This is the first part of a two-part essay.
Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland must be the most successful book of Irish cultural criticism published in the last several decades. “Success”, of course, can mean different things and there are works of Irish cultural criticism published in the same period that may well be as significant as Kiberd’s volume; these things are difficult, perhaps impossible, to measure. Still, if success is taken to mean such things as well-received, widely read, widely taught, widely cited, running through several editions, influential for advanced scholarship, and no doubt commercially rewarding, then it might be hard to find a work to match Inventing Ireland across so many categories.
Cultural criticism only intermittently reaches beyond academic readerships, so for a study like Inventing Ireland to achieve its impact several things had to converge. Some of the factors involved are evident enough. It is, first, a wonderfully ebullient book, written with a warmth of literary passion and a compelling sense of civic as well as scholarly purpose. Second, the volume caught its intellectual moment. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism, and Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, all published in 1983, had stimulated a decade of impressive scholarship on the ways in which modern nations are imaginatively constructed. Ronald Inden’s Imagining India (1990) and Ralph Crane’s Inventing India (1992) had appeared shortly before Inventing Ireland. The field of postcolonial scholarship inspired by Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) was still in its first institutional and theoretical flush in the 1990s but had already generated new readerships for the works of Franz Fanon, CLR James, Ashis Nandy, Aimé Césaire, Albert Memmi and others. Kiberd was inspired by these writers and by later postcolonial theorists like Said, Homi Bhabha, Tim Brennan and Gauri Viswanathan, and with a remarkable lightness of touch wove these figures into a tapestry of Irish literary greats that included Oscar Wilde, GB Shaw, WB Yeats, Augusta Gregory, JM Synge, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Elizabeth Bowen and Samuel Beckett. The resulting mix of “Third World” revolutionary intellectuals and “classic” Irish authors was a winning combination: in Kiberd’s hands, the anti-colonial radical intellectuals and the Irish writers reciprocally illuminated each other.
In Ireland, moreover, the social and political moment was probably ripe. The first three volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing had appeared only four years earlier in 1991 to a controversial reception conditioned by bitter conflicts North and South. But by 1995 things were changing. The IRA had announced a ceasefire in 1994 and in the South people were beginning to grasp that Ireland might actually be moving out of a long recession into something like an economic boom. Catching this brighter mood, Inventing Ireland took a broadly positive view of twentieth century Irish social and cultural achievement and delivered a narrative that did not stress Irish failure so much as challenges tackled and overcome. In Kiberd’s narrative, the Irish Revival, Irish modernism, and the Easter Rising and post-Rising revolutionary period were all interconnected and writers, activists and rebels came together to give collaborative birth to a new nation in which enterprise and imagination generally won out, sooner or later, over reaction and conservatism.
Inventing Ireland’s “Table of Contents” sets in relief the work’s architecture. Shaw and Wilde initiate proceedings in London. In “Ireland ‑ England’s Unconscious?”, Kiberd presents this pair as essentially comic writers satirically deconstructing inherited colonial stereotypes of Englishness and Irishness. The following section, “Anglo-Ireland: The Woman’s Part” traces how the works of Edith Somerville, Violet Martin and Augusta Gregory deal with the decline of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy or refuse the wider Southern unionist retreat from public life to engage with the rising tide of cultural nationalism. Subsequent sections, “Yeats: Looking into the Lion’s Face” and “Return to the Source?”, see Yeats, Gregory, Douglas Hyde and Synge inaugurate various modes of de-anglicisation. Then comes “Revolution and War”, a section on Sean O’Casey’s response to the Easter Rising period in his “Dublin Trilogy” and on O’Casey’s and other writers’ reactions to the Battle of the Somme and World War I.
This brings readers to the title-bearing section “Inventing Irelands”. Here, in the work’s high point, Kiberd discusses Yeats’s middle-to-late-period poetry and two epic Irish works of the twenties, A Vision and Ulysses. This is followed by “Sexual Politics” and “Protestant Revivals”: these consider Elizabeth Bowen, the later Yeats and Shaw and Beckett. This brings readers to the World War II period with a section titled “Underdevelopment”, which considers the comedy and satire of post-revolutionary despondency reflected in the writings of Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan, and Beckett. Unlike so many thwarted-birth-of-the-nation narratives in which things conclude in conservative reaction as the new Ireland fails to live up to its great expectations, Inventing Ireland ends not with a diminuendo but rises to an optimistic finale, “Recovery and Renewal”, featuring Brian Friel, the Field Day Theatre Company and Translations. The volume rounds off with a short coda, “Reinventing Ireland”, in which Kiberd comments on revisionism and Irish Studies and encourages readers to take inspiration from the Revivalist, modernist and revolutionary eras to make their own multicultural Ireland for the twenty-first century.
It is not supercilious to say that Inventing Ireland has something of the quality of what Edward Adams has called “Liberal Epic”. Adams’s term describes large-scale prose works written by writers such as Edward Gibbon, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Hardy, GM Trevelyan, JM Keynes and Winston Churchill that kept alive the epic mode in English letters in modern times. These works document the emergence, usually through the smoke and shell of great battles and wars, of a modern liberal order. Running to over seven hundred pages, Inventing Ireland has something of the scope of these works and shares to some degree their concern to celebrate the triumph of modern liberalism and democracy without entirely bypassing the heroism associated with epochs of war and revolution.
