Archive review (Nov/Dec 2016 issue no. 370)- Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan
Ruth Gilligan’s Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan and the representation of Jews in Irish literature
Review by Barry Montgomery
Ruth Gilligan’s fourth novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, has brought much welcome and warranted attention to a largely unrecognised tradition of Jewish interest and representation within Irish literature outside of Joyce’s Ulysses. Leopold Bloom may loom large in the cultural imagination, but he is preceded by many other (albeit more minor) literary representations of Jews, evident from the late medieval/early modern period through to the early decades of the twentieth century in Irish fiction, poetry and drama.
It is indisputable that Ulysses proved a radical game-changer for the way Jews have been represented in Irish literature in general. In the centuries prior to Joyce, standard modes of representing Jews ranged from political tropes, motifs and metaphors for often negative societal traits and characteristics, to stereotypes depicting marginalised communities, frequently with emphasis on ‘the Jew’ as religious or cultural other. Nine Swans contributes considerably to a reappraisal that Joyce, in part, pioneered, following on from the earlier endeavours of Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington (1817).
The first Jewish character to appear on Irish soil may in fact have been in Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800). The Jewish moneylender Hermann Merl also figures prominently in Charles Lever’s The Martins of Cro’Martin (1856). Prior to this, Jewish characters tended to appear in English, European or Asian settings, typically (and tellingly) in an encounter with an Irish character. We have Irish–Jewish encounters as early as Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1656), through the eighteenth-century Irish theatre of George Farquhar and Charles Macklin and in several examples of nineteenth-century Irish fiction, culminating in the confrontation between Bloom and the Citizen in Ulysses.
A tradition of Jewish representation is also apparent in Irish Gothic and nineteenth-century political poetry. Following the influx of Jewish immigrants from the 1880s, a small number of Irish-Jewish writers emerged, evidenced in poetry, fiction and autobiography to the present day. Following Ulysses, Jews have also continued to be represented to varying degrees in all genres of Irish literature by non-Jewish writers. The central Irish-Jewish theme of Nine Folds places Gilligan’s novel amongst the key texts of this continuing tradition.
Gilligan writes from the perspective of three characters whose narratives span more than a century. The first two are Irish-Jewish: Ruth Greenberg, a Lithuanian whose story begins in 1901 upon her arrival in Cork, and Shem Sweeney, a patient at an Irish mental health institution, whose narrative begins in 1958 but whose story stretches back much further. The third is the contemporary tale of young Irish Catholic journalist Aisling Creedon, living in England with her Jewish lover, struggling to reconcile her own sense of identity with a possible conversion to Judaism.
Ruth’s narrative strand proves the most fruitful in terms of locating Nine Swans within this tradition of Jewish literary representation. Her family’s arrival in Ireland pays tribute to the rather fanciful but widespread popular anecdote of Irish-Jewish immigrants landing in Ireland en route to America after mishearing ‘New York’ for ‘Cork’. Her story is an internalised Irish–Jewish encounter, and like her biblical namesake, Ruth the Moabite, she is the outsider who embraces Ireland (as the biblical Ruth did Israel) as her home. She eats potatoes, cuts turf and becomes known as an Irish storytelling midwife whilst working at the Rotunda for the notable Irish-Jewish doctor Bethel Solomons.
Ruth’s dual, or hyphenated, identity is figuratively suggested by her differently coloured eyes, and the reader is reminded of her marginalisation when she suffers occasional hostilities at the hands of the local populace. Her father, Moshe, is a playwright with quirky ideas reminiscent of the short stories of Hannah Berman. His play, The Fifth Province, outlines the same aspirations of an imaginative, creative space transcending religious and cultural boundaries adopted by Field Day in the 1980s. Moshe ironically suffers rejection at the Abbey Theatre by Lady Gregory, who is promoting her own Jewish-themed play, The Deliverer (1911), in which an analogy with Moses is drawn to admonish the Irish people for their treatment of Parnell.
The second narrative takes Joyce’s ‘Shem the Penman’ from Finnegans Wake as inspiration: Shem Sweeney presented as an intellectually articulate, but verbally mute, Irish-Jewish patient of a Catholic mental health institution in 1950s Dublin. A fundamentally tragic figure, Shem is a prisoner of the state and of his own piety. He cannot speak through fear that what he might say will transgress his faith’s stipulations. He is a metaphor for the untold narratives of Irish Jewry as much as he represents the Irish institutional silencing of the other. Robbed of his own voice, and suffering numerous injustices, Shem transcribes the story of his Irish-Jewish roommate and fellow patient Alf.
Shem’s silence is balanced against the vocality of the third character, Aisling, who, like Gilligan herself, is a non-Jew seeking access to the religious and cultural world of Judaism. Gilligan establishes a novelistic structure wherein the three narrative strands complement, balance and vitalise each other in what has proved to be a subtle and exciting work of Irish fiction.
First published in Nov/Dec 2016 issue. 370
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