A genre rather than an individual writer was the focus of this week’s literature class on the “Big House Novel”. From Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800 (the same year as the Act of Union abolishing the Irish parliament and imposing/establishing direct rule from Westminster) to John Banville’s 1972 parody, Birchwood the big house setting has been a fertile one for Irish writers. After reading Edgeworth, the British prime minister William Pitt felt that he now knew something about his Irish subjects. We also looked at some passages from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, set during the Irish war of independence, on a large estate under siege from nationalist guerrillas. Telling the story from a young woman’s point of view, Bowen evokes a fear which becomes panic and then finally, resignation as the night sky turns “scarlet” with flames from the burning houses.
Skipping Birchwood in favour of a walk in the sunshine (not quite burning but warm enough), we headed to the photography archive in Temple Bar and the current exhibition, Power and Priviledge, which is all about the “Big House”. It’s open til the end of May so if you haven’t been already, it’s worth a visit, with great pictures of grand mansions and beautiful gardens, in which the owners play and the staff work. Also featured are cars, boats and what was at the time the biggest telescope in the world.
Next week we’ll be talking about Ireland’s greatest poet, WB Yeats, and visiting the extensive multimedia exhibition in the National Library. Yeats was deeply involved in Irish politics and public life so we’ll be learning about the political and cultural climate of early 20th century Ireland as well as reading some of his work. His influence on writers is still evident today – it was Yeats who wrote the line “That is no country for old men”. The poems will be available in the office from tomorrow. Try reading them aloud and don’t worry if they’re difficult to understand.
The National Library also has a wonderful online Yeats exhibition which you could browse through:
You can hear Yeats himself reading at the BBC:
See you next week when we find out what gave birth to a “terrible beauty”.