Revivalism and Modern Irish Literature, by Fionntán de Brún, Cork University Press, 316 pp, €29.95, ISBN: 978-1782053149
The idea of cultural revival and the problem of continuity have been presences in Irish literature since the seventeenth century. In this new book Fionntán de Brún offers a nuanced and detailed reading of the literature that has engaged with these themes over four centuries. The author of this impressive, scholarly and lucid work also addresses the topic in a broader intellectual and philosophical context. It is a subject which is arguably due a revisiting. The ideas and insights in Fionntán de Brún’s book uncover once more, for our consideration, what is the central theme of Irish intellectual and cultural history, the loss of a culture which prevailed for a millennium.
As a subject, revivalism has been thoroughly mixed with ideas around the ideal of political restoration or autonomy. The passionate ideologues of the Irish Counter-reformation made their political and cultural case very comprehensively from abroad. Sometimes the connection has been more implicit than explicit. In the eighteenth century, the century of the defeated, the emphasis was more on the covert preservation of tradition through the distribution, copying and securing of ancient and contemporary work in manuscript form. Later, the European Romantic movement was to provide a new grammar and language which allowed the topic to be understood in a modern political and philosophical context. This was the ideological engine behind early twentieth century revivalism
Once independence was won in the wake of 1916, the question facing Irish leaders and ideologues was how to make revival real. It was then that the tenuous and tentative nature of the relation between the cultural and the political was to become clear. Those different spheres would never march in lockstep.
Two stories of Pádraig Ó Conaire encapsulate the difficult character of the relationship between the political and the cultural. The first is “An Sgoláire Bocht” (The Poor Scholar); it concerns the transmission of inherited knowledge and how the present will get in the way of reviving what has been lost or almost lost.
An old man, the repository of extensive and ancient cultural wealth, seeks someone to preserve the knowledge he holds and to carry it forward once he dies. He locates a young man whose family, it transpires, have in their possession an ancient manuscript. Using it, the old man teaches the young man Old Irish and given the young man’s enthusiasm, it appears the transmission will be successful. But disaster follows; the contemporary world and its passions intervene. The young man is instructed to destroy the manuscript by a priest who, following the use of the Irish language by Bible missionaries, associates the language with efforts to topple Catholicism and replace it with evangelical Protestantism. The story illustrates the reality of the interrupted relationship the present has with the past and thus the impossibility of continuity.
The second story “Bé an tSiopa Seandachta” (The Antique Shop Muse) is set in Dublin just before the 1916 rising. Two men fall in love with a beautiful young woman who works in an antique shop where she is custodian of a vast array of moribund imperial bric-a-brac. One of them is a revolutionary and the other a police agent charged with watching him. The revolutionary is executed following his involvement in the rising. The policeman recognises that what he does is essentially negative and empty. The woman, reversing the traditional role of a muse, becomes herself inspired and comes to realise that a new beginning is possible, that change is possible. She rejects the policeman and is ideologically and personally transformed.
There was a huge optimism and belief among the intellectual class in the early decades of Irish autonomy that revival was possible across a broad cultural range. There was faith in the idea of a new beginning. Individuals made huge personal sacrifices to help bring the desired transformation to pass. We are in a privileged position in relation to those early twentieth century enthusiasts: we know what happened; we know the dream of revival failed.
The economic difficulties and continued demographic collapse of the early decades of independence must have contributed to the failure to arrest decline and to revive. Optimism is hard when population decline seems impossible to halt. Again, attachment to the ideal of sudden change as embodied in Ó Conaire’s story probably did not help. Sudden and substantial cultural change does not occur. No mass revolution is possible at the cultural level.
Now that the country is wealthy, is it any different? The answer to this may well be yes, that there are now new possibilities. There are even green shoots, but we will never realise Hyde’s ideal of rendering “the present a rational continuation of the past”. Ruptures cannot be wished away.
In a world where we have learned the importance of maintaining biodiversity, it is not difficult to apply the associated insights to cultural diversity. We know the blandness ‑ not to speak of the danger ‑ of a reduced and homogenised nature and we can apply this feeling also to human culture.
Looked at again, a version of Hyde’s idea might well serve. Where there is a cultural willingness, the rediscovery of a nearly lost past may grow naturally, organically and rationally from the uneven terrain which four centuries of rupture have bequeathed to the present.