Book Review: a study of the sea in Irish literature

"Allen’s hypothesis is proven here beyond question: that the sea is as important to Irish literature as air is to the characters in its pages."
Book Review: a study of the sea in Irish literature

Nicholas Allen brings his evaluation up to high tide with the contemporary Kevin Barry (above). He finds the Limerickman drawn to the coastal margins where his characters discover that “the boundaries between innocence and experience fragment and shift”. This is especially true of Barry’s short story collection ‘Dark Lies the Island’. Picture: Darragh Kane

  • Irish Literature and the Coast: Seatangled
  • Nicholas Allen
  • Oxford University Press, €70

To James Joyce it was the “the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea”. To others, it is the great briny deep, or Davy Jones' Locker. In Greek, it is thalassa from which derives the study of the seas: thalassography. Joyce was planning to write a novel of the sea when he died: its imponderable deaths, boundless possibilities and turbulent lives. What a loss to literature that was. His great novel of the sea, which he never managed to write, exists like a great vacuum at the centre of the might have been.

For John McGahern, the Irish were primarily a forest people. Judging by the copious examples from literature evidenced by Nicholas Allen in Irish Literature and the Coast: Seatangled, we are primarily a people of the sea. And not just for migratory reasons, but because the sea suffuses our lives and dominates our dreams.

The sea is a major theme in literature and on the global stage, there have been many excellent interpreters of it: Hermann Melville and Joseph Conrad to name but two behemoths. And how does Ireland fare in representing the sea?

Pretty well, according to Allen who is Professor of Humanities at the University of Georgia. In fact, the pulse of the tides is in our blood.

The sea is many things, not least a medium of transportation, and the impact of migration, inward and outward, on Irish society was transformative since antiquity but especially in the last two hundred years. Not all of the influence was inclusive and as Allen points out, the Belfast poet John Hewitt looked beyond his locale for empathy - to Wales, Scotland, and New England.

In Anna Liffey, the poet Eavan Boland shows a yearning for inclusion using hydro-symbolism. “The city where I was born/ The river that runs through it./ The nation that divides me.” Allen wants to reshape the discourse of our literary heritage as “a grammar of liquidity as a cultural resource and in part a recovery of a submerged network of ports, estuaries, rivers, and streams”. He finds affinity in writers and artists - Synge’s observations on the Aran Islands, as well as Harry Clarke’s stained-glass windows whose often amorphous swirls were inspired by Inisheer’s seaweed and jellyfish. It is a formidable argument and the more you read it the more sense it makes.

The key word in the title comes from a stroll along the beach by Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man as he muses on his sense of identity. In a city made of quays, estuaries, and headlands, where the realm of sea and land meet, it gives him a sense of yearning beyond the shores for new ideas and possibilities.

One of the transcendent examples of things aquatic in Irish literature is William Butler Yeats’s poem set on an island in Lough Gill, Co Sligo. It prompted the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson to write to the poet of his “slavery to the beauty” of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. The poem had been inspired by Yeats’s observation of raindrops on a window pane in a London street. Allen argues that the poem was intimately connected with what critics call ‘hydrocolonialism’. In this case, the expansion of Britain’s maritime empire.

In a close examination of Yeats’s early maritime novel, John Sherman, he finds that “imagery of water and the sea is central to the exploration of his character’s ambitions, rivers and seas constant tests for characters unsure of where to anchor their ambitions.” Yeats’s family’s connections to the shipping industry in Sligo provided a rich seascape and vocabulary wherein he conceptualised Ireland’s place in the British empire.

One of the most famous Irish maritime novels is the Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers published in 1903. Here, Allen finds that the novel drew a picture of the empire as coastline and shallows “such as diminishes the security of Britain as a nation of definite borders”. This in turn could not but propel Ireland into the choppy waters of self-determination. And he argues the struggle over the sea helped shape the argument for Irish self-sovereignty. Childers of course would later bring substantial quantities of guns to the Volunteers at Howth, Co Dublin to aid the fight for freedom.

Allen clearly revels in this nomenclature: watermarking, anchoring, and eddying his ideas with deep textual plumbing. 

It is a trope exemplified by Cork poet Eiléan Ní Chulleanáin whose poems are “immersed in river, sea, and water”. Allen shows a prowess in determining why an inventory of objects along the coastline helps to anchor the narrator’s memory.

“Along the wandering strand the sea unloads glass balls/ jellyfish, broken shells, its tangle/ of nets, cork, bits of wood, coral/ a crooked line paid out on sand/ Here’s evidence, gather it all up…” The poet’s ‘Breeches Buoy’, for Allen, establishes layers of meaning indistinguishable from the coast. For the critic, Ní Chulleanáin in ‘The Sun-fish’ has no equal in contemporary Irish poetry for the brilliance of “a poem’s final turn... deeply informed by multiple traditions, not least maritime ones”.

In a chapter entitled ‘Atlantic Drift’, Allen brings his evaluation up to high tide with the contemporary Kevin Barry. He finds the Limerickman drawn to the coastal margins where his characters discover that “the boundaries between innocence and experience fragment and shift”.

This is especially true of the short story collection ‘Dark Lies the Island’ where a tragic lyricism seems to overwhelm the protagonists: a pathetic fallacy created by the murky weather.

‘In Beatlebone’, Barry is at full throttle with his maritime engagement. John Lennon’s Clew Bay island of Dorinish, where the hippy leader Sid Rawle established a hippy commune, is the locale for the author’s fictive dream, talking seals, and whatever you’re having yourself. 

A young woman’s meditation on the scene here is emblematic of Allen’s thesis: “She looked down on the dark of Clew Bay and the tiny islands that pay in the murk. The cloudbank shifted a fraction and light fell from the quarter-moon and picked up a single island, a low, oblong shape, and it was lit for a moment’s slow reveal.” 

The notion of alienation crops up in Hugo Hamilton’s memoir Speckled People where Hamilton, who is of Irish and German parentage, finds himself seeking an identity. “The extended province of the sea and its creatures is the only zone of freedom imaginable to the young narrator,” writes Allen.

He contrasts Hamilton’s weightless conclusion to the “melancholy freight” of John Banville’s ‘The Sea’. The title was interpreted as a metaphor for the grieving of the main protagonist Max over the death of his wife Anna from cancer: sometimes calm, sometimes raging. Allen suggests the novel can be seen as fluidity of character and place over time. Banville’s writing on the sea here, and in other of his novels, is exceptional.

Allen’s hypothesis is proven here beyond question: that the sea is as important to Irish literature as air is to the characters in its pages. It does beg the question though: who wasn’t influenced by the sea? Allen fuses Irish literature and his own thalassography into an interdependent essence. Quite an accomplishment.

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