The past may be a foreign country, but might still be worth a visit if we want to make sense of the present. At least, that’s what Professor Joe Cleary of Maynooth University ’s English Department believes, so in order to understand modern Ireland, he is engaging with the cultural critics of the past. “It seemed to me that as we were trying to make sense of Ireland in the late twentieth century and early twenty first in terms of huge social transformations, that people were struggling to find the critical terms, the theoretical vocabulary, the modes of analysis that would make sense of these broad developments,” he explains. “So I thought that now would be a useful time to go back and look at the way in which some of the most decisive twentieth century Irish critics had thought about Ireland and its location in the world, and how they had formulated the dilemmas of their particular moment.”

The critics in question include W.B. Yeats, Daniel Corkery, Sean O’ Faolain, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Denis Donoghue, Seamus Deane, Terence Brown, Declan Kiberd, Elizabeth Butler Cullingford and Clair Wills. “Some of these — particularly O’Faolain, Cruise O’Brien and Deane—were also prominent public intellectuals and will be examined as such and not just as cultural critics.”  For Cleary, such an examination of the past can teach us new perspectives on our current situation. “Obviously it was not just a question of going back, but of also learning from previous ways in which the questions had been formed to rethink our current world.”

According to Cleary, a number of critics have posed questions that remain relevant for our times, including Daniel Corkery, who asked “whether Irish literature in English would only ever become strongly politicised and national-minded during times of national emergency, but would continue in more normal periods of calm to emphasise Irish eccentricity in order to chase mainly after international markets and foreign critical approval.” It’s a question Cleary sees as far-sighted, given that much of today’s cultural output is now market-driven. “We see the issue in particularly obvious ways in film where it is widely acknowledged by both producers and actors that what marketeers think American audiences want really has a direct impact on the types of films that get made about Ireland.”

Other critics, such as Sean O’Faolain, posed questions about how Irish society was affecting Irish writers. “Whereas Corkery had asked whether Irish writers were adequately serving the needs of Irish society, O’Faolain shifted tack and asked whether Irish society was adequately serving the needs of Irish writers. Both are fundamentally political questions and retain their cogency even now.”

In his studies of past critics, Cleary sees the questions being raised about Irish writers and their relationship to the country’s politics as relevant in looking at the present day. “As the Republic of Ireland collapses into one of the worst economic fiascos in its history and advances rapidly towards the centenary of Easter 1916, the vexed question of the writer and politics retains all of its urgency,” he says. “The idea is not to go back to these older critics assuming they had all the answers. However, these critics did sometimes have very good questions that are still relevant today.”

His studies can also illuminate how recent debates about the perceived failure of 21st century Irish writers to engage with a 21st century present are a relatively new phenomenon. “There are no strong precedents for it. People in the 1940s were not saying ‘Our plays are all set in he 1920s’. So it is an argument that seems to be peculiar to our moment and therefore to be all the more interesting for that.”

For Cleary, these critics of the past have had a hand in shaping the Ireland we know and live in today. He cites Yeats’ idea of Ireland as a folk society that was ancient, poetic and anti-modern, an image which various industries, such as tourism, are now attempting to harness towards their own end.  He also points to O’Faolain’s “campaign for pragmatic nationalism,” and to the work of Seamus Deane, who argued for a reappraisal of the inherited languages and mentalities that had brought about a political stalemate between unionism and nationalism. “Today, there is an equally compelling case for a systematic review of the zombie-languages of neoliberalism that have infested everything in Ireland, including the arts and academia.”

In his research into the critics of the past, Cleary has also noted their changing roles in society. “In the 20th century the sense of literature and cultural criticism as something oppositional, as something that tried to stand back from society and be a voice of criticism came to be seen as a stance that was more difficult to maintain . . . today, people like Bono and Bob Geldoff try to play a different role, working with politicians and influencing from within.”

The question is whether such a role involves an implicit acceptance of the way the world is currently formulated, with art’s function to make improvements on it rather than change it any radical way.  “That seems to me to be one of the things that makes our own contemporary moment different to some of the earlier ones.”

Some things remained consistent throughout the last century, however. “When I went back and looked at these very different critics, with their very different preoccupations in different decades, although the vocabulary and the terminology might change, there really was a continuing preoccupation with Ireland’s relationship to Europe and to a lesser extend Ireland’s relationship to America, not just what constitutes a national culture, but how does that culture help locate us or situate us within a wider world.”

In the early twentieth century, says Cleary, this too is changing. “In a way we have probably less engagement with European culture and even to some degree with American culture perhaps than we did at an earlier moment. . . there is a sense that you can get everything in English and that you don’t need to look beyond, and I think our culture at the present moment has real cause for concern and needs to look at that.”