“Possibly Really Clever Idea”

That’s what I’ve been calling the project I’ve been working on for most of the year. It has finally codified in a first conference paper — which I was actually unable to deliver due to ill health — but which I’m going to turn into a post here. This is still very much a working draft — “work in progress” doesn’t really even cover it! — but I’d welcome all constructive criticism and suggestions.


In the Doctor Who episode “The End of the World,” the Doctor and Rose visit the viewing station set up to observe the death of Earth. There are a variety of guests assembled, including a piece of stretched skin calling herself “the last human,” sentient trees, a large head in a jar, and the Brotherhood of the Repeating Meme: tall, hollow-voiced beings in enveloping black robes that proffer each guest a small metal sphere as “a gift of peace in all good faith.” Of course, it turns out that the globes transform into tiny metal spiders and the Brotherhood are actually bent on destroying the station — I won’t spoil the ending for you. Along the way to the denouement, though, the Doctor unmasks the Brotherhood as quite literally empty constructs, declaring that he realised the name is a give-away: memes are nothing, just noise repeating into space, and therefore the Brotherhood must be under another’s command.

The Doctor’s definition, summarized here, implies that memes are relatively powerless, something actually belied by the power the Brotherhood have demonstrated in taking over and controlling the station with a stealth campaign. Anyone who has watched an advertising campaign, watched campaign stump speeches back to back, or seen a YouTube video go viral, might be tempted to stand with the Brotherhood rather than the Doctor on the question of memetic power.

Personally speaking, I am interested in the power of stories — particularly stories that galvanize individual people to feeling or action. In my previous work, I’ve explored the development of Irish nationalist historical storytelling and its power in the life of individuals like hunger striker Bobby Sands; more recently, I examined how English travel writers developed recurring narrative truths about the Irish people during the late seventeenth and early nineteenth century.  My current project is an exploration of memes within Irish nationalists’ life writing. We might think of memes as artifacts — traces of particularly powerful meaning embedded within the stories we tell. Tracing the memetic narratives or images that recur in the autobiographies of Irish republican nationalists, therefore, can offer clues to the essence of the stories they told themselves, each other, and their readers about Ireland and the Irish people.

Before we turn to the three autobiographies I’ve chosen to highlight in this presentation, we should take a moment to define “meme” in a slightly more formal sense than “hooded, space station destroying aliens.” Colloquially speaking, we all know what a meme is. To define by example, Grumpy Cat is a particularly popular Internet meme. Photographs of a family’s pet cat with an apparently permanent frown have become an internationally recognized shorthand for sarcasm, irony, and general disgruntlement of a mild sort. Grumpy Cat images turn up everywhere: shirts, pins, posters, bags, mugs, stickers.

Etymologically, most accounts give credit to Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene for first calling a meme a meme, so to speak. Dawkins argued that memes reflected a new type of “replicator,” based on the transmission of information — he describes it as “leaping from brain to brain” — from person to person. The definitional lines, of course, are not clear-cut: is a meme the same thing as a cliche? as a trope? as bad writing? poor graphic design? mockery? Perhaps it is an example 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 this particular project!

For this preliminary investigation of memes in Irish nationalist writing, I have chosen to define meme fairly broadly as any repeating metaphor, image, or portion of narrative that re-occurs recognizably in one or more pieces of writing by multiple authors. My only other requirement for entrants into the meme category was that they be at least provisionally describable by a simple phrase, as those used in the Aarne/Thompson Folktale Index. While this might seem a somewhat arbitrary rule, I found it helpful in terms of deciding whether or not an image was a coherent, discrete unit, or part of a larger narrative construct. If I could describe it in the simplest possible sentence, then it seemed very likely I had found the smallest possible unit.

The remaining requirement was, of course, a body of material to work with. As a historian of modern Ireland with a long-term interest in the cultural, political, and — most interestingly — personal ramifications of nationalism, picking texts from the moment of the Celtic Renaissance almost seemed too easy. I selected three autobiographies: 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). While I had a passing acquaintance with most of these books, this project was an opportunity to read them in depth, a chance to do the kind of close reading I find most satisfying. This time, I was reading them with an eye toward memetic occurrence and resonance.

Though loosely connected within the context of the Celtic Renaissance moment, each autobiography has a distinct voice and purpose. Moore’s trilogy of autobiographies reflects his decision to become involved in the Irish literary revival at the behest of two friends, W.B. Yeats and Edward Martyn. At the time, the early 1900s, Moore was a moderately successful novelist living in London, yet he let himself be persuaded to move to Dublin for the best part of a decade; originally, his plan was to work with Martyn and Yeats on the Irish Literary Theatre; later, his residence in Dublin became about work with the Gaelic League and Moore’s own fraught relationship both with the country and his brother who managed the family estate in Mayo.

Gonne’s Servant is a much shorter 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, so to speak; growing up as the daughter of an English military officer stationed in Ireland, she was uniquely positioned to observe the power dynamics between native Irish and colonizing English. Gonne’s nationalist interests are also tied into her friendships with European politicos, including Lucien Millevoye. While Moore clearly wrote to amuse his friends, it is unclear who Gonne’s intended audience.

Mitchel, meanwhile, was writing several decades earlier to solace exile. In 1848, Mitchel was convicted and sentenced to transportation for inciting treason and open Irish rebellion with his newspaper, The United Irishman. Mitchel wrote his Journal during the successive stages of his transportation: first from Ireland to Bermuda, then Bermuda to South Africa, South Africa to Australia, and finally Australia to the United States. This last leg was patently not under the observation of the English government, however; Mitchel, along with a number of his fellow exiles from the late 1840s, managed to escape the island continent. Journal was written during Mitchel’s years of formal exile and imprisonment, starting in 1848; it was initially published in serial form in 1854 in The Citizen, a newspaper Mitchel published in New York.

While the autobiographies all stem from what might, very roughly, be described as the same movement — Irish republican nationalism — the three authors worked more or less separately on their particular books. Gonne and Moore, as with most Irish cultural nationalists between 1890 and 1916, knew each other in Dublin and Gonne speaks of having been struck by her reading of Mitchel’s Journal — but that is about as far as the interconnection goes in terms of the autobiographies themselves. More long-term, real-life connections I have judged not germane for this particular exploration.

Claire Lynch, in Irish Autobiographies, captures well what strikes me as particularly apt about using autobiography to explore the presence of memetic incursions within Irish historical narratives: “[autobiographies] also demonstrate the impossibility of avoiding the influence of other writers, as many Irish autobiographies expose a family resemblance that infiltrates, influences, and imitates…” Lynch’s choice of words very closely describes a meme as well: “infiltrates, influences, and imitates.” Memes can be quite sneaky.

So what memes are there, sneaking into the work of our three autobiographers? The three I have identified and isolated for purposes of this preliminary examination I will call, “Stories About Land,” “The Central Peasant,” and “The Value of Work.” These categories, like the ones in the A/T index, contain multiple subcategories: “The Central Peasant,” for instance, might be subdivided into “Peasant as Hero,” “Peasant as Villain,” “Peasant Only Wants Money,” “Peasant Only Wants Land” and so on. However, today I will focus on the larger categories to discuss briefly these three particular memes I have identified.

The first meme, “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 recreation, 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…”

All three authors of the authors in our sample group picture Ireland alternately as a vision of loveliness, something not far off from a holy land, or a ruined landscape, blasted by famine and careless landlords and wandered through by mourning, powerless peasants who can do nothing more than emigrate. Moore begins Ave, the first volume of Hail, with a prolonged ramble in memory through the landscape of Ireland, remembering the ruined houses and lovely landscape behind the ruins: “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.”Moore’s vision of the landscape of Ireland continues to veer 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-brown landscapes: “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…” Gonne is slightly 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 Queen. 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…”

Closely linked to, but not identical with, this vision of the land itself is the presentation of a particular subdivision of the Irish population, is the meme of “The Important Peasant.” Again, like “Stories About Land,” this would have several subcategories. Moore, for example, has no particular love for the peasantry — or even for the Irish in general by the end of the Hail trilogy. When still in England but thinking of Ireland, he re-imagines a long walk through the countryside that he took as a younger man: “No road ever wound so beautifully,… and there are no cottages, only an occasional ruin to make the road attractive. How much more attractive it is now redeemed from its humanities—large families flowing over doorways…” Despite the evident disdain, Moore’s thought does place the peasant as central to Irish life: they have the power, for him at least, to make the countryside either a pleasant place to ramble or a disgusting vision of dirty humanity. Moore did not create this meme, certainly; arguably, he wasn’t even the best user of it, but he comes back to it again and again in a way that makes it seem central to the first volume of the trilogy.

Mitchel, on the other hand, is completely decided: for him, the Irish peasant is absolutely the beating, strong heart of the country. His disappointment in not being the proud center of a peasant uprising as he is taken to the docks after his trial is shrugged off; Mitchel is sure “something” has happened to dim the natural inclinations of the peasants. Had they been left to themselves, he would surely have been rescued.

