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This book argues that modern Irish history encompasses a deep-seated fear of betrayal, and that this fear has been especially prevalent throughout Irish society since the revolutionary period at the outset of the twentieth century. The author goes on to argue that the novel is the literary form most apt for the exploration of betrayal in its social, political and psychological dimensions. The significance of this thesis comes into focus in terms of a number of recent developments – most notably, the economic downturn (and the political and civic betrayals implicated therein) and revelations of the Catholic Church’s failure in its pastoral mission. As many observers note, such developments have brought the language of betrayal to the forefront of contemporary Irish life. After an introductory section in which he considers betrayal from a variety of religious, psychological and literary perspectives, Gerry Smyth goes on to analyse the Irish experience of betrayal: firstly through a case study of one of the country’s most beloved legends – Deirdre of the Sorrows; and secondly, through extended discussion of six powerful Irish novels in which ideas of betrayal feature centrally - from adultery in James Joyce’s Ulysses, touting in Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer and spying Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, through to writing itself in Francis Stuart’s Black List, Section H, murder in Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales and child abuse in Anne Enright’s The Gathering (2007). This book offers a powerful analysis of modern Irish history as regarded from the perspective of some its most incisive minds.
The story of Déirdre and the Sons of Usnach (one of the best-known from the medieval Ulster Cycle) is infused with betrayal – in many different forms and degrees – from beginning to end. This famous saga rehearses various classic elopement tropes, such as may be found in, for example, the stories of Tristran and Isolde, Paris and Helen, and (closer to home) Diarmuid and Grainne. It was also an extremely important reference point during the kulturkampf of the ‘Celtic Revival’ around the turn of the twentieth century. The barrage of activity that took place around this time is testament to the legend’s flexibility of realisation in an increasingly sensitive and volatile politico-cultural context. This chapter explores the legend of Déirdre with specific reference to the growing importance of ‘betrayal’ as a key concept within the discourses of cultural and political nationalism in the years leading up to the revolutionary period of the early twentieth century. The chapter examines four such treatments of the Deirdre legend – three dramatic (Yeats, Synge, Gore Booth) and one novelistic (Stephens) – by way of an introduction to the six case studies that will follow in Part Two.
A range of circumstances contrived to position Northern Ireland at the centre of Irish political history in the latter part of the twentieth century; those same circumstances ensured that the issue of betrayal would feature time and again as a crucial trope in discursive engagements with that part of the island. Eugene McCabe’s novel represents one such engagement. Set on a farm on the shore of Lower Lough Erne in County Fermanagh in May 1883, Death and Nightingales is a story in which political betrayal is shadowed and to an extent mirrored by interpersonal treachery. This is a novel in which characters betray themselves and each other throughout; at the same time, each character is aware, to a greater or lesser extent, of inhabiting a political landscape in which the idea of betrayal – both historical and contemporary – features powerfully. One of the things Eugene McCabe looks to explore in this book (as indeed in all his writing) is the relationship between these two levels of experience.
O’Flaherty’s celebrated novel concerns an act of overt political treason: Gypo Nolan, a disaffected member of ‘the party’ (the communists wing of the IRA), informs on a friend and comrade for £20. His subsequent descent into the ‘hell’ of post-Treaty Dublin, and his eventual redemption, are tracked by the author in remorseless detail. The Informer affords an insight into the complexities of political affiliation in post-revolutionary Ireland, when nationalists, Marxist-Leninists and loyalists of various shades all claimed the right to identify both fidelity to, and betrayal of, ‘the cause’. O’Flaherty brings a moral-religious perspective to bear upon the material concerns of contemporary politics, however; simultaneously Judas and Jesus, Gypo Nolan becomes the embodiment of a tragedy at the heart of the human condition: the absolute desire to affiliate weighed against the absolute desire to betray.
Some critics (such as Tony Tanner) have speculated that adultery, with its assault upon the patriarchal institution of marriage and its potential for drama, is the principal theme of the bourgeois novel that evolves in Europe during the nineteenth century. Joyce’s famous work was heir to the great nineteenth-century novel of adultery – a tradition which includes the likes of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1873-77), Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) and Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867). An act of marital betrayal lies at the heart of the story, an act which Joyce explores in all its emotional and moral complexity. At the same time, other critics (such as David Lloyd) have argued that his condition as an Irish writer obliged Joyce to develop an ‘adulterated’ form of writing – one which refused the precepts of patriarchal authorship, and in so doing contributed significantly to the emergence of the cultural sensibility known as Modernism. This chapter addresses the relationship between these thematic and formal aspects of Ulysses: the theme of adultery and the adulterated technique.
This chapter serves as an introduction to some of the principal representations of betrayal at large in western culture. ‘Judas’ is a by-word for betrayal; the concept of betrayal (in Eden and in Gethsemane) lies at the heart of the Christian view, and this has had a devastating impact on cultural history during the Christian era. The Gospels represent only the first chapter in the long history of Judas, however; different eras reinvent him to fulfil the requirements of their own worldviews. Some of the most enduring and most influential representations of betrayal are contained in Shakespeare’s drama – treachery both political (as in Macbeth) and interpersonal (as in Othello). Beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud found that a fear of betrayal (of the child by the parent, of the ego by the id) was a key determining factor in the structure of the human psyche. Reading from Judas, Shakespeare and Freud, it may be that, rather than an anomalous exception to the human experience, betrayal is actually at the core of what it means to be human. Judas, it appears, is alive and well and living inside each of us.
Francis Stuart remains a controversial figure within Irish literary history. Although ensconced within the Irish literary establishment of the early twentieth century, at the outbreak of World War II Stuart forsook his ‘natural’ intellectual inheritance and moved to Berlin to take up a teaching post. Once there, he accepted an offer from the Nazi propaganda division to make weekly broadcasts to Ireland on a range of supposedly ‘non-political’ matters. His subsequent defence of these actions was complex and arcane, drawing on some of the arguments submitted by fascist sympathisers such as William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and Ezra Pound. Nevertheless, the pall of ‘treason’ continued to hang over Stuart for the remainder of his life – if not in a political sense (Ireland was officially neutral, therefore Stuart was not aiding an ‘enemy’) then certainly in the moral sense of consorting with a repugnant ideology. Black List, Section H is the novel – thirty years in preparation and writing – in which he attempts to explain (although not justify) his actions during the war years, and it raises many important questions for any account of Irish identity – and especially for Irish art - in the years after independence.
Elizabeth Bowen is without doubt one of the most brilliant and insightful writers of the twentieth century. In her novels and short fiction, Bowen’s focus is invariably ‘the death of the heart’ – which is the say, the exposure of an emotional allegiance of some kind in the face of a betrayal of some kind. Many critics have speculated on the extent to which Bowen’s aesthetic concerns were influenced by her Anglo-Irish condition: born and raised in an Ireland she loved deeply, she nevertheless felt a strong allegiance to Britain and British culture. This conflict was accentuated during World War II when Bowen exploited her Irish connections to make secret reports to MI5 on the situation in neutral Ireland. All these concerns are encapsulated in what is widely regarded as her most successful novel, The Heat of the Day. Set partly in Ireland and partly in London during the Blitz, it raises difficult questions relating to the morality of neutrality in the face of a patent evil, and the dynamics of inter-personal and political treachery.