This is the second part of an essay by Professor Joe Cleary; the first part was published in the November drb.
As might be expected, the immediate response to the Rising of those that were or would soon become the leading Irish writers was probably as complex as that of the Irish public more generally. If a generalisation might be risked, the letters and other early writings of 1916 suggest a sense of stunned incomprehension, this sooner or later modulating in some cases into a grudging respect for the executed leaders. There is a great deal of scepticism about militarism and violence, much reflection on the subject of sacrifice, this by no means confined to Yeats, and these responses were conditioned, of course, by events in Europe as well as in Ireland.
Beyond that, it is hard not to feel now a striking sense of both the tremendous intimacy and tremendous distance that defined the worlds of the leading writers and rebels. Yeats had shared a public platform with Pearse at a Thomas Davis centenary meeting in 1914 and was acquainted with Thomas MacDonagh. Joyce had taken Irish classes with Pearse in 1889 and had known Francis and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington. O’Casey had been secretary of the Irish Citizen Army and had known and disliked Constance Markievicz in that context. Moore had visited Pearse’s school and his brother Maurice was a National Volunteer and friend to Casement and Eoin McNeill. Casement had been an admirer of Shaw’s campaigning drama. In 1922, Bernard and Charlotte Shaw dined with Michael Collins shortly before the latter set out for West Cork, where he was killed. Yet there is little sense that the writers, most of them anyway, really comprehended the worlds of Irish republican or socialist politics or had much understanding of the leaderships. That sense of distance is expressed the opening lines of “Easter 1916’’, but it can be felt in O’Casey’s feeling of betrayal by Connolly’s involvement in the insurrection, and in many other ways too.
Part of the genius of “Easter 1916” is that it immediately comprehends the Rising as an “event”: an unexpected caesura, a rip in the fabric of time, an act of radical decisionism that, whatever the consequences, cannot be reversed. (Bowen’s remarkable passage in The Shelbourne captures this sense of sudden paradigm-shifting temporal rupture too, but Yeats’s poem gives the sensation distinctive verse form.) No lover of popular democracy, Yeats appears to grasp the daring of such an event, however ambivalent he may feel about its effects. O’Casey is patently more uneasy, but The Plough came to the Irish stage after the War of Independence and Civil War, and its version of the Rising is informed by a decent anti-militarist pacifism and a feeling of impotence stemming from a sense that the available counter positions are also compromised.
The Plough, in other words, offers an irreverent take on the Rising, but appears to know too that its own critique ‑ taking a stand in the name of “life” rather than “death” ‑ has no surer political or philosophical foundation than have the Pearse and Connolly calls to revolution. If Irish nationalism, British unionism, Marxian socialism are all, as The Plough suggests, bombastic and potentially death-dealing ideologies, then what does it mean to plead the case of “life” by appeal to characters living in the destitution of wretched tenements? The death at the end of the play of Mollser, the young consumptive, suggests that neither war nor peace as such serve to relieve the plight of the poor. Had Easter 1916 never happened, the tenement Mollsers would still have lived deprived and desperate lives.
Nevertheless, The Plough is a literary “event” in its own right in the history of Easter Week, a turning point in the representation of the Rising. In Celtic Revivals, published in the throes of the Northern Troubles, Seamus Deane proposed that O’Casey presents the (apparent) paradox of a socialist political playwright who dissolves politics into an abstract humanism and sentimental fetish of family: “There are two standards consistently evoked in all O’Casey’s work. They are a) the dehumanising effects of visionary dreaming, especially when it takes a political (nationalist) form, and b) the humanising effects of being involved in people rather than ideas or ideologies, best expressed in the desire for domestic security and bliss which is such a marked feature of his womenfolk. Tangentially one might remark that domestic bliss and its corollaries is as much an “idea” as nationalism and can take equally fanatic forms (pace Nora Clitheroe), but the point nevertheless stands as he makes it, and it is, in addition, the basis for his otherwise odd distinction between heroic women and unheroic men.”
It is important to be clear here. Deane’s critique is not that O’Casey doesn’t treat the Rising positively. He does not suggest that The Plough would be a finer play if it offered a more positive view of Pearse, Connolly, or the Easter Rising. His argument is that it is a play that takes politics as its subject matter but then treats politics, cheaply, as something that is the opposite of “life” and warm “human feeling”. Maud Gonne had been dissatisfied with Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916” and criticised Yeats for his conception of sacrifice especially, telling him that “it isn’t quite sincere enough for you who have studied philosophy and know something of history, know quite well that sacrifice has never yet turned a heart to stone though it has immortalised many and through it alone mankind can rise to God”. (Letter, November 8th, 1916, cited in Kiberd and Mathews, Handbook of the Irish Revival). But the image of the heart turned to stone, a motif in “Easter 1916”, was taken up in Juno and the Paycock and given bitterly grieving pathos in the character of Mrs Boyle, when she cries out on hearing of the death of her son:
Mother o’ God, Mother o’ God, have pity on us all! Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets, when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!
For Gonne, the most famous immediate literary response to Easter 1916 had gotten things off to a poor start by associating sacrifice with a petrification of life and emotion rather than seeing it as something that might be civic-minded and life-giving. By this measure, Juno and The Plough effectively ramped up Yeats’s misgivings and would have compounded Gonne’s dissatisfaction with “Easter 1916”, O’Casey’s theatre dispensing with the reverence for the insurrectionist leaders evident in Yeats’s poem and magnifying the reservations that bobbed in its emotional undercurrent. “[Y]ou could never say that MacDonagh and Pearse and Connolly were sterile fixed minds,” Gonne objected to Yeats; in The Plough and the Stars, whatever about “Easter 1916”, they appear precisely such. (Gonne, letter, cited in Kiberd and Mathews, Handbook of the Irish Revival) In the astounding carnage of World War I, where military casualties topped one million in 1916 alone, “sacrifice”’ had become a travesty (though British sacrifice continues to be annually honoured with the poppy and war memorial services) and the more adverse literary responses to the Easter Rising were partly at least conditioned by this wider climate.
Besides The Plough, there are three works published after the Rising by the major writers who lived through that moment that appear deeply marked by the events of Easter week: these are Yeats’s “The Dreaming of the Bones”, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Shaw’s Saint Joan. None deals directly with the insurrection but all three are informed by that event and especially by the difficulties of conceptualising the relationship between life, death, and sacrifice that Yeats had seized on from the outset. There is scope here for only a cursory examination, but some reckoning with these works is necessary to this essay’s larger concerns.
The evolution of “The Dreaming of the Bones” is almost as complex as that of “Easter 1916”. As noted earlier, the play seems to have been completed by Yeats by August 1917, but it was first published in a Cuala Press limited edition with “The Only Jealousy of Emer” in Two Plays for Dancers and in the Little Review in January 1919. It later appeared with two further Noh plays in Four Plays for Dancers published in a larger edition by Macmillan in 1921, and had its first staging in the Abbey Theatre a decade later in December 1931, the year of the Rising’s fifteenth anniversary.
