Arise and bid me strike a match
And strike another till time catch;
Should the conflagration climb,
Run till all the sages know.
We the great gazebo built,
They convicted us of guilt;
Bid me strike a match and blow.
‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ dramatizes W.B. Yeats’s darkest forebodings. The poem is both elegy and self-elegy. Its imperilled ‘great gazebo’ symbolizes not just Anglo-Irish achievement in general but the Irish Literary Revival in particular. Yeats, whose poetry encodes a running commentary on the Revival’s fortunes, speaks as the notional architect of that unappreciated edifice. To proclaim its glory and shame its detractors, he threatens a ‘conflagration’, an apocalypse. Seventy-five years on, the restoration of Lissadell House may be a more positive symbol. Indeed, the Literary Revival is enjoying a new academic vogue these days – a vogue itself worth studying.
One trend is that the Revival has become less literary. For a younger generation of scholars (to judge from the publications discussed below), the hot issues are Theosophy, the agricultural Co-operative Movement, reactions to science and technology, anthropological controversies. Perhaps, if criticism has little more to say about works by Yeats or Synge, literature may as well dissolve into a generalized ‘Revivalism’ between 1890 and 1922. To quote Nicholas Allen, author of George Russell (AE) and the New Ireland: ‘The intellectual awakening in Ireland … took many forms, economical, political and social as well as literary … We need … to look at new sources of material, at paintings, journals, letters, pamphlets and posters, across new fields of enquiry, agriculture, anarchism, industry and the environment.’ But through which lenses should we ‘look’? Literature owes its special position to the fact that it raises and attracts such questions. The intellectual awakening produced intellectual conflict that has not gone away. In transmuted forms, it marks the spot where latter-day post-colonial theory meets long-term unease about the Revival’s nativeness: an encounter consummated by what Terence Brown in a recent essay calls the ‘dominant … political and colonial paradigm in contemporary Irish Studies’. Not in historical studies, however. The paradigm emerged not only as an intellectual tool or framework but also as a kind of counter-reformation against ‘revisionist’ history. In its most inquisitorial mode, the paradigm charges the Revival’s Protestant literati with misrepresenting Catholic Ireland, with seeking to impose their own image on – or through – Irish literature, with conspiring to accumulate cultural capital in lieu of political power.
These are old accusations. For D.P. Moran, the harrier of Yeats who wrote The Philosophy of Irish Ireland (1905), ‘Anglo-Irish’ literature was alien by definition. We should not forget the high hopes, at that period, for a Gaelic literary revival that would supplant the English-language version. In the 1930s Daniel Corkery influentially restated anti-Revival attitudes. Seán O’Faoláin sums up Corkery’s Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (1931) as ‘a book which dismissed Yeats and tied itself up in knots to try to preserve Synge’. In The Arch-Poet, the final volume of his Yeats biography, Roy Foster quotes from the Catholic Bulletin’s contemporaneous attacks on ‘subsidised New Ascendancy linked up with the Associated Aesthetes and the Mutual Boosters’. Later, Hubert Butler found the Revival to be a source of ‘psychological disturbance’ for some mid-century Dublin writers. Butler based this perception partly on the (inconsistent) opinions of Patrick Kavanagh, who found it hard to square his admiration for Yeats the artist with his suspicion of Yeats the Protestant. Despite the literary solidarity of the censorship years, cultural resistance to the Revival – not always conscious – could sometimes mean that the later Yeats and later Joyce were assimilated more slowly within Ireland than elsewhere. The English poet-critic Donald Davie, when teaching at Trinity in the 1950s, said: ‘Nothing so surprised me from the first in literary Dublin as the extent to which Yeats is a prophet without honour in his own country … Irish poets, Irish critics, and Irish readers have not yet recognised the logic of Yeats’s poetic development’.
