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Review: Helena Sheehan, Navigating the Zeitgeist: A Story of the Cold War, The New Left, Irish Republicanism and International Communism Monthly Review Press 2019

Aidan Joseph Beatty

Helena Sheehan is a well-known and well-established presence on the Irish Left, an activist-academic with a strong form in meditative Marxist thought as well more accessible political commentary. As she shows in her new memoir, Navigating the Zeitgeist, it would be almost too obvious to say she led an “interesting” life, moving from post-war suburbia and a brief period as a nun, to communism and Irish republicanism; she narrates each of these stages of her life in a fast-moving and engaging (but not always problem-free) style.

Starting with her childhood, her image of the 1950s – suburbs, conformity, rock ‘n’ roll, nuclear safety drills – is evocative if also familiar and even caricatured. The image she gives of the Church and of the Catholic-run education system in which she received her early schooling likewise skirts a series of perhaps caricatured images; rote-learning, no critical thinking and an all-powerful clergy. She talks of the Church as having a “grip”, an “institutional hegemony”, a “psychological power” in the early ’60s, undercut by Sheehan’s own confession that already as child she had scant respect for nuns. Likewise, her father, a supposedly committed Catholic, volunteered as a driver for her convent but soon quit because of how “inconsiderate and rude” he found the nuns. Are these cracks in Catholic hegemony? Or is hegemony always an uneven project? Perhaps these questions are left intentionally unanswered.

These descriptions of her youth, though, do tend to distract from something more intimate; early chapters are, for a memoir, oddly allergic to interior commentary. For a published life-story, this remains remarkably private (though perhaps this is just a Marxist privileging of the structural and the social over the individual or the intimate). We learn little of her innermost self. Her decision to join a convent seemingly comes out of nowhere.  Sheehan writes in a conversational prose, but in a kind of present tense that at times (particularly in the earlier chapters) avoids latter-day reflections.  The relaxed style is both a blessing and a curse and the narrative often seems to skip lightly over large periods of time; her four years in a convent moves by rapidly, with little sense of personal growth or change. And yet she clearly also has a knack – when she wants to – for describing the particular details of her life. When she left the convent, “I kept feeling the lack of the long flowing veil and the swish of the long heavy skirts.  I was a frightful sight. I had less than a half an inch of hair on my head, having been shaved so recently. My mother bought me a wig just the right shade of red as to look like my own hair.” 

After her time in the convent, she continued the college education she had begun as a nun and worked as a teacher in Philadelphia; her nascent leftist politics ran afoul of the school administration and she was soon fired.  Sheehan’s parents sided with the authorities and she left home, living homeless for a time. Though this was also a turning point, bringing her to the realization that philosophy was her life goal; she began doctoral work at Temple University shortly after. She would eventually embrace Marxism (and move from an orthodox Leninism to something more free-thinking) whilst maintaining a Catholic sense of philosophy as an all-embracing totality: “Even as a child, I struggled to see things whole. I sought to grasp the totality, and could not settle for anything less. Catholicism, a ready-made totality, had nurtured this in me… I know all the arguments against this made by positivists, neo-positivists, existentialists, postmodernists, all the sneers about changing one religion for another, but I stand by it.” She also gives a sense that she was a Marxist before she fully realized it; reading Feuerbach, seeking an alternative to positivist objectivism and idealist subjectivism, “I shifted from a metaphysics based on static categories of substance and accident to a more dynamic one of process and relation”.  She began to see how ideas were products of socio-historical forces.

On page 77 she meets John Malinowski, a young philosophy teacher at St Joseph’s College in Philadelphia. Again there is a quick bypassing of intimate details; they married after a brief introductory paragraph. “I was surprised to find myself married at all. It hadn’t been part of my plan.  I didn’t especially like the idea of marriage, though I lacked a coherent critique of it.” Her decision to keep her maiden name was a further source of tension with her family. 

Sheehan and Malinowski threw themselves into the anti-war movement in late ’60s Philadelphia, mixing with local radicals as well as Tom Hayden, Philip Foner and Noam Chomsky. Like Chomsky, they leaned to the more serious – read: less drugged-up – end of the counter-culture (An attempt by Jerry Rubin to introduce Sheehan to “his best hash” was fruitless). Like Foner, Sheehan was more and more influenced by Marxism. And like Hayden, she was increasingly interested in the actions of the IRA; this was simultaneously a playing out of Irish-American identity and a certain romance about the supposedly pre-capitalist sensibilities of the peasant Irish. Sheehan certainly has fond memories of sixties radicalism, but also a sober analysis of the tendency of political discussion groups to descend into “all-night torture” sessions and profitless self-criticism. She insists that the conventional story of sixties radicalism ending neatly at the close of the decade is wrong – claiming that the revolutionary spirit lived on well into the 1970s – while Sheehan herself left the US in April 1972, buying a one-way ticket to Dublin and embracing Irish republicanism (she divorced Malinowski soon after).

