Irish Literature 101 is a fascinating and complete guide through the significant historical events that shaped Irish culture and literature. This series also introduces major figures in every literary movement from romanticism to modernism. In addition, it is packed with numerous interesting quotes and concepts, along with easy-to-understand accounts of famous authors' works and the rationales behind the transition from one literary era to another. So, whether you are looking to refresh the memory on elemental Irish literature proceedings or enjoy learning about it for the first time, Irish Literature 101 proves beneficial. This series offers an engaging read, written in plain English with meticulous attention to historical and cultural affairs during each era.
Irish Literature 101 is divided into the following chapters:
"Till they shall singing fade in ruth And die a pearly brotherhood; For words alone are certain good: Sing, then, for this is also sooth."
W. B. Yeats
At the end of the 19th century, the fervent blood of the Irish nationalists seeped into the veins of all the social layers in Ireland, from noble class, peasantry, to intellectuals. Revolutionists were no longer silent under the pestering weight of colonization. Men and women of the working-class, sworn members of republican brotherhood, and the English and Anglo-Irish resistance operations had created an environment that led to the rise of the united front initiating the revolution for an independent Ireland.
Once a home to the Gaelic nation, Ireland was on the verge of reclaiming its identity; a movement that touched many artists who are destined to write a new chapter in English language literature, rightly known as the Irish Renaissance.
The Start of Nationalistic Irish Literacy
These historic events were the foundation stone of the Celtic Twilight, when literature reached its pinnacle of expression and intellectualism in the modern Ireland. The 1890s marks the beginning of this political and literary movement that lasted until the mid 20th century.
After a seven century of political oppression, the Irish were forced to migrate or join the political movements. The very same social fundamentals encouraged the Irish renaissance writers to look past the British cultural imprints and back into their original identity for inspiration.
The Gaelic heritage and legends of the Celtic gods and goddesses were brought back into the contemporary. Many literary intellectuals, including William Butler Yeats, the leading finger of the revival movement, agree that comprehension of the revival literature is possible only by exploring the identity of Hibernia, the ancient nation of the Irish Celts.
Easter Rising, 1916 - British admiralty gunboat buildings bombed during a grenade battle at the corner of Sackville street and Eden Quay, located on the banks of Dublin River.
A Glance at the Pre-Christian Ireland
The history of Pre-Christian Ireland is a blend of mythological stories and astonishing stone-built relics. Most of the records in today’s Irish history books are derived from modern examination of archeological sites and DNA studies.
Ancient Ireland was the only location in Europe left untouched by the Roman vanquishments, though they rigorously revered the Greek mythology. Similar to the Norse nations, the accounts of wars, bravado and downfalls of Ireland’s past were greatly influenced by the anecdotes of Celtic deities, followed by the influence of biblical stories.
“…In both the European and Irish Renaissance movements. The impetus towards rediscovery came from contact with vitalizing forces outside of the society, which was influenced by the Greek culture... And the English and Continental streams of culture on the part of the Anglo-Irish revival.”
The most apparent reason behind these misty pasts is perhaps rooted in the absence of the written language among the Celts. Christianity and the practice of inscription were introduced to Ireland about the fourth century, and flourished into a widespread tradition by the eight century.
Another significant part of Hibernia’s history is epitomized around St. Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland. Once enslaved by the celts, he escaped to his homeland on a journey across the sea. After entering the clergy in Great Britain, his spiritual calling drew the young saint back to Ireland, which highlights the beginning of St. Patrick’s vocation as a missionary.
Apart from the religious endeavors, what makes Saint Patrick truly unique is his appreciation of Irish folklore. Later, the catholic monks recorded the Celtic tales and folklore. These monastic records were brought into the spotlight greatly under the Irish Renaissance period.
Interestingly, the phenomenal religious adaptations were consequent with the wars against the Roman territories throughout Europe, when most of the pagan literature, statues and culture was destroyed by the means of religious incompatibility.
Irish monks brought Latin grammatical and syntactic structures into the Irish language from 6th to 9th century otherwise known as the Golden Age of Irish Monastic Scholarship.
The Abbey Theatre, Politics and Drama
William Butler Yeats was the face of the revival movement. Yeats was financed and supported by Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, Irish writer and playwright whose main focus was to translate and revive the Gaelic scriptures. With the help of George Moore and Edward Martyn, they founded the Abbey Theater in 1898, setting down a lodestone for the common class and the literary society at the cultural heart of Dublin.
Plays with powerful political messages, portraying the Irish nation’s bitter realities and becoming the voice of the silenced were the main objectives of the Abbey’s playwrights. Unlike most European theatres, this was not a place of entertainment. The Abbey was founded to portray the national truth through a unique creative audacity and unbiased drama performances.
The Abbey theater contributed to the experimental sense of the Irish Renaissance literature in both style and genre. It bended the norms through actions such as bringing the women on stage and putting the peasantry in the role of protagonists. The plays that were performed had a profound focus on the human relation with God, nature, and between classes of society with strong hints of victorianism.
Some plays even went beyond the frames of language by introducing the use of Irish dialects, such as the dramatic plays written by John Millington Synge whose works reflected the issues and vernacular of the peasantry class.
Few years after the Abbey’s foundation, romanticism gave its place to realism, and playwrights took a more defined position on addressing the political issues as evidently seen in the Patriots (1912) by Lennox Robinson, or the Plough and the Stars (1926) by Sean O’Casey.
The theatre was an inspiration for many young artists, and enticed the creation of enduring playwrights and remarkable poetry collections.
Eventually, the initial patriotism of the Abbey took a more artistic turn, which often overlooked the political issues. This resulted in a great discord between the Abbey’s artistic members.
“…the semi-dissolution of the Society could be when Yeats tried to give authors the absolute authority of the production of a play and to employ the theory of the art for art’s sake. The change of policy, from concentrating on the betterment of Ireland to prioritizing authors, caused many of the members to resign in bitterness and move to London or America.”
John Francombe, 1993
Abbey Theatre established as a national theatre for Ireland by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904.
Revolutionizing the Aesthetics in English Literature
Although Yeast remains the figurative face of the movement, the Irish revival era bred many artists and writers. The most notable writers of the Irish renaissance are art critic and novelist George Moore, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, novelist James Joyce, critic, writer and political activist George Bernard Shaw, poet and writer J.M. Synge, novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett and many others namely personas.
These writers revolutionized the modern English literature in Ireland, while creating an enduring impression on the global literature and art, using Ireland and England as the eternal symbolism for opposition; or as David Holdeman puts it “Yeast associated England with everything he loathed about the modern world: with imperialism, with vulgar, godless materialism, with urban ugliness and squalor.”
This era marks one of the few times in literary history where romanticism meets with Victorianism; an opposing synergy of the time-respected symbolism that blended with a focus on the modern societies and working class. This stylistic union is best observed in works of Oscar Wilde. The ultimate clash of two cultures debating in exalted words and expression through poetry, drama and stories.
Source of the featured image:
Ireland Reaching Out (2021), Opening of the Abbey Theatre
Epic World History, Golden Age of Irish Monastic Scholarship
The Irish Times (Jul 26, 2021), An Easter Rising timeline: Wednesday, April 26th, 1916
1. Sheehan, D., (1943), The Influence of Gaelic Sources on the Poetry of the Anglo-Irish Literary Revival. Loyola University Chicago
2. Benedict John Francombe, (1993), The home of the living writer: the playwright and the Abbey Theatre. Glasgow University
3. David Pierce, (2000), Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader, Ireland. Cork University Press
4. Ronald Carter, John McRae, (1997), The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland
5. Margaret Kelleher & Philip O'Leary, eds, (2008), The Cambridge history of Irish literature