This essay contests the idea that Irish postcolonial studies is a diminished field in contemporary Ireland, instead contending that it has been a sustained and significant critical force in Irish studies for over four decades and will likely remain so. The Irish “decade of centenaries,” international protests against institutional racism, and “decolonizing the university” controversies have brought issues of colonialism, racism, and empire to new prominence in Irish society and encouraged the take-up of postcolonial critique in Irish historiography, political studies, and other disciplines. The essay surveys the achievements and limitations of Irish postcolonial studies, primarily in the field of cultural analysis, since the 1980s and concludes with an assessment of major challenges ahead. The crises of contemporary global capitalism, it suggests, will impel postcolonial studies not just to engage received histories of empire and anti-imperial struggle but also to consider current conjunctures in terms of postcapitalist futures.
Interpretation is not an isolated act, but takes place within a Homeric battlefield, on which a host of interpretative options are either openly or implicitly in conflict.—Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (1981)
Postcolonial criticism has served over the last four decades as one of the most significant modes of interpretation in Irish studies. Many distinguished figures in Irish literary and cultural studies are associated with this mode of analysis. Angela Bourke, Seamus Deane, Enda Duffy, Luke Gibbons, Colin Graham, Marjorie Howes, C. L. Innes, Declan Kiberd, Richard Kirkland, David Lloyd, Emer Nolan, Conor McCarthy, Patricia Palmer, Lionel Pilkington, Shaun Richards, and Clair Wills are just some of those whose scholarship has been formative to this mode of criticism. Postcolonial criticism has also had considerable impact internationally in terms of new conceptions of several of modern Ireland’s leading writers, including Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, and others. The mode has also crossed generations and proved formative to second or third “waves” of critics in literary and cultural studies more broadly. Guy Beiner, Treasa De Loughry, Gregory Dobbins, Eóin Flannery, Sorcha Gunne, Glenn Hooper, Séan Kennedy, Andrew Kincaid, Heather Laird, Joseph Lennon, Amy Martin, Laura O’Connor, Seamus O’Malley, Michael O’Sullivan, Cóilín Parsons, Patrick Mullen, Gerry Smyth, Fionnghuala Sweeney, and Mark Quigley have all produced monographs in this mode, but this list conveys no remotely adequate sense of the much more extensive body of second- or third-wave articles, book chapters, and dissertations.
Not surprisingly, postcolonial scholarship has also provoked persistent resistance, most obviously from Irish revisionists but also from liberal centrists more generally. From the start, the mode has been chastised for being too abstractly theoretical, for being wholly misapplied to Irish contexts, for being too ideological, too Manichaean, or for being too “literary” or not sufficiently so. Some feminists have deemed postcolonial studies conservatively wedded to earlier nationalist conceptions of Irish culture and inattentive to questions of patriarchy, gender, and sexuality.1 Rarely have these critics—revisionist or liberal feminist—turned such critiques dialectically back on their own modes of analysis to ask if revisionism or liberal feminism might themselves have been too inattentive to questions of empire and colonial subjugation or to Irish anti-imperial struggles.
By 2020, as Ireland approached the end of its “decade of centenaries,” which commemorated nationalist, suffrage, and other struggles that contributed to the formation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland in the early 1920s, those critical of Irish postcolonial studies tended simply to dismiss it as outmoded. After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, postcolonial studies—so the case ran—had failed to adapt to the complex realities of twenty-first-century Irish life and had thus been overtaken by more versatile forms of critique. Just as this truism was finding sanction, the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 and the storm of Black Lives Matter protests that ran in tandem with campaigns to decolonize the Anglophone universities conspired to embarrass such assumptions. Suddenly, or so it seemed, questions of empire, colonialism, racism, and decolonization were returned to the heart of an Irish academy that had mostly resented their articulation in domestic Irish terms during the Troubles era. Furthermore, whereas Irish historical scholarship had earlier represented itself as the discipline most resistant to postcolonial studies—empiricist historiographic “realism” debunking idealist cultural “romance”—historians now took the lead in these discussions of empire and its legacies.
