Ireland & Europe in Words

Notes from an Irish Studies Conference in Vienna, Sept. 3-6

TVR Books | Julia Novak, Verena Gappmaier | October 2009

"Europeanise Ireland, Hibernicise Europe" - this was the motto of the seventh biannual conference of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS) held at the University of Vienna, Sept. 3-6, 2009. The slogan had been provided by James Joyce himself, who had spent most of his writing life in mainland Europe (including the then Austro-Hungarian Empire), benefiting from the cultural cross-currents characteristic of linguistic contact zones.

At the opening in the Main Ceremonial Chamber of the University of Vienna, over 170 people, among them the Irish Ambassador Frank Cogan and several other diplomats, had gathered for the occasion. Excitement was high. At the back of the large hall at the stand that habitually holds the Austrian and the EU flags a third had been added: The flag of the Republic of Ireland.

Professor Werner Huber, from the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Vienna, welcomed his audience in Irish:

"A dhaoine uaisle, Tá fáilte romhaíbh go léir go dtí an seachtú comhdhála d’EFACIS ar an téama Éire agus Euroíp." (Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 7th conference of EFACIS on the topic of Ireland and Europe), "Má tá ciall ar bith leis na focla cáiliúla sin le Oscar Wilde, tugfaidh sibh cead dom dul ar agheidh í mBéarla" (If there is any sense in those famous words by Oscar Wilde, you will give me leave to continue in English):

"I do not know anything more wonderful, or more characteristic of the Celtic genius, than the quick artistic spirit in which we adapted ourselves to the English tongue," Joyce had written. "The Saxon took our lands from us and left them desolate; we took their language and added new beauties to it."

Huber later quoted James Joyce’s literary alter ego Stephen Dedalus, for whom Europe functions as a symbol of liberation, modernism, and cosmopolitanism. Ireland, Joyce famously wrote, was as "an after-thought of Europe."

Then Huber turned to the evening’s keynote speaker, Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature. Heaney is a "performance poet", Huber said, stirring laughter across the room; he is known to admire the rapper Eminem for his verbal energy and subversiveness.

The title of Heaney’s keynote, "Mossbawn via Mantua" referred to his birthplace in Northern Ireland and to that of the Latin poet Virgil, and served as an invitation to a series of links between Europe and the Emerald Isle, including the early Christian missionaries and the many European writers that have influenced his work – among them Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Rilke, Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Auden.

Europe had always been tremendously important for him, Heaney confessed, as a "viewing deck" from which the "Irish home ground" could be seen in a different light, and which enabled him to "get a closer view ... by standing back." He had also taken to translating classical European works in response to a contemporary crisis. His translation of the beginning of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, for instance, in which the watchman imagines the bloodshed of the Trojan war and the bloodshed to come when his master returns to Mycenae, had been done in answer to the orgy of sectarian killing which had preceded the IRA ceasefire in 1994. These works and writers had inspired Heaney to achieve what Samuel Taylor Coleridge regarded as a crucial ability of the creative imagination: to retrieve a "sense of novelty and freshness" with "old and familiar objects."


John Fitzgerald, Lenny Abrahamson 

& Mark O’Halloran

The second keynote lecturer was economist John Fitzgerald from the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, whom Huber described as "an expert on the Celtic Tiger," referring to Ireland’s economic boom between 1995 and 2007. "Although, the Tiger seems to be drawing its last breath at the moment," he confided.

Fitzgerald compared post-Civil War Ireland to "Sleeping Beauty, kissed awake by the European Union." With EU-membership, Ireland opened up to the outside world, and better education was made available, especially to women. But the Celtic Tiger also brought "a certain hubris" to the nation that now finds itself in deep crisis. Economically, Ireland is in a more difficult situation than Austria, with the unemployment rate heading towards 15% next year, he said. But on the plus side, Fitzgerald noted that Ireland’s demographics are reason for hope, as Ireland does not have as big a "graying problem" as the rest of Europe.

The third keynote presentation was given by the Irish filmmakers Lenny Abrahamson and Mark O’Halloran, who have recently come to fame through their award-winning feature films Adam & Paul (2004) and Garage (2008). They talked about the rise of Irish filmmaking in the 1990s, noting that "for a long time, saying that you wanted to be a filmmaker in Ireland was a bit like saying you wanted to be an astronaut."

Coming to Dublin from the West of Ireland, O’Halloran was particularly shocked by the heroin junkies in Dublin city streets and started taking notes about his daily observations. It was these notes that went into the making of Adam & Paul. Their penchant for vignettes of everyday characters and social outsiders is in part a political choice:

"We made Adam & Paul and Garage at a time when Ireland was busy congratulating itself about what a fabulous country it was," Abrahamson said. "It seemed there were lots of other stories that weren’t being told."

It was a packed weekend, nearly 100 presentations in three days in dozens of well-attended sessions. In part, this seemed to be a response to the timeliness of the conference theme; the recent referendum for the Lisbon Treaty firmly put Ireland into the limelight again and made continental Europeans aware of "the island behind the island." In part, also, it appeared to reflect a tireless love of Irish literature, and the writers who have dominated the 20th century in vastly outsized proportion to their tiny country.

But the talks covered a broader field as well, reflecting the expanding terrain of Irish Studies throughout Europe, with contributions on history, philosophy, theology, politics, sociology, economics, sport, language, literature, theatre, film and media studies, and cultural studies. Scholars came from across the European map, from Braga in Portugal to Prague in the Czech Republic and from Gothenburg in Sweden to Cluj Napoca in Romania.

Participant Sandra Mayer was particularly amazed by the diversity of topics covered in the panels – from the unlikely connection between Wilde and Wagner, or the 19th-century oral tradition of Irish keeners, to teaching Irish history in British schools.

"It was a fantastic interdisciplinary experience," she said, "which, I am sure, will inspire new approaches to my own research."

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