A short, oblique work, the plot features a Young Man who has fought in 1916‑ the time of the play is given as “1916”, the date clearly linking the action with the insurrection and with Yeats’s poem. Fearing execution, the Young Man has fled west to the Clare and Galway coastline, hoping to elude capture by escaping to Aran. When the play opens, he is met by a Stranger and a Young Girl, who guide him to the Abbey of Corcomroe, where he will wait till dawn to find his way. The Stranger and Young Girl discuss with him the plight of the ghosts that haunt the barren landscape they cross, eventually revealing themselves to be the spirits of Diarmuid and Dervorgilla, who are condemned forever for their love ‑ which had led Diarmuid, when defeated by Dervorgilla’s husband, to bring the Normans into Ireland ‑ to walk the night until one of their own race will say “I have forgiven them”. Lacking such forgiveness, the pair’s curse is to be forever tantalised by desire but whenever their lips come near to meeting they, smitten by memory of the havoc their love had brought upon their country, draw apart in remorse. Though the Young Man is tempted to relieve their suffering, three times he repeats the lines “O, never, never, / Shall Diarmuid and Dervorgilla be forgiven.” The play ends with the two lovers doomed to continue their night-wandering, the three musicians folding a stage cloth, and the cocks crowning to a new dawn.
It would be crude to reduce this play to a thesis about the Rising. Its meaning resides in the mood of fugitive desperation and ghostly torment it creates rather than in character psychology or plot. Moreover, while the direction “Time ‑ 1916” makes this an Easter 1916 play, Yeats allows that event only an elliptical presence and seems to have distanced it further from the foreground as the play was drafted. The Young Man was initially named in a draft version as “MacDermot”, the patronymic “Mac” genealogically linking the rebel to the renegade Diarmuid, who had, as various lines remind the audience, “brought / A foreign army from across the sea”, sold his “country into slavery” and thus destroyed its finer towns, great houses and abbeys. Diarmuid’s actions had converted an Ireland that might otherwise have become as beautiful as Italy into the devastated country of barren landscape and ruined buildings it now is. Because the name “MacDermot” would also have linked the young Easter rebel with Seán Mac Diarmada, one of the west of Ireland IRB leaders executed in May 1916, Yeats’s revision was probably cautionary: the deletion not only avoided an association of Mac Diarmada with the Diarmuid MacMurrough reviled in national memory, but left the connection between the ghost associated with national treachery and the rebel of later centuries more oblique. In the earlier drafts too, the young man had fled Dublin to Wicklow and not to the West of Ireland. Thus Synge also seems to hover ghostly in the wings of this play, not just because Wicklow and Aran are associated with the dead playwright but because the Young Man, like Christy Mahon, is another fugitive in a lonely place trying to escape the law and reach the offshore islands.
“The Dreaming of the Bones” works by contraries. At the level of form, it pits the dreamlike, ghost-haunted Burren wasteland, which is agitated by “the invisible tumult / Of the fantastic conscience”, against the stateliness of the Noh form, with its spare setting, balletic grace, choric musicians, and deliberate speech. The play, that is, creates a pulsating atmosphere of purgatorial torment and a craving for release ‑ the lovers crave to escape their centuries-old doom to erotic torment, the rebel fugitive wants to elude a British firing squad. The disquieted mood is form-controlled and yet agitation is held in suspension rather than purged. In other words, the play is no exercise in theatrical expressionism because the stately form works to channel the mood of torment towards ritualised representation, but even so “The Dreaming” denies any final catharsis and refuses resolution.
“The Dreaming” makes the premodern spirit-lovers and the contemporary Easter rebel analogous yet antagonistic. Both parties have submitted to reckless, passionate impulse: the lovers have chanced everything to the passion of the senses, including their nation’s sovereignty; the rebel has given himself to the impulse to freedom when he risks life to free his nation from its colonial oppressor. Both modes of impulsiveness are depicted sympathetically, but each carries burdens of punishment and they are odds. The lovers exalt passionate erotic spontaneity above national loyalty and have betrayed their kind and country for desire; the rebel has rebelled for love of his nation, but he puts nation above human pity and charity when he thrice refuses to extend forgiveness to the spirits.
Perhaps this resolves into a conflict between the exaltation of individual sexual desire above the nation or of the nation above sexual desire, and if “The Dreaming of the Bones” is self-divided this is possibly because Yeats’s commitments to sexual self-expression and, conversely, to caste are in strife here. In sum, “The Dreaming of the Bones” allows its audience to side with the lovers to the extent that they rebel against any idea that the strong personality should ever subordinate his or her desire to collective or social imperatives or conventions (despite centuries of suffering and demonisation in national memory Diarmuid and Dervorgilla do not want to be forgiven and brought back into the fold of the nation so much as to be able to press lip upon lip once more), but it also allows its audience to side with the Young Man when he disdains to forgive those who betrayed their nation to the foreign invader.
When he repeats three times that “O, never, never, / Shall Diarmuid and Dervorgilla be forgiven”, the Young Man repeats the image of the insurrectionist in “Easter 1916” as one who has hardened into a stone in the stream of life. When they are associated with the “seven hundred years” of colonial devastation and the ruination of an aristocratic pre-colonial Ireland that might otherwise have been lovely as Italy, Diarmuid and Dervorgilla summon to mind the wreck of Big Houses and ruinous racial pollution decried in many Yeats poems. In this respect, they each seem deed-cursed figures, unredeemed night-creatures. Nevertheless, the Young Man is also associated with the dawn of a new epoch and this with something of the eschatological tingling and angsty-excitement that animates works such as “Easter 1916”, “The Second Coming” or “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”. Likewise, the tormented but unrepentant ghost-lovers are as much admired for their passion as reproved for its disastrous consequences. If these positive and negative qualities suggest some sort of dialectic, some drive to reconcile contraries, the play cannot resolve them into some higher Aufhebung.
The First Musician opens ‘The Dreaming of the Bones’ with the lines:
Have not old writers said
That dizzy dreams can spring
From the dry bones of the dead?
When these lines were spoken in 1931 they can hardly have sounded a comfortable commemorative note; rather, they must have insinuated some sense of ongoing perturbation of unpredictable potential. “The Dreaming of the Bones” is no morality play, no polemic. If anything, it is the converse: an amorality play, a passion play without purgation working with music, dance, masks, stage-cloths, light and darkness to suggest a fundamental discordance in things that neither art nor time can compose. “Easter 1916” is a forward-looking poem that invokes the birth of a “terrible beauty” and how it has shattered a previously known world to create a future as yet unknown; “The Dreaming” is a past-haunted play that suggests things unappeased that continue to disturb. Each in its way testifies that for Yeats and maybe for many Easter 1916 was a reverberating event that neither art nor mythology nor national commemoration would ever fully master or control.
Set in 1904 and published in February 1922, just two months after the Anglo-Irish Treaty that established the Irish Free State that had been signed in December 1921, Ulysses has its own vexed relationship with Easter Week. Written across the period from 1914 to the establishment of the new state, the novel, as Enda Duffy puts it, “double times its readers”, appearing to document a single day well before the Rising but secreting into its subtexts multiple references to the turbulent years of its composition and thereby appearing to anticipate a future its first readers will partly recognise as their own present.
For most critics, “Circe” is the episode in Ulysses in which Joyce’s references to the Rising most clearly announce themselves. The cry by DISTANT VOICES that “Dublin’s burning! Dublin’s burning! On fire, on fire!” is followed by a vista, presented through fantastic stage descriptions, of pandemonium as “Heavy Gatling guns boom”, “It rains dragons’ teeth. Armed heroes spring up from furrows” and radical republicans like Wolfe Tone, Edward Fitzgerald and Michael Davitt are paired against parliamentary patriots like Daniel O’Connell, Isaac Butt and John Redmond. This Walpurgisnacht mixes its horrors as the living and dead generations do battle in comic-opera style and the imagined devastation of Dublin gathers into itself everything from Iliad-style destruction of a city to post-Crucifixion-like trembling of the earth and opening of tombs to English music-hall processions of “Factory lasses with fancy clothes [who] toss redhot Yorkshire baraabombs” and “Society ladies [who] lift their skirts above their heads to protect themselves”.
In “Circe”, Christian and classical remote pasts, historical national past and near present rambunctiously collide. However, in Joyce’s hands, even when the accumulated nightmare of violence, terror and guilt becomes apocalyptic, the stress on the comic and the comic-grotesque never abates. In contrast to “The Dreaming of the Bones”, where the stately Noh form presses the nightmares of history and the histrionics of the unconscious into some kind of aestheticised suspended agitation, in “Circe” the impulse is to allow the repressed to shatter its containing forms and let the whole kit and caboodle of parody run a trippy riot at its own parade. In both “The Dreaming of the Bones” and “Circe” then, the Rising is associated with the release of some disruptive repressed energy; in Joyce’s case, though, demented circus and vaudeville rather than Noh register that disruption.
Critics can find references to Irish revolutionary politics in Joyce’s novel, but the issue of what to make of them remains vexed. At one extreme, David Lloyd contends that Ulysses refuses to produce either the exemplary national epic or the novel peopled by the proper bourgeois subjects associated with those forms. Ulysses, he contends, insists “on a deliberate stylisation of dependence and inauthenticity, a stylisation of the hybrid status of the colonised subject as of the colonised culture, their internal adulteration and the strictly parodic modes they produce in every sphere”. In this reading, Ulysses is an irreverent work that will not give its readers some accomplished sense of national wholeness or bourgeois subjectivity and temperamentally aligns with the anti-Treaty republicans who repudiate the compromises of Anglo-Irish Treaty and bourgeois nationalism. At the other end of the spectrum, Enda Duffy, who had earlier argued too for a “subaltern Ulysses”, contends that Joyce’s novel, “like virtually every great novel, is a document from a specifically bourgeois viewpoint” and proposes that “Ulysses is the nation-text of a new postcolonial middle-class Ireland”. In the years Joyce wrote Ulysses, Duffy claims, the once abject and down-at-heel Catholic middle class won victory after victory in Ireland and as it did so Ulysses’s form became more exultant, Joyce detonating new styles in a spirit of self-delight and defiance. For Duffy, “The coming to power of the previously abject middle class in an independent Ireland, which happened as Ulysses was being written, is one major reason for the book’s wild and raucous comedy. It is why the keynote of Ulysses is not angst-written anomie, but defiance”, and exception therefore to “the drear modernism of the metropoles”. “Ulysses,” he concludes, “much more even than Yeats’s brilliant but shock-riven “Easter 1916”, is the work that commemorates and celebrates a newly independent Ireland.”
Lloyd’s subaltern-republican irreconcilable text or Duffy’s exuberant epic of a new national middle-class coming to power? Critics might identify Ulysses with any number of political attachments between these poles, but the difficulty, surely, is that it will so generously accommodate so many interpretations. At the start of the novel, Stephen Dedalus identifies with the Fenian exile Kevin Egan, an irreconcilable who has not forgotten Ireland even if Ireland has long since forgotten him. This expatriate Fenianism of spirit points back to the more open identifications with that movement on display in “Stephen Hero”, though these were more checked in the revised version that is Portrait. When we reach “Circe”, Stephen is a decidedly non-militant irreconcilable, telling his British soldier assailant: “You die for your country. Suppose. (he places his arm on Private Carr’s sleeve) Not that I wish it for you. But I say: let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I didn’t want it to die. Damn death. Long live life!” This encounter resurrects the spectre of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, the pacifist revolutionary, and repudiates the sacrificial ethos of Pearse and Connolly more firmly than “Easter 1916” does. Yet just then Kevin Egan’s ghost appears, as does that of his rabbit-faced son Patrice, crying “Socialiste!”, and shortly afterwards Stephen is felled by Private Carr, “I’ll do him in”, reminding readers of how unavailing Sheehy-Skeffington’s pacifism had proved when he was taken into Bowen-Colthurst’s custody. Joyce’s pacifist, republican and socialist selves may all mock and torment each other here.
Once could go on. For every position in Ulysses, there is a counter-position, until the reader like Lynch, Stephen’s Judas, concludes: “He likes dialectic the universal language.” For Stephen’s “No”, there is Molly’s “Yes”; for Molly’s “Yes”, Leopold’s “Maybe”. Critics who contend that Joyce’s loyalties were more Parnellite Home Rule liberal than Sinn Féin republican have to downplay the fact that Stephen’s irreconcilable quality and Ulysses’s extremism of style and scandal-courting ambition are hard to square with moderation and conciliation: if it is a novel at all, Ulysses is one of the most uncompromising ever written and courts controversy more than consensus. But critics who make the case for Joyce’s radicalism have to ask whether its aesthetic and temperamental radicalism throbs with an anti-political vitalism (“Long live life!”) not so different from that of O’Casey’s Plough.
“Circe”, in any case, ends with a spectre. The epiphany of the dead son Rudy at the end of the episode, as Bloom stands guard over a prostrate surrogate son, Stephen, is dramatically moving but accomplished in ostentatiously and extravagantly sentimental idiom. The dead son is a cartoon of Victorian fantasies of childhood purity and grace, a Jewish little Lord Fauntleroy; the living adoptive son is beaten and drink-sodden, a cartoon of wasted Irish youth and ruin. No amount of wistful sentimentality about the dead past will restore Rudy, none of Bloom fantasies about a respectable future for scapegrace Stephen will straighten him into respectable vocation. “The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done,” Stephen telegrams Mulligan in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode. That rebuking telegram’s addressee is not only Mulligan but Joyce’s readers generally and all those, nationalists or otherwise, who would enjoy the new nation-state and the epic-cum-mock-epic that emerges contemporaneously with it without remembering everything expended, everything lost beyond rescue to bring nation and epic into being. Before it can symphonically conclude with Molly’s rapturously seductive sequence of yeses, Ulysses (its “yeses” secreted yet sounded even in its sibilant title) pauses transfixed here to remember things lost beyond recovery and “the immense debtorship for a thing done”, these in lighter moments easily forgotten.