Nevertheless, it would be amiss to think of this return as some sort of sudden second coming for Irish postcolonial studies, because in reality, as will appear below, Irish scholarship on empire and postcolonial studies had continued to accumulate throughout the twenty-first century. As I have written elsewhere, Irish scholarship on these topics cannot be sourced to any single discipline or school. Early modern Atlantic history, Commonwealth history, world systems theory, the writings of the Field Day Theatre Company, and academic postcolonial studies in a variety of disciplines have all contributed significantly to the subject.2 In more recent times, postcolonial perspectives have been so extensively assimilated into world literature, migration and diaspora studies, and ecocriticism that it now usually makes little sense to treat these as discrete fields. If there was something new in 2020, it was not that postcolonial studies had suddenly risen from the graveyard of scholarship to leap into the third decade of the twenty-first century, but that it had become a topical discourse again in Irish academic and even public life. In the period between the heyday of Field Day and the early institutionalization of Irish postcolonial studies in the 1980s and 1990s, scholars in many disciplines had been busy in the archives. Their labors had steadily refined understandings of Irish involvements in empire and anti-imperial struggles, topics to which neither Irish nationalist nor revisionist historical scholarship had ever greatly contributed. This special issue of Radical History offers some sense of this ongoing scholarship and of the various directions it is currently taking.
As postcolonial studies expands across disciplines, it will become more diverse in terms of method and valence. Nevertheless, if such work is to have any cumulative purpose, then it must have political and activist dimensions committed to the reimagining and remaking of a contemporary, crisis-afflicted world that imperial power politics and colonial capitalism have done so much to shape. With this horizon in mind, this article will offer an unavoidably telegraphic summary of what I deem to be some of Irish postcolonial scholarship’s more obvious accomplishments and limitations as it has evolved over recent decades, and proffer some brief reflections on challenges ahead.
Irish Postcolonial Studies: Literary Critical and Theoretical Formations, 1980–2000
Irish literary studies can claim no foundational role in the study of colonialism and imperialism in Ireland or among the Irish overseas. Nevertheless, for the last forty years the most widely debated elaborations of postcolonial studies in Ireland have been concentrated in literary studies, and it is with this field that the project is most commonly identified. Over his distinguished career, Seamus Deane’s work drew with eloquent verve on Enlightenment intellectual history, Frankfurt School critical theory, Saidian criticism, deconstructive critique, and studies of national character. Fusing these, Deane’s work was remarkable for its synoptic reach and stylistic vigor, covering the long span of Irish writing from the eighteenth to the end of the twentieth century. Like Edward Said, Deane’s mode of criticism was fashioned before the disciplinary instantiation of postcolonial studies in the university, and it genuflected little enough in the latter’s direction in terms of direct engagement with anthologized field debates. However, in Celtic Revivals (1985), Strange Country (1997), Foreign Affections (2005), and Small World (2021) especially, Deane contended that the colonial relation was foundational to the elaboration of modern Irish and English (or British) national characters, letters, and literatures, and he reconstructed how this complex relationship had been modified over time by various writers and in diverse discursive formations. His work stressed that decolonization required intellectual as well as political projects, including a commitment to rethinking hegemonic public and academic discourses that believed themselves to have transcended old conflicts and struggles. While his most severe criticism was directed at historiographic revisionism, Deane’s work essentially argued for unsparing critical revaluations of all of Ireland’s political, intellectual, and literary heritages. All, he suggested, continued to bear the impress of Ireland’s “long colonial concussion” and European liberalism’s disavowed imperialist heritages.
