Crises of Rural Irish Identities in the Age of Globalized Capital

By Kevin Greene

In the opening chapter of The Country and the City, Williams denotes a dichotomy in England between the two predominant locales suggested in the title. Upon each has settled certain ideas: “On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue. On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved center: of learning, communication, light.”[1]

These labels, for Williams, are less accurate markers than they are stereotypes, with the unintended result of maintaining the country as a place (as opposed to a non-place) despite its rapid literal and figurative disappearance as cities became more ubiquitous, grow, and sprawl outwards in 19th century England. Because of these ingrained memories of country and city, one continues to associate with each locale characteristics outdated in light of vast demographic shifts, if those characteristics were not already inaccurate at their inception. This notion can be extended to the perceived radical difference of an era: as Cleary claims, each era views its cultural production as innovative and new, despite the fact that each era typically has its own innovative and new production. These two formulations hint at the difficulty in perceiving one’s own time, as well as the tendency for cultural production to root itself not in reality, but in perception of reality. In order to minimize generational differences and bolster consistent, timeless identities, the memories of the past will always intimately impact the present. This introduces a curious paradox—if one perceives their own time as irreconcilably different than that which came before, one will immediately seek out ways to link these diverse periods together, as to divert various crises of identities that may arise from generational discontinuity.


For Williams, this attempted linkage contains the justification of producing in an artistic mode (the pastoral) which is not so much mimetic as it is nostalgic in the period he is reflecting upon. Despite the vast industrialization and urbanization of England in the 19th century, Williams notes that:


it is a critical fact that in and through these transforming experiences, English attitudes to the country, and ideas of rural life, persisted with extraordinary power, so that even after society was predominantly urban, its literature...was still predominantly rural.[2]

In this formulation, Williams is hinting at a notion which is not only true of England; one could argue that rural or so- called traditional identities persist globally, even and perhaps especially in states that have faced mass migration from the country to the cities over the past several cen- turies, as a means of preserving the cultural identity and national imaginary in geographical locations which have encountered various crises in the nature of those traditional identities.


One example of these crises in the contemporary moment can be gleaned from Irish cultural production, owing to the drastic changes it has gone through over the past century—politically, demographically, and economically. A report from Ireland’s Spatial Planning Unit illustrates simply how rapid urbanization has occurred in Ireland. Shipman Martin speaks of Dublin, for instance, in terms of a 50-kilometer radius. As he writes, “In 1936, over 80% of the urban population was actually located in the 0-7 kilometre [radial] band.”[3] This continued with only minor changes for the next thirty years. However, “The 1970s witnessed the five and six-fold increases in many places beyond the main built-up area” constituting the shift of populations from both the city and the country to suburban areas, considered “urbanized” in this particular context because of the city’s role as a job creator, regional cultural center, and logistically central due to the infrastructural lack of links between the burgeon- ing suburban areas. This represents a dramatically changing landscape of Dublin "from a compact ‘Slum city’ at the beginning of the twentieth century, to what Horner describes as a ‘Globalised City Region’” at the beginning of the twenty-first, which spreads out into several surrounding counties.[4] Such a robust shift in so short a period of time undoubtedly changes how the state relates to the citizens, the land itself to the citizens, and those citizens to each other and themselves. The most provocative to me is the final of these three relationships—how citizens relate to each other and themselves.

Due to Ireland’s uniquely strong bond to literature, a literary study is necessary to track changes in this respect.

Recent literature illustrates, on the one hand, the resistance in the Irish population to morph their identity wholly to their newly-urbanized state and, on the other hand, their attempt to hold onto the rural past—despite over 60% of the population now being urbanized, and likely many more reliant on cities on a day-to-day basis. This presents a problem—the cultural identity and imaginary of the Irish have failed to modernize along with the vast changes in the state and its space.

The goal of this paper is to look specifically at how Irish literature based in the country has found its niche as an anachronistic representation of days of yore within a context of extremely rapid urbanization, maintaining a distinctly Irish and distinctly rural flavor despite the importation of Anglicising, secularizing, and urbanizing values and the influx of global capital in the Celtic Tiger period, as a means of preserving and reforming those identities which Irish populations continue to view as Irish.

