, was there any such thing as truth, a definable reality amenable to perception and the pen?  If writers, poets and artists generally have a common purpose, it is to make sense of the world. 

Modernity would provide a rich if profoundly challenging environment for this purpose.

A hundred years ago, in the time of Yeats and Eliot, the shock of the new was changing daily life, reinterpreting our understanding of the world, shaping new ideologies and altering the course of human history.

In 1913, New York’s Grand Central Station opened.  The zipper is patented.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is premiered in Paris.  Suffragette Emily Davison dies under the King’s horse at Epsom.  Henry Ford opens his ground-breaking assembly line, producing a new car every three minutes.  A pilot manages the first loop-the-loop.  Einstein edges closer to his general theory of relativity.  Vienna is home simultaneously to Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and Freud.  It is also the home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand who death a year later would pit the newly modernized armies of Europe into a new kind of mechanized warfare.

In Ireland in 1913, the many strands of Irishness – Catholic and Protestant, Gaelic and Ascendency, nationalist and unionists, home rulers and republicans, British-Irish and Irish-Irish are all held in balance, the future yet to be defined.  Expectations are high and arguments heated when the House of Commons passes the Home Rule Bill. 

T.S. Eliot is at Harvard studying philosophy and Sanskrit.  Yeats is working on his collection, Responsibilities.  As its title suggests, Yeats is beginning to explore the harsh even grubby life around him, lamenting that Romantic Ireland is dead and gone.  Three years later, he would be shocked into a new appraisal of his “motley” surroundings by the Easter Rising and the men and women who “utterly transformed” Ireland through insurrection.

One hundred years later, we are still living with the shock of the new.  Contemporary life is a continuation, even an acceleration of the shock of the new.  Writers and artists are challenged to absorb, adapt and make sense of a world shaped and reshaped by the inventions of the digital age and the internet.

Texts, Tumblr, Twitter; Facebook, Yahoo Google; Wikipedia and Wikileaks;  iphones, ipads and  itunes; drones and remote control warfare;  twenty-four hour news; new mass media, new mass surveillance, new mass transports; genetics and what it tells us of our past and future; globalization and its discontents: writers and poets have been handed enormous new tools but also an enormously complicated and fast-changing world. 

If the shock of the new is over a hundred years old, then what is new is what is now for us traditional.  It is what we expect, the recurrence of pattern, the pattern of change itself.  We expect the new just as in the pre-modern age they expected the same, season by season, year by year.

But this we have in common with all ages since the invention of language: we still rely on our writers and poets to make sense of our world. I commend your discussions and your search for what Yeats and Eliot, and all they have influenced, have to tell us.

Thank you.

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James Joyce Conference, November 2010, Seoul

One of the duties of being an Ambassador is public speaking at events that can vary widely from receptions to commemorative events, from universities talks to conference speeches with as much variation in topics as locations.  I realise now that the majority of such engagements, certainly those at universities, involved power-point presentations and no script.  On occasion, however, a script was required.  Once such occasion was a Conference convened by the James Joyce Society of Korea which I was asked to open with some remarks.

‘Joyce and the Sense of Place’

Dr Eamonn McKee

I am delighted to be here to offer congratulatory remarks.  I would like to pay a special tribute to the James Joyce Society of Korea and to its president Professor Yi Jong-il, and to thank Sejong University for sponsoring this Conference.

The theme of this Conference, ‘a sense of place’ in Joyce, is a wonderful concept to discuss in Seoul.  I say wonderful because Seoul is profoundly removed in place, time and culture from Joyce’s Dublin.  Seoul is some five thousand miles from the locus of Joyce’s creative oeuvre.  There is little if any recorded Confucian influence in his Dublin.  There should be little resonance between the theme and the location of your discussions.  And yet we know that this will not be case.