Declan Kiberd’s most widely read critical work, Inventing Ireland (1995), was published concurrently with the institutionalization of postcolonial studies in the Anglophone university system and is more clearly indebted than Deane’s books to contemporary work of that kind. Like most of Kiberd’s oeuvre, Inventing Ireland takes the Irish Revival as its pivotal period and is more comfortably liberal humanist in character than Deane’s work, but for that reason it has perhaps reached wider and less specialized readerships. Moreover, Kiberd’s capacity to engage both Irish- and English-language literary traditions, evident in Synge and the Irish Language (1979) and Irish Classics (2000), his companion volume to Inventing Ireland, distinguishes his work from that of nearly all of his senior contemporaries in the field and lends to his publications their own particular qualities. Unlike the other leading figures cited here, David Lloyd has lived his entire professional career in the United States, and his work offers the most sustained theoretical engagement with postcolonial studies as it has developed in the American and Irish academies. Immersions in European aesthetic theory, South Asian subaltern studies, American critical race theory, and radical left historiography lend his work its specific stamp. Invested above all in the ways in which subalternist insurgencies in Ireland and elsewhere resist conscription to state-teleological nationalisms or modernizing ideologies, Lloyd’s work displays non-partyist “permanent insurgency” leanings.3 An early engagement with Edmund Burke was formative to Luke Gibbons’s scholarship, as it was for Seamus Deane’s, but Gibbons’s commitments to philosophy and aesthetics, cinema, visual culture, and modernism have been more to the forefront than appraisals of contemporary Irish writing. If Kiberd covers Gaelic and Anglo-Irish literature more readily than other major Irish postcolonial critics working in English departments, Gibbons ranged across cinema, the visual arts, and popular culture with comparable facility, extending postcolonial-type critique into new media.4 Trained in Celtic studies and with interests in feminist oral history, folklore, and song collecting, Angela Bourke creatively combined these interests in The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story (1999), a fascinating study of late nineteenth-century Irish popular culture, nationalism, and sexuality that became, like Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, one of those rare academic books to find a wide readership outside as well as inside the academy.
Younger than the aforementioned scholars, Vincent Cheng, Enda Duffy, and Emer Nolan began their careers as Joyceans. They brought to their works—indebted to Deane and Kiberd as well as to international postcolonial studies—a sense of Joyce not as a European avant-gardist dedicated to the autonomy of the aesthetic but as an Irish writer who came of age in an agitated national climate and whose sensibility was fashioned by anti-imperialist as well as critical nationalist impetus. This conception of things was at odds with new critical, poststructuralist, and other more liberal humanist conceptions of Joyce that then dominated the academy but have since become so widely accepted as to be no longer controversial.5 Superficially, Lionel Pilkington’s works might be read as conventional theatre histories, but his Theatre and the State in Twentieth-Century Ireland: Cultivating the People (2001) and the shorter Theatre and Ireland (2010) are informed by interests in audiences, institutions, and popular struggles as well as ideology and the state, rather than solely focused on the close readings of individual dramatists or plays characteristic of Irish drama studies more generally. Moreover, Pilkington, with his University College Galway colleagues Tadhg Foley, Sean Ryder, and Fiona Bateman, was a leading organizer for the series of Galway conferences that did much to galvanize postcolonial studies in Ireland in its formative period and which led to three collections of essays: Gender and Colonialism (1993), Culture and Colonialism (1995), and Studies in Settler Colonialism (2010).6
Despite obvious disciplinary and individual differences, this work shares a common resistance to Irish revisionist historiography and its commitments to top-down elite histories, reliance on state archives, claims to value-free empiricist objectivity, and largely unexamined liberal centrist and constitutionalist assumptions. To put the matter simply, Irish revisionists conceive of liberalism unphilosophically and ahistorically. They typically view the British state during the centuries of Irish rule, and the northern and southern states thereafter, as more or less disinterested managers of unruly Irish contentions and as drivers of a generally progressive “modernization.” For postcolonial scholarship, revisionist historiography lacks serious, critical self-reflection on its own value systems and methodologies; downplays the class, racial, gender, and religious compositions of state power; and represses the constitutively imperial character of the British state in Ireland.
