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A celebration of the tenacious life of the enduring Irish classics, this book by one of Irish writing's most eloquent readers offers a brilliant and accessible survey of the greatest works since 1600 in Gaelic and English, which together have shaped one of the world's most original literary cultures.
In the course of his discussion of the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Gaelic poems of dispossession, and of later work in that language that refuses to die, Declan Kiberd provides vivid and idiomatic translations that bring the Irish texts alive for the English-speaking reader.
Extending from the Irish poets who confronted modernity as a cataclysm, and who responded by using traditional forms in novel and radical ways, to the great modern practitioners of such paradoxically conservative and revolutionary writing, Kiberd's work embraces three sorts of Irish classics: those of awesome beauty and internal rigor, such as works by the Gaelic bards, Yeats, Synge, Beckett, and Joyce; those that generate a myth so powerful as to obscure the individual writer and unleash an almost superhuman force, such as the Cuchulain story, the lament for Art O'Laoghaire, and even Dracula; and those whose power exerts a palpable influence on the course of human action, such as Swift's Drapier's Letters, the speeches of Edmund Burke, or the autobiography of Wolfe Tone. The book closes with a moving and daring coda on the Anglo-Irish agreement, claiming that the seeds of such a settlement were sown in the works of Irish literature.
A delight to read throughout, Irish Classics is a fitting tribute to the works it reads so well and inspires us to read, and read again.
Irish Classics is a magisterial, yet passionate, evocative and wonderfully accessible journey through the literary masterpieces in both Irish and English from the 16th century to the present...It is a tale of constant decline, fall and rebirth; of a country with a persistent talent for reinvention that, amid waves of cultural waves, informs and drives the vitality of Irish Literature—a blend of the conservative and revolutionary...Alongside the flowering of the Anglo-Irish tradition with the radical pastoral Goldsmith and the subversion of Sheridan are Irish language classics that seize and often brilliantly rework the spirit of early Gaelic poetry, creating, as Kiberd says, a new lyric sequence within an ancient structure...This is a stunning promenade of writers.
— Colin Cardwell
Occasionally one comes across a book capable of producing intense feelings of dismay; then joy: dismay on having revealed to oneself an unexpected deficit in one's knowledge, and joy at the author's scholarly relief of it. This is such a book...I shall treasure Kiberd's insights into a formidable range of writers, among them, Wolfe Tone, Maria Edgeworth, William Carleton, George Moore, Wilde, Shaw, Synge, Joyce, Beckett, O'Casey, O'Flaherty, and MacNeice.
— Cal McCrystal
[Kiberd] has the talent for popularizing the public intellectual. Witty, astute and compulsively readable, he knows how to shape a critical narrative, and where to slide in a comic aside. This extravagantly ambitious book takes us all the way from the decline of the Irish bards in the 17th century to the Belfast Agreement of 1998...Like all Kiberd's writing, Irish Classics has an infectious verve about it...The book tracks the course of Irish writing with brilliant lucidity and unflagging energy hard to match on the current Irish-studies scene. It is the prose of a brilliant teacher, whose powers to expound, amuse and exhilarate are second to none.
— Terry Eagleton
When a book titled Irish Classics opens with quotes from Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it announces its ambition to be more than a narrow, nationalism text. Declan Kiberd's latest cultural and literary investigation is strikingly cosmopolitan...In Anglo-Irish or Hiberno-English culture, hyphenation is one mark of that modernity. Kiberd convincingly presents the hyphen as a cultural bridge profitably traversed by writers who fertilize each tradition with every crossing.
— Anna Mundow
Written with the skill of a good novelist, this wide-ranging and ambitious book could, in time, itself become a classic. In addition to reporting back from the war-zones of scholarship with discernment and wit and zest about the exciting "news that stays news," Kiberd has also, probably inadvertently, written one of the most fascinating, enjoyable and original histories of Ireland.
— John McGahern
A work of literature in its own right.
— Laura Cumming
Kiberd is arguably Ireland's greatest literary critic. Irish Classics is a labor of love and a book with ultimate faith in the power of the artist's imagination. A staggering achievement in criticism.
— Ian Kilroy
By bringing his critical intelligence to bear upon the liminal spaces between Ireland's two literary cultures, Declan Kiberd has immensely enriched our knowledge and understanding of their fertile confluence. This is literary criticism of the best kind: enlightening and entertaining, authoritative and accessible, committed and inspiring.
— Liam Harte
A beautifully crafted survey of inextinguishable classics from the bardic era to modern times.
— Kenneth Wright
Provocative and illuminating...[Kiberd] makes his case convincingly and often brilliantly.
— John Boland
A powerful and vibrant undertaking. The bilingual approach is one of its strengths.
— Patricia Craig
If this reviewer were to select (perhaps arbitrarily) a single theme that unites all of the writers discussed here, it would be one Kiberd articulates in his discussion of George Moore: "This was the tragic flaw of the Anglo-Irish: to have lived without any sense of connection to the surrounding people." Combining close analysis and a wide range of authors (including Gaelic), Kiberddemonstrates that scholarship can be interesting.
— F. L. Ryan
A continual flirtation with extinction, indeed, is one of the sources of the vitality of Irish literature. A recurring theme of Declan Kiberd's witty, accessible, and often brilliantly written book is that, in the way the country has been imagined by its writers, "Ireland was forever dying and getting born again"...Kiberd is a joy to read. The other side of his insistence on a "national culture" is that he is genuinely interested in being read by the nation, and not just by the academy. Never patronizing or simplistic, he is not ashamed of being lucid, engaging, and witty. He has the courage to ignore the deconstructionist strictures on relating writers to writing, history to literature, and human dilemmas to texts. Always interesting and usually illuminating, the individual essays are never so consumed by their own cleverness that they forget to communicate the pleasure of reading. If, stirred by Kiberd's energy and intelligence, the reader goes back to the texts and finds them far too slippery to be comfortably classical, so much the better.
— Fintan O'Toole