‘Irish Writing in English’, in Introduction English Studies, ed. Richard Bradford (London: Pearson Educ. 1996), pp.657-70.

A strange consideration lies at the heart of Irish writing in English, and almost redeems the term Anglo-Irish (the somewhat awkward term sometimes used for this literature) from its baronial or grandee associations. The strangeness resides in the fact that this literature is written in a language, English, which steadily gained ground in Ireland from the beginning of the seventeenth century at the expense of Irish, the native language. The English administration, from the time of Henry VIII at least – though it was policy well before his sixteenth-century reign – recognized that its best guarantee of success was the replacement of the Irish language and the way of life it expressed with English customs and manners and, most importantly, the English language itself. Writing at the very end of the sixteenth century, the poet and colonial administrator, Edmund Spenser, advocated this policy: ‘the speache being Irische the harte must nedes be Irishe for out of the abundance of the harte the tonge speakethe’.

The Easter Rising of 1916, led by Pearse, was but one in a series of rebellions that erupted through Irish history after the defeat of Hugh O’Neill at Kinsale in 1601. The Rebellion of 1641, for example, and its fearsome aftermaths, the Cromwellian ‘settlement’ of Ireland and plantation, began as an attempt on the part of Catholic Irish landowners to retain their lands and freedom to practise their religion, but ended in 1652 with the declaration of Cromwell’s parliament that all Catholics and Royalists above the rank of tradesman or labourer were to ‘remove themselves and their families into Connacht and Clare’, that is, west of the Shannon; hence the saying popular in Ireland, ‘to hell or Connacht’. Catholics of any standing found after 1 May 1654 could be killed on sight by anyone. West of the Shannon, or, more broadly, the west of Ireland, has retained, in Irish culture and literature, a very complex set of resonances. It is, on the one hand, wild and barbarous, where savagery runs ungoverned – hence Gabriel Conroy’s reflection at the end of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, which closes Dubliners (1914), on the snow falling all over Ireland. Gabriel’s mind travels across the country from Dublin, to the Shannon’s ‘mutinous waves’, and the dead lying in the churchyards of Co. Galway, and to the grave of his wife’s dead boyfriend, with his melancholy but apt name, Michael Furey. Gabriel realizes that all that world lies outside his experience to that point, but now his imaginative sympathies are engaged, as he wonders what the history of his sleeping wife is really like. It is a hugely suggestive and evocative ending to a complex story, and requires very close reading, but one of the themes that animates the story is the continuous presence of the dead; history, Stephen Dedalus remarked in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ‘ is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, but Joyce as a writer knew that collective memories had to be explored and exorcized before they release their grip. To some extent, all of Joyce’s work, from the stream of consciousness in Ulysses, to the elaborate dream-structures of Finnegans Wake, is an attempt at the restoration of memory, at ‘re-memorizing’ the mind, thereby releasing its fears and opening its scope for accurate and comprehen­sive (if not total) recall. [On history and its treatment in literature see Brown (1972)].

If savagery and wildness lay across the Shannon, a place where J. M. Synge’s Playboy Christy Mahon can be extolled for killing his ‘da’, it could also be a place of imagination and heightened experience. Lady Morgan in The Wild Irish Girl (1806) and Charles Robert Maturin in The Milesian Chief (1812) were among the first to make use of west of Ireland settings for romantic and spectacular effects. By the time they came to write the west had acquired an aura of majesty and magic, owing in no small part to the invention of a Scot, James Macpherson, whose Ossianic tales, notably Fingal (1762) and Temora (1763), drew upon elements of authentic Gaelic tradition to fashion a pseudo-epical romance in a Northern setting, a rhapsodic fabrication, released from classical constraint and grace. It satisfied a taste for the sublime which the Irish critic and politician, Edmund Burke, had analyzed in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1767), a treatise which had a profound influence on the romantic taste for horrifying spectacular and gothic effects, as well as cultivating an appetite for tenderer and more sentimental impressions. [On Celticism and the sublime see Deane (1985).]

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is compelling reading because the man is horrified at what revolution entails, and at the casual intellectual sloppiness of those who heedlessly encourage brutality by failing to realize what it is like when society breaks down. The compelling immediacy of his writing comes from Burke’s awareness that Irish Catholics have a grievance, that they will hurtle into revolution if they are not conciliated, and that the scenes unfolding in France are a foretaste of what will happen in Britain and in Ireland. The Battle of the Boyne, when William defeated the Catholic James, had secured the peace of Britain at the expense of the rights of Catholics, who should now be conciliated, otherwise the kingdom will go the way of France. To illustrate, Burke depicts the scene where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are brought from Versailles to the Bastille:

This king, to say no more of him, and this queen, and their infant children (who once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people) were then forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcases. Thence they were conducted into the capital of their kingdom.

Burke’s Catholic Irish background, and his appreciation of the value of the settled form of society he found in England, fitted him to understand the precarious nature of freedom and the ferocity and rapaciousness of the tyranny that is always waiting to replace it. In Burke, as in many of the finest Irish writers, horror is just around the corner.

Jonathan Swift, for example, a predecessor of Burke’s, was less exercised about the condition of the Catholic majority in Ireland, but his ‘savage indignation’ (Yeats’s phrase in his translation of Swift’s own Latin epitaph) was directed at the injustice of being considered less of a person for being in Ireland, than one would be if one were in England, as he argued in the third Drapier’s Letter (1724). Horror enters Swift’s writing, and the grim heartless, icy Irish humour that often seeks to contain it, in A Modest Proposal (1729), the pamphlet which advances, in po-faced solemnity, the economic advantages of breeding children as food, rather than having to feed them. This would solve Irish poverty, control population growth, and inculcate the virtues of planning and skilful management of human resources. English indifference and casual arrogance are compounding for themselves, he fears, a wicked alliance against the best interests of peace and solid order, exactly the anxieties later pressing upon Burke in the 1790s . At this time, Wolfe Tone was founding the United Irishmen, and leading a parade in Belfast, a dissenting town, with banners which read ‘Irishmen look to France’. Which of course many did. Wolfe Tone, known as ‘Citoyen Tone’ in Paris, was plotting invasion and getting the ear of Napoleon who agreed to send an invasion force to aid in the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798. Burke’s sublime and horrific nightmare of revolution was out, what he described in Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796) as a ‘vast, tremendous, unformed spectre ... [a] hideous phantom’.

While the United Irishmen were mobilizing in Ireland, one of their Dublin leaders, Thomas Addis Emmet, was taken on a walk by the concerned mother of the young Thomas Moore, then a student at Trinity College, Dublin. She asked Emmet not to involve her son in military operations, a request to which he consented, leaving Moore to get on with his translations of Anacreon and his study of the Irish airs recently published in Edward Bunting’s Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (1796), a compilation which had, to a significant extent, been assembled at a Harper’s Festival in Belfast in 1792 . However, although Moore’s actual involvement with the United Irishmen was slight – writing a few propaganda pieces in the manner of Macpherson for The Press – he remained deeply attached to their ideals of liberty and freedom of religion, and their radicalism. He revered them as types of the finest sort of Irishman, the ‘ultimi Romanorum’ he called them, and the memory of their bravery and patriotism was the initial inspiration for the famous series of Irish Melodies, which he began in 1808 . These poems and songs, many of which are still greatly loved, unite a sentimental patriotism with a feeling for the sublime, the lofty, the wild, the passionate, the remote; and to this brew he infuses a quality of ready anger at injustice that has often been overlooked in the all-too-common perception of Moore as a namby-pamby snuff-box Hibernian melodist. The energy and dark chords of ‘Avenging and Bright’ strike a note of outrage not unconnected to the indignation of Swift, or the sorrowing desperation of Burke:

Avenging and bright falls the swift sword of Erin
On him who the brave sons of Usna betrayed –
For every fond eye he hath waken’d a tear in
A drop from his heart-wounds shall weep o’er his blade
By the red cloud that hung over Conor’s dark dwelling,
When Ulad’s three champions lay sleeping in gore -
By the billows of war, which so often, high swelling,
Have wafted these heroes to victory’s shore
We swear to revenge them ...

‘We swear to revenge’ those who have been ‘betrayed’. Who is Conor here? Dublin Castle? The resonances are all the more powerful for being clouded in this sublime rhetoric. To hear it sung is to feel a frisson of anger, the same anger that inspired a satire called ‘Corruption’ in 1808, in which the obduracy and cruelty of English policy in Ireland is called

an unpitying power, whose whips and chains
Made Ireland first in wild adulterous trance,
Turn false to England’s bed, and whore with France.

Moore here turns back to the impetus and solid force of Dryden’s heroic couplet [see Unit 8, pp. 179-80] to arraign English policy towards Irish Catholics after the Union of 1801. Napoleon, in the same poem, is said to be dazzling ‘Europe into slavery’ with his ‘burning shield’. One of the offshoots of Napoleonic conquest was the intensification of nationalist feelings in Germany, England and Italy, as a mood of imperial triumphalism replaced in France the collective remorse after the f Revolution. Ireland was not immune from these impulses, and the Act of Union i strengthened, in some quarters, an attitude of distrust towards the institutions of state. At the level of agrarian unrest this suspicion expressed itself in the Whiteboy societies and their Protestant corollaries, including the Orange Order. A genre of ‘Whiteboy’ writing developed, comparable in some respects (though of a much higher quality) with the thriller fiction of the ‘Troubles’ by such as Jack Higgins or Douglas Hurd in recent times. Novels dealing with these issues include The Whiteboy (1845) by Mrs S.C. Hall, Roddy the Rover, or, the Ribbonman (1845) and The Tithe Procter (1849) both by William Carleton, and also a notable story included in his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830, 1833), first published as ‘Wildgoose Lodge’. It is a description of an atrocity, the slaughter of a family by a gang of Ribbonman (successors to the Whiteboys) because the father is alleged to be an informer:

The Captain approached him coolly and deliberately. ‘You will prosecute no one now, you bloody informer,’ said he; ‘ you will convict no more boys for taking an ould rusty gun an’ pistol from you, or for giving you a neighbourly knock or two into the bargain.’ Just then from a window opposite him, proceeded the shrieks of a woman who appeared at it with the infant in her arms. She herself was almost scorched to death; but with the presence of mind and humanity of her sex, she was about to thrust the little babe out of the window. The Captain noticed this, and with characteristic atrocity, thrust, with a sharp bayonet, the little innocent, along with the person who endeavoured to rescue it, into the red flames, where they both perished. This was the work of an instant.

This tale, reprinted in Deane (1991), grows out of the land disturbances that were a perpetual feature of Irish life from the later eighteenth century right throughout the nineteenth, and surviving into the twentieth. Who owns the land, how it is transferred, how it is regained, the feelings it inspires, the conflicts between landlord and tenant, give a core network of themes to Irish writing; and also at the same time introduces the dangerous, risky, yet exciting dimensions of territoriality, borders, partitions and thresholds. Continuously in Irish literature, the writer is trying to speak on behalf of a people or territory or grouping, whether it be Sheridan Le Fanu’s troubled enquiries into Protestant ascendancy guilt in nineteenth-century novels such as Wylder’s Hand (1864), Daniel Corkery’s championing of Gaelic and Catholic mores in The Hidden Ireland (1925), or John Hewitt’s reclamation of the Northern Planter’s vision in volumes such as Conacre (1943). There is a plurality of voices, because so many lay claim to authority, and authority is often grounded on the troubled concept of legitimate ownership of territory.

The first work of fiction to explore such issues in Ireland is Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800, reprinted in Oxford World Classics series, 1984), where the family is doomed precisely because they cannot effectively exploit the land they have somehow (it is left unclear) inherited. Claimed as the first regional novel in English by Sir Walter Scott, and praised by the Russian Turgenev for its understand­ ing of rural life, in the context of Irish literature it acquires a different resonance. There is a sense of the danger of ownership; that the land, and the ‘big house’ that dominates the landscape can become a curse, that it is a burden on the mind, that the place is haunted. The mournful desolation of Castle Rackrent, as it descends to rack and ruin, reminds us of other miserable houses and landlords in Irish literature, such as those in Le Fanu’s gloomy Uncle Silas (1864), Brain Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Samuel Beckett’s nightmarish Watt (1953), John Banville’s deranged Birchwood (1973) or Jennifer Johnston’s poignant How Many Miles to Babylon (1974). Behind all of these sombre meditations on the moral and emotional encumbrance of property lies Maria Edgeworth’s melancholy evocation of a countryside and habitation going to waste:

There was then a great silence in Castle Rackrent, and I went moping from room to room, hearing the doors clap for want of right locks, and the wind through the broken windows that the glazier never would come to mend, and the rain coming through the roof and best ceilings all over the house, for want of the slater whose bill was not paid; besides our having no slates or shingles for that part of the old building which was shingled, and burnt when the chimney took fire, and had been open to the weather ever since.