In some modalities, the early exchanges between Irish postcolonial critics and their revisionist counterparts were public and polemical. Seamus Deane’s “Civilians and Barbarians” and “Wherever Green Is Read” are obvious cases in point.7 In most respects, though, postcolonial and revisionist distinctions operate at the level of divergent basic premises and values rather than in terms of argument or polemic. Deane’s persistent fascination with Edmund Burke, to cite one obvious example, produced prismatic British, European, and imperial intellectual contextualizations of his work. Deane’s Burke is at once a critic of British rule in the American colonies and of Warren Hastings and the East India Company in India, a critic of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy junta in Ireland, a critic of the French Revolution and revolutionary politics generally, and a crucial figure whose work fed into British and Irish romanticisms before it eventually became important for American Cold War conservatism.8 Deane’s scholarship on Burke is therefore in no way reducible to some anti-revisionist polemic. However, by situating this major Irish/British figure in a knotty complex of overlapping national, colonial, and intellectual contexts, Deane’s work shows itself more ambitiously internationalist, more attentive to Burke’s diverse imperial entanglements, and less exclusively Anglocentric in focus than revisionist scholarship tends to be. In a similar mode, Enda Duffy’s The Subaltern Ulysses (1994), Vincent Cheng’s Joyce, Race, and Empire (1995), and Emer Nolan’s James Joyce and Nationalism (1995), as well as Andrew Gibson’s later Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in Ulysses (2005), do not simply take Irish revisionism as targets. Rather, they contest the assumption, common in American and French Joyce studies especially, that Ulysses was beyond Irish politics or that its only serious political dimension was its critique of Irish nationalism. Such assumptions effectively made of Joyce a de facto post–World War II American liberal, an Irish revisionist avant la lettre, or a postnational European pluralist. Cheng, Nolan, Duffy, and Gibson present instead a carefully historically situated Joyce whose writings show him to be a coruscating critic of British imperialism as well as of the more bourgeois or xenophobic versions of Irish nationalism. In their readings, Joyce’s experimental radicalism bears complex affiliations to Irish radical anti-imperialist traditions. In David Lloyd’s Anomalous States (1993) and his many writings on Beckett, for him as talismanic a figure as Burke is for Deane, Lloyd also combines commitments to European avant-garde aesthetics and subalternist and anti-statist insurgencies. In his writings on the Irish famine, the H-Blocks and hunger strikes, and state disciplinary and surveillance tactics, Lloyd’s anti-modernizing and anti-bourgeois nationalist sentiments register a sense of militant oppositionality with few equivalents in Irish studies. Lloyd’s twin allegiances to high cultural avant-gardist aesthetic radicalism and lower-class subaltern insurgencies may be hard to square with each other. An intransigent resistance to middle-class politics and middlebrow culture is an obvious common denominator, but it is not clear how the two commitments positively converge beyond a common opposition to middle-class establishments.
If Deane’s or Lloyd’s works might be sidelined as objectionably difficult, Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland or Bourke’s Burning of Bridget Cleary address themselves to readers in a conspicuously different manner. As mentioned, these books found general and academic receptions in Ireland and beyond, and in many quarters Inventing Ireland especially came to stand as the decisive landmark work of Irish postcolonial criticism. Notwithstanding its debts to Edward Said, Benedict Anderson, and others, Kiberd’s volume is conceptually closer in some respects to mid-century works like Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore (1962) or Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1966) than to Deane’s Strange Country or Lloyd’s Anomalous States. That is to say, it is a synoptic, generalist publication that captures a formative moment of resolve in a national culture, or recurrent national obsessions in that culture, and offers a narratively resourceful version of literary history that invites nonspecialist as well as specialist readerships. Though less synoptic or canonically literary in conception than Inventing Ireland, The Burning of Bridget Cleary is also a well-crafted study that engages with nineteenth-century folk culture, gender, news media, nationalism, and unionism in impressively agile and readable form. Irish feminist studies and postcolonial studies have equal claims to Bourke’s book, yet her study drew creatively on both modes of scholarship rather than simply treating them as oppositional commitments.
Irish Postcolonial Studies: Cultural, Critical, and Historical Elaborations, 2000–2020
It is impossible to do even rough justice here to later stages of Irish work on empire and postcoloniality, but three lines of development that move this earlier body of cultural work in new directions can be sketched. Irish postcolonial studies in its early stages was often considered male-dominated (underplaying the roles of C. L. Innes, Bourke, Nolan, and others) or overly focused on canonical male figures. Since the late 1990s, feminist postcolonial scholarship has become much more prominent. Works by US- and UK-based feminists have been notable here. Marjorie Howes’s Yeats’s Nations: Gender, Class, and Irishness (1995) and her coedited Semi-Colonial Joyce (2000) might be assigned (like Nolan’s and Duffy’s works on Joyce) to the formative stage of Irish postcolonial studies. However, her Colonial Crossings: Figures in Irish Literary History (2006) engaged with Lady Wilde and Anne Sadlier as well as Joyce and Yeats, opening up the field in gender and transatlantic terms.9Clair Wills’s early works Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry (1993) and Reading Paul Muldoon (1998) engaged with largely male canons from advanced feminist and postcolonial theoretical perspectives. Since 2000, Wills has eschewed this theoretical mode for cultural history and engaged more with matters of migration and post-imperial identity, especially in The Best Are Leaving: Emigration and Post-war Irish Culture (2015) and Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-war Britain (2017). Amy Martin’s Alter-Nations: Nationalism, Terror, and the State in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (2012) and Heather Laird’s Subversive Law in Ireland, 1879–1920 (2005) owe debts to early Irish postcolonial work on nation and state, but also engage critically with such work, Laird’s engaging particularly with that of David Lloyd.
Taking up works such as Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary and C. L. Innes’s Woman and Nation in Irish Literature and Society, 1880–1935 (1993), Emer Nolan’s Five Irish Women: The Second Republic, 1960–2016 is perhaps the most significant attempt to bring combined postcolonial and feminist perspectives to bear on contemporary Irish society. This study offers critically appreciative career sketches of five Irish women—writers, journalists, political activists, and singers—who have made significant contributions to contemporary public life. Nolan’s case is that these outspoken women are reductively grasped in modernizing frameworks that stress how they overcame a conservative Irish “tradition” to embrace international “modernity” because they did not repudiate earlier nationalist or anti-imperial struggles in the manner commonly assumed by such paradigms. Rather, all five figures have drawn on those struggles—critically, constructively, and often combatively—to fashion personas and careers more complexly compounded than any rigid compartmentalization of Irish feminism, nationalism, or postcolonialism would allow.
In contrast to historiographic revisionism, which has shown scant interest in methodological self-critique, postcolonial studies developed a reflective self-critical dimension almost from its outset. Leading examples are Richard Kirkland’s Literature and Culture in Northern Ireland since 1965: Moment of Danger (1996), Gerry Smyth’s Decolonisation and Criticism: The Construction of Irish Literature (1998), Conor McCarthy’s Modernisation, Crisis and Culture in Ireland, 1969–1992 (2000), Colin Graham’s Deconstructing Ireland: Identity, Theory, Culture (2001) and, most extensively, Eóin Flannery’s Ireland and Postcolonial Studies: Theory, Discourse, Utopia (2009) and Conor Carville’s The Ends of Ireland: Criticism, History, Subjectivity (2011). All engage in properly informed ways with international postcolonial theory; none offers free passes to the formative Irish figures in the field; all are specialist works aimed at specialist scholars. None is so tendentious or dismissive in estimate as Stephen Howe’s Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (2000), the best-known revisionist engagement with the subject. However, it is also true that none of these works, including Howe’s, pressed alternative versions of postcolonial studies compelling enough to reorient matters significantly. Metacriticism has provided critical refinements that largely confirmed the reputations and significance of the senior figures they scrutinized, without reconstituting postcolonial studies in tangible ways.
Historians especially tended to decry early versions of literary postcolonial studies on the basis that they privileged theoretical generalities over historical complexity, but a steady stream of studies have provided the carefully textured period studies or the long historical views that Irish postcolonial criticism initially lacked. This latter form of scholarship is now continually expanding, its quality increasingly impressive. Kevin Kenny’s Ireland and the British Empire (2004), Michael de Nie’s The Eternal Paddy: Irish Identity and the British Press, 1798–1882 (2004), Kate O’Malley’s Ireland, India and Empire: Indo-Irish Radical Connections, 1919–64 (2008), Paul Townend’s Road to Home Rule: Anti-Imperialism and the Irish National Movement (2016), Timothy G. McMahon, de Nie, and Townend’s Ireland in an Imperial World: Citizenship, Opportunism and Subversion (2017), and Brendan O’Leary’s magisterial Treatise on Northern Ireland, volume 1, Colonialism (2019) give some sense of the scope and variety of works involved. Angus Mitchell’s Roger Casement (2013), Seamus Ó Siócháin’s Roger Casement: Imperialist, Rebel, Revolutionary (2008), and Fionnghuala Sweeney’s Frederick Douglass and the Atlantic World (2007) point to less developed paths in Irish or Irish Atlanticist political and intellectual history. P. J. Mathews’s Revival: The Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League and the Co-operative Movement (2003), Margaret Kelleher’s The Maamtrasna Murders: Language, Life and Death in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (2018), and Fionntán de Brún’s Revivalism and Modern Irish Literature (2019) develop aspects of Irish and English language politics during the revivalist epoch that Bourke, Deane, and Kiberd had earlier made pivotal to Irish postcolonial scholarship.