Thus, by age 27, Sheehan was sharing a house in Ranelagh in Dublin with Sean Garland, a member of the army council of the Official IRA, and moving in the upper circles of the Officials (the more traditionally Catholic Provisional IRA had split from the Marxist-Leninist Officials in 1969). She was soon prominently active in Official Sinn Féin and within a few months was also invited to join the Official IRA. She presents this time with the Officials as the final step in her embrace of Marxism. At some point (she is circumspect about the details) she began an affair with Eoin Ó Murchú, editor of the Officials’ United Irishman newspaper.

Soon after, she gave birth to her son, Cathal, Her daughter, Clíodhna, was born in 1974. With a general crackdown on republican activities in Ireland, Sheehan married Ó Murchú, with, it seems, as much of an eye to solidifying her legal residency in Ireland as to romance. Eoghan and Anne Harris, well known Officials, acted as witnesses.  Sheehan, though, writes with openness about her (quite well-founded) contempt for Eoghan Harris’ later political development, from paranoid anti-Trotskyist within the Officials to obnoxiously contrarian journalist and partisan of Ulster Unionism. Indeed, her potted history of the Irish Left – acidic, perceptive and always entertainingly gossipy – is one of the highlights of the memoir. At other times, though, Sheehan perhaps forgets that her book is being written for an American publisher. Her descriptions of life with the Officials move from her shared accommodation in Ranelagh (now a bougie preserve, it was mainly student bedsits in the 1970s) to IRA induction meetings at a safe house in solidly working-class Cabra; she never explains the differences between these two areas of Dublin, assuming the reader will know what they are.  Even more blatantly, when describing her later research on the politics of Irish television, she recounts with pride how this work led to two appearances as an extra on Glenroe (a rural soap opera unknown to anyone not lucky enough to have lived in 1980s Ireland).

Amidst her Marxist and republican activities, Sheehan came to the realization that her still uncompleted doctoral dissertation had descended into an unfinishable morass (its twists and turns reflecting her own complicated development). She withdrew her affiliations at Temple and enrolled at Trinity College Dublin. Within its fusty philosophy department, she began more focused work on a study of Marxism and the Philosophy of Science. Roughly simultaneous with this, she left the Officials and joined the Communist Party of Ireland; smaller, less influential but still maintaining relatively fraternal relations with the also pro-Soviet Officials. As with her time in the American New Left, Sheehan crossed paths with some notable names. Involved in the Graduate Student Union in Trinity, she was asked to run for office on campus “to defeat someone named Mary Harney” (later a prominent neoliberal politician). Teaching at University College Dublin, she was irked by how cozily familiar her colleagues were with those in political power.

She left the CPI at the turn of the 1980s and found a (sometimes uneasy) home on the left-wing of the Irish Labour Party. Notoriously cautious in their electoral politics, Sheehan was unsurprisingly dismissive of the party’s leadership and offers choice descriptions of Dick Spring, Labour leader in the eighties and nineties. She is more affectionate in her memories of Michael D. Higgins, then an academic and local politician in Galway (for whom Sheehan wrote speeches and, at one point, served as Higgins’ proxy at a ceremony honoring E.P. Thompson), now the President of Ireland.

Her doctoral research – published in 1985 as Marxism and the Philosophy of Science – necessitated extended visits to the Eastern Bloc in the late ’70s and early ’80s; her descriptions of this lost world are evocative and fascinating, if sometimes politically clumsy; “I would defend much that was done by the KGB, Stasi and other security services” is just a weird thing to say (but at least it’s honest of her to admit it!). These trips – and even more so the research in which she was engaged – are the central concern of the last third of the book. And then the narrative ends, somewhat abruptly, in 1988, with Sheehan as a well-regarded and well-published scholar with, as yet, no permanent position in academia.

This is the first of two projected volumes, with the future volume picking up this narrative in ’88 and presumably continuing up to today. If it continues at this level, they will represent an snappy, absorbing and illuminative account of a life on the American and Irish Left.

Aidan Joseph Beatty teaches in the Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh and is the author of Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism.