‘Theory’ is the name now often given to a wide range of philosophical, sociological, linguistic and psychological approaches that are deployed in reading literature at an advanced level. Put simply, theory is the discourse in which literary reading turns its focus back on itself, and tries to reflect not only on what we read, but on how and why we read. Considered in this way, theory does not make reading merely over-complicated but rather enriches it. Not only this, but framing our study in this way allows us to think of what it means to be a reader, or critic, or scholar, in the fullest civic sense. Literature and literary reading often deals in values – values both personal and social, moral and ethical – and so we can say that a training in reading, buttressed by an understanding of the theoretical elements and implications of that reading and that training, helps produce readers and scholars who have the capacity to be critically-aware citizens of Irish society and of the world.
The Maynooth University English Department hosts, in the range of interests of its staff members, a wide range of theoretical approaches to literature and culture, from deconstruction to marxism and feminism.
Though Ireland has given the world some of the greatest writers in the English language, Irish writing in English was once regarded as no more than an exotic but minor extension of "English Literature". A sense of a distinctively Irish literary tradition in English only really emerged with the Irish Literary Revival in the early twentieth century. The Revival’s declaration of cultural independence transformed Ireland’s relationship with the traditions of English writing and inaugurated the study of Irish writing in English as a distinct cultural phenomenon. Writers and intellectuals such as Jonathan Swift, Maria Edgeworth, John Mitchel, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde were claimed in this era as part of Ireland’s cultural inheritance and the Revival and modernist era produced in its own right an exceptional body of talented figures, including W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, J.M. Synge, Elizabeth Bowen and Samuel Beckett. More recently, the Irish university system has nurtured a domestic literary criticism that has been influenced by wider international currents of cultural criticism, but which has also been attentive to the specificities of Irish history; this development has confirmed the country’s exemplary role both in the production and in the interpretation of literature.
The Maynooth University Department of English has long been a leading centre for the study of Irish writing. Historically, the Department has played a widely-recognised role in campaigns against Irish censorship and in the appreciation of film, in the formation of nineteenth-century Irish studies and postcolonial studies, and, more recently, in the cultivation of feminist and marxist modes of literary scholarship. Irish novels, poems and plays are taught in the department with attention to their specific historical and cultural contexts and in relation to a range of interdisciplinary and theoretical perspectives. This provides a wide-angled approach to Ireland’s place in global culture and to its distinctive status in relation to metropolitan, colonial and other peripheral literary traditions. At postgraduate level, the department has run a successful MA in Irish writing for more than twenty years. Staff members of the department have published pioneering books and essays on a range of topics in Irish Studies. This includes work on eighteenth-century Irish politics and culture, Irish modernism (especially James Joyce), contemporary Irish poets including Medbh McGuckian and Seamus Heaney, Ireland and ecocriticism, Ireland and postcolonialism, Irish cinema and visual culture including photography, and gender and sexuality in Irish writing.
Michel Foucault’s work on the history of sexualities shows how the construction of group identities involves the naming, inclusion and exclusion of different sexualities at different points in history. Such a ‘biopolitical’ account of social inclusion and exclusion is also explored by Julia Kristeva, who argues that women’s bodies represent the territories or borderlines of groups, nationalities and races. Gender, Sexuality and Feminist studies are therefore not simply about thinking about what ‘woman’s’ identity is or what ‘queer’ identity is, but also about how so-called ‘normative’ identities are produced in relation to women and Others. In other words, while the categories of ‘woman’ or ‘queer’ are not givens neither are the categories of identity that they are supposed to be measured against, such as ‘man’ or ‘heterosexual’. Therefore, a critical practice and vocabulary that highlights gender and sexuality also takes into account narratives of nation, racial identification and class, and of how we position ourselves in relation to the environment. Gender and Sexuality studies use an intersectional approach to read culture – that is, scholars in this field look at how questions of gender and sexuality, race, class and other identity categories intersect at specific moments and in specific places.
In a time of rapid ecological change, unprecedented global movement of populations and rapidly changing technologies and economies, Gender and Sexuality studies provide a mode of reading culture that allow us to ask how literature and culture can address – or ignore – questions of social justice, inclusion and exclusion. In the Maynooth University Department of English, we emphasize the importance of this intersectional approach at undergraduate and graduate level across a range of areas of literary study. The department runs an inter-institutional MA programme with University College Dublin that allows students to use this area as their primary frame for reading a range of texts and practices. The MA also offers modules from other departments in Maynooth University including Media Studies, Music and Modern Languages.
Shakespeare studies covers the range of Shakespeare’s writing, as well as its literary and cultural afterlives as these find expression through a variety of media. Shakespeare was among the most prolific dramatists and poets of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Scholars variously describe this period as the English Renaissance or the ‘early modern’, the latter capturing the extent to which Shakespeare and his contemporaries anticipate the concerns of our own time.