Thanks to the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (founded in 1963) and the country’s formidable range of NGOs—major examples include Concern (1968), Trócaire (1973), GOAL (1997), and Action from Ireland (AfRI, 1975)—contemporary Ireland has had considerable organizational engagement with the global South. Social sciences scholars have typically contributed more to these organizations than those in the literary humanities, but Irish postcolonial studies has developed its own activist dimensions. The Field Day Theatre Company is the most widely debated example, but others might also be cited. The founder members of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (2001) included two postcolonial scholars, Conor McCarthy and myself; in the United States, where support for the Palestinian cause is a much more professionally risky issue than in Ireland, David Lloyd is one of the leading academic advocates for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Brendan O’Leary’s work for Kurdistani independence is also notable. In more routine academic terms, the aforementioned NUI Galway Postcolonial Conferences and the Notre Dame Irish Seminar in Dublin (at least in its earlier instantiations) did much to cultivate exchanges between Irish and other postcolonial fields of scholarship.
These are estimable accomplishments. Making its mark at both the higher theoretical end and for more general readerships, postcolonial criticism became a significant force in Irish literary and cultural criticism and has remained so across two or more professional generations. Though still concentrated in studies of Irish literature in English, it has more recently generated scholarship that reaches into the fields of Irish-language literature, folklore, oral culture, diaspora and migration studies, the visual arts, and cinema. It has enabled a concerted critique of a revisionist historiography that earlier dominated academic scholarship and media discourse. In so doing, it has initiated substantive reconceptions of national or archipelagic events such as the 1798 Rebellion, the Great Famine, the Irish Revival, Easter 1916, and the Northern Irish Troubles. Largely under its aegis, some of the more commonplace assumptions of modernization theory have also been critiqued, a challenge to which intensifying contemporary concerns about global environmental catastrophe have lent a terrific urgency. Postcolonial studies has also helped to open up Irish studies to emergent currents of scholarship developed in the metropolitan universities of the United States and Great Britain but also in Africa, Asia, and South America. The evidence confutes the arguments of opponents who have dismissed it as either a parochial nationalist throwback or a temporary and faddish turn in cultural criticism.
Shortcomings and Challenges
If postcolonial studies can legitimately claim substantive achievements, what are some of its more obvious shortcomings? Where might postcolonial modes of critique have been expected to better deliver, and what challenges or opportunities currently confront those working in this mode?
Although postcolonial studies has to some extent opened up Irish studies to nonmetropolitan histories and intellectual influences, it has also been conspicuously tentative in comparativist terms. It is true that attempts to bypass the nation-state for more deterritorialized paradigms such as the Black Atlantic or diasporic models of scholarship bring with them their own cognitive dilemmas. Even in the era of neoliberal globalization, national societies remain decisive sites of political and ideological contestation that cannot be scanted. However, in such formative works as Deane’s Strange Country, Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, or Lloyd’s Anomalous States, the island of Ireland and the nation remain the assumptive frames of reference for discussions of cultural production (less so for intellectual history) and politics; this has continued to be the case for later generations of scholars. The same is true for deconstructive anti-essentialist critiques of postcolonial works such as Graham’s Deconstructing Ireland or Carville’s The Ends of Ireland. Attempts to cultivate more comparativist-minded versions of postcolonial studies, such as my Literature, Partition, and the Nation-State: Culture and Conflict in Ireland, Israel, and Palestine (2002), Maria McGarrity’s Washed by the Gulf Stream: The Historical and Geographic Relation of Irish and Caribbean Literature (2008), and Peter O’Neill and David Lloyd’s collection The Black and Green Atlantic: Cross-Currents in African and Irish Diasporas (2009), remain outliers in a scholarly corpus still focused overwhelmingly on island or state territory.