In considering this paradox, we should bring Joyce’s Dublin into some focus.  He wrote of a particular place.  He wrote of its many dimensions.  Its physical form as the mouth of a river, the bay as the city’s palette, its peninsular and titular Howth head; its salty-aired beaches crunching underfoot.  “The ineluctable modality of the visible”:  What greater compression of the limits of metaphysical speculation have ever been uttered, a phrase that convinced Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Co that Ulysses must be published.  Can any of us say that we walk along a beach without thinking from time to time of Dedalaus on Sandymount Beach and his spontaneous existential axiom?  Joyce is doing here what he does repeatedly which is to intersect the interior monologue, that constant rapping of the conscious and semi-conscious brain, with the exterior environment, the spice and catalyst to thought itself.

Dublin as a city is a visible entity in Joyce, beginning with the stair head in the Martello tower and the emergence of Buck Mulligan, theatrically in his entrance as much as his self-conscious gesture rendered pompous in the telling.  Joyce proceeds to explore this city, to allow it to plot his narrative as the city streets channel his characters into rendezvous’ and unexpected encounters that shape their day and their thoughts.  Those streets are a palimpsest of Dublin’s history.

Dublin began as a settlement by Vikings who brought roads, coins and urban life to Gaelic Ireland.    Dublin was part beach-head for their violent but partial invasion that would ultimately be quashed by the native Gaels.  The power of the Vikings was broken in the eleventh century but their city remained, expanded from its origin on the banks of the river Liffey.  If the Gaels were an oral culture steeped in pastoralism and cattle raiding now they had a concentrated habitat in which to adapt it.

From this locus at the black pool in its centre, medieval Dublin expands its warren of streets, within the city walls and then outside to the Liberties, the heart of later working class Dublin and its native street culture.

North and south from this centre, some centuries later, the Anglo-Irish gentry found space to express the architectural theories of the Georgian era with their concern for proportions, patterns and symmetries.  Gorgeous streets of elegant redbrick homes were created, urban homes for the landed gentry to enjoy city life and the politics of the Irish parliament situated across the road from Trinity College.  The parliament was the focus of political intrigue but its wealthy habitués provided the motive for the craftsmen to serve their needs for silverware, lace, fine leather and tailoring.

In the tumult of Irish history, the parliament would be abolished and dismantled by the Act of Union in 1801.  With it many of the aristocracy left too to take their places in Westminster, reputedly well paid by British officials for abrogating their own local democracy.  According to legend they left their books behind, intellectual fodder for the poor who flocked to live packed tight into Georgian homes destined to become slums for the urban poor and settings for some of our greatest drama.  Thus was born the depth of the Irish demotic vocabulary and the inability to properly use it at times, immortalised by Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop and a host of Irish dramatic and pantomime characters.

Dublin Castle may not resonate with the symbolic power of its French sister, the Bastille, but it served the same function: an intimidating centre for the alien power to dominate the local populace, part official hub, part barracks and part station for the secret police and their agents.  For Dublin was a garrison city and had never lost its role as the beach-head for imperial control, from the Vikings and Normans through to the Tudors and New English.  British control might ebb and flow across the island but it never lost it grip on the city and its immediate environs, known as the pale.

Those responsible for imperial control had to look inward to those conspiring in sedition and outside to forces that saw Ireland as a potential weak spot in Britain’s defences.  In the 16th century this would have been Spain.  For the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was the French.  To warn if the blue, white and red tricolour was spotted near the coasts, a serious of stubby towers were built around to serve as observation and signal towers (though not along the northeast coast for obvious reasons).  They were dubbed Martello towers because their structure and function were copied from a tower at Mortella Point in Corsica.  By Joyce’s time their military function had ceased and the Martello tower at Sandymount, in private hands by then, became the setting for Ulysses’ opening chapter.

The towers may have been defunct but the British Army remained and with it the oldest profession that every army is content to support.  In his wanderings around the city, Joyce would encounter theses professional ladies, encounters that would open a new layer of intimacy with Dublin’s nightlife.  And perhaps these encounters laid the thought that life is shaped by the mysteries of chance and the hazards of the street.

