Free States: ACIS Midwest 2016

by Marguerite Helmers, UW Oshkosh

Posted by Nicholas on November 6, 2016

During the 1981 hunger strike in the Maze, Bobby Sands wrote in his diary that “struggle in the prisons goes hand-in-hand with the continuous freedom struggle in Ireland. Many Irishmen have given their lives in pursuit of this freedom and I know that more will, myself included, until such times as that freedom is achieved.” From September 22-24, scholars gathered in Lawrence, Kansas together to explore “free states” in Irish Studies, a theme which chair Kathryn Conrad designed “to encourage critical inquiry into freedom, identity, conflict, and place in the literature, culture, and politics of Ireland and the diaspora.”

ACISMidwestlogoIn an emblematic presentation about the nature of narrative and history, Margot Backus commented that “telling the present” by using the narratives of the past only reveals the extent to which we cannot know the past. Focusing on the mystery novels of the contemporary Dublin-based writer Tana French, Backus identified the ways that French’s work disrupts the trust implicit in the text-reader connection. Backus stressed that familiar stories are often inadequate, perpetuating Master Narratives that obscure vernacular realities and the stories of those marked as “Others,” voices that are transgressive, resistant, and hidden. As Gregory Castle pointed out in his reading of Yeats’s “Easter 1916” on the second day of the conference, looking backward doesn’t necessarily reveal beauty.

It was Eamonn Wall who reminded us in his plenary address to resist macro narratives about the Irish past. Avoid “history as we’d like it to be,” he warned, speaking again of how ACIS itself was founded out of resistance. Consequently, Irish Studies offers a home to the immigrant and the traveler, even those who have been “radicalized” by Irish history and literary expression. Given this continuous struggle against hegemonic notions of history, literature, and the arts, it was fitting that Elizabeth Grubgeld, Natalie McCabe, and Mary Trotter opened the conference with a panel that explored the subjectivities of uncomfortable others in the Irish past. Grubgeld’s presentation investigated the conception of psychic “free states” that encourage freedom of movement and self-efficacy Examining disability narratives published since the 1950s, Grubgeld emphasized that freedom meant to write one’s own story, a sentiment echoed by McCabe, who focused on Grace Dyas’s Dublin-based TheatreClub. A playwright committed to social justice, Dyas often creates spaces within otherwise scripted performances for actors to insert their own stories of addiction or ostracism. Continuing the emphasis on the margins of Irish society and culture, Trotter examined rural theatre through The Wood of the Whispering by Michael Joseph Mollóy (1953), which, as she pointed out “addresses despair and depression in the elderly” as well as “the depopulation of the west.”

While it’s not surprising that the tension between the center and the margins would be explored in the context of colonialism, if anything, this conference seemed to draw the rural and the “far flung” into consideration. Often, the speakers noticed that the rural was constructed as a foil for the city. For example, Wade Mahon’s work on the 18th century actor and educator Thomas Sheridan showed that Anglo-Ireland envisioned tutelage in rhetoric, oratory, and theatre as “a lamp” of “civilization” that might “polish” the masses, with Dublin as its epicenter. Aidan Beatty noted that while Friedrich Engels saw the ills of colonialism in Ireland during his trip to the Island in the 1850s, he and Marx also equated the rural with isolation from the social processes that might improve society as a whole. Meghara Eichhorn-Hicks drew attention to W. B. Yeats’s idea that “only the poet can speak for nature.” Constructing Ireland as an idyllic pastoral space, Yeats’s paired poems “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” and “The Sad Shepherd” explore the psychic consequences of being connected to and distanced from nature.

In an unusual twist on the conference theme, Erin Hanrahan argued that the Black Death moved freely throughout Ireland. Anglo-Normans records contend that the plagued raged greater in Dublin than in other areas. Envisioning those beyond the Pale as living in separated, settled villages much like their own towns, Anglo-Normans did not recognize that frequent raids on southern Dublin by the highly mobile Gaelic tribes actually allowed the plague to travel to other areas.

Anxieties over travel and mobility were in themselves a kind of sociopolitical plague until recent times. Addressing misadventure along the newly opened (London)Derry and Enniskillen Railway in 1854, Sean Farrell related the story of an attempted assassination of the Earl of Enniskillen at Trillick, County Tyrone. Catholic railway workers were blamed for deliberately placing three large boulders on the tracks to derail the train in which the Earl travelled, an event that was reported in the Ulster press as a Popish plot.

I my pursuit of a conference narrative, I have neglected many fine presentations that pushed against Master Narratives to explore intellectual, spiritual, artistic, and political freedoms. Orla Donnelly, to name one final participant in this highly stimulating conference, highlighted the ways that the familiar stage Irishman caricature has been appropriated by stand up comics, who use the conventions of the stereotype to draw attention to contemporary political realities. It seems serendipitous, then, that the state motto of Kansas is Ad Astra Per Aspera (To the Stars Through Difficulty), a motto that resonates in tone and tenor with Ireland’s own Plough and the Stars and The Rising of the Moon. The full conference program is available at