However, among other advantages, a commitment to comparativist analysis has the virtue of putting Irish experiences in wider historical and geocultural perspectives and can correct for the kinds of myopia common to most academic regional studies. Exoticism and overstretch are inevitable risks for all forms of comparativism, but those motivated by educated engagements with other struggles and the literatures and intellectual works they provoke are crucial to any ambitiously internationalist-minded Irish republic of letters. The development of postcolonial studies has incentivized some reformation of English departments in Ireland that were previously overwhelmingly devoted to domestic British literary canons, and this has yielded a small but significant number of posts now held by scholars working on nonmetropolitan Anglophone “world” literatures. This is vital work, but here too a tendency to specialist siloing may be observed, and to date there is little evidence that those working in these new positions have attempted to cultivate, say, African, Asian, or Caribbean and Irish comparativist connections or to engage strongly with Ireland’s recent migrant communities from these regions. On the whole, then, the comparativist dimension of Irish postcolonial studies remains attenuated. It is conspicuous, too, that while leading Irish studies critics have devoted attention to the struggles of the still stateless Palestinian people or to Irish migrants, little comparable attention has been devoted to those of the postcolonial Cuban people in their besieged attempts to build a state socialism. Linguistic obstacles are an obvious factor here, but this slant may also indicate other unvoiced reservations about states and state socialisms inherent to Irish postcolonial studies in its initial formulations.
Tensions between contemporary Marxist and postcolonial studies have been evident since the latter’s inception. The Troubles exerted a decisive influence on early postcolonial studies and shaped the resistances it encountered from the 1980s into the early twenty-first century. Thus, even as it challenged revisionist conceptions of the state, modernization, and development, these concept terms became equally central to Irish postcolonial studies, and matters such as modes of production, capital and class, or gender and sexuality were much less developed in this formative period. In landmark works in the early period, questions of culture and state, the state’s monopoly of violence and discipline, national character, and national literature are conspicuous; questions of capital and political economy are rarely comparably foregrounded. However, even as this version of postcolonial studies was finding academic anchorage, Ireland was becoming a flagship for neoliberal peripheral European restructuring, and after the Good Friday Agreement the country’s political culture was transformed by the mainstreaming of Sinn Féin. The Catholic Church’s many crises and the consolidation of immigrant communities that has continued even after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger boom simultaneously transformed the country’s social fabric.
In this context, the accelerated pace of sociopolitical change did indeed challenge postcolonial studies’ capacity to respond, but the problems run deeper than this. My Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland (2007) attempted to press postcolonial analyses in more Marxian and world-systems directions while maintaining a sense of Ireland’s colonial history. The difficulty of finding ways to combine cultural and politico-economic analysis in noninstrumentalist fashion, or of conjoining Marxist and postcolonial critiques, is not unique to Irish studies, but Irish postcolonial studies might certainly have been worked harder in such directions. In the event, however, critical descriptions and conceptualizations of neoliberal culture and neoliberal Ireland’s changing economy were developed sooner, and more consistently and influentially, by more orthodox Marxist or world-systems theorists (including Kieran Allen, Colin Coulter, Marnie Holborow, Peadar Kirby, Kieran Keohane, Carmen Kuhling, Conor McCabe, Angela Nagle, and Denis O’Hearn) than by those working in postcolonial modes.10 It is no accident that the latter figures are mostly based in the social sciences rather than the humanities, and in some cases more organically linked to Irish socialist organizations or social movements. If the more “left” end of the spectrum of the literary humanities bears the imprint of postcolonial studies, and the more “left” wing of the social sciences bears that of classical and contemporary Marxist theory, these two lefts have rarely engaged in generative ways. Furthermore, the hindrances that have impeded such engagement are much less thoroughly explored than their postcolonial/revisionist historiography counterparts.
Postcolonial criticism emerged in Ireland when the fall of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of European parliamentary communism, the sclerosis of European social democracy, and an ebulliently rampaging neoliberal capitalism combined to discombobulate most radical social visions. Because Ireland was, economically, a significant beneficiary of this post-1989 conjuncture, the more general problem of how to articulate effective opposition on a national scale in an era where capital operated far more effectively than labor at supranational scales manifests itself in acute form after 2008. The pathetically compliant Irish elite and popular response to the financial crisis that came to a climax in that year, as well as the Irish Republic’s even greater reliance on international capital and corporate investment after the collapse of the Irish banking sector, highlighted the scale of the problem. The fact that the Irish universities as well as Irish literary and artistic production had all been considerably corporatized and neoliberalized in the Celtic Tiger era exacerbated matters. Furthermore, in late capitalist globalization, cultural and literary capital appear less crucial to elite class reproduction, national self-esteem, or international prestige than they did in the Cold War era before neoliberalism, and this deflation may have contributed to a corresponding downsizing of the public significance of cultural critics in recent decades.11 Whatever the causes, the earlier failure of postcolonial studies and cultural studies more broadly to come to grips with the analysis of contemporary Irish and world capitalism now exerts its toll.
