Between two nations: the contingent loyalties of Iris Murdoch

Between two nations: the contingent loyalties of Iris Murdoch

This week, Dr Ian d’Alton discusses how Iris Murdoch grappled with her Irish identity.

Captain Macmorris, the stage-Irishman in Shakespeare’s Henry V, is full of choleric, existential angst:

Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain,
and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish
my nation?

Half a millennium on, the Irish continue to navel-gaze about identity and nationality. Iris Murdoch – philosopher, novelist, poet – was a case in point. An early dust jacket stated that ‘although most of her life has been spent in England, she still calls herself an Irish writer’.[1] She frequently proclaimed her Irishness – ‘…of course I’m Irish. I’m profoundly Irish’. Murdoch had, in her biographer Peter Conradi’s words, ‘a lifetime’s investment in Irishness.’ He concluded that it was ‘a source of reassurance, a reference point, a credential, somewhere to start out from and return to.’[2] Yet, if Murdoch did have a professed Irishness, what was its essence? What, indeed, ‘ish’ her nation?

Three fictional works – her short story, Something Special; the gothic The Unicorn and the semi-historical 1916 novel The Red and the Green – call up the sort of coherence with Ireland that Murdoch often claimed to possess. It is noteworthy that Murdoch’s sense of identity, whatever it was, does not seem to have been particularly reciprocated. Sitting on the hyphen between Anglo and Irish, it took the inclusion of one of her poems in a 1999 anthology of Irish women poets for Ireland to offer her a definitive recognition of national literary identity.[3]

This may have been something to do with her Northern Irish family background comprised of a mélange of Presbyterians, Brethren, Baptists, Quakers, Elamites and Anglicans. Yet Murdoch’s Irishness seems predominantly of the southern style, where Protestants accounted for much less than 10% of the population, and who, unlike the northerners, had been politically beached by the British departure in 1922. In her early communism, and her work between 1944 and 1946 with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, what comes through early on is a characteristically southern Protestant recognition of otherness, an awareness of minority, amplified by a strong individualistic ethic – and, in contrast to her disapproving northern Irish cousins, a fondness for strong and anaesthetic drink.  

Her first slight piece of fiction was about belonging and identity – her only short story, Something Special, written in about 1953 and set in a geographically explicit and realist Dún Laoghaire. It exhibits double-otherness – the Protestant anti-heroine is further ‘minoritised’ by the device of a relationship with a Jew. Something Special captures Iris’s sensitive sense of Irishness to a much greater extent than her avowedly ‘Irish’ novels The Unicorn and The Red and the Green. It also filters out the specifics of that Irishness to leave exposed – albeit in miniature form – the great questions that inform her later writings – the primacy of good, the nature of morality, the purgatory of isolation, a predetermined life: above all, the plight of outsiders.

The impression from Something Special is that Murdoch found it easier to say what she felt she did not belong to. So: to what extent did her claim to being Irish simply reflect her sense that she was not English? Conradi refers to her sense of absence from something – her Otherness, and how her mother, father and herself – in Iris’s description, a ‘perfect trinity of love’[4] – remained unassimilated into English life after they had fled there in 1919. Irish Protestants had a problem with cleaving to an identity. Even their houses weren’t exempt – in The Unicorn Gaze Castle is ‘belonging yet not belonging’ to the landscape of which it is part. Maybe Irish Protestants didn’t want to belong – Charles Maurras, the French fascist Catholic nationalist, was fond of saying that Protestants ‘do not belong’ anywhere, because they are faithful, not to the land and its dead, but to abstract ideas. They have none but friends and fellow-exiles, mad poets and explorers, Wild Geese and Huguenots all, lost in The Unicorn’s ‘nothingness and nowhere’ of a desolate unmapped bog.[5]

Futhermore, Iris’s family territory in Dublin, 59 Blessington Street, was contingent, too -that of the ‘precariat’, the exotic, the slightly dangerous. Murdoch’s mother, Rene Richardson, fell pregnant before she was married. Politically, the Richardsons were always suspect as prone to being a republican green; and, socially, Iris’s mother often wore lipstick that was just a slightly too Bohemian red. At the time of Iris’s birth in 1919, southern Protestants already felt their position in Ireland as a ‘precariat’. The point about Murdoch is that her hold on Ireland is precarious, too. Ireland played a significant part in her childhood and later,[6] but it was never really ‘home’; and while Iris, being Iris, was capable of creating a very Irish Protestant sense of ‘place’, metaphorical in The Unicorn, realist in Something Special and The Red and the Green, she could not attain the experience of the direct, could not speak to that wonder of the formative, expressed so vividly by Elizabeth Bowen in her Edwardian Dublin childhood memoir, Seven Winters, for instance.[7]

Southern Irish Protestantism was always an experience of the conditional, the peripheral and the marginal, manifested in an ability ‘…to slip in and out of Irishness…’.[8] Following this, then, perhaps the essential point about Murdoch’s identity is that it could not properly adhere to anything. Its glue was of poor quality. Turning her words in The Red and the Green on their head, Irishness for her was more of a description than an act. In the literary arena, Iris only sporadically had ’…an atavistic urge to return to the soil of Ireland…’.[9] Despite concordances with the southern Irish Protestant mindset, to bowdlerise her favourite poet Auden about Yeats, mad Ireland didn’t much hurt Murdoch into prose. It is perhaps illuminating that, in 1956, when she expressed the fear of a loss of identity to Elizabeth Bowen, it was to do with her impending marriage, not her nationality.[10]  At the last, therefore, if we can properly concede some significance to Murdoch’s Irishness, what perhaps counts more in the greater scheme of things is her Irisness.

That ‘ish’ her nation.  


Ian d’Alton is an historian of southern Irish Protestantism, especially its cultural manifestations. He was a Visiting Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 2014, and Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin, 2014-16.

[1] After her father’s death in 1958, this changed permanently to ‘she comes of Anglo-Irish parentage’.

[2] P. Conradi, Iris Murdoch A life (London, 2001), p. 29.

[3] J. McBreen (ed.), The White Page: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets (Dublin, 1999), p. 174 (Murdoch’s poem ‘Motorist and Dead Bird’).

[4] Conradi, IM a life, pp 22-29.

[5] I am indebted to Prof. Eugenio Biagini, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, for these insights – email 14 July 2010 to the author; I. Murdoch, The Unicorn (London, 2000), p. 162.

[6] Conradi, IM a life, pp 53-4, and photographs between 98 and 99.

[7] R.F. Foster, ‘Prints on the Scene: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of Childhood’, in The Irish Story. Telling Tales and Making it up in Ireland (London, 2001), pp 158-163.

[8] H. Crawford, Outside the glow: Protestants and Irishness in Independent Ireland (Dublin, 2010), p. 180.

[9] I. Murdoch, The Red and the Green (London, 1967), pp 8, 13.

[10] V. Glendinning (ed, with J. Robertson)), Love’s Civil War (London, 2009), p. 244; Conradi, IM a life, pp 398, 415.

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