Columbia University Seminar in Irish Studies (#535)
Minutes of the meeting held Friday, February 7th, 2002

Chair: Professor Mary McGlynn, Baruch College, CUNY
Rapporteur: Dermot Ryan, Columbia University.
Submitted: February 27th, 2003

Attending: Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey), Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College), Maura McGarrity (Long Island University), Steve Burke (American Teachers Association), Mary Ann Burke, Bill McGimpsey, Diane Menagh (Fairfield University),

Speaker: Professor Edward Hagan
Title: “Rethinking Standish James O'Grady: Classical Scholarship, Anarchism and Communism in his Later Works.”

Professor Hagan opened his talk by noting the inconsistency between the popular view on who Standish O’ Grady was—a “literary Unionist”—and what he actually was. This inconsistency is a result, in part, of O’ Grady’s own inconsistency. O’ Grady’s writing is voluminous; he wrote a lot of opinion pieces for newspapers and journals that ran the entire political gamut. He gets typed in Irish cultural studies because he wrote his best-known pieces for a Unionist paper. At the same time, it is rarely noted that he spends most of the time giving out to Unionists.
Perhaps, the tag that captures his protean nature best is Lady Gregory’s: a Fenian Unionist. O’ Grady wanted to rename the British Empire the Anglo-Irish Empire. Indeed, it could be argued he was more interested in making the union more Irish than the Irish more unionist.
Standish O’ Grady’s grandson was kind enough to send a huge sheaf of O’ Grady’s work to Professor Hagan consisting of manuscripts, notes, and newspaper clippings with evidence of editing in O’ Grady’s own hand. Apparently O’ Grady had wanted to put together a collection of his own journalistic writing. This informal archive presents a number of textual problems: many of the articles, which have been cut out from journals and newspapers, have no information about where they come from. While one can imagine that O’ Grady knew the original source, his editor or compiler is left to puzzle out where many of the opinion pieces first appeared.
The most surprising pieces in this collection are those contributions by O’ Grady to Jim Larkin’s newspaper, The Irish Worker. O’ Grady wrote for the paper for 9 months between September 1912 and May 1913. During this time, he’s the star of the paper, often writing the leader. At this time The Irish Worker’s circulation was staggering, running into the tens of thousands.
Many of his pieces are anti-capitalist analyses written in an epistolary manner to “the leaders” of the Irish workers. O’ Grady sees capitalism as a force which has most Western countries in its grip and advocates a form of agrarian anarchism as an alternative social organization. On the one hand, the pieces comprise a virulent attack on the injustices produced by industrial capitalism; on the other hand, O’ Grady’s diagnosis is often extremely pessimistic: all organized resistance within the system seems futile. O’ Grady matches the violence of his language with a defeatism in his analysis.
O’ Grady advocates the gradual establishment of rural communes made up of small bands of workers. According to O’ Grady, cities will always produce surplus labor, which will depress wages, and slum housing, which can only undermine the health of the working class.
Professor Hagan suggested that these pieces show a side of O’ Grady which departs radically from Yeats’ description of him in The Trembling of the Veil as “a unionist in politics…and a hater of all forms of democracy.” In fact, O’ Grady was the first European to write on Walt Whitman and O’ Grady showed a keen interest in Whitman’s poetry and ideas on democracy.
Yeats’ misrepresentations do not end there, however, While Yeats represented the writer as chiefly a mythmaker, O’ Grady saw himself as a man of science. Following Yeats, Roy Foster places O’ Grady right at the center of the mythological project associated with The Celtic Twilight. Consequently, O’ Grady has been the main fall guy in any critique of this enterprise.
O’ Grady was a classical scholar deeply interested in the historical background to mythological texts. Foster ignores O’ Grady’s interest in “scientific” historical scholarship. In this sense, it might be more accurate to view O’ Grady as a de-mythologizer rather than a mythmaker. Professor Hagan answered questions from the floor. A sampling follows.
Q: I’ve been reading Forster’s book as well. He seems to be interested in how Ireland’s history gets constructed as a narrative. Traditionally, O’ Grady gets attacked as a Victorian who adds fluff to these earthy myths. If I understand Foster correctly, he’s actually enchanted with what O’ Grady does with these stories. Would you say that’s accurate?
A: Foster is on a mission, a mission that I’m often in broad sympathy with. I just think he goes overboard. Foster has respect for the mythmaking, but he doesn’t register the scientific project that O’ Grady is involved with.
Q: Where is O’ Grady during the Rising?
A: I’ve been curious to trace him after 1914. His son is an ace in the Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, O’ Grady is contributing to the Christian Scientist Monitor, writing about peace. In any Irish Parliament, he argues, half the seats should go to the North. His family thinks he was ran out of Ireland. The evidence shows that he left Ireland in 1918 and by 1925, he’s on the voting rolls in England. He dies on the Isle of Wight.
Q: Couldn’t we just as easily see O’ Grady’s position as essentially reactionary: a Romantic reaction to industrialization rather than a radical project in support of workers’ power? In other words, couldn’t we see a broad consistency in his unionist agrarianism and his pieces for The Irish Worker? The question then becomes what are the determinants that allow such a position be voiced in Larkin’s paper.
A: O’ Grady specifically states that he is in favor of syndicalism.
Q: Maybe, we might look at the time these articles are published. They coincide with a general effort to form coalitions between farming and worker interests.
A: There is certainly a distinctive eclecticism and cosmopolitanism about O’ Grady’s thinking.
Q: Isn’t O’ Grady’s interest in rural communes and garden cities in contradiction with Whitman’s love of the urban? What would have Yeats’ made of Whitman?
A: That would be an interesting question to look into.