A Second Take: Xenophobia and Readership

Having spent about a week away from the Celtic Fringe blog, I was pleased to see today that an enlivened discussion emerged from my post about xenophobic trends in Ireland, as seen through the eyes of Derek Mahon and James Joyce. Both Cole and Professor McInerney point to key aspects of the works that need to be considered. Thinking about the potential roots of such xenophobia, Cole’s post encourages us to see Mahon’s xenophobic tropes as a reaction against the marginalization of the Irish in their own land; Professor McInerney’s asks us to consider the historical factors, like a homogenous population and little immigration, which lead the Irish to express such sentiments.

Beyond addressing the mere presence of xenophobia, both posts make me wonder, more generally, about how difficult it is for readers to distance their personal thoughts and experiences from the reading process. Looking back to my reading of xenophobia in Ulysses, I think my reaction is colored by an identification with Bloom, Joyce’s protagonist. To give a short gloss, Bloom is a Jewish individual born and raised in Ireland. Plagued by domestic strife (a cheating wife and a dead son), he wanders through Dublin and relates his experiences in the text. What is really striking about him, however, is his evenhandedness. Faced with complicated decisions or infuriating situations, he always tries to see two sides of an issue—a trait I very much admire. With this (albeit biased) reading in mind, one can begin to understand how a reader could be infuriated when faced with the Cyclops episode, wherein a brutal, nationalistic, xenophobic (and unnamed) narrator rages against Bloom’s religion and challenges his claim to Irish identity. One could also see how that reading of Ulysses might color a reading of other Irish poets, like Mahon. On the other hand, I very much understand and relate to Cole’s defense of Mahon, which is based, at least partially, on the personal experience of seeing tourists overrun a beloved home space. It is clear that such an experience could and will make one feel slightly xenophobic at times.

Put together, it is interesting how both Cole and my readings emerge in no small part from personal experience. Far from being the cold, unemotional evaluation of a text, the reading process emerges from the “baggage” we bring to the text. Personal relationships, individual philosophies, traumas, memories, joys, and knowledge simultaneously craft and limit the way we interpret a literary text. Above all, as human beings, as individuals in the truest sense of the word, we experience the world (and the literary texts in it) from our own perspective. No wonder, then, that literary texts or the presence of foreigners in one’s homeland evoke such powerful responses and differentiated responses. All of us see the world through our own eyes.

And yet, such a conclusion might also be a reason why we should avoid xenophobia. If individuals’ readings emerge from their own personal experiences, from each person’s unique history and ideologies, we can conclude that everyone is truly different. Why, then, not strive to see each person for who they are, instead of grouping them into a national, reductionist category? To do so would be to recognize our own biases and to gain a better understanding of exactly what we do when we crack a book open.

All of this is not to say that xenophobia shouldn’t exist; it is understandable that it does. Rather, I am arguing for an open mind or, to use the Economists’ word, greater “perspective”. At the root of many human disagreements is a personal short-sightedness. Looking at the bigger picture, of immigration, for example, can yield refreshing perspectives and something we can all agree on, namely greater prosperity for more people:

“Above all, perspective is needed. The vast population movements of the past four decades have not brought the social strife the scaremongers predicted. On the contrary, they have offered a better life for millions of migrants and enriched the receiving countries both culturally and materially. But to preserve these great benefits in the future, politicians need the courage not only to speak up against the populist tide in favour of the gains immigration can bring, but also to deal honestly with the problems it can sometimes cause.”

See the Economist Article “Global Migration, Keep the Borders Open”

In short, we might all do well to see the world in a more Bloomsian fashion, constantly weighing the arguments and counterarguments implicit in the chain of ambiguous events that form our existence.

Micheal O’Siadhail

Micheal O'Siadhail

I just wanted to share the link that I mentioned in class with everyone.

Click here for a video of O’Siadhail reading two of his poems, a copy of his 2008 interview with the Irish Book Review, a recording of his work set to music, and, lastly, the interview with Dick Staub.

In Defence of Derek Mahon

While I can’t speak to Andrew’s comment on Ulysses, I think both poems point toward a source of xenophobia which goes a little deeper than an immediate distinction between the insider and outsider.  Fear of the other and ignorance in both poems emerge as symptoms of xenophobia, but it is the paradoxical othering of the Irish speaker from his own homeland that produces this xenophobic sentiment.

