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Irish Literature 102: Key Figures of Revivalism


Irish literature revolves around a rich culture and extensive history. In the Irish Literature 101 series, the focus was on the general outline of the literary eras in Ireland. However, to better understand this literary tradition, Irish Literature 102 dives deeper into the key literary figures that influenced the literary movements. Additionally, this series constitutes a wide-ranging study on works that are examined in the context of documented events and critical cultural movements.

Irish Literature 102 is divided into the following chapters:

- Cuala Press, Irish Revivalism & Feminism

- James Joyce and Reconstruction of Irish Literature

- Irish Witticism Through Kafkaesque Lenses: A Flann O’Brien Biography

- Key Figures of Revivalism 

- Women & Literary Romanticism in Ireland

- The Life of Thomas Moore - A Remarkable Romanticism Figure

The blooming of Irish literature started about a century ago, and yet reverberates within the very identity of Ireland even today. It was a turning point to abandon the imposing travesty that was brought by British colonialism, and to seek refuge in solemnity of the country’s past heritage. This return, or revival, set a different future in the Irish foundational stone. Besides bringing back the Gaelic language, which was then at verges of certain extinction, the ancient fairy tales and morals were once again brought back to life.

The Riders of the Sidhe, by John Duncan 1911. An example of Irish revival art.

Revivalism: a Nationalistic Pride

W. B. Yeats, and all his unique writing skills, elaborate poetic essence and his unwavering love for his nation and true identity, stand at the heart of the movement. However, he was not alone in his quest. Several books were written on the druids, zoomorphic personifications, Celtic deities and heroes, while writers used slight references or contextual hints in the poetry collections or stories.

Irish revivalism was the combination of strong political nationalism and breathing life into almost forgotten folklore, along with traces of Celtic Christianity. It was the pride of many artists and literary enthusiasts, shoulder to shoulder with brave men who fought as soldiers with arms or bare hands.

Formation of Conradh na Gaeilge; the Gaelic League

Standish James O’Grady

Born in Castletownbere, Co. Cork in 1846, Standish James O’Grady was one of the principal literary figures on the revivalism movement, as well as English literature in the 19th century. He was a historian and a writer with journalistic tendencies. Besides his articles of aristocratic values and social criticism, his book “The History of Ireland" (1880) received much attention and became a later source of inspiration for Yeats, and other young writers, including those founding the Gaelic League.

A portrait of Standish James O’Grady the Irish Writer and Citizen Army.

Douglas Hyde

Born in Frenchpark, County Roscommon, in 1860. The most notable achievement of Hyde was perhaps becoming the first president of Ireland- a role gained by his endeavours in the scholarly field and incessant struggle to revive Gaelic culture and language.

He founded the Gaelic League in 1893, bringing together Protestants and catholic faith followers by the common wish to reclaim their authentic Irish identity. Doing so, he provided legitimacy to Gaelic as the national language, with a legitimacy equal to the English language after many centuries. His most notable literary relics include: Love Songs of Connacht (1893) which was a selection of Irish poems, A Literary History of Ireland From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1899), Legends of Saints and Sinners (1915) presenting a glance into culture and its formation as we know it, and several nationalistic plays that were contributed to the Abbey’s Theatre.

Portrait of Douglas Hyde, First President of Ireland, Poet and Scholar, oil on canvas.

Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory

Lady Gregory was born into an aristocratic family on March 15, 1852, in Roxborough, County Galway. Though she followed her calling to a culture that was then only held alive among the peasantry class of Ireland. Her role was crucial in translation of Irish folklore and sponsoring several nationalist movements, including the co-foundation of the Abbey Street theatre- Ireland’s first national theatre.

She was charismatic, disciplinary and an inspiration to many contemporary writers. Today, her legacy is left behind for the Irish and within the English literature; the story collection of Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), the political play of The Rising of the Moon (1907), the opening play of the Abbey Theatre the Spreading the News (1904), and many more.

A painting of Lady Gregory by ‘Ben Bay’.

Other stately figures of the league include: the Gaelic revivalist and prime minister of education Eoin MacNeill, the dubliner novelist; Thomas O’Neill Russell, along with participants such as the patients and scholar Eugene O’Growney, and the Italian activities and language enthusiasts Giuseppe Mazzini.

The Revivalists after The Abbey Theatre

Besides the rich linguistic construction during the Gaelic League, Abbey Theatre made Gaelic and its passionate nationalism and Irish folklore inspiration a common commodity. It was a meeting point for every class of society and the leader of the Celtic Twilight.

