Louis MacNiece: anomalous displacement and post-colonial identity

Louis MacNiece: anomalous displacement and post-colonial identity

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Louis MacNiece: anomalous displacement and post-colonial identity

I was the rector’s son, born to the anglican order,
Banned forever from the candles of the Irish poor
(“Carrickfergus”)

Ireland inhabits a unique position within the current framework of post-colonial literature and theory. The history of Ireland and it’s relationship to England, from the twelfth century (when Henry II was decreed feudal lord of Ireland by the Pope) to the present day, is the history of a divided colonial nation synonymous with ideas of displacement, identity and culture.

Indeed, Ireland may be understood as both colonial and post-colonial, sitting uncomfortably on the fence between labels of post-colonial discourse such as first and third world. Stephen Slemon’s evocative essay, “Unsettling the Empire: Resistance Theory for the Second World”, suggests the notion of a ‘second world’, or a semi-periphery in post-colonial theory, as a method of transcending myopic binarisms (104 - 110). Slemon argues that the critical and theoretical space created by the alternative of a second world accommodates the difficult examples of the post-colonial, white, settler cultures of Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa and Canada. Ireland, with regard to both the historical experience and to Irish cultural expression and production, is a further country which may be fruitfully situated in this space.

The requirement of a ‘second world’ in post-colonial theory becomes glaringly obvious in a consideration of Ireland. As Liam Kennedy concludes, in a comparative analysis of Ireland to Asian and African post-colonial nations on economic grounds, “attempting to place Ireland in a Third World perspective turned out to be a largely empty enterprise” (Modern Ireland 114). The attempt to propose Ireland as a Third World nation has been common amongst various scholars. For example, in a Field Day pamphlet, Frederic Jameson claims the Dublin of Joyce’s fiction to be “an underdeveloped village” (Kennedy 107).

Kennedy’s study clearly emphasises the fact that Ireland is economically a member of the First World, comparable to Western European countries as opposed to those of the developing world. Ireland’s Gross Domestic Product per head of population in 1913 was valued at US$655 compared to the 1960 figures of US$198 for Ghana and US$74 for India (Kennedy 110). To take a more contemporary view, the World Bank’s World Development Report 1991 shows that in 1989 Ireland was not a member of the Third World. The report, drawing on accepted measurements of wealth and social conditions such as GNP, diet, infant mortality rate, life expectancy, reliance on agriculture and illiteracy, demonstrates the incongruous nature of claiming a Third World status for Ireland.

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Yet, if Ireland’s international economic position proves that the nation is not part of the Third World, it would be most problematic to argue Ireland has not been socially and culturally marked by the legacy of colonialism. In this respect Ireland should be critically imagined as part of a ‘second world’: a nation greatly influenced by the experience of hegemonic ideologies and the imposition of foreign models on indigenous social structures, culture and traditions.

Colin Graham, in a review of Declan Kiberd’s hotly debated text Inventing Ireland, asserts the following as “the most promising metacritical remark in the book” (Graham 62): My belief is that the introduction of the Irish case to the debate will complicate, extend and in some cases expose the limits of current models of post-coloniality (Kiberd 5).

The ‘Irish case’, to use Kiberd’s term, has been a complex socio-historical development of identities and cultures - both within and outside colonialism. The expression of these identities and cultures, and of resistance and conflict, comprise fundamental strands of the literature of Ireland. Within the Irish body of literature the effects and reactions to the modern Irish experience are nowhere more evident than in the poetry of Northern Ireland. To be born in the North, writes Seamus Heaney, is to “belong to a place patently riven between notions of belonging to other places” (127) ; mainland Britain or the South of Ireland.

In this page I wish to briefly set out the paradigmatic sense of displacement and cultural anomie present in poetry of Louis MacNeice. Indeed this distinct lack of a fixed identity has proved difficult for critics to assimilate. As Michael Longley notes, “to the Irish he has often seemed an exile, to the English a stranger” (Introduction xxii). It has only been since Paul Muldoon allocated more space to MacNeice than any other poet, including Patrick Kavannagh, in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry that MacNeice has been firmly placed within the Irish tradition. This element of MacNeice’s poetry, the search for a fixed sense of place and cultural identity, is symptomatic of the (post)colonial experience.

