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Rereading “The Barracks” by John McGahern

The Barracks

In some ways, it’s good to be told a certain percentage of what you have to teach. Having spoken up in favour of John McGahern at a meeting without feeling (initially) very personally invested I was subsequently asked to teach him. Of course I had the power to refuse, but I said yes partly because of the strange power of McGahern’s prose and partly because of the very fact that I would never, unprompted, have thought of volunteering to teach him.

I need to have a quota of the aleatory in my working life.

So I’m teaching The Dark and I’ve already put some content advice on the teaching website. The idiot politician who stood up and complained about content warnings at universities with the ludicrous phrase “life doesn’t have content warnings” comes to mind. Of course life comes with content warnings. Roads have warnings about sharp turns. We have warnings about dangerous currents and electricity cables. If warnings can protect life, by and large, we’re inclined to issue them. Not all of life comes with content warnings but as much of it does and the sane among us would welcome more warnings. And apart from life there are TV programmes and films which for as long as I can remember have been prefaced with content warnings. Hopefully someone will ask this same politician if he’s in favour of free to air television being crammed with graphic sexualised violence at all hours of the day with no prior warnings being offered.

The Barracks, McGahern’s earlier novel, does not have a content warning, but perhaps it should have. Warning – this book contains accurate descriptions of unbearable sadness.

A middle aged woman stuck in a loveless marriage with a hopelessly frustrated representative of An Garda Síochána with children not her own who cannot quite love her and who lives only to satisfy a cripplingly detailed and repetitive sense of routine and obligation finds out she has cancer.

Perhaps I haven’t made it sound sad enough. It’s sadder than this “plot” summary suggests. Throughout this book there is this grinding sense of purposelessness and waste. Elizabeth had enjoyed a crazier, loftier, more extravagant idea of love many years earlier in London before her then supposed soulmate’s epiphany of existential despair overwhelmed the pair of them.

Is there beauty in the sadness? Perhaps there is beauty all around the sadness. Throughout his relatively small body of work, McGahern seizes hold of the small and the ordinary, the detail of minor tasks to be accomplished as a celebration of strategic versatility of means to defer the darkness. Within the sheer complexity of the semi-willed rhythms of the domestic, a kind of heroic self fashioning takes place all around us, for the most part unsung and unacknowledged.

Throughout his work, McGahern is doing the quiet singing and louder acknowledging.

Never Ending BSECS: Aphra Behn’s Engaging Relationships – Reviewed.

Why I Write Them, I Can Give No Account": Aphra Behn and "Love-Letters to a  Gentleman" (1696)

For the time being I’m still in a position to access those BSECS panels which I could not attend in real time? How long will this advantage last? I will find out. This Aphra Behn panel benefited from fresh and ongoing editorial work from panelists. This was cutting edge stuff.

Elaine Hobby: Aphra Behn’s Politico-Religious Engagement under James II.
Margarete Rubik: Inheritance in Aphra Behn’s The Younger Brother.
Jennifer Batt: Masculinity and Misogyny in Aphra Behn’s Lycidus.

Elaine Hobby carefully identified Behn as an Anglican, drawing on her creative paraphrasing from the Book of Common Prayer. To inhabit the Book of Common Prayer was to assert oneself as part of respect for a certain version of “order” within which a version of religion and a version of politics reinforced one another. This identification would also demonstrate that Behn’s loyalty to James, whether as Duke of York or as King, was neither unqualified nor absolute, and above all not opportunist. Hobby’s Behn emerges as someone whose core beliefs are tested and modified by changing times but who illustrates a kind of persistent politico-religious mood music that illustrates continuity if not always consistency.

Margarete Rubik considered Behn’s late work The Younger Brother in terms of contemporary understandings of the laws of inheritance and disinheritance? How absolute was an entail? Under what circumstances could a father disinherit an older son and redirect the line of family succession? Needless to say, these questions in the context of the 1680s had a bearing on national power politics as well as private family property. The figure of the “younger brother”, sidelined by primogeniture is a familiar and generally sympathetic one in fiction of the period. Perhaps the most interesting issue concerns the extent to which fiction is delimited by legal possibilities and probabilities when it comes to inheritance and disinheritance, and the extent to which dramatic and melodramatic desiderata ride roughshod over common law and active precedents.

