15.02.19, Williams, Icons of Irishness

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Máire Johnson

The Medieval Review 15.02.19

Williams, Maggie M.. Icons of Irishness from the Middle Ages to the Modern World. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. xv, 207. ISBN: 9780230103207 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Máire Johnson
Elizabethtown College

Maggie Williams' Icons of Irishness may seem to be a relatively brief study, but it is not one to be taken lightly. Comprising five chapters and a brief, four-page afterword, this book offers an insightful analysis of the ways certain material objects have come to encapsulate Irish identity both inside of and well beyond Ireland's shores. Instead of delving into symbols such as the familiar harp or shamrock, both of which have strictly early modern roots, Williams looks farther back to medieval items such as the ringed high cross and interlace design and then examines how those items became "icons of Irishness"--that is, emblems of Ireland and of Irish heritage--starting in the nineteenth century. Williams' work thus crosses numerous chronological eras, spans much of the globe, and ties together art, archaeology, and history in the pursuit of its conclusions. Indeed, although Williams focuses on the representations of one ethnic identity, her analysis demonstrates that it is an identity initially and ultimately formulated in no small part by those who possess only modest links to it, rather than by those whom it is presumed to define. As a result, Williams' study transcends even the Irish themselves.

Williams begins with an introduction, "Icons of Irishness", in which she sets forward the study's goal of seeking out "the constant contemporary creation and invention of medieval Irish art" (2). She explains her chosen terminology, distinguishing between 'replica' (machine-milled and mass-produced) and 'reproduction' (hand-crafted to a much more significant degree), 'icons' (symbols of identity), 'medieval' (a rather flexible chronological designation here), and 'Celtic' (a stylistic rather than cultural or linguistic distinction). Williams notes that she selected the specific material objects, the 'icons', at the foundation of her study because they both closely resemble their medieval antecedents and yet possess modern functions or importance that have become divorced from their original forms. These symbolic items include not only meticulous entire recreations but also disconnected medieval elements absorbed into craft items, original artwork, and tattoos in the service of framing an essentially Irish identity.

In chapters one ("Visualizing Antiquity") and two ("Classifying Taste"), Williams assesses the importance of nineteenth-century antiquarians in the formulation of emblems of Irishness. In chapter one, Williams focuses on the paintings of George Petrie and Henry O'Neill, whose works presented aspects of Ireland's past to the public--particularly monastic ruins and the Irish ringed high cross--as readily recognizable components of an Irish identity. Petrie, a member of the educated Protestant elites of nineteenth-century Ireland, was driven by the belief that the Irish culture exemplified by the medieval past had to be celebrated and preserved before it was lost forever. His contemporary O'Neill, on the other hand, was an ardent nationalist and essentially outside of the establishment of which Petrie was a key part. Where Petrie's paintings stressed the ruins of the Irish landscape for an academic audience, O'Neill's works focused on depicting a pre-twelfth-century native Irish world linked to a distinct Irish national identity for a more popular reception. Both men, as Williams reveals, were instrumental in linking that identity to the Irish ringed cross in particular.

Chapter two, "Classifying Taste", turns to the detailed metalwork of Ireland's Middle Ages, including the famed 'Tara' Brooch. Both the artifacts themselves and the copies made of them, Williams argues, were initially used by aristocratic Protestants to legitimize their standing in Ireland--some of whom were English transplants--and therefore reinforced the narratives of domination and conquest even as they contributed to the definition of Irishness. In the second half of the nineteenth century, aristocratic Protestant women in Ireland fostered native textile crafts that intentionally used artistic motifs drawn from Ireland's ancient and medieval past, including spirals and interlace, which also became part of elite fashion. Later developments saw less expensive replicas made via mass production; these copies reached a wider, non-aristocratic audience and even spread into the diaspora populations of Canada and the United States. This final trend, Williams observes, is ongoing, fueled by the ease of Internet purchasing. The more modern the copy, however, the greater the divide between the item and its medieval antecedents; the link to Irishness is no longer found in the item's original meaning or context but has instead become an authenticity based solely upon "a recognizable, visual link between the present and past" (65). In other words, these components of Irish identity are authentic simply because they look something like their medieval forebears.

In chapter three, "Meet Me At The Fair", Williams turns her attention to the roles played by huge exhibitions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century in expanding the audiences of items like ringed crosses, interlace jewelry, and Irish textiles with interlace or spiral designs on them--in other words, of items seen as exemplifying Irishness. Williams assesses the displays of the Industrial Exhibition in Dublin in 1853 and compares and contrasts this show with the World's Fairs in Chicago and Saint Louis, the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, all in the United States. Williams demonstrates that the Dublin show commingled past and present, authentic artifact and reproduction, in such a manner that Irish identity became linked with motifs rather than historical context and emphasized an Ireland with a venerable antiquity that still looked forward to a technologically modern future. By contrast, the Fairs in America put Ireland to the periphery as a quaint, backward-looking culture essentially untouched by the effects of industrialism with an identity based on thatch cottages, sod fires, and folk crafts. In Dublin, visitors gained increased exposure to the view of specific artistic and textile motifs as "quintessentially Irish" (71); in America, Irishness was rural, nostalgic, and a curiosity, and the Irish themselves were drunkards and peasants.

Chapter 4, "Keepsakes and Souvenirs", moves into an entirely new realm as Williams analyzes the pieces of merchandise people purchase to commemorate a visit to a heritage site or museum. Beginning in the nineteenth century these pieces, she shows, often possess traces of the Irish Middle Ages; such traces are intended to visually connect the beholder to the Irish "experience" he or she wishes to recall, and often do so through the use of ancient or medieval materials, the creation of realistic replicas of ringed high crosses, or the inclusion of interlace and spiral motifs in new and imaginative designs. Williams demonstrates that these souvenirs and their components, as representations of Irishness that can be owned, are also given new interpretations that have little bearing in the medieval evidence but which offer modern audiences greater flexibility and increased opportunity to connect to an Irish past...even if they are not themselves Irish.

In chapter five, "Proclaiming Independence, Expressing Solidarity", Williams' attention is wholly on modern expressions of Irish identity. Here she explores the public protest murals of Gerard "Mo Chara" Kelly in Ulster, the graphic novel of Jim Fitzpatrick, and the choices of modern tattoo artists and clients. In every instance, Williams highlights the use of interlace and ringed high crosses, among other key motifs, to link past and present and create "an unbroken indigenous tradition" that has persisted even in the face of foreign domination (133). Murals, graphic novels, and tattoos also represent the essence of the Irish identity as rooted in ancient and medieval imagery, even as they prove that this Irishness lives and is continuously evolving. As Williams concludes in her brief afterword, "Specters and Apparitions", the elements now generally embraced as indicating Ireland and Irish heritage, from ringed crosses to interlace tattoos, demonstrate both an ongoing and lengthy Irish tradition and an "Irish identity that transcends both space and time" (144).

The strength of Williams' study is that it does transcend both time and locality in its uncovering of the nature of Irish identity from the nineteenth century through the present day. It is also beautifully written. Williams has presented a thorough exploration of the construction of Irishness by those who used its elements to legitimate their control over it, by those who had or have a lineal claim to it, and by those who simply wish to foster a personal connection with it. Its focus is necessarily that of an art historian, and therein it finds both its power and perhaps a bit of a weakness; Williams is generous in her detail, painting lyrical word images, but she does not, for example, use some of the more thorough histories of medieval Ireland, such as Thomas Charles-Edwards' Early Christian Ireland. Similarly, it might have augmented the study to include a mention of more recent and scholarly editions of medieval Irish literature such as Elizabeth Gray's Cath Maige Tuired or Cecile O'Rahilly's editions of the two recensions of Táin Bó Cúailnge. The lack of these works, however, does not detract from Williams' accomplishments or conclusions and may indeed make her study more approachable for the non-specialist.

The greatest difficulty one might have with this book is not related to anything Maggie Williams has done but instead involves the publisher’s choices. Palgrave Macmillan has printed Icons of Irishness in a font so small that the epigrams at the start of each chapter virtually require magnification. Additionally, although the use of illustrations is appropriate to the study (there are twenty-two black-and-white images throughout the book, each properly captioned), the images are often so small that the details are imperceptible and the reader is compelled to rely entirely upon Williams' admittedly detailed descriptions. Prime examples of images that would have been more useful enlarged even by an inch in all dimensions are the prints of George Petrie's paintings in Figures 1.1 and 1.3, the photograph of the 'Tara' Brooch in Figure 2.1, and the portrait of Clare Kennedy's fashion in Figure 2.3.

There are four minor errors to note. On p. 25 line 3, Crossa na Streaptra should be Crossa na Screaptra; further down that same page, the Old Irish reads OR DO RIGFL.IND, but the English translation omits mention of the "rig". It should read "Pray for King Fland" instead of "Pray for Fland". On page 134, lines 24 and 25, the name Aaron Ryan should probably be framed in commas, and on page 146, line 12, there appears to be a missing word in the phrase "Petrie's discusses."

Icons of Irishness from the Middle Ages to the Modern World offers a fascinating and illuminating study of the construction of an ethnic identity that links medieval models to the more recent past and the present. Maggie Williams' history, like the Irishness she traces, offers us the opportunity to consider objects in a fashion normally reserved for texts, and she effectively demonstrates how these same objects either whole or in part have been adopted and adapted in the service of creating an image of what constituted 'the real Ireland.' That these 'icons of Irishness' were first introduced by an elite determined to use them to legitimize their own dominion over the Irish countryside is ironic given the emblems’ persistence in history and in public perception. At the same time, Williams conclusively shows that their meaning is a living, evolving entity fed by the actions of all who would seek a connection with an Irish heritage. This study, therefore, provides a paradigm for the exploration both of cultural identity and of its material leavings that will reward careful consideration.

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Máire Johnson

Elizabethtown College