The Irish Review

The Irish Review published by Cork University Press

Seamus Heaney, IR 3

In issue 3 of The Irish Review (1988) an exhibition of four Irish ‘expressionist’ painters (Brian Maguire, Patrick Hall, Timothy Hawksworth and Patrick Graham) was covered, with contributions from the artists and a reflection on their work by Seamus Heaney.

Here is an extract from Heaney’s contemplation of the impact of their work:

… I don’t think that the artist’s act in Ireland is ever weightless. There may be aesthetic problems, there is the perennial question of talent, the question of ‘Just how good is this art?’, but that is a different problem. What I a talking about is the transmitting power of art within a polis, its political reality to mean not sloganeering or the canvassing of topical themes but rather the address of art to the secret unspoken level of understanding that is intimate to a country or a language or a certain community. In that sense, the political quotient of art is alive and well in Ireland. It is always healthy for art when the vocabulary available in the situation is not the full vocabulary of human possibility, where some of the range has been declared off limits. The South African writer, André Brink, uses the image of the alphabet here. In your typical western democracy, say Britain or the United States, the full alphabet of human permission is available. You can say what you like from A to Zee in the States, from A to Zed in Britain. You can speak what you like without going beyond or going outside the permitted. Therefore it is very hard to authenticate yourself, everybody agrees with everything getting said, outrage is impossible and humility is oblivion. Whereas if you live in a country where there is only A to F available, once you say a word beginning with H or W you are really going beyond the limit and disrupting things.

In Ireland, for example … sexuality is still beyond F, if you will pardon the expression. As the fellow said when he came back from Paris, ‘Sex in Ireland is in its infancy.’ It is still possible for moral outrage to be committed, both within the private sanctum of the individual consciousness and outside in the taboo-ridden society. So it is still also possible to have a liberating, romantic, savior/redeemer conception of the artist in Ireland, the Stephen Dedalus figure forging within his soul the uncreated conscience of the race. Things are not yet at the post-modernist, self-cancelling ironical stage for most people in the country, although anybody alive in the late twentieth century is stupid if he does not recognize that things are not what they were.

Maguire, Hall, Hawksworth, Graham, Heaney, ‘On Irish Expressionist Painting’, The Irish Review, 3 (1988), 26-39 [36-7]


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