Jennifer Batt paid particular attention to the (very) male narrator of Behn’s Lycidus, a heavily allegorical prose romance very loosely translated from Paul Tallement’s French original. This first person narrative features a character far more assertively (and therefore insecurely) male than Tallement’s narrator – a character whose amorous disappointments appear to constitute successive existential threats to the masculinity of his very being. It was also noted that the setting for this book, an island paradise of sex without consequences or parental control, is situated close to the fatal shores of Guinea. This in turn led to a subsequent discussion of how important it is within Behn’s moral economy to assert a difference between being born a slave and becoming a slave and the slippage between metaphorical and very literal understandings of servitude and thralldom.

Perhaps, however, the main takeaway from this session was the sheer cheerfulness of people who have been professionally obligated to read the complete works of Aphra Behn over and over and over again.

We should all learn from this cheerfulness.

Never ending BSECS. Within and Against Empire, Reviewed.

This was a provocative and startling panel which helps to reconfigure eighteenth-century anti-slavery discourse.

Adam Bridgen: Stephen Duck’s ‘Avaro and Amanda’: Early Labouring-Class Antislavery Poetics.

Bridget Keegan: Eighteenth-Century Sailor Poets and Slavery: James Field Stanfield’s The Guinea Voyage in Context.

Franca Dellarosa: Writing the Unspeakable: Labouring-Class Atlantic Crossings.

Andrew Bridgen’s paper considered the well known “peasant poet” Stephen Duck in terms of a surprisingly early articulation of an anti-slavery position. This paper pointed out that Duck reworked the Inkle and Yarico story as famously sketched in The Spectator in terms which foregrounded the tragedy of human bondage at the expense of the more familiar tragedy of romantic loss. The fact that Duck is not generally regarded as an anti-slavery poet may be down to the fact that he was active decades before the high water mark of anti slavery agitation in the 1780s and also the fact that Duck is anxious to retain a degree of classical machinery whose acquisition has been, in his case, hard fought.

Bridget Keegan provided a deal of context for James Stanfield, stressing the his outsider status as an Irish catholic, as well as the fact that his occupation as an ordinary merchant seaman positioned him as the subject of a punitive carceral regime even as his documented the horrors of the middle passage. Stanfield’s account of a “Guinea voyage” is marked if not more by descriptions of the cruelties meted out to the crew as it is by descriptions of the sufferings of those chained below deck. This was a complex and thoughtful paper that discussed how Stanfield, complicit and yet marginal, organised various vectors of perspective that gave his work such peculiar authority.

Franca Dellarosa devoted particular attention to Edward Rushton as well as Stanfield, demonstrating how plebian voices might integrate an anti-slavery position into a larger radical agenda. This third paper also oscillated between descriptive and documentary sources to demonstrate how effective (and affective) truth claims were to be organised. The facts do not quite “speak for themselves” – but they also register the “unspeakable”. The compulsion to speak out functions alongside a frequently stated language that no speech can be adequate to the task of fleshing out the proven horrors of the middle passage and plantation slavery.

Discussion of these papers could have continued indefinitely. Inter alia, we were reminded of the central symbolic importance of the Zong atrocity as a means of representing slavery’s hideous logic – its explanatory power recorded in cold blooded numbers as well as in passionate protest.

“The Fighting Kentuckian”: A Marseillaise Western starring John Wayne and Oliver Hardy.

On what would have been Oliver Hardy’s 130th birthday… let’s remember him alongside his famous comedy partner – John Wayne.


This unusual film involves a strange sort of historical footnote. After the fall of Napoleon (treated throughout this movie with extreme reverence), exiled Bonapartists were permitted to start little colonies in Alabama.

In this film, Kentuckians are marching home north (singing an insufferable little ditty to the tune of “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain”) having fought under Andrew Jackson when they encounter one such French community. They find themselves natural friends and allies. A community defined by Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Wellington at Waterloo eagerly embrace people who have helped defeat (and kill) Wellington’s less gifted brother in law at the Battle of New Orleans.

One of these boisterous Kentuckians, John Breen, (Wayne) falls in love with a Frenchwoman, who is actually the daughter of one of Marie Antoinette’s maids and a sans-culotte. These Kentuckians, incidentally, will fight over anything, and break everything in their path –…

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Ollie’s worst and finest twenty minutes. Laurel and Hardy in “Helpmates” (1932).