As for the academy: Brown suggests that Seamus Deane inaugurated the post-colonial paradigm in 1973 (a decade before his Field Day pamphlet Heroic Styles) when he called for a ‘colonial’ interpretation of Irish history that would dismantle Yeatsian myths of the Revival, and especially the ‘historical fiction [that] gave dignity and coherence to the Irish Protestant Ascendancy tradition’. Gerry Smyth’s Decolonisation and Criticism (1998) exemplifies the long echo of Deane’s call. Smyth says: ‘As self-appointed spokesman for the dwindling Anglo-Irish Protestant population of Ireland, Yeats’s task … was to invent a history and an identity which would guarantee Anglo-Irish inclusion in, if not domination of, a restored Irish nation.’ By using post-colonial theory to write an account of modern Irish criticism (castigated for its failure to embrace ‘radical decolonisation’), Smyth excludes alternative critical perspectives and alternative perspectives on criticism, much as his precursors excluded Anglo-Irish literature. So Yeats’s ‘They convicted us of guilt’ is not quite history yet. ‘They’ now includes cadres of graduate students. And even where accusation or inquisition has receded, the word ‘colonial’ can sprinkle the page in a blithely unexamined manner. As Stephen Howe says of Smyth’s book (in Ireland and Empire, 2000): ‘The colonial model is simply assumed, never argued for or supported by evidence.’
Yet, as Revival studies ramify, their conceptualization diversifies. The colonial paradigm, in its cruder forms, may be nearer its sell-by date than Brown thinks, just as he may be pushing an open door when he suggests that the c-word should be exposed to literary history, ‘biographical/psychological’ nuances, and new approaches in Victorian studies. For Brown, the Revival has become too Irish. He wants Yeats’s occult interests to be understood in post-Darwinian terms: ‘rooted … more in his sense that materialist modernity had desacralised the world, than in a political unconscious that sought surrogates for a diminishing caste hegemony’. Here Brown proposes, if not a paradigm-shift, at least a change from ‘guilty as charged’. Similarly, Sinéad Garrigan Mattar writes in the introduction to her highly nuanced Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival: ‘Rather than positing, as many critical studies do, that for [Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory] life began with Ireland, I want to show that their interest in primitive modes of life predated their individual “conversions” to nationalism: that it certainly predated their reading of comparative anthropology, and that it was deeply connected to European traditions of thought – initially romantic traditions, later scientific traditions.’
In similar spirit again, Michael McAteer’s Standish O’Grady, AE and Yeats shows how Standish James O’Grady fused the Irish antiquarian tradition with the Romantic anti-utilitarianism (and anti-egalitarianism) of Thomas Carlyle. McAteer sees O’Grady’s prose epics, beginning with History of Ireland: The Heroic Period (1878), as more influential in kick-starting the Revival than Samuel Ferguson’s poetic versions of Irish legend. This is because O’Grady, angered by the failure of the landlord class to provide leadership, and desperate for heroes, ‘sought to render the Irish cultural legacy a vehicle of cultural and political renewal’. For Yeats, even as he translated that legacy into less unionist, less Victorian, and more fully imaginative idioms, O’Grady was ‘the one historian in Ireland who is anything of an artist’. McAteer brings O’Grady up to date by arguing that the seeming contradictions of his messianic historiography – Lady Gregory called O’Grady a ‘Fenian Unionist’ – might cause us to rethink the oppositions that structure ‘the revisionist–postcolonial debate in Irish Studies’.
Brown, Mattar and McAteer are close readers who look to the Revival’s own art and thought for ways of reconfiguring it. Like Brown, the editors of two recent essay collections on the Revival flag up ‘perspective’, but as shaped by ‘new sources of material’ rather than by re-readings. Betsey Taylor Fitzsimon and James H. Murphy, editors of The Irish Revival Reappraised [henceforward IRR], aim ‘to foster a broader perspective on the Irish Revival that will penetrate the complex cultural environment in which its movements, authors and advocates flourished’. More polemically, Margaret Kelleher, editor of the Irish University Review Special Issue, ‘New Perspectives on the Irish Literary Revival’ [henceforward IUR], disparages courses on the Revival ‘that carry with them … a predictable list of issues, texts, and authors’. Claiming that ‘the cast of Revival authors, genres, texts, and subjects is richly and provocatively expanded’ by her own contributors, Kelleher regrets that ‘a traditionally author-centred criticism … obsessed with the canon [has] lingered in the context of Revival writing long after its dismissal elsewhere’. Although there is crossover between these symposia, Fitzsimon and Murphy speak the language of cultural history, Kelleher the language of cultural studies. Cultural history assumes (perhaps innocently) that it can contextualize a ‘complex … environment’ without calling upon literary theory; cultural studies probes the power relations that determine the currency of ‘issues, texts, and authors’.
