Ben Bulben, County Slingo, Ireland
by Eamonn Wall
As an immigrant from Ireland settled in Nebraska for an extended period, I was immediately excited to seek out the landscapes that comprise the American West. The western journeys I made were full of the purest pleasure. I was entering places I had read about and been fascinated by since childhood, and I was also on vacations with my family and beginning to learn through them the lore and language of American space. Before I could consciously know it, an idea was forming in my mind that would eventually culminate in Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions, my study that examines side-by-side, the literatures of the Irish and American Wests in the modern and contemporary periods. My purpose would be to explore what in Ireland we call dinnseanchas, or the lore of place.
As time passed, my knowledge of the American West deepened and broadened and the more I witnessed it first hand, the more I wanted to read about it when I got home from these road trips. On a deeper level, the American West had become part of my inner life: I loved it, thought about, and dreamed about it. As the years fly by, it occurred to me that I had spent much more time in the American West than I had ever spent in its Irish equivalent. My engagement with the physical landscape of the West of Ireland, it dawned on me as I was driving toward Sterling, Colorado, one summer evening, was quite minimal when contrasted with time spent here. I pledged to myself to understand the American West more thoroughly while, at the same time, engaging with the landscape of the Irish West by spending time there and returning to its literature.
As I conducted my research for Writing the Irish West, I found that West of Ireland writers share much with their American counterparts. In addition, it is clear to me that some of the theoretical approaches that have been developed for the study of Western American Literature, eco-criticism in particular, can be of great use to scholars of the literature of the West of Ireland. In the writing of this book, I have made extensive use of these theories and approaches, in addition to using the more familiar sources from the field of Irish Studies. Two other factors I became aware of during my time researching this book were: first, that no attempt had been made to write of the West of Ireland as a distinct literary region and, second, that no scholar in the field of Irish Studies had written a book-length study underlined by Ecocriticism.
In a sense, my critical landscape is regional and international rather than national. I am interested in exploring connections between parts of different countries rather than between nations. Both writing and ecology are local activities that are internationally dispersed. My longest chapter is devoted to the work of the writer and cartographer Tim Robinson. Guided by Robinson’ cartography and cultural geography, I see my study as a map, or space to use the term that Robinson favors, of Irish Western Writing, one that shares much with its American counterpart. Robinson’s cartography is an inclusive one that pushes for all of the physical, mental, human and non-human worlds to be mapped equally. He argues passionately for the restoration of what has been erased by conquest and, ultimately, for the full story to be told. For Robinson, maps can only reveal part of the story of space: maps require language and vice-versa.
In both America and Ireland, the Western regions are spaces of great beauty that share complex histories and the works written by the writers under consideration here, from various perspectives and written in multiple genres, emerge from those parts of the physical and psychic landscapes where fissures have emerged. Literary and moral imaginations have been formed by interactions with place, space, and with a natural world that exists in free play with the human. Today, in the United States, scholars write of the New West, defined, for example, by the emergence of such cities as Las Vegas and Phoenix, and by such industries as software design and computer manufacture that have replaced the traditional industries of agriculture and gold mining. Ireland also possesses a New West in which cities and towns have expanded enormously (Galway, Castlebar), and old industries have been replaced by the new.
The contemporary Western author, in both the United States and Ireland, writes in the shadow of giants—in the former, the work of writers such as Owen Wister and Mary Austin and, in the latter, the work of Lady Augusta Gregory, W. B. Yeats, and J. M. Synge. Writing of the American West Richard White has noted that “late-nineteenth-century Americans imagined the West—that most modern of American sections—as the premodern world that they had lost. In it life was primitive but also simple, real, and basic. Every action in this world mattered, and the fundamental decisions of everyday life supposedly involved clear moral choices. Life in the West could restore authenticity, moral order, and masculinity.” In Ireland, during that same period, as Declan Kiberd has pointed out, a similar dynamic was at play:
The tramp or wanderer in Yeats’s poems is one who knows “the exorbitant dreams of beggary,” the relation between imaginative sumptuousness and material destitution. If Augusta Gregory was impressed on her visits to Galway workhouses by the contrasts between the poverty and the splendor of their tales, Yeats could see in these deracinated figures an image of Anglo-Ireland on the skids. So did Synge, who signed his love letters to Molly Allgood “Your Old Tramp.”
As I illustrate throughout this study, contemporary writers are engaged directly in intense dialogue with older writers in part to debunk what seems unreal though, more important to their shared purpose, are needs to define personal literary spaces that are in tune with their time in history.
Rocky Mountains, Western North America
Writing on the difference between local and national representations of the American West, White has noted the following:
The creation of an imagined West by those who lived in a place and sought to bond themselves to it seems readily understandable, but the creation of an imagined West by those who lived outside the West and have few or no ties to the place itself is more mysterious. Yet it is the critical issue, for the nationally imagined West has been far more powerful than the locally imagined West. It has, when necessary, put local traditions to its own uses and shaped local myths in its own image.
In the Irish context, we can add international to national and agree that White’s thesis holds true.
Perhaps no West of Ireland work has been as widely disseminated or as influential in defining the West for audiences as John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Of course, this same issue re-appears in any discussion of Martin McDonagh’s plays: his imagined West is the most powerful in terms of its dissemination and popularity though he is, of the writers considered in this study, the one who has spent the least time on the ground in the West. And, to muddy the waters a little more, Tim Robinson, who knows his area of the West better than anyone knows his/hers, is an Englishman.
Because the writers under consideration here are exploring landscape and place—in the largest sense—this study is frequently underlined by scholarship in the areas of Ecocriticism and Ecofeminism, particularly in the chapters on the work of the poets Richard Murphy and Moya Cannon. In the chapter on Tim Robinson, William Least-Heat Moon’s PrairyErth, Robin Jarvis’ Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel, and William J. Smyth’s Map-making, Landscapes and Memory: A Geography of Colonial and Early Modern Ireland c. 1530-1750 have served as both guides and totems in my exploration of Robinson’s mapping of Árainn. Research on the poetry of Mary O’Malley led to an examination of the explosive growth of Western cities (Phoenix and Galway) and how this has influenced writers. In my discussion of the role violence plays in the works of John McGahern and Martin McDonagh, I have been guided by the historical work of American historians Richard Slotkin and Richard White. The chapter on Seán Lysaght’s work, on the other hand, probes connections between poetry and science and this is another area where ecology and writing work in tandem. At times, this research has allowed me to pair writers profitably: Owen Wister and John McGahern, Martin McDonagh and Sam Peckinpah, Richard Murphy and Gary Snyder, for example.
The writers whose work is discussed here represent a mere sampling. Such has been the quality of important work produced in the West of Ireland in recent times that it would be a simple task to come up with alternative lists of writers for discussion, not to mention those writers who spend seasons in the West—summers usually—and who had left us a wealth of distinguished work. In some instances the conclusions reached might be similar; in others, they might be quite different. All the while, new writers are emerging throughout the West and insisting that their voices be heard.
Overall, my hope is that this study will persuade readers to think of the West of Ireland as a unique literary territory where writers explore landscape and language and the human and non-human worlds with eyes fixed, simultaneously, on the active world outside their windows and the inner world where tradition resides. The West is integral to Ireland though also separate from the more abstract nation. The Western writer is always a Western writer first.
About the Author:
Eamonn Wall is Smurfit-Stone Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A literary critic and poet, he teaches courses in Irish Literature and Creative Writing. His most recent book is Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions.