Repetition with difference: Nostalgia in Edna O’Brien’s “Shovel Kings”

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Nostalgia has been a popular topic in Irish literature. This is mostly because retrieving personal as well as collective memories of a glorious past caters for the needs of Irish nationalists in their confrontation with the colonizers. These nostalgic attempts, coupled with the imaginary homeland the memories may help construct, provide the Irish with a panacea for the agony caused by colonization. These nostalgic recollections come in different forms, including the retrieval of antiquated Celtic glories, the recalling of beautiful Irish landscape, and constant reference to particular symbols such as the shamrock and the harp, as exemplified in Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies. In addition, cultural revivalists like W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory resort to Irish myths and legends for their creative inspiration. With the prosperity brought by the Celtic Tiger since the 1990s, the Irish seem to move ahead toward a promising future, leaving behind the traumatic past that is characterized by poverty, vulgarity, and inferiority. However, the phantom of the past looms over and re-emerges in the 21st century amid the economic downturn. In Edna O’Brien’s “Shovel Kings,” a story collected in Saints and Sinners (2011), nostalgia abounds in the protagonist’s life. But, unlike the sense of glory and optimism it normally engenders, nostalgia is made dysfunctional in the story. By reading the text in its socio-historical and cultural contexts, I hope to discuss how the main character’s nostalgic experiences in contemporary Ireland continue and depart from the Irish tradition and its implications.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016


Chang, T. C. (2016, October). Repetition with difference: Nostalgia in Edna O’Brien’s “Shovel Kings”. Paper presented at the 24th Annual Conference of the English and American Literature Association: Backward glances: History, time, memory, National Chiao Tung University, Hsinchu, Taiwan.


  • Nostalgia
  • Edna O’Brien
  • “Shovel Kings”
  • Saints and sinners


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