‘Irish Literary Revival’, in W. E. Vaughan, ed., A New History of Ireland: Ireland under the Union II, 1870-1921, Vol. VI (Clarendon Press 1996) [Chap. XIII]

‘The relationship of Irish literature to Irish politics under review in this chapter offers both paradox and symmetry. The paradox lies in the fact that the Anglo-Irish literary revival, which saw itself at first as an alternative to, or even a denial of, politics, helped to foster a new separatist political tradition. The symmetry will be found in the fact that although the writers’ disillusionment with political gave way temporarily to a celebration of revolution … the setting-up of the Irish Free State soon led to a new disillusionment.’ (p.356.)

Of the 1916 leaders: ‘The bulk of their poetry consists of personal lyrics and religious or philosophical meditations.’ (idem.); Mercier points out the response to the plot of The King’s Threshold, in which the poet starves himself to death on a point of honour: ‘the reviewers thought it basically improbable that any man would continue his fast to death, no matter how great the injustice he had suffered’ [citing thereafter Republican hungerstrikers incl. Terence MacSwiney, ‘the best remembered’. [q.p.]

‘There is a tendency to imagine the Anglo-Irish literary revival emerging full grown from the head of Yeats, as Pallas Athene sprang from the head of Zeus. The intellectual history of Dublin has yet to be written, so that we fail to realise how vigorous the official culture of the capital in fact was. Maurice Craig’s Dublin, 1660-1860 (1952), the nearest thing to such a history, ends too soon for our purpose. Possessing two universities and such old established cultural institutions as the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Dublin Society, Dublin could rival any provincial city in the British Isles, Edinburgh included, in its literary culture. The anthology Echoes from Kottobos (1906) shows how skilful Trinity men could be in pastiche of Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and even Whitman. […; cites societies and clubs incl. Dublin Hermetic Society, and Contemporary Club]. The National Literary Society, at its founding in 1892, was unique only in its special emphasis on literature.’ (p.360)

‘The failure to found a magazine may have arisen partly from the feeling that a purely literary magazine could not survive in Ireland.’ (p.360.) ‘The literary revival was never destined to have a distinguished periodical exclusively identified with it.’ (p.361.)

‘In Thomas Flanagan’s chapter [‘Literature in English, 1810-91; supra], Emily Lawless and Canon Sheehan were seen to embody two divisive tendencies, which might between them have destroyed Anglo-Irish literature.’ … Yet instead of splitting into two camps, protestant and catholic, Anglo-Irish literature entered its golden age (roughly 1899-1939) during which members of both communities joined in a united, if not always harmonious, outpouring of creativity. […] There are two main reasons by the Lawless-Sheehan split did not continue: first, the attempt to separate politics from literature already discussed; secondly the strong tendency among protestant writers to adopt Sheehan’s position by celebrating the Irish countryman.’ (p.364.)

‘The Anglo-Irish literary revival can reasonably be thought of as continuous with the Gaelic revival, for Yeats and his followers were trying to revive an reinterpret in English the whole culture of Gaelic Ireland. Most immediately attractive to Yeats, an essentially romantic poet, were the pre-Christian myths and legends.’ (p.364.)

‘Love and respect for a tradition beget love and respect for the carriers of that tradition. Earlier Anglo-Irish literature had tended to patronise the Irish countryman … It would be hard to find a literary work before Synge’s Riders to the Sea that is totally free of patronising and presents Irish country people as genuinely tragic figures. Once Synge had done this, writers from a catholic background did it too […/]. Anglo-Irish literature thus ceased to be colonial. [cites Daniel Corkery on colonial literature and ‘normality’]; Technically, what marks the break with colonial literature is the suppression of a mediated character. This character may be a colonist who has lived many years in Ireland, like [like the RM in Somerville and Ross], or a native of Ireland [Lever’s first-person heroes] … He is a raisonner, a spokesman for the author, and very useful as such. In Synge’s peasant plays we find no such character: this may be one reason why The Playboy [… &c.] provoked such a hostile response in its first audience. Even a very sophisticated playgoer of the time, being accustomed to Ibsen’s use of the raisonneur, might find himself baffled: what attitude ought he to adopt to Christy’s apparent murder of his father, or to the character in the play […]? Much writing about the working class everywhere is colonial too; Casey’s tenement plays, however, lack a raisonneur and are in consequence the least patronising plays of their kind [366] in the world. / More immediately striking … is another significant technical innovation: the attempt that ran its course within our period, to create an “Irish-English” literary language out of Irish folk speech. It began almost accidentally …’; (p.367.) ‘naturally most appropriate to peasant plays’ (idem.)

‘All that we have said up to now about the choice of subject-matter and technique by the revival writers can be summed up on one sentence: they were writing, to the best of their ability, for an Irish audience.’ (p.368.)

‘ways in which the founders of the revival, all protestants, failed to attune themselves to the catholics in their audience’; [/] ‘Such problems will always occur when members of one class consciously attempt to create literature for members of another.’; ‘Yet if the revival writers had not taken the essential first step of addressing an Irish audience, that audience might have taken much longer to learn how to express itself to itself’ (p.368.)

‘In fact apart from Maria Edgeworth and the de Veres, no serious creative writer whose work was complete by 1891 could be described as a member of the gentry.’; ‘Indeed, to the extent that the revival was truly Anglo-Irish, it can be seen as an attempt, whether conscious or unconscious, to substitute cultural leadership for the political and economic leadership that was slipping from the gentry’s grasp.’ (p.369); [//] ‘To be a member, especially a not too prosperous member, of the catholic community surely helped to make writers aware of discrimination and hardship not only in their own lives but in the lives of less fortunate members of their church [...] Realism of a socially conscious type therefore came naturally to writers from these groups’ [incl. Northern protestants] (p.371.)

‘the point at which literature and society impinge most sharply on one another was necessarily the theatre, where the literary movement confronted its audience in all too, too solid flesh.’ (p.372.)

‘In the years 1912-16 poetry and politics came closer together in Ireland than they had since the seventeenth century. Poets died for their country as none had died since Pierce Ferriter in 1653’ (p.375.)

‘We all know something of the difficulty Joyce had in getting Ulysses accepted anywhere in the English-speaking world. It would be natural to assume that the book was banned in the Irish Free State […] but in fact it never was […]. Nothing of Joyce’s was ever openly banned in Ireland, except, inexplicably, the posthumous Stephen Hero (1994) [… &c.]’ (p.383.)

On Finnegans Wake: ‘many of the rhythms of this great comic poem are also strongly Irish, so much so that a critic has written of Joyce’s “Synge-song”. Meanwhile, as Joyce characteristically swam against the stream, back to the source of the revival, Irish fiction, both in the short story and the novel, was moving towards the scrupulous realism evident in his early work.’ (END; p.384.)

Note that Mercier calls both Martyn’s The Heather Field and Moore’s Grania fine plays (pp.363, 365).


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