In “Night Thoughts” the place has been transformed into a “Georgian theme-park for the tourist.”  It has been built up for the travel and tourism industry so that it is actually the tourist who belongs in this space rather than the Irish speaker.  What’s more the speaker must be all too aware of this irony, describing the place sardonically as an artificial “theme-park.”  In several ways this line points back to the “Georgian Dublin houses” in “Herbert Street Revisited” by John Montague.  The Georgian Dublin nature of the space sounds equally paradoxical to me and both point back to the colonial past in which the colonial subject is excluded from power within his/her own homeland.  A temporal distance also seems to be at work in both poems (and “The Chinese Restaurant”: “the place is as it might have been”, “as if the world were young” ), further removing the speaker from the space.  The alienation from the space begins with an alienation from the past, a communal sense of the past and the persistence of a place through time necessarily producing an ideology of belonging.  This is not the Ireland of “Yeats and Wilde,” this is the “new world order” and we need a new way of defining belonging.  The speaker achieves this in the end by “read[ing] the symbolists as the season dies” but there’s an acute pain in the inevitable and irreversible passing of the seasons.

Now look to “The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush” where another Irish speaker sits in the resort town of Portrush eating Chinese food.  The juxtaposition of “prawn chow mein” with the morning paper, iconic of the western world, again highlights the disjunction between speaker and place.  The “framed photograph of Hong Kong” reads to me as a generic and artificial representation of China that someone could find in any Chinese Restaurant, and probably would never find in a typical restaurant in China.  The Chinese man (who is actually never referred to as a man or specifically Chinese funnily enough) stands looking out at the sea rather than at the photo.  Neither the speaker nor the proprietor belong in this space, but multiple frames within the poem create a second distance between these two “foreigners.”  First the Chinese Restaurant which the proprietor can at least claim ownership over is framed in the larger lens of the Northern Irish town of Portrush, which is again framed in the even larger lens of the authentic Irish space invoked by the hills of Donegal.  I’m unsure whether to read the “light of heaven” as ironic or indicative of the speaker’s actual belonging to this pastoral place cast in the distance.  Furthermore, though the proprietor stands “dreaming of home,” the doorway creates a second frame around him through which the speaker can only watch.  He himself is unable to participate in a similar escape because his own home has been colonized by tourists.

It may sound, after this reading, like I have a personal issue with tourists, which I do.  While it may be a bit problematic and xenophobic to refer to people as “space invaders” I can at least understand where Mahon is coming from.  My own island in the Puget Sound was recently mentioned in an article in the Seattle Times encouraging folks to take a trip over to scenic Bainbridge Island to see the “historic Lynwood theater” and other incredibly uninteresting sites.  I spent many days this past summer downtown watching tourists walking around confusedly, maps in hand, stumbling into random stores to ask for directions to even more uninteresting sites.  Development has also increased rapidly in the past few years and the beautiful row of poplar trees that used to line the other side of the street outside my house were all chainsawed down to make room for some ugly multi-million dollar box mansion.  Needless to say, I’m not a huge fan of tourists or local change.

About Xenophobia…

Mural from Derry, N. Ireland.

I don’t think anyone is “naturally” xenophobic, but I think that all of us (i.e. human beings) are conditioned by society to some degree of xenophobia. I would agree with Andrew’s suggestion that Ireland is particularly xenophobic, however. As Joyce might put it, “It seems history is to blame.” For a very long time, Ireland was an extremely homogeneous country. Before 1922, there was one extremely significant divide, between British and Irish. British propaganda of the 19th century “othered” the Irish along racial lines; Noel Ignatiev’s (somewhat controversial) book How the Irish Became White documents this and argues that Irish immigrants to the United States collectively established themselves as “white” rather than “not white” by participating, often very actively, in the oppression of African Americans.

After Independance, the Republic of Ireland became even more homogeneous–virtually everyone was Irish and Catholic. My bet is that if we could look in on Bloom in the late 20s, say (at which point he’d be in his sixties) we’d find him suffering even more explicit forms of anti-Semitism than he does in 1904, when Ulysses is set. Through much of the twentieth century, Ireland’s economy was stagnant. The Irish emigrated, but very few foreigners immigrated. Even tourism was slow to develop, and such as it was it was mostly the descendants of Irish immigrants to Australia, Canada and the US who visited the country and could, to some extent, be accepted as a version of “us.” I was often told, when I first traveled in Ireland, that I must be part Irish (which I’m not). It simply wasn’t conceivable that I’d be wasting my time visiting “this shitebox country” to quote a guy I met in a pub in Cork if I wasn’t. I eventually invented an Irish great-grandmother (name of Murphy) to facilitate such conversations.

Inevitably, some people did move to Ireland and open businesses, initially often restaurants (like the Chinese one in Mahon’s poem, or the occasional Indian restaurant in Dublin). But most Irish people throughout the 20th century had very little contact with the non-Irish, compared to other Northern Europeans, let alone those of us from the New World with its metaphors of mosaics (Canada) and melting-pots (U.S.). Ignorance, of course, is a prerequisite to all kinds of phobias.

When the Irish economy took off in the early 90s, all of this changed; suddenly, instead of poor Irish people migrating to Europe or North America in search of work, poor people from all over the place, from Poland to Nigeria, started to come to Ireland. Dublin in particular had demographic changes so swift that they were almost impossible to measure. Eastern Europeans came to work in the construction industry, Africans came to open market stalls, Dublin was suddenly no longer a white and catholic city, but a multicoloured, multicultural city that had difficulty recognizing its new self.

Demonstration against forced deportation of Nigerians living in Dublin.

Of course there has been a backlash; here is a link to an article from the early days of the financial crisis that discusses xenophobia in Ireland, and here is another predicting a rise in racism. And I remember reading somewhere (perhaps in a recent Vanity Fair) about how, in 2009, the parking lot attendants at the Dublin airport suddenly noticed something odd: there was very little outgoing traffic from their lots. It was a precipitous drop; cars seemed to have entered and never left. And indeed this turned out to be the case. When they looked, they found hundreds of abandoned cars, all registered to Eastern Europeans (mostly Poles) who had lost their jobs and simply cut their losses and headed home. This kind of anecdote reinforces xenophobia, since it depicts the foreigners who come and then depart as mercenary, or possibly even rats leaving a sinking ship.  The “real” Irish are the ones who have no place to go (except, of course, Canada, Australia, the U.S.). In recent years, there have been forced deportations of Eastern Europeans (Romanians, Moldovans) and also of Nigerians (some of whom are seeking political asylum).

Protest in front of the Dail against deportations.

A final irony: Ireland’s National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) was closed in 2008 due to budget cuts.

As I began by saying, I believe all cultures are xenophobic to different degrees, and xenophobia tends to flare up when there are pressures of various sorts on a nation (as it did in this country after 9/11, and as it is doing again now in response to the bad economy). It’s also something I’d like to think nations can grow out of– though I have yet to see one that has succeeded completely.

Michael Longley: Haiku-like moments and Classical Allusion

The work of contemporary Irish poet Michael Longley serves as a very interesting way to tie together the varying themes and forms of Derek Mahon that we discussed on Thursday in class. Longley was born in 1939 in Belfast, very much a peer of Mahon. He is a member of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and founder of Literary Programme. Having studied Classics at Trinity College, Longley’s love of Greek and Roman mythology is reflected in his poetry. In his poem “Ceasefire,” he mixes Classical allusion with modern events, much like Mahon’s “Achill,” in reaction to a recent ceasefire in the violence in Northern Ireland.

Longley also has a very keen eye for and appreciation of the natural world.  He often studies short, specific moments of time and natural beauty, producing works thematically similar to ideas explored in haiku. Such is the case in his poem “Snow Water,” (coincidentally about tea and snow) which is similar to Mahon’s response in “The Snow Party” to haiku master Basho.

Sorry for including so many poems in this long post! (I got really excited).

To learn more, click here to see Longley’s personal website.

Snow Water (1994)

A fastidious brewer of tea, a tea

Connoisseur as well as a poet,

I modestly request on my sixtieth

Birthday a gift of snow water.

Tea steam and ink stains. Single-

Mindedly I scald my tea pot and

Measure out some Silver Needles Tea,

Enough for a second steeping.

Other favourites include Clear

Distance and Eyebrows of Longevity

Or, from precarious mountain peaks,

Cloud Mist Tea (quite delectable)

Which competent monkeys harvest

Filling their baskets with choice leaves

And bringing them down to where I wait

with my crock of snow water.

Remembering Carrigskeewaun (1998)

A wintry night, the hearth inhales

And the chimney becomes a windpipe

Fluffy with soot and thistledown,

A voice-box recalling animals:

The leveret come of age, snipe

At an angle, then the porpoises’

Demonstration of meaningless smiles.

Home is a hollow between the waves,

A clump of nettles, feathery winds,

And memory no longer than a day

When the animals come back to me

From the townland of Carrigskeewaun,

From a page lit by the Milky Way.

Ceasefire (1998)


Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears

Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king

Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and

Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.


Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles

Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,

Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry

Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.


