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Irish Writers use Myth to Convey Truth about Violence

Munira Mutran Coffee MorningProfessor Munira Mutran seeks to understand how Irish playwrights are able to narrate the ‘unspeakable’ realities of violence and war through mythology.

As a prominent scholar of Irish literature at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, Professor Mutran was recently a SPECTRESS Visiting Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, where she collaborated closely with the Schools of English and Histories and Humanities at Trinity College Dublin.

The SPECTRESS project is a network of nine international university partners, funded by the European Commission, undertaking a four year programme of scholarly exchanges focussed on the concept of ‘cultural trauma’ and national identities.

Irish Studies

Professor Mutran’s interest in Irish literature began by chance; at that time in São Paulo only English language and literature and American literature were taught at the university. ‘We had a visiting scholar from the States and I asked him for suggestions on a topic for my PhD; he said ‘why don’t you write to Seán Ó Faoláin? He has wonderful stories and novels.’ Professor Mutran said she had never heard of Ó Faoláin but took the advice and wrote to him. Ó Faoláin replied and Dr Mutran wrote her PhD on his stories.  Their correspondence lasted for thirteen years.

Having completed her PhD at the University of São Paulo, Professor Mutran offered her first course in the Irish Short Story. When she began supervising MAs and PhD students, she decided not just to focus on São Paulo but to accept students from other Brazilian universities and expand the appeal of Irish studies in Brazil. ‘I was able to introduce Irish studies to places where they hadn’t even heard of Irish studies. Now I have many colleagues who teach in Tocantins, in the North East and all over Brazil.’

She also started publishing a newsletter with her students and founded the Brazilian Association of Irish Studies (ABEI). The association acquired numerous members and the newsletter became so popular that Professor Mutran and Laura Izarra, a former student and colleague and now friend, decided to start publishing a journal – ‘The Brazilian Journal of Irish Studies.’ This journal has been well received in Brazilian and international journal circles and while predominantly written in English, it is sometimes also bilingual. Now in in its 15th edition, the journal has grown significantly and with it, the students own research has developed.

Writing and Performing the Nation

It was Laura Izarra, coordinator of the SPECTRESS project at USP who asked Professor Mutran to be part of the SPECTRESS project.  In her SPECTRESS project ‘Writing and Performing the Nation’, Professor Mutran is focusing on a handful of  dramatic Irish texts from approximately twenty-five rewritings of Greek plays which portray violence, in an individual or collective context, and establish analogies with the Irish context. ‘I noticed while teaching contemporary drama that there were many writers in Ireland who were using textural processes to talk about Ireland; writers like Seamus Heaney, Frank McGuinness, Marina Carr and Brendan Kennelly’, says Professor Mutran who in a previous research project looked at the Homeric traditions and parallels in Joyce’s Ulysses. It was around this time in the early 1980s when Ireland was celebrating the centenary of Joyce’s birth.

Although the SPECTRESS project focuses primarily on the idea of cultural trauma, Dr Mutran was eager to look at the idea of trauma in Ireland and how writers have used myth and the Greek tragedy to talk about violence.  ‘I have always worked with literature and history and so my idea was to look at trauma in Ireland, with the idea that violence results in trauma, whether political violence, war and civil war but also violence in human relationships – domestic violence – and self-inflicted violence.’

These themes of violence are present in many of the most well-known Greek myths. In Oedipus, for example, Professor Mutran recalls how the theme of self-inflicted violence is played out when Oedipus pierces his eyes at the trauma of finding out that Jocasta, his wife, is actually his mother. She is conscious that there are many Irish writers who deal with violence in a more realistic manner, through a direct replication of what has happened, something which she actively chooses not to focus on. ‘There’s a lot of violence in Martin McDonagh’s writings and in other Irish literature but I preferred to use myth. It’s as though the writers are telling the truth at a slant or in an oblique way.’

Professor Mutran believes that this obscuring of the truth or use of analogy can be more effective than a direct representation of violence in literature. The rewriting of Greek tragedies allows writers to understand their own society. ‘Writers who show Ireland realistically now, for example, are too close to the reality and the reality is too big for them to understand.’

National Identity

It was in 1975 when Professor Mutran first travelled to Ireland and met Ó Faoláin, visiting him at his home in Dun Laoghaire. ‘The first time I came I had read Seán Ó Faoláin’s An Irish Journey which is a wonderful book about Ó Faoláin’s journey, not only physically but also in his search to understand his country. He describes the places he goes and so I read the book, took notes and my husband and I did that exact trip.’ Professor Mutran has returned to Ireland many times since, and in her most recent stay she described some changes she noticed from that first time. ‘Ireland was so different then and Dublin was so different. Now it’s a cosmopolitan city. In a way I miss the old Dublin’, said Professor Mutran, who added, however, that the people are still as welcoming as ever.

The national character shines through in the literature too, in what Professor Mutran describes as ‘humour mixed with sorrow.’ This tendency is easy to find in Irish literature, for example in the writings of Ó Faoláin or O’Connor. ‘If you read ‘The Drunkard’ by Frank O’Connor, you can’t stop laughing but it is also so sad. There is a lot of satire in Irish literature. Something which I don’t see much of in Brazilian literature.’

Joyce is among her favourite Irish writers but she loves all the moderns, she says, referring to a book she published on the cultural scene at the turn of the century in London, Dublin and Paris.  The three writers she chose had lived in London and Paris and engaged with the cultural scene of that era. ‘George Moore lived in Ireland when he was young but he also lived in Paris, meeting all the impressionists. Wilde even wrote in French and Yeats lived in London for a long period, where he would go to the British Library every day to study Blake.’

Yeats also drew powerfully on mythology in his writings, portraying conflict, among other things. In his poem ‘From the Antigone’ he reflects on the destructive consequences of conflict and battles between ‘brother and brother, friend and friend, family and family, and city and city.’

The use of the Greek tragedy to ‘subvert the myth’ has served as a crucial reference point for modern and contemporary literature both in Western Europe and elsewhere; Professor Mutran’s research must now contend with questions of a more universal nature which ask why mythology continues to play such a relevant role in how we make sense of our surroundings and societal circumstances.


Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | aoife.king@tcd.ie | 01 896 3895