Cultural Nationalism Ireland Essays

The role of the theatre of the Irish literary revival in the politics of identity is a question central not only to the study of Irish theatre and Irish cultural nationalism, but to the broader dynamics of cultural politics at the beginning of the 20th century. This book pursues the complex relationship through a panoramic study of Irish drama and the nationalist debate 1890-1916. It demonstrates that close scrutiny of precise contexts are required if the importance of theatrical text and events are to be thoroughly evaluated. Extending the range of material examined beyond canonical works, an ... More

The role of the theatre of the Irish literary revival in the politics of identity is a question central not only to the study of Irish theatre and Irish cultural nationalism, but to the broader dynamics of cultural politics at the beginning of the 20th century. This book pursues the complex relationship through a panoramic study of Irish drama and the nationalist debate 1890-1916. It demonstrates that close scrutiny of precise contexts are required if the importance of theatrical text and events are to be thoroughly evaluated. Extending the range of material examined beyond canonical works, and beyond Dublin to the influence of Cork and Ulster, it tackles many neglected and forgotten works which through reconsideration of their reception are given new force. The lesser lights of the Irish revival are also seen to illuminate anew writers such as W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and J. M. Synge. The evolution of cultural and political nationalist groups such as Irish Ireland, the Gaelic League, and Sinn Fein is similarly examined to reveal a shifting terrain of nationalist opinion disturbed by issues of class, gender, and generation. This book concludes that Ireland's theatre had a pivotal role to play in the controversies of its time and in the coming revolution.

Keywords: Ireland, Irish nationalism, Irish revival, Irish theatre, Yeats, Synge, Gaelic League, Sinn Fein

Bibliographic Information

Print publication date: 2002Print ISBN-13: 9780199253432
Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199253432.001.0001

Irish Nationalism:
Themes of Survival and Transcendence
in Modern Irish Literature

"'...the principle teaching of nationalism: the need to find the ideological basis for a wider unity than any known before.' This basis is found, I believe, in the rediscovery and repatriation of what has been suppressed in the natives' past by the processes of imperialism."
Edward W. Said, Themes of Resistance Culture



The history of Ireland is not unlike that of Britain in that it is marked by successive waves of invasion and colonization. Robert Welch writes in his book Changing States of a 12th century compilation called The Book of Invasions that details previous invasions of Ireland up to that point stretching back into antiquity (271); obviously "Ireland was a country which was being constantly invaded and resettled" (Welch, 272). When the Normans came to Ireland in the 12th century after having invaded southern Britain a century earlier, the cycle of invasion gave way to a cycle of British colonization and Ireland remains, at least in the North, in an imperial relationship with Great Britain to this day. This relationship has had political, economic, social, and cultural effects on Ireland and its people that have developed over hundreds of years and created situations, some unique to Ireland, others not, that Ireland is still struggling with today in its efforts to become a modern nation state with a distinct and productive culture. Its long history as a colony and the long-term effects of that history make the Irish struggle for and subsequent but problematic realization of nationhood, both imaginatively and politically, a major component of Irish identity. The nationalist struggle for independence, gathering force in the latter half of the 19th century and culminating in (some would argue partial) success in 1921, is an integral part of the island's recent history and was a core movement around which centered not only political activists but writers, poets, and artists who attempted to give voice to an Irish national spirit. I would like to look at three literary works that are framed around the years closely preceding and following the creation of the Irish Free State and that touch on some of the issues and problems associated with the Irish nationalist struggle and its aftermath. These will be the short story by James Joyce entitled Ivy Day in the Committee Room, the poem by William Butler Yeats called Easter, 1916, and the short story Rock-in-the-Mass by Daniel Corkery.

Colonial History of Ireland

However, before discussing these works, it might be useful to present a brief synopsis of the political situation in Ireland from the 1600's until the period of the first story, Ivy Day..., which is set between 1900 and 1910, since an understanding of these historical conditions can only deepen an appreciation of the chosen works. Ian Lustick points out in his study State- Building Failure in British Ireland & French Algeria that "few historians of British imperialism include Ireland within the purview of their studies" and tend to treat Ireland and the Irish question as idiosyncratic, or as "the great exception" (77); this, I suppose, because Ireland has neither successfully assimilated into the British state as Wales and Scotland have nor completely broken with Great Britain in a successful bid for independence as most of Britain's former colonies have (British troops still occupy Northern Ireland).

Lustick's explanation for Ireland's unique situation is clarifying and intriguing. He writes that as early as 1557 under Henry the VIII, the English Crown desired ultimately to incorporate Ireland into the realm of British authority and the vehicle for this was seen to be the implantation of British settlers into Ireland who would Anglicize the natives (6-7). There were successive waves of these settlers until the 18th century but the effect was not to legitimize British rule among the Catholic majority but rather the large settler populations interrupted the processes of the British co-option of the local elites and the extension of political rights to the native population that Lustick maintains is necessary to redirect loyalty to new central authorities and are processes essential in successful state-building (8). Lustick agrees with the assessment of the Irish situation given by British politician Sir John Davies in a book he wrote in 1612, "...that those great English lords did to the uttermost of their power, cross and withstand the enfranchisement of the Irish" (Lustick, 17), because they rightly perceived (as the Protestant Ascendancy would later) that the native elites, who commanded the loyalty of the native majority, were threats to their own privileged economic and political positions (Lustick, 18).