The ‘big house’ novel in Irish literature carries a peculiar resonance, one that Marxist criticism [see Unit 21] would link to the significance of the big house as a symbol of a dominating power structure increasingly alienated from the people whom it exploited. Hence Dracula’s castle and the terrified peasantry; and the images of life-in-death. The realities outside the big house were ferocious. Not just the land agitations, the Ribbonmen, and later the Fenians; there was also the economic and moral catastrophe of the Great Famine (1845-8) which decimated rural Ireland. Millions died or emigrated, while British administration debated and agonized over the rights and wrongs of interventionism, responsibility, accountability. Swift’s nightmarish scenario of A Modest Proposal or of the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels seemed not drastically removed from reality as scenes of hunger and starvation multiplied themselves all over Ireland. Spenser’s lurid description of the condition of Munster after the sixteenth-century Geraldine Rebellion recreated itself in Irish history with a dismal cyclicity. [On guilt and property as themes in Irish literature see Mc Cormack (1985)]. A poem of 1846 [see Deane, 1991] by James Clarence Mangan captures the mood of paralyzed outrage and frantic despair. ‘Siberia’ reads:


In Siberia’s wastes
The Ice-wind’s breath
Woundeth like the toothed steel.
Lost Siberia doth reveal
Only blight and death.
Blight and death alone.
No Summer shines.
Night is interblent with Day.
In Siberia’s wastes always
The blood blackens, the heart pines.

As the nineteenth century wore on the position of the Protestant ascendancy grew ever more precarious. Sir Samuel Ferguson, keeper of the Public Records of Ireland, Unionist (although he did for a time dabble with the movement to Repeal the Union during the Famine: how could such a thing occur if there was a Union of Britain and Ireland?), archaeologist, controversialist and poet, drew upon Irish saga to vivify his writing, recreating epical visions of a noble and savage Gaelic Ireland. But one of the reasons he was imaginatively drawn to scenes of wild and energetic cruelty, as in Congal (1872), was that they provided an outlet for the frustrations and tensions building in U nionist ascendancy culture. Social order, in his ‘Celtic’ poems, was depicted as being continually broken up by tribal passions, failure to seek accommodation between opposing ideologies, and outside interference. Fer guson was deeply antagonistic to Catholic nationalism, and hated Daniel O’Connell, who had led the cause for Catholic Emancipation (1829) and the Repeal of the Union. He believed that Irish Protestantism should not neglect its leadership and ascendancy role, a view also shared by Standish James O’Grady, a writer and thinker who influenced and participated in the Irish literary revival of c.1890-1922. [On Catholic and Protestant strains in nineteenth-century Irish poetry, see Welch (1980).]

O’Grady had written a number of legendary and historical works and novels, such as his History of Ireland: The Heroic Period (1878) drawing upon Irish my thology and saga, notably the Ulster Cycle and its hero Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, who became a powerful archetype of the revival. O’Grady, Douglas Hyde, George Sigerson, Katherine Tynan, George Russell (‘AE’), Nora Hopper, Jane Barlow, P.J. McCall and many others drew together in a cultural movement in the 1890s that was, to a great extent, orchestrated and managed by its predominant fi gure, W.B. Yeats. After the death of the parliamentary leader Charles Stewart P arnell in 1891 it seemed to Yeats that the time had come for a cultural movement which would attempt to sublimate the political energies which had run wild in the Fenian movement of the 1870s and 1880s and the almost entirely constitutional Land League movement spearheaded by Parnell and Michael Davitt. Parnell was brought down by the scandal of adultery, but the Land War had been successful, in that the system of land ownership drastically changed throughout the 1890s in favour of the tenantry. A new prosperity was beginning, and with it a new cultural awareness, particularly manifested in the Gaelic League (set up in 1893 to promote Irish) and the GAA (set up in 1884 to promote Gaelic games). These new factors inspired Yeats to create his movement, which he believed should have a spiritual as well as cultural dimension. He drew upon old sources of power, Irish mythology and legend, in order not to be ‘lost in a world of mere shadow and dream’, as he wrote in an early essay on Samuel Ferguson in 1886. Cú Chulainn, Medb Queen of Connacht, Deirdre and the tragic tales of the sons of Uisnech, all informed plays, poems and fictions on these subjects in the work of Yeats himself, Synge, and many others. Also Hyde’s editorial and translating work as in The Love Songs of Connacht (1893) drew attention to the beauty and subtlety of Irish folk poetry and story­ telling. These mythological and folkloric themes and subjects, inspired as they were by a mixture of cultural nationalism and an anxiety about the apparent lifelessness of an encroaching modern world of steam-engines, factories and democracy, sometimes became jejune and affected, as, say, in the somewhat mechanical or feeble operation of ‘Celtic Twilight’ effects in Russell’s poetic musings, but they did provide fresh images for Irish writing and pulled it back to major reserves of energy in Gaelic literature and Celtic belief. ‘He Hears the Cry of the Sedge’ from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) recreates the mood, imagery and atmosphere of Irish love song, then gives it an apocalyptic turn, in line with Yeats’s visionary and millenarian impulses:

I wander by the edge
Of this desolate lake
Where wind cries in the sedge.
Until the axle break
That keeps the stars in their round,
And hands hurl in the deep
The banners of East and West,
And the girdle of light is unbound,
Your breast will not lie by the breast
Of your beloved in sleep.

