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Irish Literature 101: From Poetry to Revolution


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:

The Role of Literature in Dynamics of Ireland’s Cultural Nationalism

Frances Georgiana Chenevix Trench poster designed by Sadhbh Ní Trinnseach and published by the Gaelic League in c.192: language collection now on: on which side are you?, (National Library of Ireland)

In the mid-19th century, Irish language with all its culture was on the verge of disappearance. Some intellectuals looked at the matter as a symbolic representation of Ireland and the Irish identity. The language was, in fact, the link between people and moral stories and ideological characters that were embedded in Irish folkloric accounts. Some of these ancient stories were scripted by the 5th century monks onwards, while the rest remained in the verbal refuge of the spoken language, which was mostly practiced by the peasantry class.

Rebuilding the Irish identity was tied to the revival of the language, which was a gateway of the ancient fairy tales and heroes of Modern English literature. The Gaelic writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain collectively referred to these efforts towards cultural re-establishment as “the essentialism of Irish folklorists”.

Influence of Folklore on Irish Nationalism

Beside the original stories, the Gaelic folklore carried the influence of Normans and later biblical hints, which were seeped into written scriptures by the Celtic Monks. The stories also held notions from the most recent historic era, the Victorian age. Put together, these keynotes asserted a set of moral standards and motifs that contributed to the union of social classes and the demand for the Irish Free State.

Similar to any other literary movement, the Gaelic revival had a significant impact on the Irish people and their idealism. The movement was perceived in various manners through lenses of nationalism, fact based evaluation and even criticism. Séamus Delargy saw it as a pedestal that sided with the very core of Irish identity, while Joseph Valente regarded the movement as a relic of so-called “the Victorian notion of manliness”.

Translating the ancient monks’ scriptures and writing down the unrecorded stories wasn’t enough. Many people were illiterate, which eliminated their access to various cultural expressions. Thus, literature turned to theater (like the Greeks did in the past) to dramatise the cultural idealism through acting and playwright.

While the movement was crucial for the formation of a social dialogue between classes and highlighted the core cultural values, the construction of the Irish identity was a collective movement, with few strongholds ignited by the revolutionaries who set the aspiration for democracy into motion. Namely, Charles Stewart Parnell, or the Crownless King of Ireland, was one of the characters who had an enduring effect on the Irish national culture well after his death in 1989.

The writings that appeared in these periods are categorized under three timelines; Sovereignty Drama that lasted from 1902 to 1915, Red Cycle Tales from 1878 to 1916, and the modern classic and myths that appeared in literary works by newly inspired writers such as James Joyce.

Irelands of the Heart

The identity of Ireland changed as a whole and not by a dominant class. Examples of this reality are seen within the group of writers and poets of revivalism.

Standish James O’Grady, also named as the last champion of aristocracy (of noble birth) was praised by George Russell, a contemporary poet and journalist, for his immense chivalry to stand beside a movement that glorified the peasantry and their impact on the perseverance of Ireland’s original culture.

In 1909, Thomas MacDonagh started his relationship with Joseph Plunkett as a tutor of Irish language in response to a newspaper ad. Later, the two of them became members and notable activists of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The journey ended in the sanguine days of the Easter Rising.

Alternatively, the Gaelic League was established in 1893, consequent with the Celtic Revivalism. Literate enthusiasts of Irish language gathered to applaud the splendor of Erse, the language and symbol of the Irish identity. The foundation of this movement was truly remarkable, both from literary and cultural perspectives. Or as Patrick Henry Pears, the member of the league and a poet, mentioned about the movement: “The most revolutionary influence that has ever come into Ireland.”

Front page of the weekly newspaper of Gaelic League, Claidheamh Soluis, from 13 June 1903. (Image: National Library of Ireland)

Another influential force rose from the Gaelic Athletic Association. Starting out in 1884, the association was formed to preserve and uphold the games and sports with Irish origins, hence another reminder of the swagger of the Irish from its ancient origins to date. This athletic movement went as far as calling a ban on sports with foreign origins.

These instances were nothing but inspiration to many; dance performances, music, paintings, drawing and countless other artistic expressions were all aligned with a single cause to construct, or rather reconstruct, the Irish identity.

From Poetry to Revolution

As previously mentioned, the rise of Irish revival was shortly after the death of Charles Stewart Parnell. The scandalous rumours before his death and the political progressions at the time resulted in a separation between the nationalists. It wasn't until the construction of the Abbey theatre, that, once more, the social issues were given public recognition; an expression of identity flourished, the voice of the voiceless was being listened.

Nonetheless, these cultural connotations in Irish revival resulted in a shift in the definition of individuals of their cultural identity.

After the construction of the Abbey theatre, occasional disputes, requests for censorship and political opposition to the playwrights and actors were not rare occurrences. The conflict between the government and the nationalist intellectuals of the Abbey Theatre reached a climax in the Easter of 1916, following the assassination of Sean Connolly, an Abbey Actor, who was shot by a gunman on the side of the Royalists.

The Easter Rising was an armed struggle that continued for 6 consecutive days, starting in Dublin and spreading to a handful of outposts across the country. It was a battle of wills and opposition which played an important part in for the future of Ireland.

The famous Irish playwright and poet W.B.Yeats often questioned his own role in the Easter Rebellion. His play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, had shown a greater response and was rightly perceived as a revolutionary metaphor that lingered through the following year. He had earned his inspiration in a dream that was perfected into a playwright. A story of an old woman, Cathleen, who would become young and beautiful again if the young men died for her. Although a poet is not a man to take to arms, numerous political leaders were inspired and aligned with the Gaelic Revival notions, including Thomas James Clarke, the Fenian pied-piper.

An illustration of the scene from Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a play written by the Irish playwright W. B. Yeats, 1902

Even if the costs of Easter Rising were heavy and many intellectuals, republican actors and young artists were lost in the mere hope of claiming their identity without a foreign influence; it was also the ground for the Rise of Sinn Féin, and the declaration of the Irish Independence in 1919.

Image References:

RTE, Boston College, About Century Ireland

Travel into the Grey Twilight,

State Library Victoria, 2016, Easter Rising, Dublin, 1916


Joseph Valente, The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880-1922, Urbana, Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 2011, 289 p, ISBN 978-0-252-03571-5

David Pierce, (2000), Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader, Ireland. Cork University Press

Margaret Kelleher & Philip O'Leary, eds, (2008), The Cambridge history of Irish literature

George J. Watson, (January 30, 1994), Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce and O'Casey, Catholic University of American Press


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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