Shaw’s Saint Joan lacks the spooky agitation of “The Dreaming of the Bones” or the magnificence of Ulysses. But though it dramatises the story of a martyred peasant heretic who will later be feted as a national saviour and Catholic saint, it is closer in tone to Joycean levity than to Yeatsian solemnity because Shaw wants to produce not some grim recreation of a medieval judicial murder but a play that celebrates Joan’s heroism of spirit. Saint Joan is not, therefore, a tragedy: indeed, it is subtitled “A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue”, and though the final scene of the chronicle proper concludes with Joan’s trial and execution the “Epilogue” returns her to life for a night and allows her to converse with her former persecutors and betrayers. These now gather to admit that the verdict that sent Joan to her death has been annulled and they pay tribute to what she has achieved. The achievements are considerable. In the short-term, they include the expulsion of the English and the liberation and reunification of France under Charles VII. In the long term, history, too, has vindicated her: those who sentenced Joan to death in the name of religion are now reviled while Joan herself, even if it has taken four centuries to happen, will be declared a saint.
The Vatican canonised Joan of Arc on May 16th 1920. Shaw wrote Saint Joan in 1923, completing it in Glengariff in Cork and Parknasilla in Kerry in August 1923. The Irish Civil War had been declared over with Frank Aiken’s order to dump arms on May 24th of that year. The new Cumann na nGaedheal party under WT Cosgrove won the most seats in the general election on August 27th but had to form a minority government in September. Republican prisoners detained after the war’s end began a hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison on October 13th and this was then taken up by over 8,000 others across the country. Deaths from hunger strike, executions of republican prisoners and attacks on Free State soldiers continued across the year. These events have no direct bearing on Saint Joan, but the ongoing bitterness of Irish and European politics generally since 1916 were clearly on Shaw’s mind as he composed the play.
In his “Preface” to Saint Joan, which seems mainly directed to British readers, Shaw references Roger Casement twice: first, to ward off the condescension of posterity by reminding his readers that Joan’s medieval trial was no more or less rigged against her than was that of Casement against him in their own time; second, to remind them that Joan was tried as a heretic, not a national traitor, and that the courts of the Inquisition were not national but international Catholic courts. Checking his readers’ sense of modern toleration, Shaw points out that all societies, now as in the past, are only ever as tolerant as the stresses upon them: in times of fear, governments act severely, as the French revolutionary government had done in 1792 or as the US government did when it conducted “an incredibly savage persecution of Russians” after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. “[I]n 1920,” he writes, “the British Government slaughtered and burnt in Ireland to persecute the advocates of a constitutional change which it had presently to effect itself” and “Later on the Fascisti in Italy did everything that the Black and Tans did in Ireland, under the strain of an unskilled attempt at industrial revolution by Socialists who understood Socialism even less than Capitalists understand Capitalism.”
Recent events in European. American and Irish history resonate in the play itself. When the un-militant Charles, the uncrowned Dauphin, remarks “one good treaty is worth ten good fights”, Joan curtly reminds him that treaties typically reflect the strengths of those making the peace: “If the English win, it is they that will make the treaty.” Perhaps the pressures of the moment are most evident in Shaw’s attempt in the “Preface” and the play to be scrupulously fair to the Catholic church’s sense of the world and to counter Protestant prejudices against Catholicism and medievalism. Thus, though he will mischievously claim Joan as “one of the first Protestant martyrs” ‑ a Protestant saint canonised by the Catholic church ‑ he takes issue with earlier Anglophone writers on her, namely Mark Twain and Andrew Lang, noting that “Both of them were baptised as Protestants” and could see in Joan’s persecutors only the creatures of their own prejudices whereas he will try to have his audience “understand Christendom and the Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire and the Feudal System, as they existed and were understood in the Middle Ages”. The attempt in Saint Joan to make due allowance for all sides, for rebel sprits and the governments who must persecute them, for Catholic and Protestant worldviews, must be seen in a wider international and Irish situations aggravated by years of war marked on all sides by intolerance.
Still, though Shaw’s work was written with Casement’s trial and execution in mind, and though the liberation of Joan’s France from English occupation has obvious parallels with the recent Irish War of Independence, it is not in these ways that Saint Joan is most closely connected to Easter Week. From the beginning one of the things that most obsessed Irish writers with regard to 1916 was the question of sacrifice and it is to this question too that Saint Joan addresses itself. As we have seen, Yeats had given the lead here early in “Easter 1916” when he had questioned whether “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart”; to this query Maud Gonne had answered a definitive No and O’Casey an equally definitive Yes. Joyce has Stephen Dedalus declare that he would prefer his country die for him than he for his country, repudiating the cries of Old Gummy Granny when she offers him a dagger to smite the English oppressor in return for which “At 8.35 a.m. you will be in heaven and Ireland will be free.”
Shaw’s response differs from all of these in that it vindicates, without glamourising, the notion of sacrifice and in so doing anticipates and counters arguments directed against the Irish insurrectionists both in their own day and ours. What distinguishes Joan from everyone else in Saint Joan is her insistent belief that the English must be driven by force immediately from France and that she has been called on to deliver this. Because the English occupation has dragged on interminably, the French have become demoralised: Burgundy is under complete English control; the Dauphin’s legitimacy is suspect and he is a weakling; the nobles are more concerned with their own baronies than with France. Even the braver leaders like Dunois cannot launch an attack because the winds, signifying historical opportunity, are contrary and don’t allow him to do so. An illiterate farming girl with no military training, Joan nevertheless claims to be directed by God to crown Charles king and speaks in the name of a French nation, a term that scandalises the aristocracy who recognise in that word a corporate collective body antithetical to their own feudalist understanding of the world in terms of parcellised sovereignty.
What seems most absurd about Joan is the single-mindedness of her convictions. She sincerely holds that the voices of the saints she hears are really messengers from God and that whatever the prevailing military and political circumstances, the immediate imperative is to raise an army and attack. Joan’s simple reliance on her voices and her impetuosity seem either fanatically naive or lunatic, but it is this belief in herself and the possibility of miracles that carry her through. Shaw’s coolly sceptical Archbishop answers La Trémouille’s question as to what constitutes a “miracle” by answering that: “A miracle, my friend, is an event which creates faith. That is the purpose and nature of miracles. They may seem very wonderful to the people who witness them, and very simple to those who perform them. That does not matter: if they confirm or create faith they are true miracles.” When La Trémouille presses as to whether frauds might not therefore effect miracles, the Archbishop responds: “Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore, it is not a fraud, but a miracle.” By this logic, it is not faith which produce miracles so much as miracles which create faith. As such, a miracle depends more on its effects than on its worker’s motives or sincerity, and the Archbishop, noting that even churchmen must have the people “nourish their faith by poetry”, comes round to the notion that the same may be true of politics and national liberation.
Saint Joan, it seems, represents Shaw’s considered response in 1923 to the actions of Casement, Pearse, Connolly and the other 1916 leaders who had led the insurrection against what they took to be an illegitimate occupation of their country. Like Joan, the Easter insurrectionists too hailed mainly from lowly rather than elite classes; like her, their only strategy was to attack and attack immediately in ways that to most ‑ including Shaw ‑ seemed preposterous. Like Joan, the insurrectionists were more or less illiterate in military strategy; like her, too, they had initially been reviled by their own countrymen only for that verdict to be overturned because of their courage in meeting their executions and when the tide of history changed and the occupier had been evicted.