This anachronicity is touched upon by Cleary, particularly in his chapter “Capital and Culture in Twentieth Century Ireland.” He identifies core issues that are concomitant with this major shift in the demographic makeup of Ireland. He points out in particular the issue of critiques about modern and contemporary cultural production—“that Irish studies still lacks serious materialist attempts to historicize Irish literary and cultural production” and are instead too focused upon the admittedly incredible artistic innovations produced in 20th century Ireland from a predominantly aesthetic perspective.[5] In his critique, he challenges the trend of heralding modern and contemporary literature as innovative simply because of its newness—to do so would be to ignore the fact that each generation brings with it innovative newness in a variety of disciplines. Rather, the work of cultural critics is to examine new-fangled cultural production in how it inevitably—if only implicitly—interacts with contemporary structural shifts outside of cultural production.


For this period, he speaks specifically about the “capitalist modernization process,” a set of processes initiated by the West which have resulted in the globalization of capital; the attempted secularization of non-Western, backwards, religious regions (including Ireland despite its geographical nearness to the epicenter of these projects); and the hierarchization of the West above the rest, so to speak, which was at once a Western-justified civilizing project as well as a project complicit with the global slave trade and colonial oppression. According to Cleary, while aesthetic production of 20th century Ireland likely deals directly with these aspects of society, cultural critics have not accounted for this in meaningful ways.


Cleary situates the global crises of late capitalism in a specifically Irish context to account for the vastly different experiences between the modern period in, say, Britain and that in Ireland: “while this massive discrepancy in national experience speaks for itself, the real challenge posed by these concurrent developments is to conceive of them not as two altogether alien and disjunctive histories but rather as two divergent vectors of the same capitalist modernization process,” voicing the relatively recent realization promoted by non-Western critics that the modernization of the West absolutely came at the expense of the Other.[6] Two contemporary plays—Carr’s By the Bog of Cats and McPherson’s The Weir—offer provocative entry points to this specific socioeconomic moment as a means of better understanding both the plays and the moment from which they hail.

Both of these works take place in rural localities, and therefore display manifestations of rural identity, addressing the collision of contemporary urban normativity and extant rural settings. By the Bog of Cats addresses the loss sense of locatedness, which was once associated with rural life. There is a clear sense in the play that the characters feel displaced, despite being in the same geographic location as always, evidence of the fact that the land around them has changed as well as the ways they interact with it through their stiff resistance to modernization. The Weir presents an interesting way of looking at one particular space—the Irish pub—and how it has become compromised as a location of (individual and collective) identity-formation. It also illustrates the inverse of the spatial identity problem in By the Bog of Cats through its introduction of urban folk into the rural landscape. Both fold into the Williamsian paradox of attaching one’s identity to institutions that no longer exist as theorized, witnessed by Williams in the English novelists of the 19th century—the characters of these plays are anachronistically related to the spaces they occupy, interacting with these spaces in ways that might have been possible one, two, or even three hundred years earlier, but have fundamentally changed in light of the mass migration centered upon cities as well as the identity-transforming (or identity-erasing) difficulties that have been part and parcel of the North Atlantic forces of globalized capital which sought to turn humans therianthropically into consumptive animals, and human centers of habitation into centers of consumption (to paraphrase theories of Ali Shari’ati and John Parkinson, respectively).


Carr’s play, By the Bog of Cats, approaches the anti-/posthumanness of the late capitalist moment by challenging the characters’ presumably long-held beliefs that their identities are inextricably tied to the land on which they live as means of self-building separate from any capitalist mission. Each of the characters at times presents their connection to the bog itself. Amongst the very first lines of the play, for instance, Hester tells us that she has spent much of her life by the bog. A stranger to the bog could hardly have cultivated a relationship to feel connected with a "corpse of a swan" who she’s "known...the longest time."[7] In Scene III of the first act, Hester displays her devotion to the land: "Ah, how can I lave the Bog of Cats, everythin’ I’m connected to is here. I’d rather die."[8] This moment, foreshadowing the violent end of the play, shows that Hester would rather die than to give in to the trending urbanization that is occurring around her; in her words, “I’ve never lived in a town. I won’t know anywan there —.”[9] In the town or the city, she would have no land to be beholden to in the same way that she identifies with her bog. To move away would be, to her, literally slicing part of her identity from her—she is fearful to find what might be left (if anything) if this crucial aspect of herself were to disappear.


This is due to the fact that she feels the bog gives her life in some way, in the same way that she attributes agency to the bog. She describes it, after all, as a close friend or lover —“I know every barrow and rivulet and bog hole of its nine square mile. I know where the best bog rosemary grows and the sweetest wild bog rue. I could lead yees around the Bog of Cats in my sleep.”[10] Hester thus sees the bog as central to her psychological makeup, as if the literal geography of the bog were programmed into her from birth. To leave the bog would be to sacrifice that intimate knowledge that has become central to her identity, in favor of the designedness of town, easily navigable by anyone with the crudest map, even those just arrived—to leave would be to “eradicate [her], make out [she] never existed” and drop her into the city where she is no one.[11] For someone who sees their personal history and identity paired with the bog’s, knowing its intricacies is hereditary in the sense that one just arriving there, especially without the help of a song sung to them by their mother as a child, would be lost—in the literal sense of not knowing their location, and in the capitalist sense of having nowhere to consume, neither of which appears to be a problem for Hester.


But more worrisome for Hester is the notion that a newcomer to the bog would finally bring the change from the outside world to which the bog and its inhabitants have been so resistant. Hester is cognizant of this in the fact that even allowing someone who is from the area to occupy her space near the bog would be to irreversibly harm it, inasmuch as her living there is as central to the nature of the bog as the bog is imbricated to her own nature—even her own house on the bog is troublesome to her. Her decision to burn the house down between the final two acts illustrates her view of the house as temporary—she seems to prefer living in the caravan which both connects her to her mother (Without “this auld caravan, I’d swear I only dreamt her.”) as well as projects her view of the bog as a sentient organism on whose space she’s encroaching (“... only an auld house, it should never have been built in the first place”).[12] This brings up an interesting, though per- haps obvious, point about this proposed two-way street of identity: there is no identity inherent to a particular space, only that identity which is projected upon it by those who occupy it.

Hester does not seem to realize that this is the case though, and refers throughout to the bog as a person existent with or without her. As she wreaks havoc upon the property in the final scene, she exclaims of the house: “Let the bog have it back. In a year or so it’ll be covered in gorse and furze...”[13] The bog is surely comprised of living things and will inevitably reconsume the imposed house and regain its lost land. But its status as an agent which is going to actively take back the house as if defending it from a non-Hester stranger is interesting in two major respects.


First, it reaffirms Hester’s view of what might be called the primacy of the land. Hester’s deep connection to the land and the agency that they give to each other would indicate that Hester views the land as central to defining human beings—humans can live around the edge of the bog, and enter into it at their risk, but at the end of the day it is the bog’s ability to take back that which has been stolen by settlers on or near it that grants the bog the first and final say in the state of the land. This elevates the land not only as an identifiable Self, but also as one that is indivisible from the identities cultivated around it, like Hester’s. Hester looks at leaving the land as a ridiculous action—as evidenced by the play’s dramatic closing—as a lover looks upon separation from their beloved. One might even go so far as to argue that Hester is only interested in winning Carthage back not because of her love for him, and not even for Josie’s sake, but because Carthage is of the land, and reuniting with him is but a guarantee that she too will be able to stay at the bog.

The second interesting implication from the bog’s ascribed agency is that it creates a false binary between nature (congruent to premodernity) and culture (congruent to modernity) in such a way as to indicate that the Bog of Cats has been wholly unchanged by the nature of capitalistic modernization.

Hester’s thinking would suggest that—although the capitalist project has not insisted upon turning the bog into golf links or cranberry farm just yet —there have been no changes in the bog because of its relentlessness in maintaining itself as a force for humans to reckon with—of course, there are houses around the bog, but its character remains virtually unchanged.