Oliver Hardy would have been 130 years old today. This might just be his finest hour…



This is one of a number of films which can plausibly designated “as good as it gets”.  It is also one of the most tragic, not in terms of any quantitative assessment of pain inflicted or damage done, but in terms of its representation of fall from grace.

The film begins surveying a scene of chaos – the morning after evidence of a party of almost unimaginable depravity and destructiveness.  A shaky Oliver delivers a penitential monologue to his own reflection in the mirror.

A telegram delivery guy arrives.   Like all telegram delivery guys in Laurel and Hardy films, he’s already read the telegram and informs Ollie that Ollie’s terrifying wife is returning early from Chicago.  With the house a disaster area and unthinkable retribution looming, Ollie is reduced to a desperate expedient – he phones Stan to help.

After a series of elegant mishaps which result in every single…

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A Book Too Far? The one about World Peace

Birthdays seem to have a chastening effect on me these days. I chose to spend a portion of yesterday’s birthday writing the first few paragraphs of a book which I like to think could be written.

World Peace would appear to be an unambiguously affirmative proposition, celebrated by students, philosophers, artists, and pageant contestants of all kinds.  Who would not want to strive for world peace?  Hasn’t this been a norm of value in all places and at all times?  Yet the concept has a contested genesis, an evolution, and a dark side.

In 1712-13, the Abbe Saint Pierre, cleric and diplomat, published his Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe.   Peace negotiations were labyrinthine in their multilateral complexity while the war of Spanish Succession that was thankfully coming to an end had been ruinously expensive and destructive of human life and happiness across Europe and beyond.  Saint-Pierre surveyed humanity’s capacity for continuous and irreversible technological improvement and demanded to know why the science of diplomacy could not be refined to the point where organised slaughter between nations became a thing of the past.  Saint-Pierre believed that the plausible project of perpetual peace demanded a supra national authority with a representative assembly based on Utrecht.  He promoted a version of European Union.  The adoption of Saint-Pierre’s programme would take centuries, but it was variously discussed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.  Saint-Pierre was also translated into English.

The argument of this book concerns how the prospect of peace was imagined, poetically, at a time when ideas of permanently ending war between European nations were seriously circulated.  It begins with the circumstances of the conclusion to the War of Spanish Succession and concludes with the Napoleonic era.  To state the very obvious, a great deal of European warfare occurred during this period.  It is equally obvious to point out that very needful imaginings of European peace did not always accommodate the resolution of proxy wars of conquest, exploitation and slavery waged across other continents.

Celebrations of peace can often (logically) calcify into celebrations of the status quo.  Rendering a particular eighteenth-century treaty permanent might seem reasonable if you are English or French but less so if you are Irish or Hungarian.  According to certain understandings of Saint-Pierre’s plan,  ruling elites will have their borders frozen so as to contain subject populations more or less in perpetuity.  How can destructive war be brought to an end while permitting aspirant peoples to assert their legitimate need for self determination?

The idea of World Peace cannot therefore be disentangled from the urgent political problematics of the so-called “European Enlightenment”, in its fully realised Kantian form.  If “Enlightenment” represents destiny and this destiny is decidedly European, then the ideological apparatus for the European subjugation of the world is in place.  If conservatives invoke ancestry to oppress living generations of people, the progressives too often invoke posterity to do precisely the same thing.  Claiming to be on “the right side” of history enables you to do just about anything in support of endless generations of the unborn, who will belatedly thank you the oppressor just as a screaming child was traditionally informed that he would one day thank the father who thrashes him. 

Yet postcolonial deconstructions of Eurocentric progressivism need not and should not breed a corrosive cynicism regarding peace narrative during the so-called Enlightenment period.  The Abbe Saint-Pierre and others like him were utterly sincere both in their revulsion at the waste of human life that warfare represents and in their belief that human beings have the intellectual capacity to construct a system for abolishing war.  And if humans have the capacity to abolish war then they have a moral obligation to attempt to do so.  Once any feasible looking plan for perpetual and/or universal peace occurs to you, you have an ethical obligation to take it seriously. 

Few would argue with the idea that intelligent diplomacy is the means of saving lives.  The eighteenth century began to imagine a world in which this diplomatic saving of lives was not a matter of individual charisma but could rather be reduced (or elevated) to a regular science, a science which could be rendered predictive and reliable. 

