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Treason and betrayal in six modern Irish novels

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.

When Bono sang ‘Uncertainty can be a guiding light’ on the title track from U2’s album Zooropa (1993), he seemed to many people to be perfectly attuned to an emerging sense of Irish identity – one that was truly over the past and apparently ready to embrace all that an uncertain future had to offer. It was, with its combination of yearning for guidance and bemused insecurity, an entirely appropriate musical articulation of Celtic Tiger Ireland. In this chapter, Smyth traces aspects of the Celtic Tiger through the music of U2, to The Script, who he sees as embodying the philosophy of the period. He makes the point that the various ‘failures’ articulated by the various protagonists on the first album, for example, are belied by the ideology of expectation and attainment that underpins the music itself. The chapter looks at the significance of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ as an index of this period, and finally, the chapter looks at the cultural phenomenon of Jedward, the grimes twins who became famous, or infamous, from their time on the X Factor, and sees them as the soul of the Celtic Tiger: young, brash, loud, four eyes focused firmly on the prize but ultimately lacking in substance.

in From prosperity to austerity
Listening in/to Tim Robinson

Gerry Smyth considers the question of ‘listening’ as it relates to two philosophical systems: the phenomenology of listening associated with Jean-Luc Nancy and the existentialist listening associated with Martin Heidegger. Smyth argues that each of these systems connotes metaphysical and ethical approaches to listening, which are of particular relevance to Robinson in his various roles as cartographer, environmentalist, scientist, folklorist and dweller in the landscape.

in Unfolding Irish landscapes
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Betrayal and the Irish novel
in The Judas kiss
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in The Judas kiss

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.

in The Judas kiss
A case study in Irish betrayal

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.

in The Judas kiss
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in The Judas kiss
James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)

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.

in The Judas kiss
Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1925)

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.

in The Judas kiss