Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891 – 1922, Declan Kiberd and PJ Matthews (eds), Abbey Theatre Press, 512 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-0993180002
A survey of English writing that appeared in 1918 makes for interesting reading. Harold Williams’s Modern English Writers: Being a Study of Imaginative Literature 1890 – 1914 had been intended for publication in 1914 but appeared only in 1918. Part I was devoted to poetry. The first writer to be mentioned was Oscar Wilde. His birth in Dublin and the “literary leanings” he imbibed from his mother, “Speranza”, were mentioned. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was “by far his greatest piece of writing, whether in prose or verse”. Here Wilde had adopted “a simple language in place of a decorative”, with “the plaining recurrence of word melody”, imagery, echo and refrain, and “repetition with slight changes” combining to create “a haunting picture of prison cell and high-walled yard”. If “Reading Gaol” had more enduring quality than the rest of Wilde’s verse, Williams was not led into rhapsodic appreciation: “Yet none of his writing in verse is of special importance; nor can it be said that his English poetry would be regrettably poorer had Wilde never written save in prose.”
Williams treated Wilde as a minor figure in English literary life. Was this an erasure of Irish distinctiveness or an English colonisation of Irish literary territory? Rather than launching into righteous indignation, it might be more fruitful to examine Williams’s treatment of Irish writing in detail. If Wilde was indeed treated as an English or British writer among others, this was not at all the general fate of Irish writers. In fact, the five chapters of Part II were devoted exclusively to Irish material. The first of these was a survey of the Celtic Revival, which Williams saw as part of a broad trend:
But the Celt has not been alone in asserting his nationality. England, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, the United States have all found expositors of the national spirit, either conceived in the whole or mirrored in small provinces, counties and towns.
Beyond this nineteenth century reaction against a rather abstract eighteenth century universalism, Williams saw a further trend:
And this decentralisation of literature may be regarded as one aspect of the widespread agitation for decentralisation of government, which is but a natural reaction against the extension of world-empires with wide, involved and complicated interests.
At this point, Williams makes an important distinction:
But the literature of the Celtic races is not, as is the new literature of our colonies [the white settler colonies, presumably] or America, the expression of a full and overflowing life, it is the refuge of a little people driven into the corners of the earth and prevented only by the western sea from flying further.
Williams did not dwell on what drove the “little people” to the edge of the Atlantic. He had already made it clear that, in the aftermath of Mathew Arnold’s On the Study of Celtic Literature, much nonsense had been written on the racial origins of the Celtic spirit. His own interpretation presents a semi-racial clash of weak and strong:
The Celt from his islands, his margins of strand and his fastnesses in the barren hills has flung back, in these latter years, upon the onset of a material civilisation a spiritual, religious and mystical poetry, prose and drama, as in the old unhappy days he flung himself in vain upon the oncoming Saxon, Dane and Norman.
We might want to look more closely than Williams does at this supposed anti-materialism in light of what happened and didn’t happen in post-Famine Ireland. Still, we can hardly look to him for rigorous analysis of political and economic power. The fact is that Williams was happy to acknowledge contemporary English-language writing from Ireland. Yeats and AE had an individuality “beyond that of all but two or three contemporary poets writing in England” – and the author of The Well of the Saints, he thought, combined poetry and the highest truth like no other dramatist. In fiction, however, Ireland had nothing distinctive to boast of. That is why the rest of Part II was devoted to poetry and drama. The chapter on Irish poets dealt with Yeats, AE, Hyde, Lionel Johnson, Synge, Padraic Colum, James Stephens, “John Eglinton”, Charles Weekes, JH Cousins, Thomas Keohler, George Sigerson, “Seamus MacCathmhaoil” and Seamus O’Sullivan. Hyde’s translations rightly took their place alongside works they had influenced.
If the list excludes women, this is because, strikingly, Williams saw fit to devote a separate if somewhat shorter chapter to “Irish Poetesses”, introducing them thus:
In latter years Ireland has given birth to a larger number than England of women who reach a creditable level of poetic attainment, although, with one or two exceptions, the prevalence of effusive sentiment and carelessly fluent versification is a shortcoming characteristic of the Irish poetesses.
The one or two exceptions were “Moira O’Neill” and Eva Gore-Booth. The latter was praised on two main grounds:
There is no suspicion of a desire to shirk reality nor any suggestion of intellectual weakness in her thought, mystical and obscure as it may seem to many readers. Furthermore, the technical quality of her poetry is admirable, and she writes with an inborn gift for the choosing the perfect phrase.
Those who were judged to fall below this standard, for various reasons, were Jane Barlow, Alice Milligan, Ella Young, Nora Hopper, Katharine Tynan and Dora Sigerson Shorter.
Where drama is concerned, Williams saw Synge as incomparably superior to all his Irish contemporaries, though Lady Gregory was praised at some length for her one-act farces and dialogues. Irish novelists were not excluded from his survey but they were treated together with their British fellows: “The Irish novel […] has little relationship with the Celtic Revival, and, indeed, presents no marked and distinctive features that diversify it from the contemporary novel as it is written in England.”
Williams considered Stephen Gwynn, George Bermingham, Canon Sheehan and James Stephens inferior even to earlier Irish writers such as Carleton, Lever and Lover – “whatever may be [their] faults of exaggeration and melodrama”. Among women novelists, Barlow, Tynan and Hopper featured, alongside Somerville and Ross (“commendably written and vigorous if a little tiresome and laboured in humour”).
Harold Williams was of his day in some of his prejudices, but he was frank in articulating the reasoning behind his artistic judgements. Critics, when not completely forgotten, are in danger of being remembered for getting things completely wrong. Williams emerges with some credit from the test of time – or the test of a century at least. What is interesting is how the Irish Revival forced itself on the attention of a critic who was by no means an enthusiast for Irish nationalism and also how, from his point of view, Irish writers were not automatically to be treated separately from their English equivalents. Their Irish origins and subject matter could be registered as in the case of Scottish or Welsh writers and then read within the field of English/British writing. For Williams, this is where Oscar Wilde and (despite his period of enthusiasm for the Revival) George Moore belonged. Only when writers engaged deeply with Irish realities within a consciously Irish framework was it necessary to give them special consideration in chapters of their own within surveys of English writing. (Williams was also frank about the fact that some minor poets who really belonged in the general chapters had been placed in these Irish chapters simply for convenience.) Like the Home Rule Party operating with an Irish identity within a larger British political framework, English-language literary culture in Ireland was part of the British literary field. Williams saw the Irish Revival as a passing tide:
The times will prove too much for the Gaelic League and the Celtic Revival but a losing fight nobly played is more inspiring and valuable than overwhelming victories easily gained. The Irish literary movement, as a movement, will expire and leave no mark on practical life but it will leave some dreams and a little good art to be remembered when the commercial triumphs of our age are forgotten and have ceased to interest the men of another time.
Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews, the editors of Handbook of the Irish Revival, have a rather more positive sense of the period and a far stronger sense of its extra-literary impact. The first sentences of the introduction set the tone:
The Irish Revival, which took place between 1891 and 1922, was an extraordinary era of literary achievement and political ferment. This period generated not only a remarkable crop of artists of world significance, but also a range of innovative political thinkers and activists, among the most influential that Ireland has produced.
Given that cultural change is less date-bound than political history, it is striking how unhesitatingly Kiberd and Mathews proclaim 1891 the beginning of the Revival and 1921 its conclusion. Even if both Yeats and Joyce incorporated the death of Parnell into their personal mythologies, must this date – and the implicit narrative of a diversion from (British-framed) constitutionalism to cultural separatism – be granted such significance? The choice of 1921 as the conclusion of the movement is equally dictated by politics. The Handbook is, admittedly, as concerned with political and intellectual as with literary developments.
Be that as it may, what the editors (and most others who write about these decades) emphasise is how strongly the Revival stands out against what preceded and what followed it: “In contrast to the darker nineteenth century, the Revival stands out as an intense phase of intellectual rejuvenation that fashioned a new civic culture outside the scope of institutional religion, the colonial state and conventional politics.”
The near-swagger of the writing here is more characteristic of Kiberd than of Mathews. As we go on, we shall see if the Revival truly stands out as suggested above, but first we should look at what the Handbook offers its readers. The production values of the original hardback edition – the use of colour and attention to paper quality and typeface, for example ¬– pay homage to the Abbey Theatre’s early engagement with publishing. (That the hefty volume comes at a remarkably low price is a further welcome surprise.) The main challenge for the editors is to convey the ferment of the period. Kiberd himself has previously done that through studies of individual talents (Synge and, more recently, Joyce) and through his influential work Inventing Ireland. Just as Kiberd’s teaching has drawn generations of students to Irish literature and culture, Inventing Ireland has provided an intellectual gateway to the Irish Literary Revival for readers around the world. In the Handbook, the balance tilts away from the major figures towards the intense activity in the undergrowth – which we might see as the territory of Kiberd’s collaborator PJ Mathews, as suggested by the full title of his major contribution to Irish Studies, Revival: the Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League and the Co-operative Movement. Sourcing the range of material sampled in the Handbook must have demanded an impressive process of investigation and discovery.
How should material ranging from the 1916 Proclamation to a poem by Anna Parnell be presented? With a nod perhaps to a certain centenary, the editors present from seven to twenty-six items under each of sixteen different headings: “A Country in Paralysis?”, “A Thought Revival”, “Movements and Manifestos”, “Language Revival”, “An Irish Literature in English”, “Theatre Matters”, “The Natural World”, “Mind, Emotion and Spirit”, “Religion”, “The Wider World”, “Education and Popular Culture”, “Social Conditions”, “Women and Citizenship”, “A Sovereign People”, “Militarism/Modernism”, and “After the Revolution” . The sections are of course not watertight: given that politics and theatre are intertwined, that spirit and religion are not clearly separable, that Yeats and others were active in numerous arenas, and that the Gaelic League was a seedbed for numerous other developments, it is perfectly understandable that names recur or that, for example, Douglas Hyde’s key text, “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”, should figure in several sections. A passage from Mary Colum’s autobiography, Life and the Dream, could be taken as indirectly endorsing this aspect of the editorial approach:
Any public meeting by any organization for any movement would very likely be addressed by a selection of people prominent in all the other movements. The witty Sarah Purser who, as I write this, has just died at the age of ninety-six, used to say that they were like a stage army – they marched round and round.
We should not forget on how small a social stage the Revival was acted.
A breakdown of “An Irish Literature in English?” (a section that features Mary Colum) will demonstrate how the book works in practice – and what lines of enquiry it may open up for the reader. In an extract from an 1893 talk given in London, Stopford A Brooke wants the treasures of the “perishing” Irish language to be comprehensively translated: “Translation, then, is our business. We wish to get the ancient Irish literature well and statelily afloat on the worldwide ocean of the English language, so that it may be known and loved wherever the English language goes.”
Effectively, this is more a nineteenth century antiquarian than a Revivalist statement – as is also suggested by a contrast between “true nationalism” and “all our political angers”. Brooke also asks that “Irishmen of formative genius” – Yeats was surely on his mind – should take this somewhat incoherent raw material and shape it into narratives structured around clearly delineated religious or passionate themes. He is followed by Hyde, in an extract that points to the fear of popular urban culture to be found among both nationalist and unionist leaders, and among their religious counterparts: “We must set our face sternly against penny-dreadfuls, shilling-shockers, and still more, the garbage of vulgar English weeklies like Bow Bells and the Police Intelligence.”
Some of the urgency with which Hyde threw himself into working for the Irish language can be ascribed to the fear that, if matters continued as they were, Ireland would very soon present little more than anti-English political rhetoric combined with the worst aspects of English culture. It is no argument for doing nothing that anyone playing a part in history will at some stage be skewered by its ironies. Thus, in their annotation of “A Ógánaigh an Chúil Cheangailte/Ringleted Youth of My Love”, as presented and translated by Hyde, the editors write: “The very success of Hyde’s collection caused the defeat of its primary purpose. Instead of popularising Irish-language literature, it made the creation of a national literature in English seem all the more possible.”
In the next extract, Mary Colum captures beautifully the vivifying effect of the Love Songs of Connacht, so many of them written from the point of view of a woman, on a spirited, intelligent woman of the young generation. She wonders at the failure of the English government (her term) to foresee that cultural ardour “was bound to develop towards another and more determined fight to throw off the English yoke”. There is a little too much ardour, perhaps, to the last sentence of the editorial comment on this piece: “As young women and men mingled freely at Gaelic League weekend events in country houses (often under the baleful eye of some local parish priest), a whole new sexual order seemed possible.” This is more than Mary Colum, a wise and worldly woman by the time she wrote her autobiography, ever suggests. And while she was writing, it may be added, young enthusiasts for the language were still mingling and flirting at gatherings and on Gaeltacht holidays under the sexual order of the 1940s.
Colum is followed by the young Patrick Pearse, who could then countenance no true national literature outside the Irish language. Elsewhere, we meet Pearse the poet, Pearse the theorist of bilingual education, Pearse the modernist (“no literature can take root in the twentieth century which is not of the twentieth century”) and Pearse the agitator. Pearse is followed by DP Moran on the “Battle of Two Civilisations”. If the earlier rather strident Hyde quotation was part of a subtle overall argument, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that DP Moran’s entire programme is a more combative amplification of that particular paragraph. Moran is followed by two Yeats extracts that indirectly respond to him and to Hyde. William Rooney, a nationalist writer who owed much to Davis (and, like him, died young) also argues that even those whose ultimate goal is to restore Irish to a primary position should accept the need of the existing English-language public in Ireland for a literature that speaks to them. Ethna Carbery’s translation of “Mo Bhuachaill Cael-dubh” follows. (Was it included to show that others followed Hyde in translating Irish love songs or because Carbery, an associate of Alice Milligan’s, had to be fitted in somewhere?) The last piece in the section, by Thomas MacDonagh, attempts to distinguish between creative and mechanical use of what would now be called Hiberno-English – and applies the distinction to Synge, whom he sees as a powerful writer but one who “crammed his language too full of rich phrases”, with not enough grounding in ordinary language.
In theory and to a great degree in practice, each item in a section is in conversation with the others, just as the various sections speak to each other: the cumulative effect is to suggest the range and depth of political and cultural life that can be brought under the label of Revival. It is here, almost unavoidably, that difficulties arise. It was from a base in British literature that Harold Williams mapped out the Irish Literary Revival. There is no single correct way to present and anthologise the phenomenon. Even if we take the 1891 – 1921 dating as given, how is the Irish Revival itself to be defined and represented? Was there such a thing as the Irish Revival? Do we include only those who felt themselves part of such a movement? At what point do we draw the line between disagreement within the Revival and disagreement with the Revival? How do we draw the line between things that happened to happen during the Revival and those that are unimaginable without the cultural acceleration of the Revival movement? How do we convey the world, cultural or political, against which the Revival defined itself? How do we convey military, political, class and cultural power as it operated in Ireland? In more concrete terms, how can the nature of Pearse’s multi-phased journey towards the GPO be conveyed if we do not have a sense of how British power operated in Ireland, of what drove Ulster unionism to refuse even the mildest measure of autonomy for Ireland within the Union or how significant sections of Tory Britain in its religious, military and political manifestations could urge on, follow or benignly observe the sons of Ulster marching towards sedition? (Of course the way in which such questions are asked or evaded defines history-writing as well as anthologising.) No matter how wonderfully the job is carried out, an anthology like the Handbook of the Irish Revival will never fully answer such questions. Here, then, are some more – shorter ones before longer.
In “A Thought Revival”, couldn’t something finer have been found to represent Alice Milligan than a poem marked by numerous awkwardly engineered rhymes? And does the later extract about costume-making do much more to show a vivid personality and intelligence in action? Are the editors not stretching matters in suggesting that “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” can be read as “a rousing self-help manifesto”? As, unlike the William Bulfin passage that precedes it by a few pages, Robert Lloyd Praeger’s writings date from the 1930s and later, and as he might well be seen as an Irish outgrowth of the wonderful English tradition of nature-writing, do they really belong here? (An extract from a primary-school textbook on nature from the 1920s might have been more apt and closer to the Handbook’s target dates.) Is it not a little disappointing that the poem by Eva Gore-Booth that aligns feminist ideas with the openness and freedom of the natural world is so vague and conventional in its evocation of nature? And doesn’t the George Moore extract about AE and visions at Newgrange belong in the “Mind, Emotion and Spirit” section? (Moore’s novel The Lake, on the other hand, might have been plundered for some of its minutely detailed descriptions of nature.)
If Conrad is mentioned in connection with Casement, could we not be told of his refusal to support the campaign to save his former friend from execution in 1916? (It is the failure to register this point that rendered the Donnacha Dennehy/Colm Tóibín opera about Casement and Conrad recently premiered at the NCH more of a sentimental political fiction than it needed to be.) In choosing John Frederick MacNeice (father of Louis) to represent anti-Covenant thinking in 1912, aren’t the editors being led by that famous name to the neglect of another clergyman, the impressive and consistently courageous Armour of Ballymoney? And did yet another woman activist, Anna Parnell, also have to be represented by a well-meaning, perhaps psychologically revealing, but verbally inert poem?
There are times, perhaps, when the borders of the Revival are drawn too generously, when clouds of positivity occlude class politics, and when the level of dispute within the Revival – certainly within the Revival period – may be underplayed. These issues can again be approached through specific sections. After a passage on Irish women’s education by Mary EL Butler and Maud Gonne’s recollections of the patriotic anti-Royalist treat for children organised by Inghinidhe na hÉireann in 1900, the third item is Percy French’s “The Queen’s After-Dinner Speech”. This is described as probably “the most famous comical poem of the Revival” and its use of Dublinese is highlighted. The editorial comment acknowledges the mockery directed at Yeats and Maud Gonne but concludes by reading a gentle subversiveness into this recitation piece: “It is interesting also that French could imagine a waiter in the viceroy’s lodge harbouring his own private reservations about those who affected to own the world.”
Surely, rather than with the counter-discourse of the Revival, this entertaining speech is better situated within the well-established tradition of fond condescension towards the lower orders in Ascendancy and middle-class nineteenth century fiction and song. It differs little from the earlier “Barney Maguire’s Account of the Coronation” (of Queen Victoria), with its description of the festivities at Westminster Abbey:
Then the crames and custard, and the beef and mustard
All on the tombstones like a poultherer’s shop;
With lobsters and white-bait, and other swate-mate,
And wine and nagus, and Imperial Pop!
There was cakes and apples in all the Chapels,
With fine polonies, and rich mellow pears –
Och! the Count Von Strogonoff, sure he got prog enough,
The sly ould Divil, undernathe the stairs.
The 1922 edition of The Irish Reciter (directed “at all who cultivate the graceful art of elocution, or appreciate a choice store of literary gems”) advised care in the use of Irish brogue:
Coming from lips familiar with its use there is a subtle charm in this, that is not easily acquired or assumed by those who are not to the manner born. But those who have any power of mimicry, and ear for intonation and inflection, can do much to give local tone and colour to passages of pathos or of humour.