One passage from the opening will give something of its general flavour:
[The literary revival] achieved nothing less than a renovation of Irish consciousness and a new understanding of politics, economics, philosophy, sport, language and culture in its widest sense. 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. No generation before or since lived with such conscious national intensity or left such an inspiring (and, in some ways, intimidating) legacy. Though they could be fractious, its members set themselves the highest standards of imaginative integrity and personal generosity. Imbued with republican and democratic ideals, they committed themselves in no spirit of chauvinism, but in the conviction that the Irish risorgimento might expand the expressive freedoms of all individuals: that is the link between the thinkers as disparate as Douglas Hyde and James Connolly, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and James Joyce.
The stress here is on renovation of consciousness, intellectual emancipation and self-reliance, collaboration despite faction, and expressive freedoms. Hence, the concluding peroration that pairs the acknowledged and unacknowledged legislators of the new nation: “Douglas Hyde and James Connolly, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and James Joyce”. The term risorgimento links the “renovation of Irish consciousness” to Italy’s nineteenth century drive for national unification and self-determination and points to the combination of artistic and political energies involved in both cases.
In keeping with much of the scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s, Kiberd’s focus throughout Inventing Ireland is largely on the foundation of a nation and on the invigoration of national consciousness. Despite its impressive range and scope, and the reference in the passage cited to “republican and democratic ideals”, the volume has relatively little to say about the political ideologies of the Irish revolutionary period or about the Irish republican tradition that lit the fuse of Easter 1916, and in so doing derailed the Home Rule movement’s more constitutional nationalist tradition.
The question that I want to address in this essay is what would happen if we shifted the emphasis from “Inventing Ireland” to “Inventing a Republic”? The one term, clearly, signifies the emergence and creative imagination of a people-nation; the other alludes to the elaboration of a specific type of political philosophy and the attendant creation of a particular type of state and society, namely a republic. The writers celebrated in Inventing Ireland, Kiberd says, were “imbued with republican and democratic ideals” and “committed themselves in no spirit of chauvinism, but in the conviction that the Irish risorgimento might expand the expressive freedoms of all individuals”. That most (if not all) of the major Irish writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century period were broadly critical of British rule in Ireland and generally favoured some or other form of Irish self-rule may be allowed. But how deeply, it might be asked, were these writers actually committed to “republican and democratic ideals”? And when Kiberd refers to the writers collectively as committed to expanding “the expressive freedom of all individuals” then what does “expressive freedom” mean exactly and in what kind of society were such freedoms to be institutionalised? Would Shaw and Yeats, Wilde and Bowen, Joyce and O’Casey all have understood “freedom”, or even “expressive freedom”, in compatible ways? To what extent did “republican and democratic ideals” inform the writers’ literary works as well as their public roles as writers, public intellectuals and citizens?
Indeed, this then prompts the question as to whether it is even meaningful to speak in the modern era of a republican culture or literature. As a political ideology, classical republicanism has its roots in the non-capitalist worlds of Ancient Greece and Rome, and in modern times its most widely studied Western instances include the creation of an American republic in the United States and the radical republicanism of the French Revolution. Republicanism, then, has played roles in the development of both pre-modern non-capitalist polities and modern bourgeois capitalist societies. Nevertheless, the classical conception of republicanism as participatory democracy in which citizens took responsibility to uphold public virtue or the more modern conception of a republic dedicated to the ideals of legal equality and the right to national and personal self-determination in association with others have been hard to sustain in an epoch like ours in which so many spheres of activity are subordinated to the economic “laws” of a capitalist world system.
If republicanism as a political philosophy has been hard to reconcile with a modern global capitalist order, to what extent is a robustly republican culture imaginable nowadays? And did twentieth century Irish writers, individually or collectively, ever engage all that deeply with such questions or try to produce anything that we might call a “republican literature”? These are tricky questions, and my purpose here is not to challenge Kiberd’s compelling account of things in Inventing Ireland so much as to tip the stress from “nation” to “republic” and examine Irish literature in this modified perspective.
For present purposes, I will approach this task in two ways. First, I want to look at some of the modes in which the leading writers that form the spine of Inventing Ireland actually responded to the events of Easter 1916 and to consider to what extent they engaged with the republican and republican-socialist ideals that motivated that rebellion. One of the fascinations of modern Irish history is that so many of the towering political and literary figures of the period between, say, the Land Wars and World War II were contemporaries: the age of Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera was also the age of Wilde and Shaw, Yeats and Gregory, Synge and Joyce, O’Casey, Bowen and Beckett. It is this concurrence of socio-political revolution and of outstanding Irish literary achievement that makes the question of the relationship between literature and politics in the Revivalist and high modernist eras so intriguing.
However, that concurrence can also invite kinds of peremptory conflation or analogising of the literary and political spheres that warrant investigation. In the second part of the essay, I will shift the focus from writers to works, and examine how the upshot of Easter 1916 was absorbed into some later writings of those writers surveyed in the earlier section. Part of Easter 1916’s tremendous power is that it came as such body-shock to Ireland and Britain. It served as such not only because it occurred during the even more seismic convulsion of World War I, but because the insurrection in Dublin set in motion a series of changes that ultimately issued in an Ireland quite different from what either the Easter insurrectionists or their opponents might have wanted.
Societies typically absorb irruptive events of such consequential character rather slowly. If this essay comes in two parts, then, it is to make allowances for both the immediacy of contemporary response and the inevitably deferred nature of processed literary-political reaction, each in its own way fundamental to the production of such meaning as can be wrested from a convulsive moment. Having worked through these two kinds of responses, I will return in conclusion to the questions already posed above about the challenge of creating either a modern republic or a modern republican literature.
In the spring of 1916 the fifty-year-old WB Yeats was in England working on the first of his Noh plays, At the Hawk’s Well, which would be produced in London that April. As part of his preparations, Yeats was also working on an essay, “Certain Noble Plays of Japan”, eventually completed and dated “April 1916”, that announced his repudiation of modern realist theatre and the business of mimeticism (proscenium arch, stage furniture, realistic character and psychology). What Yeats wanted instead was a stylised, ritualised, symbolically concentrated Japanese-style drama. The Abbey Theatre had been founded to cultivate a national audience, but Yeats’s ambition was now for a coterie drama confined to a selectively invited and more discerning public. Play and essay, then, signalled an ambitiously anti-realist, modernist vanguardism, but also an elitism that was the antithesis of any kind of national-popular let alone republican-minded theatre. As “Certain Noble Plays of Japan” makes clear, Yeats’s mind was on what he took to be feudal Japan’s highly aristocratic theatre: this, he argued, was a theatre in which even the acting profession was proudly hereditary, the Noh actors possessing as strong a dynastic sense as the Japanese aristocracy they served.
On May 1st, 1916, a week after the Easter Rising began, Ezra Pound wrote to the Irish-American corporate lawyer and art patron John Quinn telling him that he looked forward to teasing Yeats about the ongoing events in Dublin. Of Yeats, Pound wrote: “He don’t like republics. He likes queens, preferably dead ones, but he has been out of town [London] for three days and I shall assume he was at Stephen’s Green.” For decades after the Rising, the question “Where were you in 1916?” would become a hackneyed heckle in Irish politics, but within days of the events a version of that goad was already being directed at Yeats. The joke here was not that the national poet was culpably missing from the GPO, but rather that he might actually have been in the thick of the insurrection. Pound’s quip that Yeats had left London to fight with Michael Mallin, the Countess Markievicz and the Citizen Army in St Stephen’s Green shows that the American knew that this was where Yeats’s heart was least likely to be were he in Dublin in Easter week. But, Pound’s joking aside, what were Yeats’s actual politics in 1916? Was Yeats, as Pound jested, a monarchist at heart, a lover of dead queens? Yeats had joined the IRB, probably in 1886, and had been active in the centenary commemorations for 1798, but was he actually a republican in any sense of that word either then or in 1916?
One of Yeats’s fieriest political poems, “September 1913”, had been published a few years earlier in the year of the Great Lockout, and had lambasted the Irish middle class for its philistine parsimoniousness by contrasting its save-and-pray temperament with the more reckless patriotism and public spiritedness of Irish republican heroes, including the old Fenian John O’Leary, who had died in 1907. But the dead patriots who gave their lives without counting the cost invoked in that poem are conspicuously Anglican and the lament decries the passing of “Romantic” rather than “republican” Ireland, though the two were, and sometimes are still conflated, not always to compliment republicanism. So was Yeats, then, like his friend and mentor, O’Leary, some sort of aristocratic-republican? The Greek word aristokratia means “rule by the best”, meaning the best-qualified citizens; it was only centuries later that the term came to signify a hereditary nobility. The stress in “Certain Noble Plays of Japan” is certainly on dynastic genealogies but what seems to matter most to Yeats, certainly before the 1920s, is that any kind of modern mass democracy ‑ which, like so many in the first half of the twentieth century, he regarded as a vuglarisation of politics ‑ should be checked and stabilised by the “rule of the best”.
Whether that ruling “best” was actually blue-blooded or patrician-republican seems less significant to Yeats than that the numerical levelling associated with parliamentary democracy should be avoided. History may then have found more or less the proper place for the poet when in 1923 he became a senator in the upper chamber of that not-quite-republic, the Irish Free State. Roy Foster reports that when Yeats was, on Desmond Fitzgerald’s proposal, offered a seat in the new Senate, he accepted with alacrity. He regarded the Senate as a version of the upper house of the Home Rule parliament expected in 1912. He had hoped then to occupy a seat in that upper house, and expressed his hope in the Senate that “this country will not always be an uncomfortable place for a country gentleman to live in” and described himself as a “crusted Tory”. As Foster notes, by then Yeats had been honoured by Trinity College, become a member of the Kildare Street Club, owned Thoor Ballylee, and lived in Merrion Square, and so was “by now a ‘country gentleman’ himself”.