MacNeice was born in Belfast in 1907 to parents originally from Connemara in the West of Ireland. In 1909 they moved to Carrickfergus (on Belfast Lough) due to the appointment of MacNeice’s father as rector for the anglican Church of Ireland in the town. At the age of ten he was sent to school in Dorset. MacNeice went on to study classics at Oxford becoming a close friend and poetic contemporary of W.H. Auden. Living in England, he published many volumes of poetry, criticism and journalistic articles and worked for the BBC from 1941 to 1961. As one may glean from these simple biographical notes, MacNeice represents some of the complexities and contradictions inherent in Irish cultural identity; something that is at least in part attributable to the presence of British Imperialism. Born in pre-partition Ulster, the son of an Irish nationalist and bourgeois Protestant family, MacNeice chose to live in England where he experienced a great sense of alienation, as he did in Ireland, both North and South.

Rather than attempt to claim a resistance in MacNeice’s poetry to colonial discourse (a line of argument that would be weak at best) I wish to present his problematic and unresolved sense of displacement which may be read as a direct consequence of the colonial enterprise. This is clearly portrayed in “Western Landscape” (107). Neither “Free of all roots nor yet a rooted peasant” MacNeice perceives himself as “a bastard / Out of the West by urban civilisation” (107). Both the rugged West of Ireland and the urban modernity of Ireland (for example, the area around Belfast Lough) illustrate the overwhelming influence of colonialism.

Ireland, Ulster and England comprise three significant places in his imaginative landscape. The autobiographical poem “Carrickfergus” (24-25) (see opening quotation) indicates the alienation he felt as a child, lacking the identity of being either Irish or British, that would remain with him in adulthood.

“Carrick Revisited” (104) discusses his displacement, explicitly articulating the geographical anomie produced by the “foreign voice” (104) of England. Unsure of where he belongs, “Whatever then my inherited or acquired / Affinities” (104), MacNeice felt nostalgic for the West of Ireland, the home of his parents. He expounded: “for many years I lived on a nostalgia for somewhere I had never been” (Michael Longley xv) . The “wilds of Mayo” (“Woods” 112) represented a sense of cultural and historical identity, and an attachment to his mother who died when he was very young.

His conflict was not simply that of the Irish national alienated abroad. The search for cultural self-definition was much more uncertain. Though his parents were rooted in the bogs of Mayo , MacNeice was to feel as culturally derelict in Ireland, North and South, as in his “other”, his “English choice / Into what yet is Foreign” (112) . Throughout his life and his poetry he returns to Ireland, searching for the sense of belonging he so deeply wishes to attain.

By religion, class and the culture of Northern Irish Protestantism MacNeice believed he could never attain his imagined sense of true Irishness. His description of Dublin in “The Closing Album” (74) may be read as an appropriate metaphor for his own predicament:

She is not an Irish town,
And she is not English (74).

It is perhaps “Valediction” (12-14), written in 1934, that most overtly portrays the incongruous paradox of being born into Northern Ireland. MacNeice tells us he “cannot be / Anyone else than what this land engendered me” (12), a sentiment shared by many in Ireland.

Visiting Belfast he is aware that “This was my mother city, these my paps” (12). Like a “woven figure” (13) he cannot undo the threads of his past, yet simultaneously he feels like a “visitor” (13). As if a tourist visiting Ireland for the first time he describes the deeply ironic, cliched tourism of his visit - he buys

a souvenir
Of green marble or black bog oak, run up to Clare,
Climb the cliff in the postcard, visit Galway city (13).

Compelled to return “home” (13) to the foreign England, this poem denotes a valediction to Ireland and the once nostalgic cultural anchor MacNeice believed Ireland to be.

This is certainly a brief summary of the complex nature of identity in MacNeice’s poetry yet it acts as a strong example of what Kiberd calls the “Irish case”. To this point Irish literature, and the broader cultural context in which it resides, has received significantly less attention than other post-colonial countries and their literatures. This is perhaps due to the fact that post-colonialism is perceived by some in Ireland as simply a form of nationalist expression, or possibly because the ‘Irish case’ is regarded by many as too complicated in it’s relationship with Britain. Maybe Ireland has been to some extent forgotten in an international post-colonial arena. Regardless, the unique position of Ireland is one that demands a wealth of further critical and theoretical pursuit.
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