The temptation to find subversive subtext in every Irish utterance need not be ceded to on all occasions. In the commentary on “The Mountains of Mourne” in the same section of the Handbook, reference is rightly made to the moments when the song shades into French’s “characteristic stage-Irish whimsy”, though this is balanced by a certain “genuine lyric intensity”. The commentary does not, however, pick up on the reconciliation under a benevolent monarch that is promoted in the third stanza.
Missing here is the young Brian O’Higgins – renowned later for his Wolfe Tone Annual and his greeting cards – who made a name for himself as the Gaelic League’s counter-French, with songs and verse attacking the RIC, Rathmines shoneens and indeed the charitable activities of Lady Aberdeen (“Mrs Microbe”). “The Ringsend Babies Club” concludes :
An’ then they take the babies from the hampers an’ the bags,
An’ wrap them up in Union Jacks an’ coronation flags,
An’ comb their hair with curry-combs, an’ stuff their ears with silk;
An give them half-a-teaspoonful o’ disinfected milk;
An’ then they dedicate them to the service o’ the Crown,
An’ while they sing “God save the King” they jig them up an’ down,
They Pasteurize them, sterilize them steep them in a tub,
An’ hang them on a line to dhry – in the Ringsend Babies’ Club.
We may laugh – but we should not forget the appalling child mortality rate that, after her fashion, Lady Aberdeen was addressing. That Percy French remained a staple of Irish musical culture into the 1950s and ’60s (Brendan O’Dowda recorded dozens of his songs) points to cultural continuities largely undisturbed by the upheavals of the Revival.
Something similar might be said of religion. While extracts from Frederick Ryan, John Eglinton, Elizabeth Burke-Plunkett and Father Michael O’Riordan tackle such subjects as secularism, bigotry and Catholic attitudes to business, the rest of the section is taken up with more visionary matters, as in Yeats’s “The Secret Rose” and Joseph Mary Plunkett’s “The Little Black Rose Shall Be Red at Last”. The unintentional result may be to make the power of Catholicism in the Free State almost incomprehensible. We should not forget the devotional tracts, the lives of saints, the religiously inflected fiction and other unmystical and untheosophical publications that constituted ordinary religious fare, before, during and after the Revival.
DP Moran’s Leader was one of the few outlets that hosted attacks on the indifference to beauty in Catholic Church architecture in Ireland, not to mention the general reliance on cheap imported statuary. If Moran also denounced the impermeability of the upper reaches of banking and other sectors to Catholics, the same point was being made in less strident fashion in the politically and intellectually milder New Irish Review. Other continuities are suggested by the resemblance in tone and content between that publication and the Studies of the 1920s and 1930s.
Some of the points raised in this review are a response to the sheer enthusiasm of the editors for their subject, but the very format of the Handbook is an invitation to discussion and debate. We have travelled far from the world as seen by Harold Williams a century ago. Half a century ago now, CK Stead’s The New Poetic painted Yeats (and Eliot) not against the much-maligned Georgians, but against the imperially-minded Henleys and Newbolts who complacently dominated the English poetic scene. More recently, in Helen Carr’s The Verse Revolutionaries, Yeats and Joseph Campbell and Desmond Fitzgerald (soon to play a key role in fighting the Irish War of Independence on the journalistic front) are integrated into a generous and illuminating narrative that takes us from the Philadelphia of Ezra Pound and HD to London and further afield.
The editors of the Handbook will surely be hoping that their work will enliven teaching of the period in universities, will stimulate debate and will lead to the discovery and rediscovery of seemingly minor figures. For the generous range of material the Handbook gathers and for the fresh eye it brings to the period, Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews are to be congratulated.
Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, interviews and reviews in the fields of cultural history, music, poetry and politics to a wide variety of publications. His doctorate, recently completed at DCU, re-reads Irish cultural history from 1820 to 1920 through the lens of classical music.