We know from letters Yeats and Lady Gregory exchanged in the months after the Rising that both were shocked by events in Dublin, their nervously condescending and grudging early commentary gradually giving way to a greater sense of the audacity and heroism of the insurrectionists. We know too that Yeats worked over his poem to commemorate the insurrection, “Easter 1916”, from May to September of that year, and that one of the things which makes that work remarkable is that the emotional flux of Yeats’s responses to that event reverberates there. Tom Paulin has written astutely on the history of this poem: a small edition of twenty-five copies was printed in late 1916 or 1917 for private circulation. Yeats withheld the poem from his 1919 The Wild Swans at Coole and went public only on October 23rd, 1920, in the New Statesman; the poem first appeared in book form in the expensive 1921 Cuala Press edition of Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
There were several reasons for this staggered publication. Yeats, if we take Foster’s and Paulin’s accounts as guides, may have feared he might lose his Civil List pension; he thought it better to avoid mass publication “While Irish youth is in its inflammable state”; and it was Terence MacSwiney’s long hunger-strike during the War of Independence that finally stung him into the New Statesman publication, which appeared just two days before MacSwiney died on October 25th.
Readings of “Easter 1916” typically stress Yeats’s hesitancy in the face of insurrection and self-sacrifice. One thing we can say perhaps is that the Easter Rising seems to compel Yeats to revision ‑ his obsessive mode of compositional practice in any case ‑ not just of the text of the poem but of his own disposition towards Ireland and towards his readership and audience. “Easter 1916” to some considerable extent retracts “September 1913”’s swingeing contempt for modern Ireland’s middle classes, but also modifies some of the aristocratic hauteur of “Certain Noble Plays of Japan”, the essay on which he had been working in the months leading into April 1916. Whatever the wisdom or folly of their deeds, “Easter 1916” allows that the rebels have captured the world’s attention and remoulded the national imagination forever ‑ thus to some degree usurping the poet-playwright’s task and finding the wide audience that Yeats had been busy renouncing that spring.
And yet there is perhaps as much continuity as rupture in Yeats’s thinking in the period before and after Easter week. “Certain Noble Plays of Japan” and “Easter 1916” share a common theatrical imagery. Both turn on the contrast between “motley” (the costume of clowning and low theatre) and the sublime “terrible beauty” of high tragedy (the term “strange beauty” appears in the “Certain Noble Play”’ essay; it modulates into “terrible beauty” in the poem). Despite its title, there is no hint of Calvary-like sacrifice for the salvation of the masses generally in Yeats’s “Easter 1916” nor any dwelling on Christian resurrection imagery. The dominant motif in fact is transfiguration: in its narrative movement, the poem enacts the transmutation of those lowly, insignificant men, previously deemed comic clerks playacting at rebellion, whom the poet had met coming from “counter or desk”, as they are changed into the timeless heroes reverently listed in the final incantatory stanza. In “Easter 1916”, in short, the low-mimetic comedic republicans at the poem’s outset are transmuted into high mimetic aristo-republicans of the imagination litanied at its end. Part of the poem’s bemused affect, surely, is precisely how such transfiguration occurs. There are no references anywhere in the poem to the common volunteers, men or women, who took part in the Rising ‑ only the dead leaders’ names are recited ‑ and the poem is fixated on how these once-disparaged figures had now and forever become certain noble heroes of Ireland perhaps.
The political philosophies of Pearse and Connolly, MacDonagh and MacBride are not what matter to “Easter 1916”. What excites and troubles the poem, in almost Badiouan terms, is the transfigurative character of the event and its capacity to compel the imagination now and in time to come. Whether his own politics be deemed radical conservative “crusted Tory” or aristo-republican, and they seem an unstable compound of the two, what compels Yeats, both in the “Certain Noble Plays of Japan” reflections on theatre and in “Easter 1916”, is the capacity of ritualised action and symbol to seize and transmute reality. And this action is brought about not by appeal to reason and public deliberation, but by some kind of flamboyantly imaginative shock that bypasses these to cast an unanswerable spell on the imagination. What fascinates Yeats is magic: the magic of the theatre, of poetry, and of certain types of decisive political action.
In 1916, James Joyce was living in Zurich, a World War I refugee from his earlier residence in Trieste. He remained at that stage still a minor and struggling author and, at thirty-four, the father of two young children with Nora Barnacle. However, thanks to the efforts of Pound, Harriet Weaver and others, his literary fortunes were slowly improving, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, rushed to publication in New York in December 1916, reportedly to coincide with the year of the Rising, would finally make his reputation. Nora’s brother, Tom, had joined the British army in December 1915, and on July 20th, 1916, Nora’s mother, Annie Barnacle, wrote to her daughter expressing her distress at “Poor Tom out in France” and describing how “i sent him his Boxes on Tuesday Butter Cocacoa [sic] cooked ham Biscuits Tea Milke”. She mentions also that she had had Masses said for Tom and for her neighbour’s husband, who had recently died leaving his family destitute: “the nite he Was Dead she had not the price of a candle and Friends of his had to go Around With The hat and there was 30 pounds colected”. Written in the English of the poorly educated, Annie Barnacle’s letter is testimony to the conditions of the poor that sent men into war and to the penury of their conditions generally.