When they had eaten together, it pleased them both

to stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,

Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still

And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:


‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’

Xenophobia in Irish Literature

Although the discussions that Cole and Susanna lead in class today provided an invigorating engagement with Mahon’s works, I saw one recurring theme that we all might benefit from exploring further. In short, why does Derek Mahon portray outsiders in such a negative light in his poetry? This theme of xenophobia appears in two of the poems we read for today and in James Joyce’s Ulysses—in other words, far too often to be mere coincidence.

Of the poems selected by Susanna, “Night Thoughts” is the poem that most clearly foregrounds the conflict between the Irish citizen and the tourist, between the insider and the outsider. The speaker, a figure who finds solitude and serenity solely in early hours of the morning, laments the influx of tourists in the summer season. With a decidedly sardonic tone, he appraises said foreigners as “aliens, space invaders” sporting “baseball caps and nylon leisurewear” who shatter the stillness of “those luminous, rain-washed April mornings.” Most generative, however, is the poem’s epigraph that imagines post-war Ireland as a “pseudo-space”—a mere destination for tourists who ignore the local culture.

Of Cole’s selections, the poem “The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush” both furthers and problematizes the theme of xenophobia. On the one hand, the poem also decries the arrival of foreigners seeking the beautiful destination spots of Ireland. Using the charged military term “invasion” and juxtaposing the “shut” doors of the off-season (winter) with the “open” ones of the tourist season (summer), Mahon effectively others the tourists. On the other hand, however, he inserts the problematic figure of the foreigner who inhabits the Irish space, namely “the proprietor of the Chinese restaurant”. Simultaneously a permanent inhabitant of Ireland and a foreigner by birth, the Chinese man challenges what is an otherwise unambiguous dislike of foreigners.

Aside from the fact that this trope wove itself through several of Mahon’s poems, the idea of xenophobia in an Irish context is interesting because it is a dominant theme in James Joyce’s Ulysses, a text that seeks to painstakingly recreate Dublin and its inhabitants. In the novel, the protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is a native-born Jew who is constantly confronted by the anti-Semitic and xenophobic views of his fellow Dubliners. Perhaps most poignantly, we see his marginalization in Episode Twelve, where Bloom’s response to the question of his heritage (“Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland”) is powerfully rejected by the narrator’s expectoration of a “Red bank oyster”.

Faced with the distrust of foreigners seen in Mahon’s work and the downright xenophobia of the unknown narrator in Joyce’s twelfth episode, I am keen to hear what other people have to say about why such a trope might emerge from two contributors to Irish literature. Are the Irish naturally xenophobic? Does their literature misrepresent them in this light? And/or did certain socio-historio-political factors drive these themes to the forefront of Irish culture and literature?

Wally Dugs

Here are different versions of Wally Dugs:




(**Note: I had hoped my mom would send me a picture or two of our own at home by the fireplace, but she told me over the phone that she has no idea how to save and send a picture to me over the Internet after uploading it from her digital camera. My Gran is also away in Scotland right now, so she can’t take any pictures of her googly-eyed Wally Dugs and might not know how to send them to me either. My Papa, who is stil at home, might not even know how to use a digital camera anway.)

Wally Dugs, or “Staffordshire” Dogs, are currently made by Wemyss out of China but used to be made by Bo’ness Pottery in the 19th and 20th centuries. According to its web site, “Wally” means in the Scottish dialect “made out of china.” As I said in class, they typically sit on or near the fireplace and are almost always in pairs.

My mom received her Wally Dugs from my grandmother’s friend after she passed away. My mom thinks she bought them off of Ebay and are quite old.

My grandmother sent me an email from Scotland this morning. She believes  her Wally Dugs are 100 years old, belonged to my great-aunt Betty’s grandmother and were passed down the family. After my great-aunt Betty’s brother passed away, she was going to throw them out, but my grandmother saved them:

“They looked terrible as they were badly in need of a bath wich I gave them as soon as I got themhome to America. We call them Tully and Buddy because we got them inTullibody. Marilyn [my gran’s friend who had passed away] paid $250 on the internet for hers .Mine cost zero. When I was little almost everyone had a set on the fireplace.By the way Aunt Betty is now 87 so I guess the dogs are a good.”

When I am home for Easter, I will try to capture our Wally Dugs on camera to share with you all!

Interview with Derek Mahon

Here is a link to a long and very interesting interview with Derek Mahon. He talks about the influence on his poetry of growing up Protestant in Belfast, but also about a great many other things. It’s one of those rare interviews where the questions are genuinely intelligent.