This book does not deal primarily with Kantian philosophy or with political theory. Its subject is the confusions and contradictions of urgent pacific rhetoric expressed in anglophone verse.  It is a study of the extent to which writers wished to imagine both perpetual and universal versions of peace and the blessings that were likely to follow in the wake of such an aspiration.  Illogical, partial, myopic as these visions may have been, given metrical and therefore mnemonic authority, they contributed to a sense of continuity which has never been decisively broken.  Peace continually wishes to speak itself, given a chance.

Never ending BSECS. Georgian Theatre and Materiality reviewed.

36 Sarah siddons ideas | sarah, lady macbeth, shakespeare plays

Here was a panel about theatrical representation – about the visibility of women on stage and the importance of enduring forms of representation.

Rebecca Morrison: “The Female Dresses Designed and Executed by Miss Rein”: the nascent professionalisation of theatrical costume design in London’s patent theatres.

Katie Noble: Paper Stages: Performance and mediation in a scrapbook of Sarah Siddons.

Rebecca Morrison’s paper covered a period of transition between an era when players owned (or borrowed) their own costume (or received an allowance to purchase one) and an era in which costumes are manufactured, owned, and retained, by theatres themselves. She identifies the beginning of this process slightly earlier than has generally been assumed and also identifies Mary Rein as a pioneer in the field of specialised theatrical costume design.

It is, of course, not until the nineteenth century that the idea of historically accurate and consistent costuming becomes anything like “standard” on the professional Anglophone stage. In the meantime, Rein appears to have been the first woman other than a player or an author to be listed on a playbill.

Katie Noble offered a subtle and theoretically sophisticated paper treating a particular “scrapbook” of prints treating not only Sarah Siddons, but other contemporary theatrical stars with a special focus on the Kemble family. This paper looked not primarily at the representation of players, but rather at the logic of how such images are mediated, organised, and transformed through the eye of the dedicated collector. The choices and juxtapositions made by such collectors reflect a desire to fix and freeze and determine the really paradigmatic roles of great performers such as Siddons.

The story of Siddons is, in any case, the story of someone who seems to have become increasingly frustrated by the ephemeral nature of her art and who was concerned to spend more and more time with Joshua Reynolds and Ann Damer, people who could capture decisive theatrical attitudes for posterity to marvel at.

I was left wondering, in particular, about costume, and whether the especially large costume budget for a production of Cinderella in the 1780 reflected a particular audience demand for fancy costumes? Were the fully realised designs of Mary Rein a significant draw for London audiences? Was shiny fabric in motion a significant part of the commercial appeal of theatre in this age?

Never Ending BSECS: “Writing Emotion”, belatedly viewed.

George Canning Is My Son: A new biography of the remarkable Mary Ann Hunn  eBook : Crowe, Julian: Books

Now this panel contained two extraordinary papers each of which dealt with the strategic self fashioning of female identity through correspondence.

Anna Jamieson: “Daughter in Distress”: Euphemia Boswell’s “Tale
of Woe”

Rachel Bynoth: An Impassioned Emotional Defence: Reframing
motherhood in the letters of the Canning Family
Network, 1760-1830

To my shame I knew little, prior to accessing this recorded conference session, about James Boswell’s daughter Euphemia. Accused by the rest of her family of reckless improvidence, she did seemingly have a tendency to go through money very quickly. Much of her correspondence consists of calculated begging letters, in which her own sense of physical disability is blamed for her inability to follow her literary vocation in a more responsible and remunerative fashion. Eventually, she was placed inside a private madhouse and having been lodged there for twenty years, a poetic production called a “Tale of Woe” emerged. Euphemia managed to exploit her auspicious family name alongside an evocation of romantic Scottish associations designed to provoke chivalric and protective instincts towards an author who professed herself unjustly incarcerated. The paper concluded with a meditation on the limitations of any feminist valorisation of “agency” and the need for agency to be reconfigured within more contextually enforced terms.

The second paper concerned the mother of prominent Tory politician George Canning, the creative force behind the Anti-Jacobin and briefly prime minister in the 1820s. Given up to more respectable adoption with an uncle and aunt, George’s relationship with his birth mother, Mary Ann Costello, was almost entirely epistolary. Her chosen profession of actress gave him concern and embarrassment his entire life. Mary’s letters to her son perform a somewhat histrionic version of maternity, combining genuine pride in his political achievement with a demand that he recognise the ties of nature that ought to bind son and mother together.

The ensuing discussion illustrated how writing serves to reinforce different versions of sometimes exaggerated and sometimes transgressive womanhood. The self consciously emotional writings of “women in distress” inhabit pre-existing categories of readerly expectations, but confessional writing can destabilise these very categories from within.

So this was a panel in which I ended up learning a great deal, and a panel which encouraged me to think harder about ways in which supposedly “natural” affection are mediated strategically in harsh and unforgiving social worlds.

Part of why I think I’m a Burkean (but not a Conservative).

Reposting on the occasion of Burke’s birthday.



Of course, it’s easier in Ireland, because here it’s possible to be Burkean and Painite at one and the same time.  Historically, we’ve been forged by both.  Even Irish republicanism has sometimes been more Burkean than Painite in terms of its appeal to ancestral memory and dynastic obligation.

I don’t think my political views have changed much over the past few decades, which may make me an idiot, I know.  How can I be a Burkean?  Well, being a Burkean isn’t so much about adherence to a set of political beliefs, it’s more about an ethical habitus, a way of judging and a definition of psychological health.

It should be said that Burke wasn’t always a Burkean in this sense, and did not always live up to his own high standards.

In an age of ranting contrarians, raging populists, and libidinal accelerationists who seem to confound any clear distinction between…

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Never Ending BSECS. “Enchanted Ground”.

Gweledigaethau y bardd cwsg .. : Wynne, Ellis, 1671-1734 : Free Download,  Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Watching recorded conference sessions, I’m always amused to find myself “nodding”, sometimes applauding, and often wanting to ask questions. The “pastness” of the event always creeps up to slightly disappoint me.

Anyhow I caught up today with this panel called “Enchanted Ground” which treated Welsh bardic legacies in an controversial eighteenth-century context.

Amy Louise Blaney
From Indifference to Engagement: Arthurian
Romance, National Identity and “a world of fine
fabling” in the Age of Reason

Dewi Alter
Disappointment and Admiration: Engaging with
the Ancient British Bards in Welsh Anglicanism

Bethan Jenkins
Epic Fail: eighteenth-century Welsh poets
embracing and resisting poetic tradition.

Amy Blaney’s paper began by showing us a picture of Queen Caroline’s extraordinary and much mocked little folly – “Merlin’s Cave”, as it was built to enliven the royal gardens at Richmond. Caroline’s Arthurian whimsy, we were told, functioned as part of a larger project to connect the new Hanoverian dynasty with the most ancient of all British genealogies – to encourage the belief that the new regime had roots deep in the earliest of uniquely British (Welsh?) mythologies. The fact that the same Whig-Hanoverian Robinocracy was mocked by Tory satirists using the same machinery of Merlin’s prophecies only goes to demonstrate the political importance, and indeed topicality, of Arthurian topoi.

Dewi Alter’s paper treated two very different scholars – Ellis Wynne and Theophilus Evans, the former retaining significant animadversions on the traditions and practices of ancient bards while continuing to respecting their cultural significant, the latter championing all Welsh bards as uncorrupted representatives of the purest “British Tradition”. Notably, Evans champions the continuity of the Welsh language and literature, a continuity (and therefore integrity) which other European languages like French and English cannot claim.

Finally Bethan Jenkins discussed the hapless Goronwy Owen, whose itinerant and unsuccessful Anglican career was marked by a desperate desire to adapt the Welsh language to the ambition of a “modern” epic without compromising the formal qualities of Welsh versification that had proved so defining and cherishable. Goronwy seems to have been caught between traditional and aspirational impulses and his “epic failure” illuminates the place of Welsh in four nations discourse but also the impossible expectations of “epic” in an eighteenth-century context.

The ensuing discussion treated considerations of whether Welsh Anglicanism claimed a version of “protestantism” that pretended to predate European Catholicism.

Had I been at this panel in real time, I might have tried to ask something about the extent to which the authenticity of Welsh poetry seems to be guaranteed by its consistency by Theophilus Evans while Evan Evans makes a virtue of acknowledged obscurity to be found in ancient Welsh poetic descriptions, not so subtly underlining the suspicious lack of obscurity to be found in Macpherson’s translations from Ossian.