Shaw works hard in both play and “Preface” to address all the issues typically provoked by Joan’s actions, issues also provoked by the Easter insurrectionists. Were Joan’s voices supernatural or delusory? What matters, Shaw responds, is that “Joan must be judged a sane woman in spite of her voices because they never gave her any advice that might not have come to her from her mother wit exactly as gravitation came to Newton.” Joan, Shaw says, is the antithesis of the other great French hero, Napoleon: the one was as innocent of strategy as the other had a genius for it. Thus, he says, Joan was “a woman of action, operating with impetuous violence.” Nevertheless, her success was not less than his. By the same token, one might conclude, the Easter Week leaders had appeared to many deluded in their impetuosity and strategically perverse and this had also led to their inevitable executions; yet in the end, the play intimates, their actions had yielded a “miracle” that better strategy might never have done.
Was Joan suicidal, a query also directed at Pearse and Connolly? Shaw allows that she “was accused of a suicidal tendency” but responds in the “Preface” that her desperate actions in battle were no different from those of Nelson or Wellington, neither so accused. “Her death was deliberately chosen as an alternative to life without liberty” ‑ it was forced on her as last resort. In the play itself, Shaw goes to some lengths to have Joan appear feisty and life-loving rather than depressively death-driven, and when threatened by the court with burning she recants until she realises that this will not purchase her freedom, as she had thought, but only a sentence of life imprisonment. Once this is clear, she responds: “Light your fire: do you think I dread it as much as the life of a rat in a hole. My voices were right.” And when the sympathetic Lavendu pleads with her not to be rash, Joan responds: “You think that life is nothing but not being stone dead.” Here, Yeats’s too long sacrifice that makes a stone of the heart must come to mind, but Shaw’s retort is that “life” has to mean something more than mere life, more than “not being stone dead”, to be fully lived and worthwhile.
Finally, Shaw asks, was Joan innocent or guilty? Here, his answer is that in the short term history had indeed declared her guilty, and even Shakespeare had grossly libelled her in Henry VI, Part I, “in deference to Jingo patriotism”. Yet within twenty-five years Joan had been rehabilitated, albeit by means as self-serving as those that had earlier convicted her, and the Protestant bigotry that had reviled her as a witch was now redirected with equal venom and one-sidedness to the Catholic churchmen who sentenced her. Joan’s trial, Shaw insists, was properly conducted but those that tried her were now rendered as abominable Catholic inquisitors and she rendered with a “whitewash which disfigures her beyond recognition”. The inference is obvious: history is not a melodrama with pantomime heroes and villains, and in the long-run Joan’s actions had, like miracles, managed “to confirm or create faith” and make history.
The claim here is not that Saint Joan is a cryptogram-drama that sets out to vindicate Casement, Pearse or Connolly in the guise of a French saint and national martyr. It is, rather, is a play in which Shaw works ‑ and often rather unevenly at that ‑ to check his own rationalist bent the better to account for the role of poetry in religion and sacrifice and miracle in politics. Saint Joan, that is, is the creation of an Enlightenment Fabian rationalist who tries to fathom the nature of political and religious “miracles” and to acknowledge the role they sometimes perform in making history. Thus, the vindication of the Irish insurrectionists, such as it is, is indirect rather than allegorical and it comes with a twist.
By 1923, the republican leaders of the Rising, their actions in Easter 1916 initially condemned by most, had been vindicated in popular opinion by the events that followed Easter Week, so much so indeed that they were already being worked into a nationalist martyrology with definite, sometimes messianic, Catholic overtones. By claiming Saint Joan as “the first Protestant martyr”, Shaw was asserting that when even sincerely devout Catholics acted by their own lights and conscience, rather than in accordance with the direction of their Church leaders, they were effectively behaving as Protestants. This contention was debatable, but some reclamation of the Protestant part in Irish republicanism and the Easter Rising was timely. Pandering neither to Protestant nor Catholic, revisionist debunking nor whitewashing hagiography, Saint Joan strives to make political sacrifice and self-determination and the miraculous “event” objects of civic critical reflection rather than pathos or satire. In Saint Joan, history is written by the winners, onetime heretics rehabilitated as saints when powerful institutions so decide. This might support a merely cynical conception of both history and history writing, but for Saint Joan there are forces too, like the peasant woman who changes a nation’s fortunes, beyond calculation.
Will these cameos permit general conclusions? What might they tell us about Ireland’s republican revolution, the relationship of writers and publics, and the impact of republican struggle on Irish letters and vice versa?
It may be useful to begin by noticing that “Easter 1916” is the only Rising-related literary work mentioned above that has found lasting place in general Irish popular political consciousness. Like “The Foggy Dew”, a new song fitted to an old air, by Maynooth-educated, Belfast-based Father Charles O’Neill in 1919, “Easter 1916” remains a century later a presence in Irish popular culture. By contrast, Ulysses, Saint Joan, The Plough and the Stars and “The Dreaming of the Bones” obviously have more restricted specialised publics. This may be because “Easter 1916” is short, easily anthologised, amenable for school and university examinations, and public recitation. But it also owes much to the poem’s affinities with the political ballad tradition and indicates how potent the ballad remains even in a visual and digital media era. A short work like “Easter 1916” can have a large resonance; so can a great commodious one like Ulysses, but they are likely to reach publics of quite different character and with different kinds of impact. Novels and plays generally come after political revolutions and upheavals; poetry is often quicker off the mark and the political ballad is the slingshot of verse forms. And however ambivalent “Easter 1916” may appear when textually scrutinised, its oral rendition typically inclines more towards reverence than vacillation. Though Yeats, as we noted earlier, delayed publishing the poem, his early response to the Rising remains more potent than anything in verse that followed.
Theatre’s importance is worth noticing. If “Easter 1916” is the most enduring verse response to the insurrection, The Plough and the Stars is its nearest theatrical equivalent, but it was to theatre that most leading writers turned when engaging the Rising, and this is partially true even of Ulysses. Thanks to the riots it provoked and its theatrical power, The Plough remains a century later the landmark theatrical production dealing with the Rising. Shaw’s Saint Joan is a more challenging political play and “The Dreaming of the Bones” has its own eerily troubling vibe, but they are less often produced and have little purchase on Irish political drama. “Circe”, where Easter 1916 penetrates most obviously through Ulysses’s 1904 surface text, is also, not coincidentally, the novel’s longest and most theatrical chapter.
It is a commonplace that drama has a civic and public sphere dimension that allows for immediate relationships with audiences as collectives that neither poetry nor novels so well afford. Joyce’s veneration of Ibsen, his struggles to have Exiles produced, the wonderfully theatrical and politically charged set pieces in his novels (the Christmas dinner scene in Portrait, the “Cyclops” confrontations) demonstrate that his attraction to theatre as medium persisted even though he never had a serious dramatic career. In Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel, David Kurnick places Joyce with a sequence of earlier writers ‑ Thackeray, George Eliot, Henry James ‑ who all had aspirations to write for the stage that never came off. However, these thwarted ventures, Kurnick contends, represent more than simple failures. “The turn to the theater in these writers,” he proposes, “indexes in each case a desire for a palpable relation to an embodied public and an impatience with the inward gaze of narrative fiction, in the process opening a self-critical perspective on these writers’ apparent project of making domestic and psychological interiors seem narratively important.” Frustrated by their lack of success in the medium with least recourse to narrative voice ‑ the drama ‑ these would-be dramatists returned to the novel to experiment more boldly with that voice and with psychic interiority but with heightened appreciations of the limitations of the socially atomised individual or bourgeois subjectivity that had caused them in the first instance to seek out the theatre. Far from simply celebrating interiority, then, the late Victorian and modernist novel, Kurnick claims, “demonstrates that [its] interior spaces are lined with longing references to the public worlds they would seem to have left behind”. The modernist novel may be famous for its representation of interiority but however inwardly oriented it may be it remains outwardly desirous of a robust public sphere.
If a distance from the Irish social and public sphere ‑ silence, exile, cunning ‑ was what Joyce needed to create a great work like Ulysses, the author was not unmindful of the cost of that distance. “Joyce’s interest in the theatrical” in “Circe”, Kurnick suggests, “makes hypervisible the social melancholy underlying modernism’s self-sequestration from the body of the popular”. Thus prompted, we might say that Bloom because of his Jewish ancestry, Molly because of her gender, and Stephen because of his recalcitrance are edged aside in Irish artistic circles and public spheres. Bloom’s Jewishness and idiosyncratic ideas makes him an easy target in masculine political conversation, Molly’s operatic repertoire is overtaken by a more nationalistic one, Stephen feels shut out from a Protestant-dominated Dublin literary world for reasons of class and artistic temperament.
Disregarded in the public sphere and literary world in Dublin, Joyce moved to Europe and spent the rest of his life recreating, on his own terms, the contentiously vibrant social world from which he felt excluded, treating it with a mixture of melancholy nostalgia and the satiric abusiveness commonly directed at objects that have disappointed. He still craved from the Irish social world he had disowned a response to his Ulysses, a work painstakingly created in exilic seclusion punctuated by nightly sorties of oenophilic sociability. Put simply, Ulysses might have been written in exile and is now read (or listened to) in privatised solitude, but it offers an aggrieved yet joyous recreation of the public sphere left behind. Its combination of rich if lonely inwardness and hankering after sociability is possibly its most contemporary quality.
The Abbey Theatre should hardly be faulted for making The Plough one of its repertoire classics. However, Irish theatres generally can be faulted for the narrowness of their conceptions of what constitutes political theatre. Shaw and Yeats ought surely to have a higher profile in any national repertoire of political drama than they do, and Seamus Deane was astute in the 1980s to think that an Irish sense of political theatre modelled largely on “The Dublin Trilogy” was constrictive (and not just from a republican or nationalist perspective). For an early career playwright, O’Casey achieved something impressively powerful in The Plough and the Stars. However, twentieth century international political theatre developed rapidly and radically and The Plough cannot now, a century later, be considered a contribution to an international political or socialist theatre to the extent that Ulysses can still be deemed a major novel, Yeats’s work that of a major poet. Theatre as medium is crucial to the vitality of the public sphere and possesses great potential for connecting things normally compartmentalised ‑ things aesthetic, social, holy, political, erotic, technological ‑ to great effect. However, it is possible that the desire to seriously constrict the theatre public that Yeats was contemplating in 1916, O’Casey’s weak concept of political drama in “the Dublin Trilogy”, and the increasingly privatised nature of twentieth century theatrical experience anyway, combined to defuse this volatile medium, to tame the shrew of literary forms.
In Vivid Faces, Roy Foster notes, like Kiberd in Inventing Ireland, that “The twenty years or so before the Irish revolution witnessed a great upward curve in Ireland’s remarkable literary history. The generation who came to maturity between 1890 and 1916 lived in a world where Irish writing in the English language was not only innovative, powerful and sought after by English and American publishers; it was also immersed in the political and cultural debates of the day.” But where Kiberd sees connection and collaboration between leading writers and revolutionaries, Foster sees scepticism and distance. “However, the print culture that galvanised the imaginations and opinions of the young radicals was not, principally, that of the novels, short stories, plays and essays produced by the landmark writers who dominated the high culture of this period. It was more potently represented by the tradition of popular history mediated through journalism. The little newspapers and magazines of the nationalist fringe sometimes helped to inject the work and influence of the elite writers into general consciousness. But they more often excoriated them as politically unacceptable or counterproductive.”
Kiberd might surely reply that whatever about the young radicals not reading or liking the works of the great writers, the writers certainly read and absorbed the political figures ‑ as Joyce read Griffith, as Shaw read Casement, as O’Casey read Connolly and Larkin ‑ and that important literary works achieve social effects less by winning popular assent in the direct manner Foster assumes than by more complex means, including by way of the disapproval or excoriation he mentions. Foster’s larger point nevertheless seems well-taken and a necessary corrective to too hasty or unmediated conflations of political and literary fields.
However, what neither Inventing Ireland nor Vivid Faces sufficiently engage is the extent to which the period of international turmoil and national flux between 1900 and 1922-23 also challenged established conceptions of “the writer”. The convulsions of 1914 and 1916 pitched writers who had been personally and professionally formed in the Victorian and Edwardian eras into worlds that were changed if not beyond recognition then at least beyond ready cognition. Like criticism generally, Irish cultural criticism tends to be much preoccupied with elucidating the politics of individual writers or individual works, this sometimes taking the form of a kind of critical lepidoptery. When dealing with the events for which 1914 or Easter 1916 are shorthand, however, we would do well to consider not only how individual writers responded to their times, whether in personal or artistic terms, but how those times reconfigured prevailing models of the writer and to what longer-term consequence.
Looked at in this light, it seems striking that it is the oldest writers in this company ‑ Moore born in 1852, Shaw in 1856, Yeats in 1865 ‑ that have the most activist commitments in Irish social and cultural life. Their ways of being writers are by no means uniform: there was no single generational model: Moore cultivated the role of bohemian aesthete, cosmopolitan man of letters, gossip and gadfly; Yeats that of aesthete, cultural activist, theatre director, seer and mage; Shaw that of Fabian socialist, polemicist, contrarian and comic-serious dramatist. Of the three, only Shaw, on the left, developed something like a coherently articulated political worldview, this elaborated in his Fabian pamphlets and publications, including Common Sense About The War (1914), How to Settle the Irish Question (1917), The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928) and Essays in Fabian Socialism (1932). Moore’s overtly politically interested writings ‑ Parnell and His Island (1887), The Strike at Arlingford (1893) ‑ are fewer and unsystematic, but the Revival nevertheless drew him back to Ireland and his Hail and Farewell memoirs (1911-14) offer his idiosyncratic history of those involvements. Yeats never elaborated a worked-out political worldview in any orthodox way, but in A Vision (1925, 1937) he forged a totalised world-picture that integrated aesthetic and political convictions.
Yeats has a deserved reputation for authoritarian and reactionary leanings, and to the extent that he can be identified with republicanism then his affiliations, as mentioned earlier, are with a kind of aristo-republicanism. However, if republicanism means commitments not just to liberty and equality but also to fraternity, meaning actively sustained solidarity and civic sociability, then Yeats’s republicanism might in this regard at least be more positively viewed. Assessed as such, his involvements in everything from the 1798 commemorations to the establishment of the Abbey Theatre, his campaigning for the return of the Hugh Lane pictures and his role in the Senate, his efforts to create a national literature and even his commitment to personal self-realisation might begin to seem fundamentally civic republican in spirit. Here was a writer of the highest calibre, scorning to write a party or tendency literature (except for his Blueshirt period), who nevertheless never settled into a privatised professional career. Instead, he combined an uncompromisingly ambitious dedication to the development of his art with a commendably energetic commitment to civic activity in civic humanist style. However much he may have liked coteries, however reprehensively authoritarian his later tendencies, whatever his personal snobberies, his way of being a writer was alien to the withdrawn seclusion and agnosticism of a purely professional literary career. More than most, Yeats got involved and stayed involved. And it seems certain that Irish public culture was on the whole the livelier for this than had he lived some more sequestered sense of his vocation.
Yeats’s politics and aesthetics are at odds with Shaw’s, but both occupy the role of writer as one committed to civic and social engagement, prepared when called upon to meet or even fan controversy, unapologetically committed to art but not to the exclusion of civil society, political engagement, or institution-building. Both are writer-critics who left behind not only a large literary or theatrical corpus but a significant body of reflective essays and occasional writings written to the moment. In Shaw’s case, the drama is famously accompanied by the prose prefaces; in Yeats’s case, the poetry and drama by essays and journalistic writings. A superior tone of Victorian English levity or irritability at things “Hibernian” colours the writings of this older generation more than it does those of the younger one that followed perhaps, but this is often be directed as much at English “seriousness” as Irish “strangeness”.
Considered by the yardstick of this older generation, there is a significant contraction of such activity in the careers of the following generation, those now considered the leading lights of Irish modernism. The oldest of these, O’Casey, born in 1880, was obviously personally committed to communism and sympathetic to republican radicalism. Nevertheless, despite such commitments, he appears to have a much less well-elaborated political worldview than Shaw, a smaller and earlier corpus of directly political writings (The Story of the Irish Citisen Army, 1919), and no extended involvements in Irish civic life after he departed for England that matches Shaw’s Irish involvements in the period between 1912 and 1930. In The Theatre of Sean O’Casey, James Moran makes the case for taking O’Casey’s work after 1928 seriously, but nevertheless acknowledges: “O’Casey’s desire to innovate and create new works of art remained as strong as ever, but he had cut himself off from that group of dynamic and insightful, if tactless, artistic collaborators at the Abbey who were themselves touched by genius and who helped to turn his early dramatic ideas into pieces of theatre that are fully achieved.” Expatriation is fundamental to Irish writing in this period and has its romance and its heroic side; its costs both to the vitality of domestic Irish cultural life and to writers are also part of the equation.
Generally speaking, Irish critics of liberal or leftist persuasions have looked, not without reason, more favourably on Joyce or Beckett than on Yeats or Shaw, and feminist criticism on modernism naturally gravitates to Bowen. Yet however we might characterise their personal politics, neither Joyce nor Beckett nor Bowen seem ever to have developed a systemic political worldview as Shaw did, nor did they feel any need when in their mature careers to theorise political and aesthetic commitments as Yeats did.
We know that the young Joyce, born two years later than O’Casey, was stung into print by the Parnell split and the activities of the Irish literary theatre and we have the Trieste lectures to offer a glimpse of his general sense of Irish history and politics. Even so, in Joyce’s and Beckett’s careers a combination of long-term French expatriation and a more advanced “modernist” conception of the writer made for less sustained social engagement with Irish literary and social matters over the course of a career. In personal terms, Joyce and Beckett were undoubtedly more republican-minded politically speaking than Yeats was. Nevertheless, and here I am forgetting neither Beckett’s courageous life-risking commitments to the French resistance in World War II nor Yeats’s Blueshirt involvements, there is something in Yeats’s conception of his role as poet and dramatist that always brings him back to public engagement and something in the later Joyce’s and Beckett’s mature careers that restricts such engagement.
Bowen models a different type of writer. She is less avant-gardist than Joyce, more conventionally Anglo-Irish than Beckett, more defensive of the Ascendancy tradition. Bowen’s Court (1942) is a significant and still under-studied retrospective critical analysis of Ascendancy history, but Bowen’s engagements with Irish public life, like Joyce’s and Beckett’s, are more tentative than those of Yeats or Shaw or even Moore. (This is not a comment on her work’s value but to note that her way of being a writer differs from theirs.) In short, then, the more avant-garde Joyce’s and Beckett’s works became, the more restricted their public roles. We need not slight this. By focusing so intently on their art, Joyce and Beckett afforded themselves the scope to radicalise that art and to avoid concessions to established taste, whether mass or elite. In this manner, they clearly bequeathed outstanding artistic-intellectual legacies to Irish society and there is every reason therefore to refuse anti-modernist anti-intellectualism. However, it can fairly be asked whether the modernist conception of the writer as cultivated by Joyce and Beckett ‑ wary of Ireland, wary of civic involvement, wary of an elaborated politics ‑ didn’t run too easily, certainly once continental modernist activity had had its heyday, towards the kind of professionalised version of the writer that came to the fore in the later twentieth century: the writer as free agent devoted to art-making and mostly detached from critical self-reflection or public engagement. The Ireland of the Revival and high modernism was obviously quite different from contemporary Ireland in all sorts of manners and one of the many differences is that the ways of being a writer appear more various then than now.
Women and men make their history but not in circumstances of their own choosing and in circumstances already given and transmitted from the past. So too writers make literature not in circumstances of their choosing, but by recourse to literary dispensations and cultural institutions and reward systems already given to them and not easily circumvented or changed. Even so, the different ways that artists dispose themselves in the literary field have consequences. A properly republican conception of the writer would probably require both imaginative-cum-intellectual aesthetic radicalism and a commitment to civic engagement in terms of specific principles. A properly republican republic of letters would not require writers to be party political or “on message” but would require them to take the complexities of reconciling literature’s responsibilities to itself and to society seriously (which need not mean invariably solemnly).
To reconcile such things is no small ask. Mechanistic conceptions of the relationship between literature and politics tend inevitably to produce bad literature; conversely, literatures too divorced from civic and political life inevitably suffer their own disfigurements. And even though literary activity requires solitude for its creation, the created work always seeks its final fulfilment in a public and, unlike other saleable commodities, requires for its fullest realisation not just financial return but active and intelligently considered social response. Given the many pitfalls, it is no wonder that writers so often remain chary of public roles and commitments and that preserving the so-called autonomy of the literary sphere has its appeal. But to repudiate politics, civic engagement and public writing is typically to take the existing modes and conditions of literary production and circulation, all profoundly capitalist, as the insurmountable status quo and to cultivate an agnosticism that is neither above politics nor neutral.
After the international financial and banking crash of 2007-2009 there was some discussion in Ireland for a time at least about the creation of a “second republic”. And in the course of the recent decade of commemorations public debate about the possibility of a United or Shared Ireland has gained traction. For the most part, discussions of what a “second republic” or a thirty-two-county reintegrated Ireland might mean have not been accompanied by much discussion of what a new republicanism would actually mean in the twenty-first century or whether or how such republicanism could actually be realised in a late capitalist neoliberal world order now in acute turmoil and tending on all continents, including Europe, more towards oligarchy, technocracy and outright authoritarianism than to republicanism, let alone socialist republicanism. A more robustly republican republic would require substantive changes not just at the level of constitutions and governance but renovated visions of civic life generally and reinvigorated commitments to citizenship, community, and the good society. Such changes could hardly leave the worlds of culture and the arts all unchanged, unchanged utterly.
For this reason alone, writers and critics might consider what the invention of a more radically republican republic might demand not only of political parties and citizens, taxpayers and policy-makers, but of their own fields and vocations. For the past two centuries, writers have occupied different roles in the literary field that have ranged from poet as unacknowledged legislator to poet as national bard or bourgeois laureate, from the writer as autonomous aesthete committed only to perfection of the work to the writer as dandy, poète maudit, bohemian libertine, contrarian, entertainer, and there have been the great committed politically engaged writers too. Today, many, maybe most, of these models of the vocation can seem played out, somewhat archaic. New models are not readily on offer, however, and for want of good alternatives the writer as entrepreneurial professional ‑ self-starting, agent-acquiring, prize-winning, striving and thriving in a competitive literary marketplace ‑ has become the de facto celebrated contemporary model, though to say as much is neither to blame writers for the situation nor to suggest that things can easily be altered.
Over the last century, Irish writers have occupied all of the roles mentioned above and many have committed to one or more of the available models with remarkable conviction, often at considerable personal cost. Today, as the literary sphere becomes ever more thoroughly integrated into the capitalist economies of global publishing, Amazon, Netflix, Twitter, publicity-driven prize systems and state or business-sponsored literary festivals, and as the academic professions are adapted to serve universities modelling themselves on global corporations, writers and critics alike find themselves constrained by circumstances not of their own choosing. As the Irish Republic comes to the end of the commemorations to mark its first centenary, and as Irish society reflects on the triumphs and failures of that first republican century, a century in which its literary triumphs are considerable, now seems the time to ask: What should we expect of a republic? And what are the responsibilities of the writer and of the critic to a republic, a republican culture, a republican ethos? What can usefully be learned from the past and what must be new-minted to serve the future?
And critics? In Inventing Ireland, Kiberd, as cited at the opening of (the first part of) this essay, remarks memorably that: “It was the grand destiny of Yeats’s generation to make Ireland once again interesting to the Irish, after centuries of enforced provincialism following the collapse of the Gaelic order in 1601.” A grand destiny, a sweeping claim. One might return the compliment and say that it was the destiny of Kiberd’s generation of critics to make “Yeats’s generation” of writers, Revivalists and modernists, interesting once again to the Irish (and not just to the Irish perhaps). In Kiberd’s critical works, and those of his generation ‑ Seamus Deane, Denis Donoghue, Terry Eagleton, Tom Paulin, Elisabeth Cullingford, Edna Longley, Maud Ellmann, Luke Gibbons, David Lloyd, Terence Brown, WJ McCormack, Roy Foster, Philip O’Leary and others, and in the works of a successor generation of its students, “Yeats’s generation” was read more searchingly and with greater brio and sophistication than at any time since independence and thereby made once again interesting. But as with writers, so too with critics, the current pressure is towards modes of professional self-making more corporate than republican, more savvy than civic. If there is a way to check out of this Hotel Celtic California, it may require us to begin by taking fresh stock not just of the ways of being writers but those of being critics too. The two vocations are symbiotic, writers needing critics at least as much as critics need writers, and it is impossible to imagine the reinvigoration of either profession without the reinvigoration of the other.
Adams, Edward, Liberal Epic: The Victorian Practice of History from Gibbon to Churchill (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2011)
Bair, Deirdre, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978)
Bowen, Elizabeth, Bowen’s Court (Alfred A Knopf, 1942)
Bowen, Elizabeth, The Shelbourne: A Centre in Dublin Life for more than a Century (George G Harper & Co Ltd, 1951)
Bowker, Gordon, James Joyce: A Biography (Weidendfeld & Nicolson, 2011)
Deane, Seamus, Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880-1980 (Wake Forest University Press, 1985)
Duffy, Enda, “Setting: Dublin 1904/1922” in The Cambridge Companion to Ulysses, Sean Latham, ed, (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce (Oxford University Press, 1982 )
Foster, RF, W. B. Yeats: A Life, Vol II, The Arch-Poet, 1915-39 (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Frazier, Aidan, George Moore, 1852-1933 (Yale University Press, 2000)
Holroyd, Michael, Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition (Random House, 1997)
Joyce, James, Ulysses (Vintage Books, 1986 )
Joyce, Stanislaus, My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years (The Viking Press, 1958)
Kiberd, Declan, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (Harvard University Press, 1995)
Kiberd Declan and PJ Mathews, eds, Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings, 1891-1922 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2016)
Kurnick David, Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel (Princeton University Press, 2015)
Lloyd, David, Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Duke University Press, 1993)
Maddox, Brenda, Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988)
Moore, George, A Story-Teller’s Holiday (Horace Liveright, 1918 )
Moran, James, Staging the Easter Rising (Cork University Press, 2005)
Moran, James, The Theatre of Sean O’Casey (Bloomsbury, 2013)
Murray, Christopher, Sean O’Casey: Writer at Work (Gill & Macmillan, 2004)
O’Casey, Sean, Three Dublin Plays: The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars (Faber and Faber, 1998)
Ó Cathasaigh, P, The Story of the Irish Citizen Army (Maunsel & Co Ltd., 1919)
Onose, So, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Toneite”, 56, 1-2, James Joyce Quarterly, (Fall 2018-Winter 2019): 63-80.
Paulin, Tom, “Yeats’s Hunger-Strike Poem”, Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (Faber and Faber, 1992)
Shaw, George Bernard, Saint Joan: A Chronicle Play in Six Scenes and an Epilogue (Methuen Drama, 2008 )
Shaw, George Bernard, The Matter with Ireland, Dan Laurence and David Green, eds., (University of Florida, 2001)
Yeats, WB, Selected Poems and Four Plays of William Butler Yeats, ML Rosenthal, ed (Scribner Paperback, 1996)
Yeats, WB, “The Dreaming of the Bones”, The Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats (The Macmillan Company, 1961)
Yeats, WB, “Certain Noble Plays of Japan”, Essays (Macmillan Company, 1924)
Joe Cleary teaches at Yale University. His recent books are Modernism, Empire, World Literature (2021) and The Irish Expatriate Novel and Late Capitalist Globalisation (2021).
We are making some changes at the drb. From 2023 we will publish three times a year. The reduced frequency means we will be concentrating on our core activity, the long-form review essay. The first of the three issues to be published next year will appear in February. Blogs will continue to appear between issues. We wish our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas.