The Irish mind in a time of great stress and strain

The Irish mind in a time of great stress and strain The lasting pleasure of rereading books.
More Book Reviews 1896-2023 by J. Anthony Gaughan (Kingdom Books, €24.00/ £21.00)

J. Anthony Gaughan is one of our regular reviewers and has been for many years. This is the second and concluding collection of his book reviews of all over the years since 1975.

Many of these reviews appeared in these pages, but by no means all, for he has also been invited to contribute to a great many other journals, such as Studies, The Furrow and the Sunday Press over a wide range of subjects.

Indeed they are arranged in this volume into 25 topics, the only things missing, it seems, being literature and poetry. But then even with a polymath you can’t have everything.


Fr Gaughan is a practical reviewer. He aims at telling his readers who the writer is, and what the book is actually about. His comments are precise and focused. Unlike some of us, he never waffles. He tries always to be to the point, but also open the topic to the ordinary reader: an ideal penman for an editor. These pages are a reflection of the great service he has given his fellow readers, and re-readers, over the years.

A few days before writing this review I remarked to a literary friend that it was an illuminating collection in that it brought back to my memory, at least, so many much-praised and widely read books of the past that few now seemed to read and none to praise.

My friend remarked, “But I never reread a book.”

Now I myself am a dedicated rereader, indeed for me rereading is one of the great pleasures of life. He went on to tell me that in his final year at college he mentioned to his tutor that he was rereading some books in preparation for his finals. That distinguished man replied: “Never reread a book. Always read a new one on the same subject.”

This I now find seems to be the actual attitude of many, many others across society, from the university down to the local parish. At jumble sales – so important as fund raisers for some parishes – I gather people will not buy a second hand-book (“pre-loved” is the preferred word of today) that they have even a suspicion of having themselves already read before.

We hear people talking all the time about Ireland’s literary and intellectual heritage, of Dublin as a ‘city of literature’, and so on.  But this literary heritage we are all so proud of seems in reality to consist often enough of books published in the last two years. The rest is never touched, merely admired.


Even those who teach what has come to be called ‘The Irish Literary Canon’ – those few selected texts alone that are worth studying, those few books, which as our children say, will be ‘on the exam’. If it’s not going to prove useful at the water cooler, as the Americans say, or at a dinner party, no-one wants to be bothered. Even those doing a PhD are advised to confine their reference to works published in the last decade or so, and in conformity to current critical theories.

Perhaps they are right: Perhaps I am clinging to the known and loved, out of a fear of the new and uncertain.

But the past is important. To a critic and literary historian like myself they are always of interest. So these reviews are of less interest for what they might or might tell us about Fr Gaughan’s opinions, but more for what they reveal about the changing quality of that evasive entity the ‘Irish mind’.

Nowadays that may seem to be a very elusive subject indeed, for at times in public and private life it seems quite absent. Years ago the philosopher Arland Ussher wrote a book called The Face and Mind of Ireland (London: Gollancz, 1949). That makes a good beginning to such a pursuit. It is about the Irish mind, and not merely about Irish opinions of the day.

The wonderful works of genius announced every week are on trial, and some of them will be quite vanished in a year or two – in this respect an examination of the Booker Prize winners list is interesting. And books from the past will be pushed back from the present, and eventually fall into the abyss of time. And then we will wonder how we ever came to forget them.


We should not surrender ourselves too quickly to the market values of today, when we are already in possession of the true cultural values of the past.

Yet there are some 25 subject categories covered in these reviews, so that in effect they record the changing nature of Irish thought in a period of great stress, domestically, locally, and philosophically. The merely political is covered in its place and all the other topics because they ought to be.

In a way the book reminds me of those literary chronicles that Edmund Wilson assembled through the course of his life out of the reviews he wrote, and in a lesser way of the collections of Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess that I enjoy rereading still. As I say, rereading is the greatest of pleasures and so the reminders of the past in this book will benefit the dwindling happy few who agree with me.

We at least will never be short of something to read.