Opening The Windows

George O’Brien

The Bell Magazine and the Representation of Irish Identity, by Kelly Matthews, Four Courts Press, 224 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-1846823237

It must have been thought that if this book had a title like Sounding The Bell or Casting The Bell, or anything that played a bit, however predictably, on its source material, it would have seemed less than properly academic. So, as though in an offer of bona fides, we’re given a title as stiff as only academic punctilio can be, one whose buzzwords – “representations”, “identity” – may, in a most unBellian manner, put off the interested general reader. And that would be a shame. It was the general reader that The Bell aimed to attract, provoke and uplift. Although the title does signal some problems with the author’s approach (of which more later), generally speaking this study deserves a wide audience, not only for its exhaustive trawling of the archive but for its attempt to characterise a highly instructive episode in twentieth century cultural history. Who knows? Maybe the general reader still even exists.

Other critics and researchers have seen to it that The Bell has had something of a scholarly half-life, but it’s still a little odd that it is only now that the periodical has had as extensive a consideration as Professor Matthews delivers. For whatever reason, the efforts of her forerunners in the field obviously failed to find publishing favour, and while it is futile to speculate on the reasons for this, it does seem rather embarrassing that, with all the earnest beavering of postgraduate students in Ireland and elsewhere, nobody has answered what strikes me as the rather obvious call of The Bell. (Not every prospective postgraduate prospector can have been put off by Anthony Cronin’s The Life of Riley and its dystopian satire of life with the magazine’s editors – missing from Professor Matthews’s comprehensive bibliography alas, even though her work comes with a brief foreword by Mr Cronin and he, along with Val Mulkerns, has been a primary source of news and views of their time spent on the magazine: of the two, Mulkerns gives better value.)

To note the relative paucity of scholarly attention is not to belittle such works as the late Rudy Holzapfel’s Index of Contributors to The Bell (1970) or Sean McMahon’s pioneering compilation, The Best from The Bell (1978). And a critical appreciation of The Bell and its time is available in Terence Brown’s enduringly relevant Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002. All of these works are quite different from the type of systematic treatment that Professor Matthews gives the periodical. What she has undertaken is not exactly cultural history, though inevitably that can’t be ignored, nor is it publishing history because unfortunately, as the author notes, “galleys, dummy runs, receipts or letters to contributors” have disappeared. The approach owes little to belles lettres (no pun intended), though a certain amount of close reading and literary appreciation occurs in passing; and early on, it seems like a framework of genre theory is going to shape the discussion. But this gives way to forays into post-colonial theory, as promulgated by Franz Fanon especially, with a nod now and then to the work of Homi K Bhabha. And then there’s an identity politics aspect as well. Sometimes the various critical perspectives are combined; at other times they are invoked as required.

The good news is that, overall, what might be called “theory lite” is the order of the day and the book is pretty readable as academic works these days go. Still, it seems to me that the most interesting aspect of the subject is the one that the author does least to avow, namely that the aim and value of what she has embarked on is its attempt to offer a critique of The Bell’s ideological outlook and ambitions. Of course ideology has become a dirty word. But that hardly means that it no longer exists as a cultural practice and analytical concept. And since the development, transmission and critical awareness of ideology are among the primary interests of the intellectual, its relevance to the study at hand seems pretty self-evident. Her lack of attention to this aspect of The Bell leads Professor Matthews to overlook the strong commitment on the part of the periodical’s founding father, Sean O’Faolain, to create, within the citizenry to whose further cultivation, enlightenment and capacity for self-expression The Bell was dedicated, a corps of arbiters, instructors, taste-makers, articulate observers, critics and the like – an intelligentsia, in effect; a vanguard, or to be as blunt about it as O’Faolain himself was, in a letter to Frank O’Connor, “a nucleus”. (I suppose there is no chance of a volume of O’Faolain’s letters? Or O’Connor’s?)

That same letter goes on to argue that the said nucleus would proceed to establish “real standards”, thereby, in Professor Matthews’s terms, influencing the development of Irish identity. The idea of such an influence has something of the pulpit about it perhaps, and it could as easily be argued that for those who identified with what The Bell had to offer, The Bell was the kind of thing with which they identified. In other words, which came first, an already existing predisposition to go along with at least the main emphases of the magazine’s outlook, or the magazine creating the taste by which it was enjoyed? Circulation figures and later reminiscences suggest that the appetite for The Bell’s food for thought was there all along, dating conceivably from the impact of Spain on republicanism and its enemies, from the nature of the recently introduced Constitution, from the cultural traffic between Ireland and England which would, among other things, have at least created some awareness of the Left Book Club and broad left cultural activities, the middle plays and windy pronouncements of Sean O’Casey, and novelists like Jim Phelan and James Hanley. Just because books were banned didn’t mean they were not in circulation (for what it’s worth, I remember being introduced to what were thought the relevant passages of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Lismore around 1961). Obviously, it cannot be argued that leftward cultural trends gained much of a purchase in Irish life at the time. But there must have been a few who found themselves responding to those trends’ challenge to orthodoxy and oppositional energy.