A Boy with a Book about Old Men and Seals

I was surprised, reading “Gaelic Stories” when I came across number 2 in the sequence and had to pause for a moment.  Why was this so unbelievably sad?

A story

About an old man

And a seal.

I never thought my childhood would intersect with this class in many interesting ways.  I don’t have any Celtic culture family members unfortunately and have never traveled in the British Isles.  But I did have a favorite children’s book, Greyling by Jane Yolen, about an old man and a seal, which I just learned comes right out of Scottish folk-lore.  The book is about a Selchie, a seal that can shed its skin and walk about on land as a human.  Most of the Selchie myths I’ve found on the internet revolve around romantic encounters between these seal-folk and humans: man meets seal, seal becomes a woman, man steals the seal’s skin forcing her to marry him.  Alternatively woman meets man, they have a child, man turns into a seal and takes the child away.  You can look here if you want a slightly more elaborate retelling.  What was interesting about my book was that it wasn’t a romance at all.  I’m not sure if there is an old myth that it’s based on which didn’t turn up as I was looking or if the author just decided she was sick of human seal love stories.  Nevertheless here’s a quick summary:

An old fisherman and his wife live together in a house by the sea.  They are very lonely and have no children.  One day the fisherman finds a baby boy on the rocks and takes him home.  They raise the child and love him, until one day the man is caught in a storm out at sea.  The boy becomes a seal and goes to rescue him but after swimming his father to shore he returns to the ocean and the couple never see him again.

This may or may not be the Selchie tale that Ian Crichton Smith was thinking of but these wonderfully short and cryptic “stories” leave so much up to the imagination, its exactly what we were talking about when the subject of found poetry came up.  Most of these aren’t really stories at all because as someone pointed out there’s really no verbs, nothing to drive a narrative.  Instead, the space between the objects in each little poem invites the reader to create their own narrative.  The brain is so fun because it won’t ever let you just look at a group of objects without trying to invent a story to connect them, it desperately needs meaning and patterns.

Is there anything innately sad about a man and a seal?  For me at least, I can’t separate these nouns from my own childhood mythology.  Or is it a process that works in reverse?  Is there something universal about old men and sea creatures that we just can’t shake, which keeps writing itself into our stories?  I’m not sure, but these two nouns, seal and man, are painful for me in a way that seems to go beyond the story from my children’s book.  The effects of time and memory have slowly compressed the tale that my parents read to me into a symbol embodied in these two figures and I’m sure its picked up a lot of other meanings as I’ve gone along growing up.  What “Gaelic Stories” gives us are a series of similarly condensed narratives, each constructed using words that in turn carry their own stories wound up inside them.  Is it sad to think that every myth and story eventually erodes down to such small fragments or should we be amazed that so much can be contained within a few surviving words?

“O who is this has done this deed, Has told the King of me, To send us out at this time of the year, To sail upon the sea?

It’s probably the terrible weather that has me thinking of Sir Patrick Spens. Sir Patrick Spens is a literary-historical figure in the famous Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. (I’ve found different versions over the years but this one seems pretty regular.) It also seems a shame to me that the semester is drawing to a close and as much as we’ve been able to read a lot of Celtic poetry there’s still so much we haven’t been able to cover and really couldn’t.

The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens has an interesting place in history. What it roughly covers is the sea voyage of various Scottish nobility to Norway either to collect the 7 year old heir to the Scottish throne Margaret so she could marry Edward I’s son, or to drop off her mother –also named Margaret—to marry the king. With the version I have linked to the first interpretation seems to support the first theory.

The death of the Scottish nobility and Sir Patrick Spens is the main force of the story. The “Maid of Norway” died in the Orkneys and was never married or crowned.

The historical novel Quest for a Maid tells the story from a more feminine perspective—which is probably why my mother chose it as one of our bed time books (The others: Scarlett, Gone with the Wind, Mara Daughter of the Nile and excerpts Nancy Drew all have what could be called a strong female characters.)

Quest for a Maid is one of the few books my family owns that stress our Scottish heritage. My mother’s family has always favored our Irish traditions, we have a lot of Yeats for example but I’d never heard of MacDiarmid. Part of this might be that the Scottish elements of my family don’t tend to give up beef stew recipes never mind anecdotes or memories of cultural heritage.

It’s purely a work of fiction. The Maid of Norway survives a ship wreck and ends up finding true love with a young Scots boy. There’s a freed slave/bondsman and witch trials. Still it’s a really excellent story and I’m happy I read it at that age.

It does do a terrific job also, of expanding the character of Sir Patrick Spens, who occupies an interesting space in the folk ballad.


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