Declan Kiberd has long been one of our most lively and illuminating literary critics and next week, at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature, he will discuss his latest book, After Ireland.
Ahead of his Galway visit, Kiberd spoke with me about a life steeped in literature. “I got my love of books from both of my parents,” he begins. “When I was in primary school my father told me if I wanted a book and saved up half the price of it, he’d give me the other half. That was how I amassed my library of Billy Bunter and Enid Blyton books, and the like, and that was one of the starts I got in literature.
"My mother gave me my interest in the Irish language and literature and sent me to the Gaeltacht in Connemara from a young age – I was eight and a half the first time I went. I was fascinated by that other version of the world for me as a city boy from the north side of Dublin. I was in a house where the old man of the house died the first time I was there, and he was laid out on the oak table that we’d eaten our dinner off a few hours earlier.
"My father was a commercial traveller and was very busy through his working life, but he began to slow down and take things easier, which was only in his mid seventies. I was a student in Trinity then and had amassed quite a collection of books. He read his way through a lot of the biographies of great Irish writers, particularly the books by Richard Ellman, who happened to be my supervisor when I was in Oxford. He loved Ellman’s books on Joyce and Wilde and Yeats. When I re-read them now I notice little marks in Biro he made beside sentences he particularly admired. Even though he has been dead over 20 years, as a reader my father is still very present to me.”
As well as being taught by Richard Ellmann, Kiberd also has the privilege of counting John McGahern and Máirtín Ó Cadhain among his teachers. “I was extremely lucky to have those teachers as you say,” he agrees. “When John McGahern taught me I was only eight so I didn’t know then he was an important writer. He paid great attention to poetry, the spoken word. He always put on a verse-speaking show in the school concert when other teachers had musical items. He cultivated a love of poetry in a lot of us boys. He was fired from his post in that school, Belgrove, a few years later when I was in secondary school, and I was aware in a vague way even then, because of the controversy, that literature did count for something and that the authorities could be a bit frightened of it.
'I think Tuam's Tom Murphy is one of the major playwrights of the 20th century'
"That was fascinating for me as a young adolescent so John was a huge influence. When I went to Trinity I was taught in Irish by Ó Cadhain who was one of the great Irish prose writers of the 20th century. The Irish department was very small, there were 16 of us in my four years there so four in each class which meant you were getting intense tutorials from a great writer. He’d talk to you about anything, Norman Mailer or Cú Chullain. From Trinity I went to Oxford where I worked with Ellman. He was a very kind, gentle, unpretentious man. He really was a kind of artist as well as a great critic. Ellman also had a tremendous sense of humour and there isn’t a funnier book on the shelf than his biography of Joyce. He was an inspiration to me and I was extremely lucky in having these people as teachers.”
Tuam’s Tom Murphy is one of the writers Kiberd has often lauded; “I think Murphy is one of the major playwrights of the 20th century,” he asserts “He is particularly important in that he restores the pressure of raw emotion to the stage of a kind that hadn’t been fully rendered on it since the days of Eugene O’Neill. There is something very operatic about his plays as well; they tremble on the brink of being musical. It reminds us that all art aspires to the condition of music. A number of Murphy’s plays, especially The Gigli Concert, is about a man who wants to sing operatically. They are an example of theatre as opera. He’s a reminder that theatre had its origins not just in dance, but in music too, and he is a truly major figure.”
I ask Declan whether there are any writers about whom his opinion has changed over his 30 year career of writing on Irish literature. “Yes, I definitely changed my opinion about Sean O’Casey,” he replies. “I was once very critical of what I felt to be a cartoon rendition of the Dublin working class in The Plough and the Stars and Juno and the Paycock. I felt that he didn’t really stage the conflict between socialism and nationalism fully on the boards; in a sense the nationalists were always kept offstage. I now think this was a very incomplete reading of his work and what his plays really are a lament for an entire community.
'It’s encouraging in a way for someone struggling with language in school to know that Yeats spelled ‘tonight’ ‘tonite’'
"I was reading it too much in terms of rival ideas and not sufficiently in terms of what I said about Murphy, raw emotion. So I totally changed my view on O’Casey and increasingly came to see him as a great genius and also as a celebrant of the Dublin working class rather than a satirist. I changed my view about other writers too; when I was younger I was critical of Yeats; I thought there was a slight element of class pretension, even snobbery, with him, but the more I read the more convinced I became he was the major voice in modern Irish writing.
"I devoted five chapters of Inventing Ireland to him. He was great in the range of human emotions he rendered in his poems. Also, some of his lines don’t just report emotion they actually invent them in his own act of creation. When I look on Yeats now I think he is the greatest writer of the English language since Shakespeare. And when you think that he couldn’t spell – he misspelled ‘professor’ when applying for the Chair of English in Trinity.
He is the only great monoglot who was also a great writer in English, all the others knew a second or third language. It’s encouraging in a way for someone struggling with language in school to know that Yeats spelled ‘tonight’ ‘tonite’, or that he could never learn French or Irish despite all his attempts, and yet he produces a language that is next only to Shakespeare.”
Kiberd has always pitched his books at the intelligent lay reader and he regrets that so much current writing from within academia is exclusive and jargon-heavy. “One of the great tragedies of academia in my lifetime is the emergence of more and more jargon,” he observes. “It’s based on a sort of despair among some scholarly writers of reaching that lay wider intellectual general audience. It’s been very bad in fact for the discipline. I agree with GB Shaw who said you should be able to explain anything to anybody.
"I believe academics have a duty to make their debates comprehensible to the wider public who after all pay most of the taxes that keep universities going. I really do want to reach a wider audience. Just before I wrote Inventing Ireland, I’d been asked to write a weekly column for The Irish Times and that was a good discipline for me, it kept me from getting over abstract at a time when a lot of high-falutin’ jargonistic theory was coming into my discipline, but that column kept me virtuous in a way.”
The virtues of Declan Kiberd’s writing and thinking can be enjoyed in Galway next week when he talks, on Wednesday April 25, at the Aula Maxima, NUI Galway, at 1pm, joined by Dr Rióna Ni Fhrighil. See www.cuirt.ie