Welcome back! Curious about Irish Literature? We have talked about from the arrival of Christianity to the Middle Ages in the first part. If you missed it, take a look here. If you want to learn more about how history affects literature, you’re in the right place!
The modern period
Throughout the 16th century, English rule was strengthened by assigning plantations to English settlers, but in the 17th century Ireland’s final submission to the British Crown took place. This was a dramatic period for Ireland, which suffered two civil wars (1641-53 and 1689-91). English rulers expropriated the property from Irish landowners and subjected them to discriminatory laws (Irish Criminal Laws, 1690). The Protestant Reformation and the monasteries’ closure ordered by Henry VIII caused a migration of cultural life from religious circles and courts to the city. The new English-speaking ruling class was born, was of Protestant faith and studied at prestigious schools such as Trinity College. The figure of the poet-singer slowly disappears and intellectuals linked to tradition are often forced to move to Catholic France. Geoffrey Keating is the author of History of Ireland (Foras Feasa ar Éirinn), a work that highlights Irish identity linked to Catholic values. Although opposed by the authorities as a means of spreading subversive ideas, Gaelic poetry survived until the 18th century. His survival happened thanks to some artists: Piaras Féiriteir, instigator of the struggle against Oliver Cromwell and therefore hanged in 1653. But also Tadhg Dall Ó hÚigínn and Toirdhealbhách Ó Cearbhalláin, known as Turlough O’Carolan. In the 17th century, the old Bardic schools died and gave way to a new satirical genre of which Brian Merriman is the greatest exponent.
Anglo-Irish production of the 18th and 19th century
Since the 18th century, the great Irish literary production has been in English, and the most representative Irish artists and intellectuals live in England. Like Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, philosophers George Berkeley and Edmund Burke. With the Act of Union (1800), the Irish Parliament is dissolved and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is born (1801). The use of the Irish language was banned in the school system (1830), the teaching of English was compulsory. Therefore, Dublin lost prestige and London attracted Irish intellectuals’ attention. Among these, the most famous is Oscar Wilde, a well-known exponent of decadent and literary aestheticism. He, while living in the English capital, maintains unchanged the distinctive features of his Irish origin. Works like The Portrait of Dorian Gray, An Ideal Husband, Salome, bear witness to the intelligence, wisdom, and wit of the most uncomfortable Irish writer of the 19th century. Oscar Wilde, with his sharp aphorisms and paradoxes, often attracts criticism from English society of the Victorian era. Accused of homosexuality he was sentenced to two years of forced labour. During these two years, he wrote The Ballad of Reading Prison and De Profundis. Other Irish authors include Maria Edgeworth, James Clarence Mangan, John Banim, Gerald Griffin, Charles Kickham, William Carleton, and the Dubliner Bram Stoker.
The Great Irish Famine (1845 – 1849) and the rebellion against British domination impoverished and halved the population of Ireland. Therefore, causing the emigration of millions of refugees to Scotland, Canada, and especially America. The country is in a deep socioeconomic crisis, needs to recover its origins, and is in search of an identity. Thus, in 1893, the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) was born, a literary organization founded by Douglas Hyde. The League is the first to restore the use of the original language. With the Gaelic comedy Casadh an tSùgàin (The Straw Rope) they gave the symbolic start to the birth of the Irish independence movement. But true Celtic revival can be found in William Butler Yeats’s anthology Poems and ballads of Young Ireland (1888). The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where the latter then settled permanently, became the highest expression of traditional theater and reference for Irish intellectuals.
Manifesto for Irish Literary Theatre
Thanks to the work of Yeats and the magical realism of the prose of Lady I.A. Gregory and Edward Martyn, there is a return to the ancient spirit of the origins, but the urgency of greater concreteness is felt. In the Manifesto for Irish Literary Theatre there’s the ambition to found a new school of literature, to experiment and to have Irish people’s support:
«We propose to have performed in Dublin, in the spring of every year certain Celtic and Irish plays, which whatever be their degree of excellence will be written with a high ambition, and so to build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature. We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory, and believe that our desire to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland will ensure for us a tolerant welcome, and that freedom to experiment which is not found in theatres of England, and without which no new movement in art or literature can succeed. We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism. We are confident of the support of all Irish people, who are weary of misrepresentation, in carrying out a work that is outside all the political questions that divide us.» (W.B.Yeats, Lady I.A. Gregory e Edward Martyn from Manifesto for Irish Literary Theatre)
From independence to the 1960s
The Easter Revoltution broke out in Dublin in 1916 and ended with the insurgents’ (led by James Connolly) execution. The revolutionary independence movement began, which led to the creation of the Free State of Ireland (1921) and later the Republic of Ireland (1949).
When culture is pervaded by nationalistic impulses, James Joyce’s human and artistic story is a case in itself. Joyce was an exponent of modernism, and very attached to his origins. He considered the Irish independentists a vulgar expression of nationalism. He left Dublin for Paris in 1902 looking for new cultural stimuli in Europe. With the innovative and symbolic style of his works (People of Dublin, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake) and his linguistic experiments, he won over readers worldwide. Among his immediate heirs are two: Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett, future Nobel Prize winner in 1969. George Bernard Shaw, a Nobel Prize winner too, was another great Irishman who marked the passage from the 19th to the 20th century. He also won an Oscar with his most famous work, Pygmalion, for the best non-original screenplay in the 1938. Thanks to these artists’ works Irish culture is projected in a European and global context. The recovery of tradition becomes a real reconquest of Irish culture and considered as a universal value.
This is the second of our weekly appointments! We are going to trace almost every step into Irish literature. Don’t miss the other parts!
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