John Millington Synge

Known for his vigorous and dramatic plays and imaginative fictional prose Edmund John Millington Synge was born in Rathfarnham, 1871. He was a poet, playwright and an enthusiast of Irish folklore- a passion that is traced in almost all his works. The Playboy of the Western World was written and displayed in 1907. The play was “a study on the nature of heroism and hero worship” and had such an impact on the audience that it was interpreted into public riots.

As one of the top figures of English-language drama, Synge’s works still continue to inspire, with a set of unique literary devices like using a strong yet beautiful language and stylizing the Irish peasant dialect as a form of realism.

A portrait of John Millington Synge by John Butler Yeats.

Lennox Robinson

Lennox Robinson was born on Oct. 4, 1886, in Douglas, County Cork. He was known for his peasant realism and influential political plays such as The Lost Leader (1918), and a comedy play, The Whiteheaded Boy (1916). He belonged to an anglo Irish community; a characteristic that gave his work a rather distinct tone from the rest.

A photograph of Lennox Robinson looking at his own portrait.

T.C. Murray

Thomas Cornelius Murray was another eminent Irish playwright with a strong affiliation to the Abbey Theatre. He was born in 1873 in Macroom, County Cork and grew to become one of the prominent figures of Irish revivalism and nationalism. He wrote about 15 plays, notably; Birthright (1910) scrutinizing social power and influence, The Briary Gap (1917), Maurice Harte (1912) and Autumn Fire (1924).

"Tisn’t to-day not yesterday I realised my own nature . . . But I buried my wretched secret in my soul.”-Maurice’s dialogue from Maurice Harte (1912).

A photo of Thomas Cornelius Murray, the Irish playwright.

Sean O’Casey

John Casey, and later Sean O’Casey was born into a middle class and protestant family in Dublin, in 1880. At the end of the Victorian era, his family, along with many others, gradually declined in the financial aspects due to the rapidly rising social and political conflicts- as an aftermath to the great famine. He earned his living from a very young age at the Irish railway together with all other his family members to make ends meet.

O’Casey’s writings bear an exaggerated touch of his days of labour during the adolescent years and are known for peasant realism. Such instances are evident in his plays The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926) that take plays in the Dublin slums.

A photo of the scholar and historian Seán O’Casey.

Seumas O’Sullivan

James Sullivan Starkey, better known as Seumas O’Sullivan, is a powerful and leading literary figure even today, born in 1836 in Dublin. He became a leading literary figure with a rich legacy of poetry collections, non function, prose, translations and more.

"These have an art for the praising Beauty so high. Sweet, you are praised in a silence, Sung in a sigh." Praise - a poem by Seumas O’Sullivan

A portrait of Seumas O’Sullivan by Estella Frances Solomons Hrha, oil on canvas.

George Moore

George Augustus Moore was the translator of ideas in the common language, a talented writer of novels, short stories, art criticism and dramas. He was born on the 24th of February, 1852, in Moore Hall and, besides revivalism, played a key role in introducing modern art to Ireland.

Moore is noted for his focus on contemplating on intellectual ideas and explaining them through common sense and practical philosophy.

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” G. A. Moore

Edouard Manet Portrait of George Moore, 1879 (detail) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

To justly honour all who contributed to the revivalism and mention of their merits, it takes a whole book or two. The wings of literary revival were stretched far across the Emerald Isle; Emily Lawless (novelist), Austin Clarke (poet), Padraic Colum (playwright and novelist), F.R. Higgins (poet), Oliver St. John Gogarty (politician and author), Patrick Henry Pearse (activist and writer), Joseph Plunkett (revolutionary and poet), and James Stephens (fictional prose novelist) - only to name a few.


David Pierce, Cultural Nationalism and the Irish Literary Revival, York St John College, 2002.

Fionntan de Brun, Temporality and Irish Revivalism: Past, Present, and Becoming, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, 2013.

Image Sources:

Irish Examiner, Lennox Robinson: The life and legacy of a Cork writer who often doesn’t get the attention he deserves, 2019.

Alchetron, John Millington Synge, 2018.

Tom Paterson, O’Grady, Wikidata, Portrait of Douglas Hyde, First President of Ireland (1860-1949).

The journal, The Irish For: Kiltartanese and a passionate affair. The story of Galway's Lady Gregory. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Wikipedia. T.C.Murray From Project Gutenberg's Irish Plays and Playwrights, by Cornelius Weygandt

Irish Times, Marking the Irish Citizen Army centenary, Opinion: A reflection of O’Casey’s soaring vision


Centre Calturel Irlandaise, George Moore’s Paris and his ongoing French Connections.

Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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