The Literary Revival: space & representation

The 19th Century in Ireland is marked by failure: the famine, numerous failed rebellions in 1803, 1847 and 1867 and, finally, the failure of the Home Rule to be granted. This sense of failure had a final, powerful manifestation in the death of the great Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891. The poet W.B. Yeats said that this moment left a political vacuum that was to be filled with the cultural and artistic pursuits usually associated with the Literary Revival.

This might suggest that politics were inimical to the art produced at this time but, in fact, what it does signal is a turning away from considering London as the centre of influence and power. The Literary Revival is part of a wider movement that saw attempts to make Ireland the centre of possibility and energy: a place of innovation and action. In a sense it was about the Irish beginning to do things, and to think, for themselves.

At a very basic level the writers involved in the Irish Literary Revival of the late 19th and early part of the 20th Centuries simply reversed many of the stereotypical characteristics that until then been applied to Irish people. If the stereotype portrayed the Irish as dreamy and feckless and tied to the land, this was reversed so that they were presented as spiritual and anti-materialistic, close to the soil and thus nature. These were characteristics, therefore, to be celebrated rather than derided.

Irish folk tales and old Irish epic narratives from the past seemed to offer images of a life and of heroes that could be emulated in the present. The world of Cuchulain and Fionn mac Cumhaill presented images of a pre-sectarian Ireland that all in the present moment could connect with and find solace in.

Many of the plays of W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge in the early days of the Irish Literary Theatre (which would later become the Abbey Theatre) introduced their audience to scenarios and characters form Irish myth and legend. However, when looked at closely these plays have as much to do with the present as with the past. W.B. Yeats's focus on Cuchulain, for instance, in a play such as 'On Baile's Strand' allows him to question the nature of the hero in the modern world.

But it is important to stress that these writers were not mesmerized by the past. They did not believe that it was possible to fully recover the past or to ignore the movement of history and resurrect a Gaelic society with a Gaelic language in the present. Consider, for instance, how drama and theatre is very much associated with Irish culture because of the exploits of Irish writers like Synge, Yeats and Sean O'Casey and the plays they produced for the early Abbey Theatre. But there was no dramatic tradition in Gaelic culture, which was, as we know, predominately an oral culture. So, writers like these were involved, and knew that they were involved, in acts of invention because they were expressing Irish themes in ways that were not available before.
J.M. Synge's 'The Playboy of the Western World' (1907) is a truly remarkable play and is probably the best example of what is possible when old and new, tradition and modernity, Irish and English is imaginatively brought together in the melting pot that is art. Its employment of a poetic form of Hiberno-English is revolutionary, showing it is possible to be true to the local when creating international literature of the highest order. It is a play bursting with energy and vitality but its serious message concerns the nature of violence in Ireland, with Synge seeming to suggest that the Irish appreciate violence only when it is safely at a distance and in the past. When it is immediate and in the present, they are unable to adequately confront and deal with it. In a way it is a critique of many of the images that were central to the Revivalist project with its emphasis on the past and on heroes and their heroic deeds.

While the play is a celebration of poetry, it is also wary of it, seeing it as something that can disguise very harsh and hard realities in Irish life and culture. In a way, Synge recognised one of the major obstacles that would have to faced and overcome by subsequent Irish writers. For this emphasis on the potential for poetry in the way English is used in Ireland can mean that, in a way, Irish art is fęted simply because of this seemingly poetic use of language. In other words, Irish literature can be thought of as worthy of attention basically because it is different. Consequently, what might be of serious interest in a work of art, say, as a critique of Irish society, can be lost as all that is focused on is this use of language.

The popular reputation of a writer like Brendan Behan (1923-1964), for instance, suffers from this type of thinking. He is seen usually as a great Dublin wit: a working-class hero with a magnificent way with words. However, what is overlooked is Behan's ability to combine the comic with the tragic in a play like 'The Quare Fellow'. While there is much banter and repartee to enjoy in this drama, it is also a scathing appraisal of post-Independent Ireland suggesting that the freedom gained in 1922 was very limited and constraining.

A generation earlier, saw a similar fate meted out to Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) who lives on in popular opinion as the source of numerous clever and witty epigrams. Yet, his plays are wonderful comment on the hypocrisy of a Victorian world that demanded so much of its citizens. Like those involved with the Literary Revival in Ireland, Oscar Wilde set about dismantling the stereotypes that held British Victorian society together.


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