Thus, despite periodic attempts by the central British authority to assimilate Ireland into the British state and, Lustick maintains, corresponding interest on the part of the local Irish elites to form a political alliance with Britain, the English settlers continually opposed and frustrated these efforts. The settlers succeeded in enacting laws in the 18th century that prevented Catholics from political participation and made it difficult for the "descendants of Catholic landowners to maintain their families' estates intact" (Lustick, 32). Restrictions were placed on Catholic land ownership, education, and voting and the wealth and influence of the Anglo-Irish settlers grew proportionately. At the end of the 18th century, a resurgent Catholic rebellion took place which prompted the British government to offer full and permanent union between Ireland and Britain and in 1800, the Union was approved. But the accompanying promise of full Emancipation for the Catholic majority was never implemented due to the influence of Irish Protestant opponents (Lustick, 36-7). Thus, the full incorporation of Ireland into the British state sought by Britain for centuries existed in name only due to the steadfast refusal of the Anglo-Irish settlers to agree to extend the full rights of British citizenship to the Irish Catholic majority. Though the government finally and grudgingly conceded voting rights in 1829, Catholics began to conceive the loosening of the ties to Britain as the solution to their problems and this view fueled the Movement for Repeal of the Act of Union in the 1840's, the Home Rule movement that occupied center stage in Irish politics from 1874 until 1913, and finally the independence struggle, waged explicitly from 1916 "until-and beyond-the secession of southern Ireland in 1921" (Lustick, 38). Lustick concludes that just as "the powerful influence of the settlers in [London] politics...prevented permanent incorporation by blocking treatment of the native inhabitants of peripheral territories as equal citizens of the state, their influence also insured that Ireland could not be disposed of in a straightforward way" (84), i.e. granted full independence since the settlers depended on the protection and power of the central state. One result is the partition situation that exists in northern Ireland today which seems endless and unresolvable. Yet, though some aspects of Ireland's situation were and are still unique compared with other British colonies, Lustick makes clear that it is neither impervious to analysis nor beyond comprehension.

One of the devastating results of the shutting out of the Irish Catholic majority from participation in political and economic life until the 19th century was that "Ireland came to occupy a different period of time to that occupied by England;" what Brian Cleeve refers to as the "time-warp factor" (16). Cleeve goes on to point out that in 17th century England "Newton was abandoning alchemy for science, the agricultural revolution was soon to begin, in turn making possible the Industrial Revolution; [but] Ireland was untouched by any of this" (18). Robert Welch agrees that as a colony of England, Ireland was "cut off," and experienced the modern period, from about 1600, through an English transmission; "Ireland, unlike most other European countries, did not have the opportunity of fully experiencing the experiments of individualism, enterprise, collectivity and modernization that are known as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment" (1). But the cultural effects of Ireland's isolation were even more dramatic. The native Irish did not have a system of representation in the larger society that could reflect their way of life and show it to be of value so "the tendency will be to invent ceaselessly, to contradict, to venture as many versions as possible, anything rather than try to face the absence, the emptiness, the lack of continuity" (Welch, 18). Welch's analysis is particularly applicable to a reading of Joyce's short story Ivy Day in the Committee Room. This story is pregnant with the atmosphere of futility, distress, trauma, patience, and steadfast waiting that Welch sees occurring between the active period of Home Rule campaigning led by Parnell and the final push for independence begun in earnest in 1916 (287). Yet, to understand the depths of loss and aimlessness felt by the characters in Joyce's story, one must understand who Parnell was and what he meant to many Irish nationalists.

Between 1869 and 1900, Irish politics was dominated by the Home Rule movement. Initially arising from conservative Irish Protestants, the movement was rapidly transformed into a radical mass-based, nationwide Catholic organization dedicated to the destruction of Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland (Hutchinson, 151). (Protestant Ascendancy refers to the encoding in law of the right of only Protestants to govern within the British state dating from the brief period when, led by Cromwell, Puritans ruled England (1640-1660). But though these laws were repealed in England after the Restoration of the monarchy, they were not done so in Ireland for almost three hundred years.) Led by Charles Stewart Parnell, the movement coordinated a campaign of parliamentary disruption at Westminster and agrarian agitation in Ireland (Hutchinson, 151), "conducting a virtual war against British legitimacy in Ireland between 1879 and 1882" (157). Parnell's sweeping electoral success in Ireland in 1885 led to a balance of power favoring the nationalists in the House of Commons yet Parnell's very success heightened divisions in the country between Protestants and Catholics, clerics and radicals, revolutionaries and constitutionalists (Hutchinson, 158); the Catholic land war caused Protestants to fear a Catholic social revolution and the Catholic Church began to fear the agrarian radicals would turn against the clergy. