In praise of Iris Murdoch

Dame Iris Murdoch – one of the 20th century’s great writers in English, and self-professedly Irish – produced 26 novels, six plays, two volumes of poetry and a radio opera. Irish references crop up here and there – the spectral dog Liffey in The Sandcastle; the character Martin Lynch-Gibbon in A Severed Head; a Dublin interlude in The Book and the Brotherhood. She addresses Ireland in three substantial works – Something Special (1954, published in 1957), her only short story; and the novels The Unicorn (1963); and The Red and the Green (1965).
Murdoch was also a respected academic philosopher in Oxford and London, and had several well-regarded books and essays to her name. Her fiction’s mystical and paranormal events, enchanted characters and implausible coincidences used to resolve problems of plot seemed to have little in common with her philosophical works, yet her interest in Plato and the pursuit of “the good” as a moral end resonates in many of her novels. Here we have, then, a two-faceted character, with seemingly little connectivity between them. And this reflects, and maybe stems from, her ambivalent sense of national identity.
Murdoch was the only child of a northern Irish civil servant, Wills Murdoch, and his wife, Irene (“Rene”) Richardson. Iris’s birthplace in Blessington Street in unfashionable inner-city, northside Dublin had a heterogeneous population of all occupations and religions. Blessington Street Protestants were nearly genteel but not quite, so well brought to life in The Red and the Green, which was set in and around the 1916 Rising.
Murdoch, who could not possibly have remembered the place as a child, nevertheless felt able to describe it later as “...a wide, sad, dirty street, with its own quiet air of dereliction, a street leading nowhere, always full of idling dogs and open doorways”. This was the territory of the “precariat”, the exotic, the slightly dangerous. Murdoch’s mother, a singer, fell pregnant before she and Wills Murdoch were 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 July 1919, southern Protestants already felt their position in Ireland also precarious, as their British sponsors began to lose control. And the point about Murdoch is that her hold on Ireland is precarious, too. Though born there, she never lived there: she was taken to London before she was a year old, where she lived “a perfect trinity of love” in a household that remained unassimilated into English life. Ireland played a significant part in her childhood and later, but it was never home; and while Iris, being Iris, was capable of creating a very Irish Protestant sense of place, metaphorical in her 1963 gothic novel The Unicorn, realist in The Red and the Green and her 1954 short story Something Special, she could not attain the lived experience of being in Ireland as well as of Ireland, could not speak to that wonder of the formative, expressed so vividly by Elizabeth Bowen in her contemporary memoir of Dublin childhood, Seven Winters.
If Murdoch had “a lifetime’s investment in Irishness”, in her biographer Peter Conradi’s shrewd words, she was an insider and an outsider at one and the same time, reflecting a Protestant ability “to slip in and out of Irishness”. This emerged particularly after 1969, when violence in Northern Ireland erupted. Her sympathies lay with her northern Protestant cousinhood; she apparently became “unsentimental about Ireland to the point of hatred” (1978) and stated in 1982 “it’s a terrible thing to be Irish”. In that, she would have had many sympathisers resident in the island.
Yet, she seemed able to distinguish Ireland as a place apart from her sense of Irishness. Whatever terrible things Ireland had done, or condoned, like damp in a wall, her identity insisted on seeping out; at the end of her life in 1997, when querying who she was, she was heard to remark: “Well, I’m Irish anyway, that’s something”. An early dust-jacket was perhaps a little defensive – “although most of her life has been spent in England, she still calls herself an Irish writer”. Later, she would claim to be “born in Dublin of Anglo-Irish parentage”, which placed her more on the hyphen than anywhere else, and also seemed to suggest a more exalted social origin than was the case. All this raises the question: if Murdoch did have a professed sense of connection with what she called the “island of spells”, what was its essence?
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