Biographers vary little in their accounts of Joyce’s response to the Rising: Stanislaus Joyce and Richard Ellmann both stress the writer’s pacifism: “listening to patriotic blatancy, he loathed war”, Stanislaus remarks. Yet Stanislaus notes also that James “favoured” the Sinn Féin movement “rather than the ‘ineffectual parliamentary struggle’ in which I believed” and notes too that “His political leanings were towards socialism, and he had frequented meetings of socialist groups in back rooms” in Dublin and “At Trieste he still called himself a socialist”. James, Stanislaus also comments, “had a stronger stomach for patriotic poetry than I” and remarks “The two dominant passions of my brother’s life were to be love of father and of fatherland”: the latter love, he adds, less that of the patriot than “the comprehending love of an artist for his subject”.
Gordon Bowker, who treats the whole 1916 episode with indifference and with little supporting evidence tells readers that Joyce “was shocked by the violence and what remaining sympathy he had for Sinn Féin evaporated”. Ellmann, who at least has an index entry for the event, says only that “Joyce followed the events with pity; although he evaluated the rising as useless, he felt also out of things”. Joyce was cheered, Ellmann adds, when British plans for conscription in Ireland had to be dropped and “predicted that some day he and Giorgio would go back to wear the shamrock in an independent Ireland; but when this temporary fervor waned, he replied to someone who asked if he did not look forward to the emergence of an independent country, “so that I might declare myself its first enemy?’”
Joyce’s letters for 1916, perhaps fearing censorship of the mail, scarcely mention the Dublin events of that year. Unlike Yeats, he did not respond to the Rising in any immediate literary way. Indeed, in the months that Yeats was labouring over his revisions of “Easter 1916” Pound was labouring on Joyce’s behalf, canvassing Yeats and George Moore to petition Edward Marsh, secretary to Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith, who presided over the rebel executions in 1916, to secure Joyce a Civil List pension (like that which Yeats already had). Moore wrote on August 3rd, 1916, to Asquith through Marsh observing that Joyce had left “a disagreeable reputation behind him in Dublin” but that he had since mended his ways “and everything I heard of him is to his credit”. “Of his political views,” he added, “I know nothing.” “He was not in Ireland during the sowing of the Sinn Fein seed and I hope he is not even a home ruler.” Moore then proceeded: “Democratic principles are unsuited to Ireland. Already the people are beginning to regret their landlords and to hate the congested District Board. The Irish like priests and believe in the power of priests to forgive them their sins and to change God into a biscuit”, rounding off with the comment “The Irish like discipline, and if Mr Asquith would treat the Irish as the Pope does he would be the most popular man in Ireland.” One might have thought that the executions of the rebel leaders in Dublin and the some 1,800 volunteers languishing in British internment camps were a strict enough response from Asquith’s government, but scarcely so for Moore it would seem.
At any rate, Joyce, despite Asquith’s personal reservations, received the Civil List pension in August 1916, and an entry in the 1916 Who’s Who, and, on Pound’s advice, he later wrote to Asquith a polite note of thanks, signing off “your faithful and obedient servant”. When the Journal de Genève offered him a large fee for an article on the Irish situation, Joyce flatly refused. No one could begrudge the destitute Joyce his Civil List pension, and there were good reasons for refugees to be circumspect in World War I, but, whatever his private feelings, his public reactions to the Rising were scarcely that of an enragé.
Like many other Irish people’s, Joyce’s personal involvements in the European war and Irish insurrection were complex. As noted above, Nora’s brother was enlisted for the British in 1916, and her uncle, Michael Healy, who regularly sent generous sums of money to the Joyce household in Zurich in these years, was an empire loyalist working in the British customs service. The Rising itself touched Joyce closest when his old university colleague Francis Sheehy-Skeffington ‑ a pacifist, feminist, and agitator for many causes ‑ was murdered by the British army on April 26th, 1916. Joyce wrote to Mary Kettle, née Sheehy, to convey his sympathies on the death of her husband, Tom Kettle, an old Clongownian and also a university-friend who had been killed fighting with the Dublin Fusiliers on September 9th, 1916. Joyce asked Mrs Kettle pass on his sympathies to her sister, Hannah, wife of the murdered Francis, explaining that he did not himself have Hannah’s address.
Though he was always a great reviser of his works, nothing that happened in the spring or summer of 1916 seems to have provoked Joyce to rethink his representation of the Irish nationalists or Sheehy-Skeffington, the latter lampooned in Portrait as the idealist do-gooder, “Hairy Jaysus”. Indeed, Joyce’s treatment of Sheehy-Skeffington and other politically active friends in Portrait appears generally dismissive, certainly condescending. Stephen treats the young Fenian republican nationalist Davin fondly, but construes him as a sexual innocent in thrall to a Victorian Catholic puritanism that Stephen has overcome. This might suggest, of course, that Stephen feels that young Fenians like Davin had still some way to go before they could become staunchly free-thinking, secular republicans in a properly Toneite and United Irish manner. Viewed thus, Stephen’s sense of alienation from Davin is of a kind with his alienation from Emma Clery, for whom he also feels attraction though he disdains her deference to the Catholic priests.
