Longley: unsquashing complexity?

For the second issue of Britain and Ireland, I interviewed the leading academic and literary critic Edna Longley. Born in Dublin, Longley has spent most of her working life in Northern Ireland. It’s a cultural space in which she values greatly. In the early section she calls for a more rigorous historical re-evaluation of some of the grand narratives that have dominated public concepts of Irishness and Britishness:

I just don’t think that these narratives, whether articulated by Heaney or Kiberd, are historical at all. They are not based on historical analysis or historical thinking. They are literary or literary-critical notions, which yield diminishing returns. In some ways, too, they are very much post-1922 narratives, shaped by nationalist ideology and cultural stereotype. I think, ideally, we need to unravel (and the process of unravelling has begun) those narratives. Some people think, or want to think, that ‘revisionism’ is over. In fact, it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.

Indeed she argues that for all the reality of shared British and Irish spaces, the underlying complexity of identity has tended to be squeezed in Britain and Ireland:

It has been shown that this is the part of Europe in which two jurisdictions interpenetrate most extensively, where there has been the most enormous, complex and continuing historical traffic. I don’t deny that the flow of power has been mainly one-way. Yet I think at the moment we are liable to disregard the complexity of that traffic, despite all the talk about multiculturalism, because ethnic identity, national identity, is now more emphasised everywhere than would have been the case forty years ago. In fact – to use your terms – post-modernity or supposed post-nationalism seem to be producing their opposites. For example, I was just looking at Christopher Bryant’s ‘The Nations of Britain’, published this year, and his statistics indeed show that people in Scotland, Wales and England are now more likely to identify themselves as Scottish, Welsh or English rather than British. Unsurprisingly, this tendency is most pronounced in Scotland and least so in England. Nonetheless, a sense of national identity and ethnicity is much stronger all round than it used to be.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty