Beckett, Joyce and Irish Exile

Sean O'Hagan on the role that exile plays in Irish cultural and political life
Samuel Beckett in exile in Paris, 1986. Photograph: Bob Adelman/Corbis
When Mary Robinson became president of Ireland in 1990, one of her first, and most symbolic, actions was to light a lamp in the kitchen window of her official residence to acknowledge the many millions of Irish people overseas. Until then, Irish emigration had been one of the great unspokens of political life, while simultaneously being one of the great themes of Irish drama, fiction and poetry.

Robinson's inspiration was a poem by Eavan Boland called The Emigrant Irish. "Like oil lamps," it begins, "we put them out the back – of our houses, of our minds." The generations who left for a new life in Britain and America haunted Irish writing and song throughout the 20th century.

Both James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, the two towering modernists of Irish literature, chose exile, the former famously describing Ireland as 'the old sow that eats her farrow". Joyce also wrote that the Irishman was more respected abroad; "the economic and intellectual contradictions that prevail in his own country do not allow the development of individuality".

It was Beckett who gave voice to the exile's dilemma of not belonging. "It is suicide to be abroad," says a character in All That Fall, "but what is it to be at home?… A lingering dissolution." [Read the article]

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