Material for the Gaelic Revival (2)


Fernstudium Fremdsprachen

Universität Koblenz-Landau 1999



It is one of the ironies of twentieth century English literature that the best dramas, the greatest poetry, and the most extraordinary novels were written by Irishmen who had grown up in the small, poor and isolated colony in the shadow of England. In no other case did the writers of a British colony have an impact on the literature of the "motherland", not to mind become its avantgarde - how can this phenomenon be explained?

Ireland was exceptional in several respects. It was the only European country to have been colonised; at the end of the nineteenth century, it seemed to have become assimilated to Britain and anglicised; at the same time, the colonial features of British rule were disappearing. The land of Ireland had been confiscated during the course of the colonial wars and given to English (Protestant) landlords: their position was now undermined by two factors: firstly by the fall in agricultural prices, due to American competition, which made land ownership unprofitable; secondly by the growing resistance of the peasantry to the unacceptable conditions of a colonial system of land tenure. The Land War of the 1880s led to the end of landlordism, and the peasants were granted the right to purchase the land they worked.

A few young people who had grown up in big country houses in the west of Ireland now began to take an interest in the peasantry that had put an end to their fathers' privileges, some of them even learning Irish. To their astonishment they found that the illiterate, impoverished people living in the lonely rural areas where the Irish language had survived spoke Gaelic with virtuosity and sophistication; that they stood in a rich oral tradition of literature, their poetry, songs, legends and epics going back over a thousand years and had been linked with the European classical tradition since the days of the Irish Christian missionaries there during the "Dark Ages". Some of these Anglo-Irish people translated into English the Old Irish epics and poetry which German scholars had edited during their seminal work on Celtic languages: others published collections they had made of Gaelic legends, religious poetry, folk poetry and songs. This literature was thus made known to the general Irish public who no longer spoke Irish, and who had therefore lost contact with the heritage passed on through that language. They had also lost respect for all things Gaelic, as the schools which the British had set up in Ireland banned everything Irish from the curriculum. The hidden agenda was that the Irish had no history, no language, no literature, no music worthy of study: that lesson had been thoroughly internalised. It took the authority of the Anglo-Irish, of young writers and artists from the big colonial houses, to counteract the self-contempt of the native Irish and to bring them to study their language and heritage.

One of the leading figures in the Irish cultural movement was the poet, playwright and essayist William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), an Anglo-Irish Protestant of an old family in the west of Ireland. Yeats was inspired by his studies of Irish folklore, of Blake's poetry, of eastern mysticism and occult writings of all ages; he was drawn into politics by a noble-hearted old man who had fought against Britain in his youth, and by a beautiful young woman involved in the radical movement for independence of the present. Yeats set out to establish a new literature for the country which would unite the two factions, the Protestant settlers and native Catholic Irish, by drawing on the pre-Christian heroic past, with which he hoped both sides could identify. He revitalised English poetry by fusing his rich and erudite language with forms, sound patterns and rhythms of Gaelic, and with themes of Irish mythology. His early poems brought him a wide audience; his play The Countess Cathleen caused a sensation when first performed in Dublin in 1899 - the political allegory in which the countess sells her soul to the devil in order to save the starving people incensed some nationalists, who objected to the devil being involved in the saving of the Irish.

The philistines in Irish nationalist politics caused Yeats increasing problems when he became director of the Dublin Abbey Theatre. This was set up as a theatre for the nation, and it had a significant impact on Irish politics. Yeats' experience of the narrowness dominating in some nationalist factions led to a new type of poetry: the beautiful Irish landscapes and Celtic legends give way to a Swiftian tone, devoid of ornament but for the honed and incisive phrases with which his opponents are described and exposed. Once independence had been attained in 1921, Yeats became a member of the Irish Senate, where he put up a valiant fight for tolerance. Ireland had been partitioned as the price of independence for the large part: it was now divided into one Catholic and one Protestant state, so the reconciliation of the two cultures which he had striven for did not take place. He became increasingly disenchanted with democracy, for a time even inclining towards the theories of Mussolini. His mature poetry (which brought him the Nobel prize) shows the master of images and language reflecting with immense learning and extraordinary imagination on the great themes of disillusionment, love, death, old age, folly and the nature of poetry, in which he draws on the rich personal experience of a life of activity for the arts which was also a life devoted to the service of his country.


Yeats dominated the cultural life of Ireland during his long lifetime, bringing many talented people to develop their abilities. One of these was the dramatist John Millington Synge (1871-1909). It is not surprising that the theatre flourished at the beginning of the century in a country where momentous change and conflict were visible on the horizon. Synge, like Yeats, came from an Anglo-Irish family that had lost their land. Yeats met him in Paris, and sent him to the Aran Islands off the west of Ireland to learn Irish. There Synge lived among a small community of fisherfolk whose lifestyle had not greatly changed over the previous thousand years. He knew that it was the archaic way of life which had preserved the wealth of folk tradition, and that both language and culture were disappearing, eroded by the modernisation of Ireland. Though there is not a word about politics in any of his plays, they were nonetheless a politicum of the first order. Riders to the Sea was performed in 1904. The one-act play is set on the Aran Islands; the action centres around the drowning of a widow's last remaining son. It is a masterpiece with qualities of a Greek tragedy in its apparent simplicity and fatalism. Hitherto Irish country folk had appeared on the stage only as objects of comedy or farce presented for the amusement of urbane London audiences. Here the playwright had found material for tragedy among the poorest of the poor; no kings, no patricians were the protagonists, but a humble woman pitted against poverty and the sea; the poetry of the play derives from the skilful rendering of an impression in English of the Irish speech of the people. The public was electrified.

However, Synge's Playboy of the Western World, written three years later, angered so many of the first play's supporters that it had to be performed under police protection. It is a brilliant comedy about a young man who mistakenly believes he has killed his tyrannical father, who is adulated by the village girls as long as they only hear of his deed, but condemn him as a criminal when they see him justifiably defend himself. The magnificent wit and colour of the language comes from the country people's Irish speech and from medieval Irish literature, which Synge had studied and translated. But both language and female characters were denounced by the rioters as being un-Irish and unwomanly; the ironic study of heroism was regarded as an insult to the nation's martyrs. The Anglo-Irishmen Yeats and Synge had taught the public to appreciate the dignity of humble people, to recognize noble qualities in the destitute; now the public had become addicted to seeing such admirable figures on stage, and reacted with fury to representations of foolishness, inconsistency and self-deception.


The playwright Seán O'Casey (1884-1964) also came from a Protestant family loyal to the crown, but he was born into a Dublin tenement, and grew up in great poverty, half blind and with hardly any formal education. The bible, Shakespeare, the lively speech of the poor of Dublin, the Irish language (which he taught himself) and his vision of a socialist independent Ireland were his inspiration. He did for the people of the city what Synge had done for those of rural Ireland. His three tragedies about life in Dublin during the war of independence and civil war (Juno and the Paycock, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Plough and the Stars) are satirical dramas, which incensed so many of those they were written for that O'Casey left Ireland. They are studies of people taking the easy way out, opting for high-flown rhetoric and failing to act according to their much vaunted principles when the need arises. The language of the tragedies is that of the inhabitants of the Dublin tenements, containing rich elements of comedy, and demonstrating the resilience, integrity and good sense underlying the weaknesses they have in common with those in charge of them. O'Casey's Autobiographies (1963) are of great literary and historical interest.


James Joyce (1882-1941) did not come from Anglo-Irish stock, but was born in Dublin into an impoverished Catholic middle class family still able to give him a good education. He experienced the first decade of the Irish literary revival as a young adult, but was not involved. He left for Europe in 1904 and spent the rest of his life writing about Dublin, using his great erudition and his knowledge of European philosophy and literature to create a new narrative form in which to record the life of his native city, and to expand the limits of the English language to give adequate expression to what he found. His position as an Irishman poised between two cultures, his escape to a safe distance from both of them, his extraordinary sense of language and form, his unshakeable belief in himself, his loyal wife and a generous patron made his unique achievement possible.

Sixteen publishers rejected his cycle of short stories Dubliners, which finally appeared in 1914. They are composed with consummate skill, and demonstrate what could have happened to Joyce had he been forced to remain in Dublin. Unlike the Anglo-Irish writers, he would have had to work for a living in depressing circumstances resembling those described in the stories. Apparently insignificant incidents illuminate the moment when the characters are caught in the nets that will tie them down forever. The stories portray lower-middle class childhood, adolescence, working life in subaltern positions in city offices, and the plight of getting by with no employment; they offer devastating insight into the religious, cultural and political life of a deprived and intensely hierarchical authoritarian society in which the poor and sensitive individual has no chance. The world of Dubliners reminds one of Kafka's, another acute observer on the periphery of a powerful nation. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is a Bildungsroman with a difference: the difficult journey through childhood and adolescence of the main figure Stephen Dedalus ends with his refusing to serve his church and fatherland, deciding to take flight into exile in order to develop himself as an artist. But the narrator makes it clear that Dedalus may end up like his famous namesake of antiquity, whose wings did not withstand the heat of the sun, putting an end to flight and freedom of his son Icarus.

The novel Ulysses (1922) is a landmark in modern literature. It describes an ordinary day in Dublin (16 June 1904: the day Joyce met his wife Nora) from within the minds or stream of consciousness of three people; it is modelled on Homer's Odyssee. The modern Ulysses is the Jew Leopold Bloom, a Dublin travelling salesman; Penelope is his unfaithful wife Molly, and Telemachus his friend the student Stephen Dedalus, who reminds Bloom of his dead son. The comparison is an ironic comment both on the heroes of antiquity and on the daily routine of a modern man who does not quite belong in the world he was born into. - The choice of a Jew as his main character was Joyce's reaction to an outburst of anti-Semitism in Limerick in 1904. Ulysses is a great irreverent mock-heroic comic novel, which was banned in Ireland, England and America as blasphemous and indecent. It imitates and parodies literary styles, political ideologies, ecclesiastical rituals and texts past and present; it imitates and gently mocks our mode of silent uncensored associative so-called thinking. It ends happily in so far as it can be said to end at all, as it breaks off in the middle of a sentence in Molly Bloom's ten page inner monologue presenting her disjointed recollections of the day's amorous adventures, her thoughts, memories and associations as she falls asleep.

Joyce spent the next seventeen years of his life writing Finnegan's Wake (1939), which stretches the form of the novel and language itself to utmost limits. The title is taken from an Irish ballad about a dead man being resurrected to life when, during a fight at his funeral, a bottle of whisky spills over him. Death and resurrection on a cosmic level are the themes of the work. It follows the dreams of a Dublin publican throughout one night; these dreams are merged with the collective unconscious and experience of the human race. It is an epic of past, present and future, of death and the life to come, of everything and nothing: a gigantic play with words from a dozen languages. In A Portrait of the Artist Stephen is confronted with the dilemma that Irish people (including those who speak no Irish) are not really at home in English. Joyce mastered English as few Englishmen had done before him; in Finnegan's Wake he may be said to have expropriated English. Through the virtuosity of his language and the radical renewal of the novel form, he forced the world to recognize itself in the minute record of the life of a handful of unexceptional Irish people, to recognize itself in the mirror of a small backward country on the edge of Europe.


The pendant to the philosophy of existentialism was the theatre of the absurd, which presents every possible attempt to attribute sense to life as ludicrous. The major innovator of post-war literature was Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). He was an Anglo-Irishman, born and educated in Dublin who went to live in Paris where he became a friend of Joyce's; he joined the French Resistance against the Nazis. The precariousness of life he again experienced after the occupation when he was stabbed one night by a mad clochard and very nearly died. The world he presents is one that has been devastated: the people in it are old, crippled, destitute; they are victims, and some of them tyrants at the same time - they are pathetic, nasty, clownishly comical, disgusting and occasionally moving. They hope, mostly in vain, for the end of a senseless and painful existence, and their greatest nightmare is that it might start all over again.