Dublin was of course a garrison town because Ireland was simultaneously a part of the British Empire in which the Protestant gentry and professional classes took pride and simultaneously in the eyes of the Catholic nationalist majority, an occupied country.  If the Great Famine of 1845-51 had dealt a fatal blow to the Gaelic peasant class, rebellion continued to foment in the ranks of the emerging Catholic middle class, for most a political rebellion was imagined, for some a violent one.  Indeed the “ Irish question” dominated much of public discourse and probably much of its private conversations too.  The national question made demands for definitions of identity, allegiance and purpose, adding a new problematic layer to the demands of being middle-class in a pyramidal society where honoured places were reserved for the Protestant gentry and those enforcing British.  Gabriel Conroy’s awkwardness and his strained encounter with Ms Ivors in The Dead intersect and dissect these conflicts and their deadening effect on personal freedom and autonomy.  Like his archangel’s namesake, he is there to announce the tumult and climax of the coming political and military conflicts.

By 1904 Dublin too was part of a wider western society perched between the old and the modern.  It was a city of horses and gas-lamps, of carriages and carts, hawkers and stevedores, lords and ladies.  Soon it would become a city of cars and electricity, phones and radios; a city for the triumphant Catholic middle class.  My own grandfather would be born in a time of horse and candlelight, live in Joyce’s Dublin but die some ninety nine years later in a world of space travel, computers and pervasive bourgeoisie culture.  Modernity and the painful sweeping away of history’s legacy during the 1914-18 war were but a decade away from Bloomsday.  Joyce was recording a life and a Dublin that was nearing its end.

Joyce saw clearly that Dublin mixed many classes, backgrounds, perspectives, cultures, fears, hopes and ambitions in a comfortable knowing proximity within its confines and spaces.  But shot through this daily commerce, sampled by all the characters in Ulysses on one unremarkable day, historical forces were at work driving towards an unknown but very different future.  Positions would have to be taken on the national question, allegiances declared, dark deeds done – all the very antithesis of artistic and intellectual freedom.  Joyce would leave his Dublin because the freedom and variety it comprised could not survive the coming storm.  It has been often noted that Joyce never went back to Dublin.  Of course he could not have gone back to his Dublin.  Ireland after independence in 1922 loses most of its social and intellectual strands, save those that were nationalist and catholic.

On the canvas of Dublin’s streetscape, Joyce then created the most sentient living characters know to literature.  It was Joyce’s genius to see, describe and navigate the layers of history that Dublin represented in its streets, its environs, and its people as they circulated it and each other.  He invoked the sounds, smells and rhythms of the city’s life.  Joyce’s use of Dublin’s topography to minutely trace his plots and narratives is in fact inseparable from his art.  Above all in Ulysses he constructs character and place as inseparable.  (It is interesting to note that his acolyte Samuel Beckett distinguishes his art by defacing landscape and setting of any identifying marks; even the tree in Waiting for Godot was but a means of marking the season’s passing.)

The very dynamic for each character of that lived day on 16 June 1904 is designed by the happenstance of the road taken, the encounter chanced-upon, the glimpse of façade or activity that promotes the thoughts and sentiments of its unlikely everyday heroes.

And by this alchemy of people and place, he seemed to decode in the written word the very DNA of thought itself. Between people and place, the brain’s synapses shoot between random thoughts, memories, evocations and subliminal instincts.

So as we follow those roads, and glimpse those sights, we may read mere words but we are drawn into experiencing the interior thoughts of what become for us real people, at one defined and ineffable, a compendium of memories, tastes and the happenstance of experience.

Hence the paradox of the global appeal of so located a writer as James Joyce.

Joyce was a writer who knew that for all of us, the universal was found in the local, mankind most closely encountered in those people closest to us and the world known in its purest form in the places we know best.

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

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