Today, that ebulliently capitalist post-1989 conjuncture has come apart. The social depredations of neoliberalism, the precarity forced on the lower classes and the young almost everywhere thanks to automation and short-term gig economy employment, and the inability of the left or other social movements internationally to advance effective and sustained alternatives have combined to create a groundswell of popular discontent that has incubated or emboldened neoliberal authoritarianisms across all continents. At no point since 1945 has capitalist liberal democracy seemed so rickety, nor liberal democratic politics so haplessly incapable of honestly meeting, strategically or intellectually, the challenges of the epoch. The swiftly worsening climate crisis and its resulting realities of resource competition, mass immiseration, large-scale migrations, and pandemics suggest that even in those parts of the world where affluence was hitherto taken for granted, the capitalist mode of production can no longer successfully reproduce itself without simultaneously destroying the biological, animal, and human infrastructures on which it rests. A few decades ago, it might have appeared hysterical to contend that, like feudalism in the Middle Ages, capitalism as a mode of production had entered a period of terminal systemic crisis, but to contend as much now is more likely to provoke an apathetically weary shrug or nihilistic consent.
It is not for this piece to propose new agendas for Irish postcolonial studies; such agendas typically emerge organically and incrementally. However, it needs to be stressed in conclusion that any intellectually meaningful version of postcolonial studies for the future needs to be scrupulously historically minded, sociopolitically engaged, and strategically anticipatory. Historically minded does not mean looking back nostalgically to some less crisis-afflicted non-modern era; for all but the most lucky classes and societies, the devastations of the contemporary moment are nothing new. For Native Americans or Australians, Caribbean peoples facing settler-colonial or plantation-colonial exterminations, Africans conscripted into slavery, Russian serfs and Indian peasants born into lifelong servitude, indentured Chinese coolies, or migrant Irish navvies, the now-time of capitalist modernization was mostly characterized by forms of societal devastation at least as shattering as anything now impending. In all such cases, those minorities that escaped the worst of such destruction or were able to profit by it were outnumbered by majorities consigned to lifelong struggle against forbidding odds. If postcolonial studies must look backward, it is because it still needs to learn how to learn from that scarcely imaginable violent past and from the more constructive struggles—political, intellectual, cultural—forged by those working to wrest a better world from the catastrophic one they knew. However, to be sociopolitically anchored and strategically anticipatory, postcolonial critics also need to be sufficiently tethered to contemporary social movements and parties and to acquire some realistic sense of the intellectual and political obstacles they confront to make their scholarship matter. Irish criticism of this kind needs to be more “worldy” and less “textualist,” if by this we mean, in the Saidian sense, more committed to making interventions that matter to society and less preoccupied with theoretical radicalism or methodological flag-waving for their own sake.12
When Irish postcolonial studies emerged in its literary critical form in the 1980s, it did so at a time when the concept of Irish studies was still a relative novelty. Today, Irish studies appears on stronger institutional footing: its scholarly cohorts are larger, its activities more diverse in disciplinary and other ways. The ground on which Irish political struggles take place has changed considerably, and probably more quickly than matters have changed in the humanities. Over that passage of time, considerable intellectual ground has been won, and a postcolonial studies that initially served as a critique of revisionism cannot afford to remain fixed in that posture. The current situation calls for ambitious projects of scholarly recovery and meaningful contemporary critique, but also for constructive, anticipatory projects aimed not at admonishing or overcoming academic opponents but at finding viable pathways through the necessary interpretative “Homeric battlefields” of our times—to use Jameson’s term—toward substantive postcapitalist ways of living. Obviously, this is far easier said than done. However, a postcolonial studies that is not serious about contributing intellectually to struggles to address real social and cultural problems or to working toward postcapitalist community will have lost its way. In the period ahead, the most immediate challenges may not be those of the past, but rather how to overcome soft-centered versions of postcolonial criticism that have forfeited any oppositional charge as the price of institutional acceptance.
Allen, Celtic Tiger; Coulter and Nagle, Ireland under Austerity; Holborow, Language and Neoliberalism; Kirby, Celtic Tiger in Collapse; Keohane and Kuhling, Collision Culture; McCabe, Money; O’Hearn, Atlantic Economy.