Irish literary studies certainly needs a rest from predictable issues (nationality? colonialism? gender? identity? Ireland?). The Great War has only recently made the cut. It’s also true that Revival canons, then and now, overlook Irish writing that does not advance the agenda of cultural nationalism. Thus a mass of middlebrow fiction was either unconcerned with Ireland or concerned with it in the wrong way – being too Protestant, too Catholic, too imperial, too anti-imperial. Urban-realist drama, Yeats’s anathema, also flourished. In his essay ‘Irish Realism and the Working Class’, Ben Levitas establishes that ‘the plumb-line of urban drama … came down to O’Casey, well-worn by previous use’ [IUR]. But the Revival’s stress on poetry and non-realist drama has origins in late-nineteenth-century symbolism as well as in the more utopian and transformative potential of these media. And perhaps criticism, not literature, has been predictable. No literary work really conforms to an agenda: the Faustian pact between the Revival and political nationalism was doomed to collapse. The wider Irish (literary) canon remains less stable than Kelleher thinks because Yeats’s canon-making met so much resistance. As for ‘author-centred’: the Revival by definition has always been collectively conceived and received. It remains a test-case for coterie dynamics, for the interplay between artistic self-interest and communal altruism, for intertextuality. Recent studies may have extended our sense of Revival intertextuality, but it is woven into Yeats’s poetry, however selective his constructions of ‘Coole’.
Further, while literature’s intersection with other documents, as with other forms of endeavour, is always revealing, what it usually reveals is literary complexity. An obsession with extra-canonical texts can promote the esoteric or third-rate rather than the silenced or provocative. No doubt there are forgotten treasures out there, but not Blanaid Salkeld (‘Where shall I find power / To overleap blind currents of desire?’ [IUR]) or Katherine Frances Purdon (‘it’s that bright boyo, Patsy Ratigan, as sure as God made little apples!’ [IRR]). The five-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing sinks under a weight of undistinguished prose. Indeed, as regards discursive genres (including criticism itself), few canonical principles have been established. Discussing ‘Autobiographical Writing in the Revival Period’ [IUR], Eamonn Hughes comments: ‘while the national perspective has been given its due, the individual perspective … has been underestimated, or even entirely ignored’.
The Irish Revival Reappraised examines culture-work and cultural politics in various extra-literary spheres: music education, the Gaelic League, archaeology and museum policy, fashion. Janice Helland’s essay ‘Celtic Revival as Aristocratic Display’ rediscovers Lady Aberdeen: wife of the Viceroy, Celticist fashion-victim, supporter of Home Rule and Irish textiles, exponent of something more complicated than ‘benevolent colonialism’. Impersonating Aoife at a viceregal garden party, Lady Aberdeen ‘wore a richly embroidered mantle fastened by a Tara brooch and a gold-embroidered shoulder-piece fastened by a fibula brooch’. Diplomatically, however, she carried a bouquet of roses, thistles and shamrocks – a prickly emblem of Home Rule all round. In the book’s ‘History and the Text’ section, Michael McAteer’s essay on Yeats’s Countess Cathleen reminds us that literature not only belongs to history but interprets it. He analyzes how the play’s ‘historiographical structure’ determined ‘its strengths and shortcomings as a dramatic piece’. Where cultural historiography implicates literature (and vice versa), might it reclaim theoretical ground from cultural studies? Or does the Revival exert pressure on both disciplinary languages? Nicholas Allen may be trying for a third way when he proposes that, in approaching Irish literary history, ‘We should … set ourselves to a more fragmentary practice, our mobile terms of reference informed by events whose genesis and effects are fugitive and diffuse, the constant motion of political manoeuvre and the draft version of first published poems’.