Forty publishers rejected Beckett's first novel Murphy. He wrote it while living in London with no job, no money and frequent depression. The main character is in just that situation, sits naked and motionless for hours on end in a rocking chair. Acquaintances decide to organise his life for him, but he escapes to an asylum for the insane, is threatened with dismissal from the institution for having fraternised with an inmate, but prevents his expulsion by dying in a gas explosion. He has stipulated that his ashes be sent in a paper bag to his birthplace, Dublin, but due to unfortunate circumstances they end up on the floor of a London pub. The novel made little impact.

Beckett's Waiting for Godot was hailed by French critics at its first performance in Paris in 1953, and established his reputation as a dramatist. Like most of his works, it was first written in French and later in English. Godot is a two-act play about two tramps who wait in vain for an unknown dignitary for an unstated purpose in a desolate wasteland, who are aware of the pointlessness of their waiting but are unable to leave as they have nothing else to do. An Irish scholar summed up his impression of the first performance saying that it is a play in which nothing happens - twice. But that same critic (Vivian Merier) greatly enjoyed the comedy, the grotesque and macabre elements of the play. Godot has been performed before prison audiences: they appreciated the drama at a very direct level - as an absurd and realistic farce. Third world audiences can relate to it in a similar fashion, recognizing the boredom, humiliation and despair of poverty, and the resilience of those who nonetheless survive. The play has a moving lyrical dimension in the dialogues, when the tramps engage in conversation in order to pass the time; it has elements of slapstick; nowhere is its satire more devastating than in the monologue of the mad slave Lucky when he has been ordered by his master to think and produces scraps and fragments of philosophy, scholarship, poetry and theology, working himself up into a frenzy of anguish as he performs his "turn" under the tyrant's whip.

Beckett's plays became increasingly minimalist. In Endgame the main figure Hamm is blind and paralysed; his parents Nell and Nagg are housed in rubbish bins; in Krapp's Last Tape there is only one character and he does not speak but listens to a tape of his own voice; in How It Is of 1961 one nameless character lies face down in the mud and cannot speak, the other man has forgotten how to talk; the last play Not I features a mouth and a listener. Beckett goes just as far as Joyce did in abandoning the literary conventions: he eliminates character, place, time, motivation, story. As he put it: "No subject, no verb, only a little heap of dust." Readers who are familiar with the classical French dramas of Racine, with the philosophy of Descartes and with Christian theology will recognize in his plays and novels a satiric comment on, an ironic tribute to, and the travesty which the experience of the twentieth century has made of these venerable concepts and their language . One needs no learning to appreciate the grim farce Beckett sees in the human condition, the grotesque attempts of men and women to overcome loneliness through sexual relations, the macabre wit with which they come to terms with the unbearable. In a world whose population is expanding like the universe, where distance is no longer an obstacle to communication, and the term itself perhaps the catchword of the era, Beckett's great theme is the monadic, terrifying and incurable isolation of the individual.

The century ends as it began, with a disproportionate number of Irish writers, this time from Northern Ireland. Again they are the product of major upheavals: of thirty years of social and political turmoil in the province. The Irish troubles have given rise to numerous dramas: one of the dramatists is likely to remain a figure of relevance - Brian Friel, born in 1929 into a Catholic nationalist family of Derry. His Freedom of the City was inspired by Bloody Sunday in 1972, when a forbidden non-violent nationalist demonstration against internment in that city was attacked by the British Army, leaving 14 dead. The play studies the various masks of respectability people are so adept at creating for themselves. Among the poets, Seamus Heaney (born 1939) is the best known, having recently won the Nobel prize for literature - Ireland's third this century, after Yeats and Beckett.