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?