Up to a point Allen’s model fits The Arch-Poet. The fine historical mesh in which Foster entangles his protean subject lays the Revival open to greater contingency. This is Yeats in process, not the canonical icon. Foster tracks the many stimuli (supernatural adventures, sexual confusion, ‘lust and rage’, books, politics, travels) that feed the creative surges from which poems crystallize. If Volume I, The Apprentice Mage, seemed more at home with Ireland than with poetry, here Foster consistently suggests how life and literature interpenetrate as Yeats remakes himself, his art, and the Revival amid European upheaval and a cast of thousands. Foster prints certain poems in full, attending to the ‘chronology of composition and the form of first printing’. He does not reduce Yeats’s politics to a fixed position or fixed accusation, but teases out the contextual specifics that make Yeats now criticize Patrick Pearse’s ‘Vertigo of Self Sacrifice’, now internalize the executions as a collective tragedy, now admire Mussolini, now identify with the Free State, now eulogize the Protestant ‘people of Burke and of Grattan’, now praise Eamon de Valera.
Just as Yeats is appearing in new lights and shades, George Russell seems to be undergoing an overdue mini-revival. This planetary conjunction reminds us how deeply both writers immersed themselves in the destructive and constructive elements of their time, how hard they worked for their utopian ideals. Allen calls Russell’s Theosophy ‘a doctrine of empowerment that [helped] to create … a prophetic voice that assumed cultural and political authority’. He continues: ‘Russell’s hope of an avatar … is easily mocked but his and Yeats’s sense of historical determinism lent tremendous power to their version of Irish cultural nationalism’. Russell has been caricatured as unworldly, partly because he hoped for an avatar, partly because his misty poetry somehow veils the Orwellian strengths of his journalism. Allen shows how Russell was radicalized by his work for agricultural co-operation. He keeps the spotlight on Russell’s public voice, his political interventions, his sophisticated if ultimately defeated brand of advanced nationalism, his articulation (as editor of the Irish Homestead) of ‘an Ireland of intense practical development and concerted industrial propaganda’, his transmission (as editor of the Irish Statesman) of Revival dialectics into the intellectual life of independent Ireland.
Perhaps the Revival is being most startlingly revised in its relation to ‘practical development’ or scientific modernization. In ‘Science, Culture, and the Irish Intellectual Revival’ [IUR] Allen goes so far as to argue that ‘science was central … a directing discipline whose terms, of evolution, electricity and the atom, informed the logic of cultural debate’. By 1930, indeed, the Irish Statesman was happy to trade the Abbey Theatre’s ‘supply of primaeval rustics’ for Shannon hydro-electricity. However, in ‘Ireland’s “Two Cultures” Debate: Victorian Science and the Literary Revival’ [IUR] Eve Patten sees Yeats as having rhetorically negated ‘what had, at one point, good claim to be a nineteenth-century Irish scientific renaissance’. Patten also suggests that ‘the key institutions within which Irish science flourished in the Victorian era, particularly the Royal Irish Academy, are better understood not as colonial outposts dedicated to the spread of imperial technocracy, but as channels for latent but persistent traditions of Grattanite patriotism’. But Yeats, essentially a Grattanite patriot himself, and once a budding naturalist, may have redirected the spirit of Enlightenment enquiry to the occult studies which he hoped would ‘resacralise the world’. A Vision transposes the psychological matrix and aesthetic DNA of his poetry into cosmic theory. To quote Sinéad Garrigan Mattar: ‘Despite being in revolt against the “myth of progress”, [Yeats] used science to seek the origins of belief, and so to reply to those who had deprived him of his childhood faith.’ Mattar shows how Yeats, Synge and Gregory variously construed anthropologists’ changing ideas of the ‘primitive’ (which also affected ‘folk’ studies in England, Scotland and Wales). One reason why Yeats and Synge got into trouble was because Irish nationalism retained self-boosting and Christianized ‘noble savage’ concepts, whereas they had absorbed comparative anthropology’s tilt towards darker gods. This more interesting, problematic and disturbing brand of primitivism, Mattar suggests, underlies the ritualistic forms they introduced to Irish theatre – whether to awaken the audience or the gods.
Mattar’s book exemplifies the value of questioning both the Revival’s self-projections and powerful academic paradigms. Without discounting the class-perspectives or class-interests of the writers she discusses, or their propensity to ‘assume authority’, she opts for exploration rather than accusation. Brian Ó Conchubhair’s essay on the ‘Gaelic Font Controversy’ [IUR] upsets expectations in other ways. Ó Conchubhair shows that a strong lobby in the Gaelic League preferred the Roman font because it presented Irish as a modern, spoken language. Only when Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932 was the Gaelic font ‘pressed into service as a border guard on the pages of Irish texts, ensuring that [readers] were aware that they were crossing into a distinct and different realm’. Ó Conchubhair remarks that ‘post-colonial theory offers little attraction for those who work in the Celtic languages and literatures’ because it does not allow for ‘appropriation as a cultural tactic within the native language’. The agency involved in such choices attaches the Language Revival, and the Revival more generally, to nineteenth-century European cultural nationalism whose context is Europe’s internal imperiums rather than its colonies abroad. (For Stephen Howe and others, this is the context with which colonial readings of Ireland should be configured.) Ironically, the title of Ó Conchubhair’s essay is misprinted as ‘The Gaelic Front Controversy’.
Of course, if academics theorize, writers mythologize – poets being the worst. The Arch-Poet inscribes a fascinating struggle between biographer and an autobiographer who compulsively stylized his life: Foster credits Yeats’s memoirs with ‘superb inaccuracy’. ‘Anglo-Ireland’ is perhaps the most misunderstood of Yeatsian ‘stylistic arrangements of experience’ (to quote Yeats on the gyres). Clare Hutton’s essay ‘Joyce and the Institutions of Revivalism’ [IUR] stresses that Protestant writers from various middle-class backgrounds should not be termed ‘Anglo-Irish intellectuals’. Most were reared far from gazebos. There were Catholics about the place, too. In the National Library chapter of Ulysses ‘the conversation is between a Catholic turned agnostic, a Quaker, a theosophist [Russell] (from the “northeast corner” though he sounds “Scotch” to Bloom) and two others whose religious identities are not firmly identified’. Thus Joyce maps a ‘range of intricate social and religious differences’. But ‘Anglo-Irish’ dies hard – a tribute to Yeats’s ‘great gazebo’ rhetoric. Although Seamus Deane knows perfectly well that ‘Coole’ signifies cultural defence or Revival PR, that the gazebo is rhetoric in a double sense, he condemns Yeats’s fictions as literal claims that cannot be allowed to pass. If this masks underlying resistance to the Revival itself, Colm Tóibín’s readable and popular Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, much indebted to Revival scholars, may express a contrary urge: to make the Revival, including its aristocratic veneer – its toff-dressing – user-friendly again. His is a cosier, sexier Gregory whose affairs with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and John Quinn are to the fore.
Yet Deane and other Irish-Irish intellectuals have gradually softened towards Yeats. This may be because Edward Said (blind to the problem of Yeats’s Protestantism) gave his imprimatur to Yeats as a decolonizing intellectual, or because the Revival is, rightly, seen as an asset to new-model cultural nationalism. Revival writers are now allowed to be decolonizers, if under controlled conditions. Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland (1995) was a turning-point in praising the ‘collaborative’ enterprise of a generation that lived with ‘conscious national intensity’. Taking his cue from Kiberd, P.J. Mathews has folded together the Abbey, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League and the Co-operative movement under the unifying rubric Revival. Mathews employs terms like ‘a great moment of national imagining’, ‘a broad self-help alliance’ and ‘liberational energy’. Despite differences, everyone plays for the team. Seeking to rescue the Revival from ‘misrepresentation’ (although without criticizing the post-colonial paradigm), Mathews points to its imprint ‘in the cultural and social make-up of contemporary Ireland’. For Kiberd, similarly, the Revival ‘in many ways enabled the revolution which followed’.
All this generous revisionism, however, shackles the Literary Revival to the revolution – was it a revolution? – and to one-dimensional readings. To give Yeats & Co. a free pardon is to override complex history, complex literature, and much that Yeats himself might not have pardoned. Fully assimilating the Revival entails recognizing the kinds of difference its trajectory to date has exposed. As George O’Brien shrewdly wrote of Joyce in Dublin Review 15: ‘One problem with the “Ireland of the Welcomes” treatment is that it tends to deprive Joyce, and us, of his exile.’ The unifying or homogenizing impulse itself carries Catholic-nationalist traces. Neither Kiberd’s nor Mathews’s book is notable for close textual analysis. Margaret Kelleher calls Inventing Ireland ‘groundbreaking’, but its effect is oddly retro, as if Young Ireland were rewriting the Revival.
The possibility that Catholic and Protestant Ireland may misread one another makes special demands on literary criticism, on critical self-consciousness. Kiberd, it should be said, regrets the comparative neglect of religion (or neglect of comparative religion) in Irish literary studies. But this is a structural, not ecumenical, matter. Religious culture continues to influence Irish intellectual styles, including preferences for the theoretical or the empirical; and the symbiosis between religion and politics, which conditioned Revival mentalities, still stalks through the Irish academy. Selina Guinness, like Nicholas Allen, is doing much to illuminate Protestant mentalities. Writing on ‘Evangelicalism, Dissent, and Theosophy’ [IUR], and arguing that occultism was a means of positively engaging with history, Guinness yet demonstrates the tenacity of sectarian nets. Theosophists from Protestant Ulster, she says, ‘found a new liberty of conscience, and a new way of expressing dissent from an intellectual climate constrained by sectarianism, while remaining vulnerable to the sectarian stereotyping [they] sought to renounce’. Here and there in the Revival and its reception one picks up deep tremors of cultural resistance, outrage or panic, as if sacred territory were indeed being violated: Yeats’s apocalyptic ‘we’ and ‘they’. Perhaps Irish literary studies should admit such sectarian tremors more openly. Unlike Tóibín, I do not find ‘something astonishing in the intensity with which Yeats sought to establish Coole Park and its legacy as noble’.
One implicitly sectarian structure is the tendency of some critics to polarize Yeats and Joyce, or Joyce and the Literary Revival. This tendency, still evident in Semicolonial Joyce (edited by Derek Attridge and Marjorie Howes, 2000), reached its apogee in Len Platt’s Joyce and the Anglo-Irish (1998). Platt writes: ‘The Joyce text … is devoted to an undermining of the Revival’s status as cultural nationalism, and to a displacement of the Yeatsian Protestant tradition from the round tower of Irish literary culture.’ Certainly Joyce refused to join the Revival when solicited by Lady Gregory, or the Irish Academy of Letters when solicited by Yeats. Yet perhaps his satires and non serviams should be taken with a pinch of salt. Introducing Joyce’s Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, Kevin Barry says: ‘Joyce’s international and cult status has concealed the ways in which his work is part of an articulate and broad debate within the Irish literary revival … It is Joyce’s style to address us as if his text were a monologue, but this is an affectation.’ Clare Hutton’s essay, a fruit of her valuable research into ‘the kinds of institutions and individual agents … which promoted the message of … revivalism’, comes to a similar conclusion: ‘it suited Joyce’s aesthetic self-fashioning to portray Literary Revivalism as a movement which could not cater for the interests of gifted young intellectuals such as Dedalus. But the facts of Irish literary history do not bear out this undeniably powerful fiction.’ There were aesthetic bonds as well as clashes between Joyce and Yeats, each being as much amused as abused by the other in what seems par for the course of literary friendship. When Paul Muldoon deconstructs Seamus Heaney, nobody segregates their literary bloodlines.