Indeed, it is possible, as So Onose contends, to read Portrait as a radical anti-clericalist Toneite republican bildung in which the young Stephen slowly and uncertainly overcomes his Catholic formation and takes issue with Irish nationalism not because it is too militant but because it is intellectually and politically not radical enough. (So Onose, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Toneite”) Nevertheless, if fraternity, meaning active solidarity and sociable engagement with others, is as important to republicanism as liberty or equality, then it is hard to reconcile the solitary exilic Stephen at the end of Portrait with an activist version of civic republicanism. Stephen, in short, is defined by what he opposes to the extent that he seems, to his mother and even to himself, isolated, an internal exile even before he departs for Paris to become an actual exile.
Obviously, Stephen is not to be conflated with Joyce. However, Joyce’s personal reaction to the Rising in its immediate aftermath might seem to suggest that, like his character, Joyce had by then assumed a certain aloofness that precluded commitments to much beyond his art. We have “Et Tu, Healy” and “The Day of the Rabblement” to show that the young Joyce could be moved to publish quickly in political anger. But Easter 1916 did not fire Joyce to publish something of his own in the manner of Yeats’s “Easter 1916” or, say, Thomas Kinsella’s “Butcher’s Dozen” after Bloody Sunday 1972. At some deeper level, it is possible, of course, that 1916’s emotional impact was channelled into Ulysses, something to which we can return later.
In 1916, George Moore was sixty-four, and finishing his huge biblical novel The Brook Kerith about the resurrection of a Jesus who renounces his former messianism, repudiates St Paul’s mythologising of his life,and leaves the Middle East for India with some Buddhist-like monks. Moore’s involvements in the War and the Rising were as complex as Joyce’s. His father, George Henry Moore, a Catholic landlord and Home Rule MP for Mayo, had in Westminster opposed Gladstone’s Coercion Bill and defended Fenian political prisoners as patriotic heroes. In common with more radical Home Rulers and moderate Fenians, he appears to have favoured an alliance between the Fenians and Home Rulers in a manner that Parnell would later manage. As Adrian Frazier notes in his biography of George Moore, Moore senior’s links with the Fenians were risky for an MP. However, George Henry Moore was equally adamant that he would have no truck with local Ribbonmen when they threatened his tenants not to pay their rents. On a return visit to Moore Hall to deal with these threats, George Henry died of a stroke in 1870. His death made young George Moore his heir and this funded him to become an artist.
George Moore’s younger brother, Maurice, a retired colonel who had fought with the British army in the Xhosa, Anglo-Zulu and Boer Wars, had returned from the latter war dismayed by the British concentration camps, and worked with Casement and Eoin McNeill on organising the Irish Volunteers, later becoming inspector general of the troops. But, as his letter to Asquith on Joyce’s behalf would indicate, George’s disdain for the Sinn Féin insurrection in 1916 and his urging that Asquith should take a strong hand with the Irish did not concord with Maurice’s nationalist sentiments. When Maurice placed his sons in Patrick Pearse’s school in Dublin, his elder brother, who was paying the tuition, visited the establishment, mistrusted what he saw, and Maurice had the boys removed from there, sending Rory instead to a Catholic boarding school.
In the summer of 1916, George Moore visited Dublin and wrote a series of newspaper reports on the shattered city centre; these were later worked into his A Story-Teller’s Holiday, privately printed in New York in 1918. Moore’s descriptions in that volume of Dublin immediately after the Rising are laconic. The narrator treats his excursion among the post-Rising ruins as a droll exercise in picturesque ‑ “I shall have, I said, to wait for sunrise to see these ruins.” He then slips into slapstick: “And it was while thinking about [the journalistic art of description] and Marius among the ruins of Carthage I escaped as by a miracle from falling into a cellar in which I should certainly have died.” The eventual discovery of his stinking body, he surmises, would be sure to become excellent copy: “A lugubrious story truly of a reporter who died in a cellar in Henry Street, and one that soon changed to a story of a reporter who committed suicide among the ruins because he could not describe them.” If there is a transfiguration here it owes more to press sensationalism than to noble sacrifice; it is certainly not an elevation from motley to sublimity as in “Easter 1916” but rather the reverse. Moore did not like the Ireland emerging from the Rising and by 1918, Frazier reports, “modern republican Ireland was indigestible” to him.
Like George Moore, George Bernard Shaw, who turned sixty in July 1916, thought Easter 1916 a foolhardy event. Yet when twelve of the insurgents were executed, he protested in the English press that they were prisoners of war and that their execution was therefore a war crime. With death tolls on the front in Europe mounting all the time, feelings in England in summer 1916 were strongly hostile to Roger Casement, and when Casement’s friend Alice Green came to England to assist him she was brought by Beatrice Webb to the Shaws to raise funds for a first-rate defence lawyer. Shaw thought that a lawyer was unlikely to be of any help given the evidence and that Casement ought to admit the facts on all counts, plead “Not Guilty” and apply as an Irish nationalist for prisoner-of-war status. Green thought this too risky and Casement too ill to conduct his own defence anyway. On hearing this, Shaw is said to have replied “we had better get our suit of mourning”, this throwing Green into distress. Charlotte, his wife, accused Shaw of crass insensitivity; Shaw’s response was to pen a defence speech for Casement on the grounds he had proposed.
When his defence counsel’s legal defence failed, Casement regretted that he had not followed Shaw’s strategy. For his own final speech from the dock, he drew on Shaw’s draft. In the fortnight between the guilty verdict and the execution, Shaw tried hard to win Casement a reprieve ‑ he drafted a petition for Asquith, which English liberals like Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and Arthur Conan Doyle signed, but Joseph Conrad famously refused to do.
Shaw’s activity on behalf of Casement was probably the most high-profile immediate response by any distinguished Irish writer to the events of 1916. Given Shaw’s literary prestige and Casement’s international reputation, the relationship between the Irish writer and rebel/traitor was sure to attract attention beyond Ireland and the United Kingdom. Moreover, that support was in some ways all the more admirable given that Shaw had been a consistent supporter of Home Rule and critic of nationalist separatism, favouring instead an internationalism to be achieved by a federation of the United Kingdom and a federation of the empire, these leading eventually to “a federation of the world”. Though he regarded World War I as an unmitigated militarist catastrophe, Shaw nevertheless viewed Prussian junkerism as the greater of two evils, the lesser being British junkerism, and he had advocated Irish enlistment on that basis that ultimately both junkerisms must be defeated to clear the way for European democracy.
Shaw might have found any number of reasons, then, to repudiate Casement and the Irish insurrection. Nevertheless, his record on Irish matters before 1916 generally displayed considerable political discernment. At the time of the Parnell split over the O’Shea affair, he had urged the Home Rule Party to support Parnell and had faulted the restrictive nature of marriage rather than the adultery as the real social ill to be addressed. When Edward Carson’s unionists signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912, Shaw spoke at an Irish Protestant pro-Home Rule meeting in London that year and declared his pride in his Irishness, countering the “Home Rule is Rome Rule” slogan with the remark that “I would rather be burnt at the stake by Irish Catholics than protected by Englishmen.” In 1913, he lent his support to the formation of the Irish Citizen Army and defended the rights of the workers to arm themselves against police brutality. Viewed thus, Shaw’s advocacy for Casement had little to do with their friendship or the heat of the moment. Rather, it was consistent with his sense that imperialist militarism was the begetter of anti-imperialist militarism and that British misrule in Ireland and elsewhere should be castigated even (or perhaps especially) in wartime.
In Ireland, Sean O’Casey is the writer whose literary response to the Rising would become most notable and controversial. To some degree, indeed, his response has since overshadowed that of most others. As is well known, the “Dublin Trilogy” ‑ The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and The Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926) ‑ struck an increasingly satirical attitude to Irish events leading up to and following the Rising. When the play opened to much excitement in the Abbey in 1926, The Plough seemed to some to have overstepped a line in its treatment of 1916, and on its fourth night suffragists and republicans, some related to those who had died in the Rising or its aftermath, objected to its depiction of those who took part in the insurrection. From their viewpoint, The Plough represented the insurrectionist leaders as vain and inadequate men, besotted with uniforms, frightened of women and life, and in thrall to death-besotted leaders like Pearse.
Yet, as James Moran has pointed out, these plays do not properly represent O’Casey’s immediate response to the Easter events. In 1917, O’Casey penned a short prose pamphlet, “The Story of Thomas Ashe”, published in 1918, and reissued in 1919 as “The Sacrifice of Thomas Ashe”, both paying tribute to the IRB man, and lamenting the mistreatment endured by him. Ashe had gone on hunger-strike in Mountjoy Prison on September 20th, 1917, and died only five days later in the Mater Hospital having been dangerously force-fed by the prison authorities, the latter condemned later by an inquest for their “unfeeling and barbaric conduct”. In this period, O’Casey also wrote a “Lament for Thomas Ashe” and, against conscription, “The Bonnie Bunch of Roses, O!”, in which Robert Emmet, Tone, John Mitchel and Connolly are approvingly invoked.
The Story of the Irish Citizen Army, O’Casey’s most extended publication up to that period, appeared in 1919, and is now best-known for its censure of James Connolly, who is rebuked for subordinating socialist internationalism to Irish nationalism. Of Connolly he writes: “The high creed of Irish Nationalism became his daily rosary, while the higher creed of international humanity that had so long bubbled from his eloquent lips was silent forever, and Irish Labour lost a Leader.” The Story ends with a eulogy to Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, whose pacific spirit is lauded “as the living antithesis of the Easter Insurrection, a spirit of peace enveloped in the flame and rage and hatred of the contending elements, absolutely free from all its terrifying madness”. For O’Casey, “In Sheehy-Skeffington, and not in Connolly, fell the first martyr to Irish Socialism, for he linked Ireland not only with the little nations struggling for self-expression but with the world’s Humanity struggling for a higher life.” Here, we see the beginnings of the recoil from Connollyism that was hardened by the Civil War and that led O’Casey to his “Dublin Trilogy” works.
It is an index of the emotional complexity of the times that Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, one-time friend to Joyce and Sheehy-Skeffington’s widow, would seven years later be a leading figure for those outraged by the treatment of both Pearse and Connolly in The Plough and the Stars. The same War of Independence and Civil War which led O’Casey to repudiate so much of the spirit of Easter 1916 made Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington into a determined defender of what she saw as the revolutionary ideals of the insurrectionists against their Treatyite traducers in whose number she now included the new Free State establishment, O’Casey, Yeats and the Abbey Theatre.
When O’Casey received the Hawthornden Prize in London on March 23rd, 1926, the opening speakers at the award ceremony included Herbert Asquith, now Lord Oxford, and Lady Gregory followed. The event provoked a sharp criticism of O’Casey from Captain Jack White, one of the founders of the Citizen Army, who accused his former comrade of taking a prize from the hands of the man who had been prime minister of the British government that had executed Connolly, O’Casey’s “old chief” when the playwright had served as secretary to the Citizen Army. Like George Moore’s brother, Maurice, White had served in the British army in South Africa in the Boer War, his experiences there generating a hatred of British imperialism and a turn to Irish separatism. Like O’Casey, White was a Protestant who remained committed to the socialist left; his later activities included involvements in the Irish Republican Congress and a period spent fighting in the Spanish Civil War. When White published his autobiography, Misfit, in 1930, he modified his criticism of O’Casey, observing that “men have their function at their time and place and according to their lights, O’Cathasaigh to write in ink, Conolly (sic) in blood.”
In their later careers, Elizabeth Bowen and Samuel Beckett became two high-profile exponents of Irish literature, each taking Irish writing in a different direction. When the Easter Rising was sprung, each was on school holidays. Beckett, who was ten, lived in Foxrock with his parents; Bowen, who was sixteen, and whose mother had died in 1912, was on holidays from her private school in Kent, to where her father came over from Dublin to join her for Easter. Distanced by class and family background from Irish separatist sentiment, neither was untouched by the events of the Rising. For the Becketts, the battles taking place in the centre of Dublin were a remote affair, though Beckett recalled that at the end of the week his father, Bill, had taken the young Samuel and his brother to the top of a local hill to view the city aflame. Some sixty years later, Beckett still apparently recalled the episode, according to Deirdre Bair, with “fear and horror”.
In Bowen’s case her father, Henry, who had drilled with the Veteran Corps, formed for former soldiers too old for active duty in France (and whose armbands carrying the initials GR, Georgius Rex, won its members the nickname the “Gorgeous Wrecks”), rushed back to Dublin on hearing that his comrades had been ambushed and some killed on Mount Street Bridge. Soon afterwards, he became embroiled in the affair of John Bowen Colthurst, his cousin, a British army officer who had arrested Francis Sheehy-Skeffington on Tuesday, April 25th. Bowen Colthurst took Sheehy-Skeffington as a hostage, presumably to safeguard his company of some forty men on a search for “Sinn Féiners”. That evening, he shot in the head an innocent and uninvolved seventeen-year-old, James Coade, who had been stopped for questioning, and later arrested two journalists, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, both wrongly suspected of Sinn Féin sympathies. The next morning, Bowen Colthurst ordered the execution, without trial and on his own authority, in Portobello Barracks of Sheehy-Skeffington and the two journalists.
In Bowen’s Court, published in 1942, Bowen deals quite elliptically with the atrocity, noting only that on her father’s return to Dublin “came the affair of our cousin, Captain Bowen Colthurst”. Bowen Colthurst’s “distracted mother, Cousin Georgina” approached Henry, Bowen writes, to see if, as a lawyer, he could help with the difficulties caused by his cousin’s “fevered and ghastly breach of the rules of war”. Bowen’s memoir offers no details of the “ghastly breach.”
In her lively account of Easter week in her later work, The Shelbourne, published in 1951, Bowen deals with the Rising a little more extensively but breezily. Commenting on the shocking quality of the event, she writes astutely:
“Such things do not happen … At that time, 1916, be it recalled, battles were associated with battlefields, not yet cities. To that extent, in spite of the Great War, the Edwardian concept of civilization still stood unshaken, firm. It was still held that things would know where to stop ‑ and also where not to begin. Barricades and street fighting belonged back in the past; future civilian bombing ‑ though there had been Zeppelin raids on England ‑ still seemed hardly more than a nightmare fantasy. There was about the aspect of modern cities, with their daylit normality, smooth-running thoroughfares, polished plate-glass, which outfaced the idea of violence, made it anachronistic, out of the picture. They not only looked but felt inherently safe.
Dublin, she continues, “had by now become, in the sense in which we are speaking, a modern city ‑ as such, she was destined to be the first to see the modern illusion crack. The illusion more than cracked, it shivered across; not to be mended again in our time (though peace might and did return to this particular city.)” For the most part, though, Bowen offers a droll account of the rebellion as viewed from the perspective of the upper class guests and staff in the Shelbourne. In this account, Bowen’s racegoers and tourists can hardly comprehend what is happening around them in St Stephen’s Green, but they and the Shelbourne staff display a stylish if somewhat absurdist coolness under fire and a laconic determination to keep up their regular routine. In this later account, Bowen makes no mention of her father’s involvement in Easter Week or of the Bowen Colthurst affair.
The second part of this essay will be published in the December issue of the Dublin Review of Books, complete with a list of the books referred to in both parts.