For James Joyce, it was “the snot sea, the sea which constricts the scrotum”. For others, it’s the great brackish depth, or Davy Jones’ trap. In Greek, it is the thalassa from which the study of the seas derives: thalassography. Joyce envisioned writing a novel about the sea when she died: its imponderable deaths, its limitless possibilities and its eventful life. What a loss for literature. His great sea novel, which he never succeeded in writing, exists as a great void in the center of it would have been.
For John McGahern, the Irish were first and foremost a forest people. Judging by the many examples from the literature illustrated by Nicholas Allen in Irish Literature and the Coast: Seatangled, we are first and foremost a people of the sea. And not just for migratory reasons, but because the sea permeates our lives. and dominate our dreams.
The sea is a major theme in literature and on the world stage there have been many excellent performers: Hermann Melville and Joseph Conrad to name just two behemoths. And how does Ireland manage to represent the sea?
Fairly good, according to Allen, who is a professor of humanities at the University of Georgia. In fact, the pulse of the tides is in our blood.
The sea is many things, including a means of transport, and the impact of migration, inward and outward, on Irish society has been transformative since ancient times, but especially during the two hundred last years. Not all influence was inclusive, and as Allen points out, Belfast poet John Hewitt looked beyond his place for empathy – in Wales, Scotland and New England.
In Anna Liffey, the poet Eavan Boland shows an aspiration for inclusion using hydro-symbolism. “The city where I was born / The river that crosses it. / The nation that divides me.” Allen wants to reshape the discourse of our literary heritage as “a grammar of liquidity as a cultural resource and in part a reclamation of a submerged network of ports, estuaries, rivers and streams”. He finds affinities in writers and artists – Synge’s observations of the Aran Islands, as well as Harry Clarke’s stained glass windows whose often amorphous whirlpools were inspired by Inisheer’s seaweed and jellyfish. It’s a great argument and the more you read it the more it makes sense.
The title keyword comes from a stroll along Stephen Daedalus’ beach in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as he reflects on his sense of identity. In a city made of docks, estuaries and headlands, where the kingdom of sea and land meet, it gives her a sense of longing beyond the shores for new ideas and possibilities.
One of the transcendent examples of aquatic things in Irish literature is the poem by William Butler Yeats set on an island in Lough Gill, Co Sligo. He prompted novelist Robert Louis Stevenson to write to the poet about his “slavery to the beauty” of “Innisfree Lake Island”. The poem was inspired by Yeats’ observation of raindrops on a window in a London street. Allen argues that the poem was intimately linked to what critics call “hydrocolonialism.” In this case, the expansion of the British maritime empire.
In a close examination of Yeats’ first maritime novel, John Sherman, he finds that “imagery of water and sea is central to exploring his character’s ambitions, rivers and seas are testing. constant for the characters not knowing where to anchor their ambitions. ” Yeats’s family’s ties to the shipping industry in Sligo provided him with a rich seascape and a vocabulary in which he conceptualized Ireland’s place in the British Empire.
One of the most famous Irish maritime novels is Erskine Childers’ Enigma of the Sands published in 1903. Here Allen finds that the novel drew a picture of the empire as the coastline and the shallows “such as decreases the security of Britain as a nation of defined borders ”. This in turn could only propel Ireland into the rough waters of self-determination. And he argues that the fight for the sea helped shape the argument for Irish sovereignty. Childers, of course, would later bring substantial amounts of weapons to the Howth Volunteers, Co Dublin to help them fight for freedom.
Allen clearly reveled in this nomenclature: to watermark, anchor and swirl his ideas with deep textual plumbing.
It is a trope illustrated by the cork poet Eiléan Ní Chulleanáin whose poems are “immersed in the river, the sea and the water”. Allen shows a feat in determining why an inventory of objects along the coastline helps to anchor the narrator’s memory.
“Along the wandering strand the sea unloads glass balls / jellyfish, broken shells, its entanglement / nets, cork, scraps of wood, coral / a twisted line paid on sand / Here is evidence, Put it all together… ”Poet ‘Breeches Buoy’, for Allen, lays layers of meaning indistinguishable from the coast. For the critic, Ní Chulleanáin in “The Sun-fish” has no equal in contemporary Irish poetry for the brilliance of the “last turn of a poem … deeply informed by multiple traditions, notably maritime” .
In a chapter titled “Atlantic Drift,” Allen carries his assessment at high tide with contemporary Kevin Barry. He finds the Limerickman drawn to the coastal margins where his characters discover that “the boundaries between innocence and experience are fragmenting and shifting.”
This is especially true of the collection of short stories “Dark Lies the Island” where a tragic lyricism seems to overwhelm the protagonists: a pathetic error created by murky time.
“In Beatlebone”, Barry is at full speed with his maritime engagement. Dorinish Island in Clew Bay, John Lennon, where hippie chef Sid Rawle established a hippie commune, is the home of the author’s fictional dream, talking seals, and all you’ve got yourself.
A young woman’s meditation on the stage here is emblematic of Allen’s thesis: “She gazed into the darkness of Clew Bay and the little islands that pay in the dark. The cloudbank moved a fraction and the light fell from the quarter moon and picked up a single island, a low, oblong shape, and it was lit for a while.
The notion of alienation appears in the memoirs of Hugo Hamilton Speckled People where Hamilton, of Irish and German origin, finds himself in search of an identity. “The extended province of the sea and its creatures is the only area of freedom imaginable for the young narrator,” writes Allen.
He contrasts Hamilton’s weightless conclusion with John Banville’s “melancholy fret” of “The Sea”. The title was interpreted as a metaphor for the mourning of the main protagonist Max over the death of his wife Anna from cancer: sometimes calm, sometimes angry. Allen suggests that the novel can be seen as a fluidity of character and place over time. Banville’s writing on the sea here, and in other of his novels, is exceptional.
Allen’s hypothesis is here incontestably proven: the sea is as important to Irish literature as the air is to the characters on its pages. This however raises the question: who has not been influenced by the sea? Allen merges Irish literature and his own thalassography into an interdependent essence. Quite an accomplishment.