When English Eyes Are Smiling

By Wes Davis, an assistant professor of English at Yale, is editing the forthcoming “Yale Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11/03/07):

STUDENTS in the Irish literature seminar I teach latched onto some satisfying news last week, when this newspaper reported that scientists had found no significant genetic difference between the Irish and English. Midway through a semester spent wrestling with fictional representations of the troubled relationship between the two nations, here was scientific confirmation that an assumption long used to justify the inequality of that relationship was itself a fiction.

The discovery that the Irish and English belong to the same bloodline is probably more amusing than shocking to readers who have grown accustomed to understanding the history of Ireland in political rather than racial terms. But the notion of racial inferiority persisted in British writing on the Irish well into the 19th century.

Writing in “Races of Men” in 1850, the Scottish surgeon and ethnographer Robert Knox argued that because of its inherent “fanaticism” and “hatred for order and patient industry,” Ireland’s “Celtic race does not, and never could be made to comprehend the meaning of the word liberty.” In 1867 Matthew Arnold, even as he styled himself a champion of Irish literature, carried on the myth of an Irish racial type, writing in an essay that “the Celtic genius” has “sentiment as its main basis, with love of beauty, charm and spirituality for its excellence,” but with “ineffectualness and self-will for its defect.”

One of the most alarming 19th-century descriptions of the Irish comes from Charles Kingsley, author of “The Water Babies,” a novel that captured the imagination of Victorian children as surely as Harry Potter has charmed children today. In 1860, two years before he began writing the book, Kingsley traveled to Ireland.

“I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country,” he wrote in a letter to his wife. The apparent racial inferiority of the Irish was made more shocking for Kingsley by their superficial similarity to the English: “If they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.” By the time he described the Irish in “The Water Babies,” Kingsley had regained a measure of judgment. There they are “good-natured,” but still “untrustable” and “wild.”

In recent years, Irish writers have taken up the idea of racial difference themselves, turning it into an empowering distinction. Think of the white working-class musician in Roddy Doyle’s 1987 novel, “The Commitments,” whose identification with American soul music leads him to conclude that the “Irish are the niggers of Europe.” “Say it loud,” he tells his band, “I’m black and I’m proud.”

The new genetic evidence won’t do anything to undercut that kind of pride, or to repair the historical rift between the English and the Irish. But writers have already given us better ways to understand their differences.

In the early 1950s, Philip Larkin, who had left England to work as a librarian in Belfast, was mistaken for an Irish poet by an editor who used his poetry as an example of the “rootedness” of Irish writing. Larkin himself felt anything but rooted in Ireland. But he anticipated the geneticists in seeing the differences between the English and Irish as matters of place rather than race.

He also saw the value of those differences. In “The Importance of Elsewhere,” a poem he wrote the year he returned to England, Larkin remembers that the “draughty streets” and the horsy smell of the docks distinguished Ireland from England in a way that assuaged his natural sense of alienation. He was lonely in Ireland “since it was not home,” but for the same reason Ireland’s “strangeness made sense,” unlike the alienation he felt in England.

In the end, Larkin suggests that national difference gives us a point of contact and a way to understand the distinctions that separate us from one another, regardless of race. In Ireland, his poem goes on to say, “The salt rebuff of speech, / Insisting so on difference, made me welcome: / Once that was recognized, we were in touch.”