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This article is taken from PN Review 174, Volume 33 Number 4, March - April 2007.

Preface to Irish Writers on Irish Writing Eavan Boland


In one of the darkest moments of Irish history, Thomas Davis, a young patriot, wrote an essay. The year was 1846. Ireland was on the brink of another failed revolution. Within months, famine would engulf the island. Within two years Davis himself would be dead.

In his essay, he warned and promised. 'This country of ours,' he wrote, 'is no sandbank thrown up by some recent caprice of earth. It is an ancient land, honoured in the archives of civilization, traceable into antiquity by its piety, its valour, and its sufferings. Every great European race has sent its stream to the rivers of the Irish mind.'

It is hard to resist Davis's eloquence. Yet this book shows how complicated that apparently simple concept became. It took another half-century for the Irish nation to emerge. With that emergence came stresses, resistances and counter-claims. In the process, the Irish mind was shown to be anything but the paradigm of tranquil reception which Davis suggested.

This series is about writers and writing. But what exactly does that mean in the Irish context? How does an Irish writer define Irish writing? To start with, not with theory or abstraction. That is not the Irish way. In the nineteenth century Yeats, in a preface to a book of short stories, wrote: 'The old men tried to make one see life plainly, but all written down in a kind of fiery shorthand.'

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