Maynooth University Department of English has a long history of teaching and research in the field of Shakespeare and early modern writing. Our approach fosters an informed analysis of the often-repeated claim for Shakespeare’s universalism, a claim that itself has a long history, dating back to Ben Jonson’s homage to the Bard as “not of an age/ But for all time”. That Shakespeare continues to be cited so frequently in modern popular culture might appear to corroborate that claim. But each iteration of Shakespeare brings to the Shakespearean text its own historically situated inflections. As such, it is now common to talk of “Shakespeares”, rather than a singular Shakespeare.
At Maynooth, Shakespeare and early modern writing form a core component of the undergraduate syllabus. The department also offers an MA module on “Global Shakespeare” available on both the MA in “Postcolonial and World Literatures” and in “Gender and Sexuality in Writing and Culture”. The department has also hosted the conferences of the Irish Renaissance Seminar, a collective of early modern researchers based in Ireland, and several international speakers from the field. The department’s research profile includes several publications in the period, including books on representations of Ireland in Shakespearean drama and on YouTube Shakespeare, and work on Edmund Spenser and on Shakespeare’s critical reception.
You can join the conversation about Shakespeare Studies at Maynooth University by following us on Twitter (@mediaShakes).
The so-called Enlightenment period anticipates and in many ways encompasses the ‘Romantic’ era. Much of the literature most characteristic of the long eighteenth century (1660-1830) is remarkable in terms of its interest in first principles, its tendency to critique European manners and morals and its concern with a spirit of scientific investigation that is as absorbed by the human passions as it is by the physical universe. The seismic shift in perceptions offered by the example of the French Revolution encourages a new belief in human perfectibility. Even literature which challenges and resists such idealism cannot help but be profoundly informed by it.
Maynooth was decisively influenced by two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential writers – Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke. Rousseau’s smash-hit childcare manual, Emile (1762) was so admired by Lady Fitzgerald of Carton House that it is said that she attempted to secure Rousseau’s services as tutor to her children. While Rousseau himself never came to Maynooth, his influence was decisive in the shape of his disciple, William Ogilvie, who educated the young Fitzgeralds according to Rousseau’s principles. The most notable of these children, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was inspired by Rousseau to become a republican revolutionary leader of the great uprising of 1798. Edmund Burke meanwhile (who hated Rousseau with a rare and eloquent passion) was instrumental in securing the foundation of Maynooth College in 1795 as part of a counter-revolutionary strategy of ecumenical rapprochement with Catholic Ireland. North Kildare is therefore a fascinating place to reconsider the legacy of the revolutionary eighteenth century.
The Department of English at Maynooth University (Ireland’s only eighteenth-century university) has particular strengths in this field. The department has twice hosted annual meetings of the Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society (ECIS). The university as a whole, with its easy proximity to both Carton House and Castletown House, is a centre of scholarship on Ireland’s historic houses and the significance of power and patronage in an Irish eighteenth-century context. Staff members in the department have published on Burke’s political aesthetics, on religious poetry as well as on oratory and drama in the eighteenth century.
What is ‘World Literature’? This field of study has attracted huge interest in recent times and as a result there are now several major approaches to this topic. For some, ‘world literature’ refers to works of high literary accomplishment that are read in almost every language in the world. Works such as The Iliad, The Arabian Nights, Wuthering Heights, Ulysses, Things Fall Apart, Midnight’s Children and One Hundred Years of Solitude are just some obvious examples of such widely-translated texts, and the study of translation and global circulation and reception are crucial to this mode of understanding world literature. For others, ‘world literature’ has more to do with the ways in which some national literatures, and especially literatures in Western European countries that were once global empires, have accrued more prestige or influence than others, and the focus of this approach is on the uneven power structures through which literary value is established. Scholars who favour this model sometimes have recourse to world systems theory and are interested in the relationship between literary peripheries and centres (between, say, English or American literatures and the newer literatures in English in the Caribbean, Africa or India) and in mechanisms of international literary consecration (awards, prizes, honour systems) and canonization (what gets institutional recognition). For others still, ‘world literature’ is essentially a development of postcolonial studies and is mainly about how literary forms of various kinds register differences between the worlds of the Global North (Europe, North America and Japan) and the Global South (Africa, Asia and South America). Whatever their approach, all scholars in this field read literature in a broadly transnational context and all study how literature is shaped by the culturally diverse but economically and politically unequal world in which we live. For many students, one of the major attractions of ‘world literature’ is that it allows them to read wonderfully interesting literary works from cultures very remote from those they know best.
The Department of English at Maynooth University was one of the first in the country to establish a specialized commitment to both ‘postcolonial studies’ and ‘world literature.’ Several undergraduate modules are currently assigned to this area and the Department’s MA in ‘Postcolonial and World Literatures’ is the only postgraduate programme in Ireland of its kind dedicated exclusively to the study of this mode of literature. Moreover, several members of the English Department have scholarly expertise in the field and lecture and publish internationally on the topic of ‘world literature’. Examples of published works in the area include books or articles on sexuality in the contemporary African novel, literature and partition in Ireland and the Middle East, Edward Said and orientalism, modernism and empire, world literary systems, and ecology and world literature. The department also hosts numerous visits to campus by internationally-distinguished postcolonial critics and writers from Africa, India and the Caribbean.