Shared Elements: A Trial of Memes

Shared Elements: A Trial of Memes

Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook uses three autobiographies to explore the presence of “memetic incursions” within Irish historical narratives.

Colloquially speaking, we all know what a meme is. Grumpy Cat, for example, is an excellent meme. Photographs of a pet cat with a permanent frown have become a widely recognized shorthand for sarcasm, irony, and general mild disgruntlement. Grumpy Cat images turn up everywhere: shirts, pins, posters, bags, mugs, stickers.

Most accounts give credit to Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene for first calling a meme a meme. Dawkins claimed that memes reflected a new type of “replicator” which he described as “leaping from brain to brain.”[1] The definition is not very clear-cut: is a meme the same thing as a cliche? as a trope? as bad writing? poor graphic design? parody? Perhaps they are examples of conscious or unconscious plagiarism on the part of authors particularly immersed in a particular literature or cultural moment. These are not questions I have attempted to answer – not because they are unimportant, just beyond the scope of a single blog post!

What I have done here is attempt a preliminary investigation of memetic material in Irish nationalist autobiography. Claire Lynch, in Irish Autobiographies, captures well what strikes me as particularly apt about using autobiography to explore the presence of memetic incursions[2] within Irish historical narratives: “[autobiographies]… demonstrate the impossibility of avoiding the influence of other writers, as many Irish autobiographies expose a family resemblance that infiltrates, influences, and imitates…”[3]

I have chosen to define meme fairly broadly as a repeating metaphor, image, or portion of narrative that re-occurs recognizably in multiple pieces of writing. My only other requirement for possible memes was that they be at least provisionally describable by a simple phrase, such as those used in the Aarne/Thompson Folktale Index (the A/T index).[4] I found this very helpful in terms of deciding whether or not an image was a discrete unit or part of a larger narrative construct. If I could describe it in a very simple sentence, then it seemed likely I had found the smallest unit.

I selected three autobiographies to work with: George Moore’s three volume Hail and Farewell (1911, 1912, 1914), Maud Gonne’s A Servant of the Queen (1938), and, for something more overtly political, John Mitchel’s much earlier Jail Journal (1854).

Though connected within the context of the Irish nationalist movement, each autobiography has a distinct voice and purpose. Moore’s trilogy details his shift to Dublin from London and his involvement in the “Irish literary revival.” His original plan was to work with Edward Martyn and W.B. Yeats in the Irish Literary Theatre; later, his residence in Dublin became about work with the Gaelic League and his personal and fraught relationship both with the country at large and his brother who managed the family estate in Mayo.

Gonne’s Servant is an account of her involvement with both cultural and militant Irish nationalism from the 1890s through the 1920s and 30s. Gonne casts her involvement with Irish republican nationalism as part of a life-long distaste for bullies; growing up as the daughter of an English military officer stationed in Ireland, she was uniquely positioned to observe the interplay between native Irish and colonizing English.

In 1848, John Mitchel was sentenced to transportation for inciting treason through his newspaper, The United Irishman. Mitchel wrote his Journal during the successive stages of his journey: Ireland to Bermuda, Bermuda to South Africa, South Africa to Australia, and finally Australia to the United States. The last leg was patently not under the observation of the English government; Mitchel, along with a number of his fellow prisoners, managed to escape Australia with outside help. The Journal was written during Mitchel’s years out of Ireland starting in 1848; it was initially published in serial form in 1854 in The Citizen, Mitchel’s New York newspaper.

So what memetic incursions are made into the work of these three autobiographers? While I identified and isolated three that I will call, “Stories About Land,” “The Central Peasant,” and “The Value of Work” only the first — “Stories About the Land” — will be part of this blog post!

“Stories About Land,” like most tale types in the A/T index, is a category with multiple subcategories, including the personification of Ireland (whether as a lovely young woman or an old hag) and the creation or recreation of the country, either purely mental or actually proposed, as an agricultural, pastoral, or cultural paradise. This last might be well described as the “If…” meme, given that the formula so often includes, “If there were no landlords…” or “If there were no peasants…” or “If there were no England…”.[5]

All three authors in our sample group picture Ireland as a vision of loveliness, something not that distant from a holy land, or a ruined landscape, blasted by famine and careless landlords and wandered through by mourning, powerless peasants whose only recourse is emigration. Moore begins Ave, the first volume of Hail, with a prolonged ramble in memory: “And noiselessly, like a ghost, modern Ireland glided into my thoughts, ruinous as ancient Ireland, more so, for she is clothed not only with the ruins of the thirteenth century, but with the ruins of every succeeding century.”[6] Moore’s vision of the landscape of Ireland veers between the pastoral and the ruinous throughout Hail.

Mitchel, on the other hand, has no doubt that Ireland is a vision of beauty, complete with rolling hills and misty green landscape: “This thirteenth of September is a calm, clear, autumnal day in Ireland, and in green glens there, and on many a mountain side, beech-leaves begin to redden, and the heather-bell has grown brown and sere…”[7]

Gonne is less certain, depicting an eviction scene in Queen that pulls few punches in terms of describing an overworked, poorly husbanded landscape. Overall, however, she relies on Ireland and the physical land of Ireland as an image of health and healing throughout. When she speaks of returning to her childhood home at Howth, for example, she writes: “It [the heather] is as springy as the finest spring mattress and, if one chooses the place well, so cosy and sheltered and quiet. From deep down in it one looks up at the stars…and falls asleep to wake only with the call of the sea birds…”[8]

This very brief exploration has done little more than suggest the presence of a single meme in these three autobiographies. It does nothing to consider, for example, what work the meme is performing for the author or the reader. These considerations would form the logical next step of the project as well as casting the net wider to include more authors, as well as closer exploration of autobiography and why – or if – the genre seems particularly vulnerable to memetic incursion.

[1] Gleick, James, “What Defines a Meme?” What Defines a Meme? | Arts and Culture | Smithsonian, n.d.

[2] I owe this phrase to Seanan McGuire and her excellent Indexing series, an excerpt of which can be found here:

[3] Lynch, Claire, Irish Autobiography: Stories of Self in the Narrative of a Nation. Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2009, 13-14.

[4] The Aarne Folktale Index (now also called the A/T/U Index after later revisers Stith Thompson and Hans-Georg Uther) was originally developed by folklorist Antti Aarne as a way of codifying folk tales in an elemental sense. Stories are divided into categories — for example, the revised edition by Stith-Thompson in the 1950s lists Mythological Motifs, Animal Motifs, Motifs of Tabu, Magic, the Dead, and Ogres among others. Each category can be split into multiple subcategories; Mythological Motifs, for instance, divides into approximately 3,000 subtypes. Subtypes may be combined and recombined across categories in order to describe a complete story fully.

[5] Those familiar with Alan Bennett’s excellent play The History Boys may recognize “history in the subjunctive” here.

[6] Moore, George. Hail and Farewell: Ave. Vol. 1. 3 vols. New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1920, 6.

[7] Mitchel, John. Jail Journal. 1913 ed. London: Sphere Books Ltd, 1983, 61.

[8] Gonne MacBride, Maud. A Servant of the Queen. 1938 ed. Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 1983, 17.

Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook has her MA from the Simmons College Department of History. She is currently an independent scholar, pursuing her Irish historical interests outside of her jobs as processing assistant at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine Center for the History of Medicine and Project Co-Ordinator for the Medical Heritage Library. She and her wife, Anna, live in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, with two cats and not enough bookcases.

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