The clash of ‘fictions’ is one means whereby a new literary generation defines itself against its precursor. In the Irish case, religion – among other factors – plays into such epistemological shifts but does not change the name of the game. Yet the degree of metaphysical, as much as cultural, difference that religion potentially introduces may be one reason for the dialectical richness of Irish literature (the relation between Joyce and Beckett is a case in point). The impulse to segregate Joyce from Yeats is the impulse to deny literary continuities, to deny that the Irish Literary Revival founded modern Irish literature, to deny that the Revival may still be in progress (as I think it is). It’s also a way of erasing Catholic involvement in the Revival and the Revival’s effect on Catholic writers, a way of insisting that Irish literary traditions are invariably marked by colonial rupture. For nationalist intellectuals, the incapacity of the Irish language revival to fulfil the hopes of 1900 remains a wound. Hence the fact that Kiberd, like Corkery, tends to favour Synge over his monolingual peers. Shaun Richards notes, however, in an essay on Martin McDonagh – another tremor there – that criticism of McDonagh ‘has frequently been couched in terms of a falling away from the achievement of Synge who, in his time, was condemned in terms remarkably similar to those now directed at McDonagh’ [IUR]. Yet with the Revival’s pre-history, consequences and diaspora now being so multifariously trawled (see, for instance, Chris Morash’s A History of Irish Theatre 1601–2000), Irish literature as a whole may now seem less subject to fits and starts. The Revival is becoming less of a revival.
Writers are usually interested in other writers. It has mostly been lesser talents who have felt disabled rather than enabled by the Revival. What I have mainly been describing are the fits and starts of modern Irish criticism – a fitfulness that, in part, stems from reluctance to accept the Revival’s own criticism as a basis for thinking about literary traditions, structures and values. Yeats, writing to Lady Gregory, saw the Easter Rising as potentially a disaster for ‘the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics’. Moreover, as Terence Brown points out, indigenous academic criticism only took off circa 1970. Its accelerated development since then, in lively and diverse interaction with the international academy, is exemplified by the publications discussed here. But Irish literary studies can remain mesmerized by the Revival’s unresolved issues – issues reactivated by the Troubles and by the contested status of a ‘northern literary revival’, especially in poetry, since 1960. There needs to be some joined-up thinking on both ‘revivals’ and the years between.
The ‘northeast corner’ is currently being reclaimed for the original Revival. Marnie Hay writes about the magazine Uladh [IRR]; Catherine Morris about how Alice Milligan, Protestant convert to ardent nationalism, ‘became Irish’ [IUR]; Richard Kirkland about Cathal O’Byrne’s ‘despair’ after Partition and about O’Byrne’s neo-Jacobite nostalgia as a distinctively Northern Catholic trope [IUR]. Yet, while the northern outcrop of cultural nationalism has indeed been obscured, it should not itself obscure the role of all northern writing since the 1930s in advancing Irish cultural dialectics. The role of northern Irish poetry in aesthetic dialectics is also at issue. Accepting the Revival in ‘the totality of its relations’ would make it easier to calibrate the impact of, and Irish impact on, British, European and American literature. A colourful thread in The Arch-Poet follows the intimate aesthetic argument between Yeats and Ezra Pound: an argument fundamental to the making of modern poetry. The posterity-conscious Yeats accurately sensed that Anglo-American critical narratives, in tandem with Irish ambivalence towards the Revival, might misrepresent his influence. Irish hang-ups about the Revival have delayed full appreciation of Irish agency in creating modern literature – Yeats and Joyce being the dream-team. But perhaps a century of resistance to the Literary Revival is beginning to resemble an imperilled gazebo.
Among the texts discussed in this essay:
– Nicholas Allen, George Russell (AE) and the New Ireland, 1905–30, Dublin: Four Courts Press.
– Terence Brown, ‘The Irish Revival: Historical Perspectives’, in Munira H. Mutran & Laura P.Z. Izarra, eds, Kaleidoscopic Views of Ireland, Universidade de Sao Paolo.
– Betsey Taylor Fitzsimon and James H. Murphy, eds, The Irish Revival Reappraised, Dublin: Four Courts Press.
– R.F. Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life. II: The Arch-Poet, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Margaret Kelleher, ed., Irish University Review, vol. 33, no. 1: New Perspectives on the Irish Literary Revival.
– P.J. Mathews, Revival, Cork: Cork University Press.
– Sinéad Garrigan Mattar, Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Literary Revival, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Michael McAteer, Standish O’Grady, AE and Yeats, Dublin: Irish Academic Press.
– Colm Tóibín, Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, London: Picador.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 16 Autumn 2004