"Irish Orientalism: A Literary and Intellectual History is a major contribution both to postcolonial theory and to Irish Studies. The sweep of its subject is impressive, and it brings together a motley group: Diodorus Siculus, the ninth-century Irish monk, Dicuil; Nennius; Bede; William Camden; Edmund Spenser; Roderic O'Flaherty; Thomas Moore; W.B. Yeats; and James Cousins...a fascinating read, inaugurating its subject with style and substance and opening a whole new critical conversation. One hopes that its readers will respond with similar bravura."
Irish University Review
"What drew me to Irish culture and history in the first place were the underlying connections to be drawn between knowledge and power that I had first studied in the context of Orientalism, and which forms the substance of a fascinating study of the parallels between Orientalism and Celticism in [the work of] Joseph Lennon."
"[Lennon's work] .... is undoubtedly the fullest, most detailed and perceptive analysis of these themes yet to have been attempted."
Stephen Howe, author of Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture
"Joseph Lennon's Irish Orientalism is original, provocative, and compelling. Its central thesisthat a tradition of Irish contact, imagined or real, existed with Asia and North Africa from the ninth century to the presentis startling. We may now think of Ireland as the Celtic Tiger, a name taken from the booming economies of the Pacific Rim; but to think that this recent revolution of prosperity and confidence has its roots in a distant past of origin myth and linguistic guesswork is a surprise. Irish Orientalism is controversial and innovative. No wonder that Lennon's self-defense begins early, suggesting his study "runs the risk of also being dismissed as the latest in a long series of illogical discussions about connections between the Oriental and the Celt." In fact, as all groundbreaking study should be, Lennon's book is impressive in reference, detailed in scholarship, and taut in argument.
Irish Orientalism proceeds in two distinct parts. The first mines the history of Irish Orientalism as a discourse. It displays lost works, and lost lines from familiar works, in an historical framework that ranges from India to "Ogygia," the name given Ireland by Roderic O'Flaherty (by way of Plutarch) to the island to which Calypso attracted Ulysses. The cultural genealogies that Lennon traces here are difficult and obscure; he brings them to light with infectious curiosity. Such enthusiasm can lead a reader to begin thinking of Irish Orientalism as a Revival work itself, a history similar to the linguistic and philosophical speculations undertaken by the Royal Irish Academy (of which it is so suspicious); the enduring tradition to which Lennon adheres is that of Samuel Ferguson, not Roger Casement.
The second part of Irish Orientalism considers the Revival period as a culmination, of sorts, of Irish writers’ response to the East. Lennon's arguments are suggestiveYeats's Mosada, for example, is refreshed by his readingwhile [End Page 157] the section on James Cousins is fascinating, and begs for a separate work of critical biography, especially given the wealth of material Lennon uncovered, across continents, in pursuit of his subject. Cousins’s fractured personalityis it James, Seumas, or Jayaram?reflects a strategy by which individuals might negotiate the spaces between Ireland and the beyond. Patrick Pearse and Terence MacSwiney can die for Ireland, and Bengal, in the literature of revolutionary separatists across the British Empire. To his credit, Lennon does not present this inspiration as uncomplicated; it was, after all, an Irishman who allowed the use of force at the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in the Punjab. Irish Orientalism gathers real momentum toward its final pages, when these webs of complicity and resistance pull against each other, post civil war republicanism gathering its strength in a language of global resistance.
Another of the book’s strengths is its illustrations, especially the specter of John Bull advancing across the continents, sword and flame in hand. An especially memorable image is of "The Irish Isis and the Temple of Ruins." And the name of the publication from which this is taken? Nothing less than John Whittley Boswell’s Syllegomena of the Antiquities of Killmackumpshaugh, in the County of Roscommon, and Kingdom of Ireland, in which It Is Clearly Proved that Ireland Was Originally Peopled by Egyptians, published to public bemusement in 1797).
But the improving rhythm of critical commentary betrays a vocabulary whose contemporary modulations recast previous writers in forms that are anachronistic. Lennon writes of the colonized of the seventeenth century that a "universalizing ideological perspective lumped those peoples on the edges of civilization together." Sometimes the critic is guilty of this himself, as in one passage Edmund Spenser, William Camden, Philip Sydney, and Fynes Morrison crowd together, writing poetry, politics, travelogues, and polemic. Lennon’s project is to create a semiotic history of his subject; but to use a phrase like "the imperial gaze" of a period in historythe seventeenth centuryin which the scale and operations of empire so differ from later phases is to suggest the application of an interpretive model unsympathetic to the particularities of a situation that makes Ireland so contested a postcolonial model. This is not to argue that Ireland is a special case and, thus, beyond theory; it is to suggest that Ireland is a special case, and so needs more flexible figuration.
Such flexibility might have extended Lennon's analysis of other writers and movements. In one section we jump directly from the Nation to An Poblacht-seventy years with nothing in between. There is no mention of Joyce's play on "sanskreed" in Finnegans Wake, and little treatment of Ulysses, despite both texts’ invitations. There are other occasional lapses; for instance, it was not who "introduced the major Irish Revival writers to Theosophy and Indian philosophy." [End Page 158] John Butler Yeats was among the first to read from A. P. Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism at the house of an unimpressed Edward Dowden a generation before. The knot may be that both works are mystic and political (so betraying their reactionary sympathies with developing autocracy), and a gap in Lennon's theory of Irish orientalism is its inability to articulate domestic alterity.
Suggestive of this lapse is a passage on the work of Roderic O’Flaherty, whose The Ogyggia Vindicated, a defense of his work on Ireland and the orient, was reprinted in 1785. O'Flahertys work is, to Lennon, built "upon earlier pseudohistories of Ireland in order to juxtapose Irish culture against the increasing trend of a newfangled and rootless modernity in Britain." Begging in the background is that other rootless modernity in Ireland, the United Irishmen’s revolutionary affection for American and French republicanism. Such social elision extends to India, which appears here mostly as a unified space of similar peoples, undifferentiated in theory by religion, region, language, or gender. Overall, it is unfair to require continuous reference to the political movements of Irish society. But the hints we are given of background controversy might point to the future life of Lennon’s argument, the writer Charles Vallancey losing his audience after 1798, "when starry-eyed Irish antiquarianism suddenly seemed more ominous to many unionist Anglo-Irish and British readers and scholars."
If this is critical, it is because Irish Orientalism opens up new perspective on a discourse that continues to extend its selves into the new century. The Ireland of diaspora and decentralization is more open to the recovery of such long buried perspectives. Lennon’s Irish Orientalism would be valuable alone for the reconstitution of figures like Frederick Ryan, whose work for Egyptian independence was revolutionary; like Ryan, Lennon is courageous and committed in argument. The phenomenon of Irish orientalism needs further examination, but, like an Irish Isis, the proposition of its discovery is a striking challenge that demands critical consideration."
New Hibernia Review
Centuries before W. B. Yeats wove Indian, Japanese, and Irish forms together in his poetry and plays, Irish writers found kinships in Asian and West Asian cultures. This book maps the unacknowledged discourse of Irish Orientalism within Ireland's complex colonial heritage. Relying on cultural and postcolonial theory, Joseph Lennon examines Irish impressions of Asia and West Asia, understood together as the Orient in the West.
British writers from Cambrensis to Spenser depicted Ireland as a remote border land inhabited by wild descendants of Asian Scythiansbarbarians to the ancient Greeks. Contemporaneous Irish writers likewise borrowed classical traditions, imagining the Orient as an ancient homeland. Lennon traces Irish Orientalism through origin legends, philology, antiquarianism, historiography into Irish literature and culture, exploring the works of Keating, O'Flaherty, Swift, Vallancey, Sheridan, Moore, Croker, Owenson, Mangan, de Vere, and others. He explores a key moment of Irish Orientalismthe twentieth-century Celtic Revivaldiscussing the works of Gregory, Casement, Connolly, and Joyce, but focusing on Theosophist writers W. B. Yeats, George Russell, James Stephens, and James Cousins.
From Irish Orientalism
"The dominant imperial discourse of European Orientalism emerged in Britain and France; this discourse had considerable impact in Ireland, but Irish Orientalism has a distinct history. Native Irish representations of Asian and West Asian cultures date back to Irish tradition in the ninth century. Many of these representations depict Irish ancestors migrating from Asia. Since these early narratives of the Orient, Ireland has been identified, compared, and contrasted with various Asian cultures. For early modern and medieval Irish writers, parts of the Orient signaled Ireland's ancient heritage. Later, because of Ireland's complex relationship with the British Empire, the Orient also came to signify another arm of British conquest for many Irish writers. Witnessing the process of cultural misrepresentations given by British commentators and historians of Ireland, Irish writers often highlighted the constructed nature of cultural representations when discussing Irish history and the Orient. . . . To study Irish writings on the Orient is also to study Irish cultural narratives of antiquity, Celticism, and nation."
Joseph Lennon, assistant professor of English at Manhattan College in New York City,
has published poetry and essays on literature and culture in a number of journals and anthologies. He is poetry editor of The Recorder, a publication of the American Irish Historical Society.
6 x 9, 256 pages, 11 illustrations, notes, bibliography, index
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