Admittedly, if there was such a local appetite it needed a local menu to find out how best it might be nourished. So I take Professor Matthews’s point that representation of Ireland’s life and times is an important aspect of The Bell’s ambition. In fact, as is pointed out, the documentary – that pre-eminent 1930s form – was initially a prominent feature of the magazine’s bill of fare. As is also pointed out however, this approach turned out not to be quite on the same page as O’Faolain’s editorial aims. This was only to be expected, since the idea was never for The Bell to be a mirror to Kathleen’s face, but to be a critical instrument, intervening in public debate and prevailing attitudes, offering alternative perspectives and, most essentially of all perhaps, as O’Faolain’s editorials tend to confirm, interpreting the conditions, dispositions and impositions of national life. Such activities, as Professor Matthews reads them, constitute a revision of the concepts of Irish identity promoted by Yeats on the one hand (too romantic), and on the other hand Daniel Corkery (too reactionary or, as the word is these days, fundamentalist). What the author understands by identity is based on Erik Erikson’s Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968):

In Erikson’s use of the term, identity is itself a multi-faceted proposition, a self-concept which he describes as “a process ‘located’ in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture”. (emphasis in the original)

But it seems that the core of the communal culture was not much interested in process, and O’Faolain seems to have understood the country’s neutrality as a metaphor for such a lack of interest and believed that The Bell’s mission was to rise above that state by conceiving of its work as an unwonted articulation of activity, relish, openness, argument, revelation, freshness and similar signs of O’Faolain’s great watchword, “life”.

The note struck by The Bell echoes the dissonance between those two cores of Erikson’s, as they were found in Irish life. And as to the communal core, Professor Matthews thinks of this as post-colonial. This is the approved term right enough. But I wonder if a case might be made for the suitability of the term neo-colonial, which might connote a more explicit sense of prevailing conditions, the nature of power relations in the Free State, the hegemonic character of the governing moral and juridical institutions, the neutralising inhibitions imposed by law and precept, the various carceral regimes (including, I would argue, emigration), the offhand coarsening and belittlement of life through class prejudice and religious sectarianism and the attempted justification of these procedures by an ideology extolling the “national”. Such components of the scene bear a strong resemblance to the rule of an imperial master over a conquered people.

In local terms, such conditions seem an obvious betrayal of the populist energy and collective desire manifested by republican consciousness. How that consciousness might be subtilised and refined to embrace the essentially liberal ideology that The Bell put forward has proved, since O’Faolain posed it, a question so difficult that no satisfactory answer has been forthcoming. Maybe it’s the wrong question, and the informative account of editorial relations with Northern contributors and the dialogue of the deaf in which these relations concluded is perhaps a basis for examining how highly evolved The Bell’s liberalism was and whether it was not always restrained by the nationalist influences on evolutionary conditions. And it could also be that the model of liberalism O’Faolain embraced, with its origins in the thought of the nineteenth century intellectual-in-exile Alexander Herzen (also missing from the bibliography), to whose own Bell the Irish periodical pays tribute, is ultimately one unsuited to twentieth century ideological and historical realities. O’Faolain had no time for modernism, as Professor Matthews more than once notes, her observations highlighted by the scant, if not indeed hostile, attention paid by The Bell to cinema. Nor did radio, the powerful medium of the day, find particular editorial favour and for those within range of London and Germany calling – a bell of a different tonality, one might say ‑ a means of communication that could for an hour or two override neutrality.

It was probably unavoidable that a study of The Bell should convey a sense of its subject being all O’Faolain all the time, pretty much. Of course the magazine had two editors, with Peadar O’Donnell succeeding O’Faolain in 1946. O’Donnell’s history of ideological engagement was by that time quite extensive. Yet it is not clear that he managed to find a fresh form for this engagement in the editor’s chair, and his commitment was sporadic in comparison with that of his predecessor. But then O’Donnell was not a man of ideas to any great degree. And in particular he was not at war with his own romanticism, as O’Faolain was. O’Faolain’s arguments with himself are one of the magazine’s primary sources of vitality. In calling Stendhal his favourite writer many years later, he perhaps had in mind that author’s doctrine of “the happy few” and it is possible to see The Bell as an attempt to create a “communal core” that would be a democratic version of the same thing, a section of the population literate, sophisticated, sensual, connoisseurs of daring and of the moment as a vessel of abundance. A democratic “few” is a contradiction in terms, of course; but it is one way of recognising the difficulty of trying to revise, adapt and bring to cultural maturity the ideals from which current conditions arose – is it possible to be a critical republican? This difficulty beset – or perhaps failed to beset – editor O’Donnell. (It is also the problem that has always aggravated what passes for public debate in America.) But equally, if not more, important is O’Faolain’s recognition in Stendhal of a temperament that could acknowledge the romantic’s passion while at the same time remaining well aware of the limitations of his excesses. Such balance and detachment were not possible at a time of conflict between post-revolutionary disillusion and the need to reinscribe the spirit of casting off shackles that attaining freedom might, however naively, be thought to connote. The struggle, though, has its own exemplary conviction, and it is very much to be hoped that the signs of a renewed interest in O’Faolain’s work will be able to take up the complicated lineaments of that conviction, problematic as those remain.

There was a regular feature in The Bell called “The Open Window”, written by Michael Farrell under the pseudonym Gulliver. That same title is another one that Professor Matthews might have used. As it is, though, it is a neat reminder of some of the magazine’s values (and a kind of corrective to Stephen Dedalus’s “cracked lookingglass of a servant”), its openness, its efforts to maintain an outward-looking attitude, its willingness to give the man in the street – the criminal, the home-maker, the person with a physical handicap, the aspiring poet and short-story writer – a look-in. Among the many identities the magazine assumed was arbiter of taste, adjudicator of design (furniture, mainly), analyst of income distribution and domestic budgets, ceist na teanga gadfly and European. All this in addition to its literary and cultural (in the narrow sense) engagements. Too many identities perhaps, and the wide spread of interests could lead to a dissipation of focus as well as unevenness. On the other hand, why not be ambitious? If there is to be failure, fail greatly. And while it is possible to cavil at some aspects of Professor Matthews’s approach, at least “her needed book”, as Anthony Cronin rightly calls it, allows us to start thinking afresh about the issues that were at stake. They haven’t really gone away.

George O’Brien is the author of The Irish Novel 1960-2010, published earlier this year.