Yeats and Lady Gregory believed that the imagination could be a liberating force in Irish society, and preserve it from the materialism and conformity they believed threatened modern life in its democratic phase. They founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1897 (which became the Abbey Theatre in 1904) to provide a national theatre of the imagination.

On 2 April 1902 the theatre produced Yeats’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan and George Russell’s Deirdre, with Maud Gonne in the title role of the former. The effect was electrifying: the image of Ireland under the guise of an old woman coming back on the eve of the 1798 Rebellion to claim back her ‘four green fields’ – the four provinces of Ireland – from the stranger, had a powerful and perhaps incalculable effect on the minds of young Irishmen and women. Yeats later wondered if this play, with its deeply affecting theme of self-sacrifice for the cause of Ireland, did not contribute directly to the Easter Rising of 1916:

I lie awake at night
And never get the answer right
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?

However, nationalist enthusiasm for the plays at the Abbey Theatre was the exception rather than the rule. The cultural programme of the Gaelic League had aroused separatist feelings, and in time commitment to the revival of Irish language and culture translated itself into political activism. The Fenian movement survived into the twentieth century as the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood, predecessor of the IRA) and its membership increased as the Gaelic League developed its organization and effectiveness, much to the dismay of Douglas Hyde, who wanted to keep the cultural movement out of politics. Yeats and Lady Gregory fell under the suspicion of ardent nationalists such as D.P. Moran, who held that their view of Ireland was essentially patronizing and West-British. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, in particular, aroused the ire of nationalist Dublin for its frank portrayal of the materialism, wildness and enmity in Irish country people. The fact that the play was also a subtle inquiry into the dangers of hero-worship, and of the relationship between brutality and fantasy was ignored by the ideologues, though not by Yeats, who fully appreciated its shocking originality in confronting the problem of violence and its links with the imagination:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare ...
(‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, 1923)

Pádraig Pearse, editor of the Gaelic League journal, An Claidheamh Soluis, was one of the younger members of that organization who worked to make it overtly political. Eventually he became leader of the Easter Rising of 1916, issuing a proclamation in the name of all Irish men and women which asserted Ireland’s ‘ indefeasible’ right to sovereign independence. In 1915 at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa, an old Fenian whose body had been returned from America to be buried in Dublin, he spoke as follows:

They [the English] think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! - they have left us the Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

The Rising inspired much writing - Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’, James Stephens’s Insurrection, Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars – but in 1914 James Joyce published Dubliners, an antidote to the nationalist enthusiasm and heroic flag- waving that led to the revolution. This entire collection is based on the notion that, far from being an energetic and vital people, disposed to imagination and reverie, as proposed by Yeats; or from being a race endowed with an indomitable longing for freedom, as advanced by Pearse, the Irish were as self-seeking, cruel and embour­ geoized as any other modern community, and perhaps more so than most. [On nationalism and literature see Watson (1979).]

Ulysses (1922) rebukes all those in Ireland (and elsewhere) who dispel the present by hankering after the future or longing for the past. In style and form, employing an original method of narrative presentation (the ‘stream of conscious­ ness’ [see Unit 16, pp.455-6] it concentrates on the here and now of one single day in Dublin, 16 June 1904. It is a novel flooded with the presence of the present, and comments on a culture frequently dominated by ancestral voices or apocalyptic yearnings. However, Finnegan Wake gives the wheel another turn, to revisit the strata of memory and consciousness buried in language so as to contemplate a capacious possibility within which human perception can accommodate a vision of fantastic and baffling experiences.

If Joyce is the critic and to some extent the moralist of the literary revival - Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist said that he wanted to ‘forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’ - then George Moore was its comedian. He returned from England, an established and successful author, in 1901, the author of Esther Waters (1894) and many other novels, to participate in the renewal of cultural activity taking place there. But, an inveterate non joiner of anything, he quickly turned the Dublin scene into high comedy in Hail and Farewell (1911-14), a vividly rendered account of personalities of the time, among them Yeats, Russell, Synge and Douglas Hyde.

After the Anglo-Irish war revolutionary idealism had to be translated into administrative effectiveness, economic policies and the routine but arduous business of running an economy in the modern world. A new realism entered into Irish writing, reflected in the drama of O’Casey and the short stories and novels of Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Francis Stuart; and in the drama of Lennox Robinson, T. C. Murray, Paul Vincent Carroll, and George Sheils.

The poetry of Austin Clarke and Robert Farren turned back to Gaelic models for inspiration. Clarke, in particular, basing his practice on George Sigerson’s and William Larminie’s experiments in imitating Gaelic prosody in English, forged an intensely decorative yet subtly nervous style out of these materials in poems such as ‘ The Lost Heifer’ (1926), which opens with the following mournful cadences:

When the black herds of the rain were grazing
In the gap of the pure cold wind
And the watery hazes of the hazel
Brought her into my mind
I thought of the last honey by the water
That no hive can find ...

This prolongation of the notes of the Celtic Twilight had been given a more directly nationalist turn by Thomas MacDonagh, one of the signatories of the 1916 proclamation, who, in Literature in Ireland (1916), had argued for the strengthening of a distinctly Irish note in modern Anglo-Irish literature. Clarke, who had been taught by MacDonagh at University College, Dublin, followed this lead at first, but later used the elaborate effects borrowed from Gaelic verse to whip his language to a satiric and Swiftian fury at the pseudo-sanctity and political hypocrisy of the Free State (a Republic from 1948) in Ancient Lights (1955), and Flight to Africa (1963), in poems such as ‘Martha Blake at Fifty-one’.

However, Clarke’s earlier Gaelic musings led the young Samuel Beckett to lampoon him in Murphy (1938) as Austin Ticklepenny, and his experiments in metrics as ‘prosodoturfy’, i.e. prosody of the ‘ould sod’. Beckett’s attacks on the ‘Cuchulainoid’ cliches of the Irish literature in the 1930s – still very much lost in the ‘ watery hazes’ of the revival at its least inspired – had their origin in his admiration for the intellectual force and sheer humanity of Joyce, but also in his own conviction that an art seeking to confront contemporary life must shed itself of all gallantry, embroidery and rhetoric, and come back to where Yeats returned in ‘The Circus Animals Desertion’ (1938), ‘The foul rag-and-bore shop of the heart’. Hence Beckett’s ferociously pitiless method and style – character in his novels is steadily cut back until all that is left are voices circling in a void; and his minimalist stagecraft.

Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) while on the face of it a comic romp mixing gunslingers, cattle-rustlers, university students and figures from mythology is, in reality, a contemplation of the terror of imagining, when the exterior world has grown hectic, wild and unknowable. The Third Policeman, written in 1940 but unpublished until 1968, invents a form of manic realism to convey, comically, the deepest moral disquiet at all official, normal certainties, among them authority, language, identity, heaven and hell [see Unit 16, pp. 463-5].

There are, in what we may call the mid-century, a number of writers who, in retrospect, are seen to be crucial. The first of these is Louis MacNeice, from Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, long thought of as a member of the ‘Thirties’ group of poets which included W. H. Auden and C. Day Lewis – the ‘Mac Spaunday’ group. But MacNeice’s swift lyrical intelligence, his philosophical gravity, his classicism, and the example he provides of a poetic life lived intently, seriously, yet not without humour and humanity, proved of most enduring value to a group of northern poets in the 1960s and 1970s. Also, his attachment to Ireland was combined with a pronounced lack of zealotry and passion, offering an alternative to simplistic tribal identifications. The following is from Autumn Journal (1939):

And I remember, when I was little, the fear
Bandied among the servants
That Casement would land at the pier
With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
When the wind blew from the west, the noise of shooting
Starting in the evening at eight
In Belfast in the York Street district;
And the voodoo of the Orange bands
Drawing an iron net through darkest Ulster,
Flailing the limbo lands
The linen mills, the long wet grass, the ragged hawthorn …

Patrick Kavanagh, a poet from Co. Monaghan, communicated a vision in A Soul for Sale (1947) and in later volumes such as Come Dance with Kitty Stobing (1960) which drew together a sense of the sacred which he inherited from the sacramental ism of Catholicism, with a readiness of response to the ordinary things of life. The Great Hunger (1942), however, bears witness to the emotional starvation of mid- century Catholic Ireland in a deliberate analogy with the Great Famine of the nineteenth century caused by other and, he implies, no less inimical forces.

Joyce Cary, born in Derry, is a novelist who has almost been lost to the history of this literature, and yet Castle Corner (1938) and A House of Children (1941) deal brilliantly with Irish issues and themes, while his compelling meditations on power, character and evil in men and women in novels such as The Horse’s Mouth (1941) and Prisoner of Grace (1952) reveal a political and moral maturity and concern that lead back to Swift and Burke.

In the 1950s and 1960s new fictional voices began to emerge in novels such as The Barracks (1963) and The Dark (1965) in which John McGahern presented a view of Ireland which was chastened by doubt and anxiety and cleansed of all remnants of revivalist longings. Brian Moore’s career began with The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) which offered a Belfast prose counterpart to Austin Clarke’s poetic analyses of the stricken conscience of mid-century Irish Catholicism. Later novels, such as Black Robe (1985) and Lies of Silence (1990), explore how the individual will attempts to cope in a wilderness of choice and relativism. Francis Stuart was in disgrace following his sojourn in Berlin during the Second World War - his reasons for the controversial move were complex and are not amenable to the simplifications of political correctness - but in the late 1940s he re-emerged as a writer of unique vision and intensity, with Redemption (1949), a novel dealing with the transformative power of love and kindness, as well as probing the realities of guilt and suffering. The ‘immersive’ (to borrow a term his friend Samuel Beckett used in his study of Proust) atmosphere of his fiction came to fruition in a series of masterful late novels, beginning with Black List, Section H (1971). These late works experiment with autobiography, with narrative, and with the concept of self, to disclose a world in which the author, by drawing attention to the way in which the imagination interacts and plays with reality, achieves a curiously liberating sense of participation, even collusion, with the reader’s own consciousness.

Jennifer Johnston, daughter of the playwright Denis Johnston, only began to publish in her forties, but novels such as The Captains and the Kings (1972), Shadows on our Skin (1977), and Fool’s Sanctuary (1987) revisit themes of nationalism, tribal loyalties, ascendancy and the land in an atmosphere sharpened by the renewal of conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. Edna O’Brien in The Country Girls (1960) and following novels revealed herself an anatomist of rural Catholic Ireland, its pieties and sad resilience. The House of Splendid Isolation (1994) examines the impact of Republican ideals on private individuals. John Banville, an elegant stylist, is concerned to explore the ways in which the imagina­ tion can construct forms and ideas which may be at variance with actual facts. His obsessive astronomers, in Doctor Copernicus (1976) and Kepler (1981), and the murderer in The Book of Evidence (1989) are intent on maintaining a resolved and ordered mental construct in spite of the incursions of circumstance and other people. His creatures area curiously lonely sect of private believers, and they have an ancestry in Swift, Le Fanu and Beckett.

Among more recent writers of fiction Dermot Bolger and Roddy Doyle in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) evoke working-class Dublin. Robert McLiam Wilson (Ripley Bogle, 1989), and Glenn Patterson (Fat Lad, 1992), are two Belfast writers who bring to their work a daring and even insouciant brilliance, and a studiously non-partisan approach to the ‘Troubles’. Eoin MacNamee’s Resurrection Man (1994) is a shocking account of loyalist terrorism based on the notorious ‘Shankill butchers’ case. [On modern Irish fiction see Cronin (1990).]

Since the 1950s there has been a remarkable burst of activity in Irish poetry. Pearse Hutchinson, Thomas Kinsella and John Montague were a Dublin-based group of writers who emerged in the 1950s, all published by the innovative Dolmen Press, with its beautifully designed and carefully printed volumes. All these were equally at home with Gaelic poetry and tradition, and with more cosmopolitan influences. Hutchinson turned to Spain, Kinsella to W.H. Auden, and Montague to France. Hutchinson also wrote in Irish. Tongue Without Hands (1963) was followed by Faoistin Bhacach (1968). Kinsella’s intensely meditated and scrupulously despairing Downstream (1962) and Wormwood (1966) gave him the sonorous command of language and tough solemnity of mood required to translate the eighth-century saga, Táin Bó Cuailnge (1969). Montague’s fastidious stanzas, with their short, alert syllabic lines, drew upon bardic poetry and the French symbolistes to recreate evocatively and resonantly a treasured Co. Tyrone past. Montague, too, collaborated with the older Ulster poet John Hewitt - whose own career revived significantly in the 1960s and 1970s - in an Arts Council-sponsored tour in November 1970 entitled Planter and Gael, representing an early attempt at imaginative rapprochement between the two major traditions of Ulster.

A northern group of writers began to publish in the mid-1960s. Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist (1966) exhibited a combination of local piety towards his Derry background with a terse and elastic language, full of tactile force and thoughtful resonance. His work continued to develop in collection after collection until, by the time he published Seeing Things (1991), he had become a weighty philosophical poet, as alive to the dangers of hasty moralizing as to the seductions of reticence. [Heaney’s verse is discussed in Unit 17, pp. 513-14.] This linguistic maturity and finesse, drawing upon the examples of Louis MacNeice and Patrick Kavanagh, but also deriving inspiration from American and East European poets such as Elizabeth Bishop and Czeslaw Milosz, is schooled by a relentless and vigilant moral awareness. Michael Longley, beginning with No Continuing City (1969), up to Gorse Fires (1993), shares with Heaney a thoughtful and carefully managed linguistic sensitivity. He too looks to MacNeice, and he conjoins an elegant appreciation of detail with a refined and forceful concentration. Heaney and Longley, along with Derek Mahon, Seamus Deane, Tom Paulin and Paul Muldoon form a loose northern grouping of poets, all of whom are marked by a resolute seriousness of purpose, a sense that poetry operates in a sphere not exclusive from justice and morality. For all their close scrutiny of actions and their outcomes - cause and effect being a relationship that matters urgently in Northern Ireland – their verse is not without lightness and wit. Muldoon in particular, in say The Annals of Chile (1994), can yoke sorrow, playfulness and irony in combinations that are full of unique surprises. Other northerners include Ciaran Carson, whose Belfast Confetti (1989) and First Language (1994) display an omnivorous appetite for all registers of language, from Belfast demotic slang to a richly seamed Elizabethan panoply of rhetorical ebullience, to deliver a teeming world of risk, possibility and danger. Medbh McGuckian’s verse opens up other new dimensions for language, where ordinary domestic things and events acquire an edge of secrecy, and where moods elaborate into obscure longings. [On modern and contemporary Irish poetry see Garratt (1986) and Andrews (1992).]

What is striking is the sheer quality of Irish poetry produced both north and south of the border in the past twenty-five years. Among southerners in the period following the revival of poetic energies in the 1960s, Brendan Kennelly is a writer who has a profound affinity with the Gaelic and folk tradition, and is at the same time a chronicler of late twentieth-century Dublin. His work, especially in Cromwell (1983) and The Book of Judas (1991), attacks fixed ideas, cramped ideologies, concocted feelings, by releasing a torrent of different, often contradictory voices, trying to articulate the variant strivings of passion. Michael Hartnett’s dark and brooding meditations on love and politics in his early work were transformed by new energies when he started to write in Irish after A Farewell to English (1975).

The single most significant event in the history of Irish drama in the post-war years was the founding of the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry in 1980, with Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane on the Board of Directors. This marked a new departure into a re-exploration and re-evaluation of concepts of identity and tradition that was to issue in Deane’s Field Day Anthology (1991), but which had its workshop in the plays of Friel for Field Day, beginning with Translations, Thomas Kilroy’s Pentecost (1987), as well as the poems of Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin and Deane, and critical writings by these and others. The outcome of this activity, combined with other influences from Dublin, Cork and elsewhere, along with the revival of Irish publishing, and a renewed vitality in writing in Irish, means that literary culture in Ireland as we approach the end of this century, is in a remarkably healthy state. But in the confluence of all the different factors, Field Day was a dominant catalyzing presence. Other dramatists include Tom Murphy, Frank McGuinness and Vincent Woods, whose experiments are underpinned by confident stagecraft and effective vigorous writing. [On drama see Roche (1994).]

In summary, it may be said that Irish writing in English, sustained as it is by a continued relationship with its reservoirs of strength in Gaelic tradition, and by its prolonged fruitful and problematic interconnections with English literature, and now diversified by further influences from all over the globe, has become one of the major literatures of the modern world in any language.

For histories of Irish writing in English see Jeffares (1982) and Deane (1986), each of which contains guides for further reading. See also Hogan (1980) and Welch (1996). Deane (1991) contains extracts from many of the texts cited.

Andrews, E. (ed.) (1992) Contemporary Irish Poetry, Macmillan, London.
Brown, M. (1972) The Politics of Irish Literature, George Allen & Unwin, New York.
Cronin, J. (1990) The Anglo-Irish Novel, vols I & II, Appletree Press, Belfast.
Deane, S. (1985) Celtic Revivals, Faber & Faber, London.
Deane, S. (1986) A Short History of Irish Literature, Hutchinson, London.
Deane, S. (ed.) (1991) The Field Day Anthology, 3 vols, Field Day Publications, Derry.
Garratt, R. (1986) Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Hogan, R. (ed.) (1980) The Macmillan Dictionary of Irish Literature, Macmillan, London.
Jeffares, A.N. (1982) A History of Anglo-Irish Literature, Macmillan, London.
McCormack, W.J. (1985) Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literature, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Roche, A. (1994) Modern Irish Drama, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin.
Watson, G. J. (1979) Irish Identity and the Literary Revival, Croom Helm, London.
Welch, R. (1980) Irish Poetry from Moore to Yeats, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross.
Welch, R. (1996) The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[ back ]

[ top ]