Even for Maud Gonne, a member of the Anglo-Irish quasi-aristocracy and daughter of an English army officer, the Irish peasantry represents the “real” Ireland. The chapter on her childhood, for example, paints an idyllic picture of days spent playing with the “ragged children” of the neighborhood of Howth and the meals of potatoes and griddle cakes the children shared with Gonne and her sister. That this unrequited gift of food might have left the “ragged children” in want for the rest of the day seems to occur to Gonne only faintly and much later in her life. An additional point of interest is that her attraction to this particular meme of the Irish peasant seems to give her no serious problems in terms of her own validity as an Irish nationalist; she is working for the Irish people, on their behalf, and in their stead because they do not have the class privilege she has. She styles herself as a class renegade, a kind of stealth nationalist among the Anglo-Irish.

The last meme I will look at today is “The Value of Work.” The phrase is a quotation from a Myles na Gopaleen column which aptly parodies the Irish republican stump speech:”Work for Ireland! How queer that sounds. Not die, mind you. Work. Work for the old land!”

All three writers — Moore, Mitchel, and Gonne — demonstrate subcategories of this meme. Gonne, for example, uses herself as the personification of the call to work for Ireland; she shows herself as willingly sacrificing everything including family, home, safety, and fortune in the name of Irish freedom: “I wanted to get to work for Ireland quickly.” Her “work” is her life as shown in Queen. Those familiar with the pieces of her biography shown by other authors may be dubious. Gonne’s subcategory might be called “Work as Life” or “Work as Performance.”

Moore, like Gonne, turns the meme inwards on himself; much like Gonne, he makes himself the “star of the show.” Indeed, he casts his entire move to Ireland from London as part of his desire or, indeed, mission to “work for Ireland” which has been suddenly aroused by some kind of spiritual encounter which he tries unsuccessfully to recount to several friends: “I heard a voice, not an inner but an external voice…saying, ‘Go to Ireland!’ …Nobody was within many yards of me.” It is, of course, relatively unlikely that a successful author would pack himself up and move between countries on the say-so of an invisible voice yet this is just what Moore shows himself doing. He continually reminds himself and the reader that this work he has been called to do is at the behest of a power beyond himself, not his own idea, but some supra-idea which has pulled him in. And, in the end, the supra-idea is unsuccessful; by the end of Salve, Moore leaves Dublin again, having alienated his brother and failed in all his projects, including the establishment of the Irish Literary Theatre with co-workers W.B. Yeats and Edward Martyn (among others). “Work for Ireland” has turned out to be something of a bitter joke.

Mitchel, on the other hand, leaves the day to day work to be done by others — while he stresses the theme, he evidently considers himself as out of the running in his successive exiles in Bermuda, South Africa, Australia, and America. In an interesting twist, however, he is continually threatened with “work for Ireland” in the sense of convict work: “I am by no means sure yet that I may not…be equipped in a linen blouse, with the broad arrow on its back, and sent out in a gang to the quarries…” This sense of “working for Ireland” could be interestingly explored by comparison of Mitchel’s narratives with other writings from convicts and exiles, whether political or otherwise. Mitchel’s own cohort of exiles, including Thomas Meagher, John Martin, Kevin O’Doherty, and William Smith O’Brien, would seem to suggest a natural grouping of authors to consider.

The preliminary exploration has done little more than suggest the presence of memes in the writings of three well-known Irish nationalists. Next steps of the project would obviously include casting the net wider to include more authors, perhaps different kinds of narrative, or a more theoretical exploration of autobiography and why — or if — the genre seems particularly vulnerable to memetic incursion.

The more challenging step will be determining how far it may be suggested that one meme influenced another: for example, Flann O’Brien’s “Work! Work for Ireland!” is an obvious parody of all three of these authors, but did they each develop the idea independently? This seems unlikely —  but then did they receive it from each other? More possible, but certainly other contemporary authors used the “Work for Ireland” trope as well — how widespread was it? How many subcategories does it have? What do these subcategories help to describe in terms of historical trends? Did one subcategory become dominant over the others? Can any of these subcategories or categories be traced back to a point of creation? Working through the ramifications of the memetic mode of inquiry I have begun to sketch out in combination with any of these questions should provide a fruitful ground for historical discussion.


4 thoughts on ““Possibly Really Clever Idea”

  1. Really interesting! I’d actually forgotten all about that Doctor Who episode!

    It’s so hard to wrap one’s mind around where memes originate from. That’s actually what my paper is about: do memes have a source, and if they do, what importance should that source be?

    1. I love that episode! (Okay, spoiler alert: I love *most* of the episodes.)

      I’d also really love to hear more about this origins of meme idea. I had a really unhelpful conversation with one of the professors of my summer class last fall about this project and I think one of the communication failures we had was precisely over this.

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