Question of Irish Identity in the Writings of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce

Author: O’Brien, Eugene
This study seeks to redefine the notions of Irishness and of Irish identity which have been current in cultural and socio-political discourse since the beginning of this century, and secondly, it offers readings of the work of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce which demonstrate their similar negative epistemologies of identity. It is part of the work’s argument that cultural and aesthetic writings have seminal influences on the political infrastructure of the modern nation, and so the book analyzes the political import of cultural and literary movements. In what is possibly the first such project in terms of Irish studies, it offers a critique of essentialist and foundationalist views of Irishness as Gaelic, Catholic, and nationalist, through the application of the theoretical writings of Theodore Adorno, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas. Given the current conflicts of identity in Northern Ireland, this is a timely study which sheds light on the mindsets which create mutually exclusive notions of identity.


“O’Brien is capable of an occasional lyrical turn or powerful metaphor, but the surgically precise and difficult diction of contemporary theory dominates, which ensures that he says what he wants to say….The useful index and extensive bibliography are meticulously constructed….O’Brien has written an intellectually engaging text that convincingly celebrates Yeats and Joyce as eclectic, inclusive pioneers of alterity. O’Brien’s book is a significant if not an entirely user-friendly contribution to the growing body of literature on Irish identity. It is thoroughly grounded in contemporary theory and systematically crafted so as to create an almost four dimensional mental image of his subject.” – James Joyce Literary Supplement

Table of Contents

Table of contents:
Introduction: Negative Identity: Adorno, Levinas, Derrida
1. Spatial and Temporal Notions of Irish Identity (The backward look - the centripetal past; Vectors of national definition; Tara to Holyhead – the Centrifugal Vector; Defenders and United Irishmen – 2 views of Irish Identity)
2. The Question of Language (What is my language? Centripetal revival; Revival or redefinition?)
3. Yeats: Voices of Myth – Voices of Critique (Yeats and the creation of an Irish mythology; From creation to critique; Cuchulain discomforted)
4. Joyce: A Commodius Vicus of Recirculation (Joycean epistemology of identity; Nets that must be flown by; Emigration as trope; Patrick W. Shakespeare)
5. Conclusion: Towards an Ethics of Community
Works cited; Bibliography – W. B. Yeats and james Joyce; Index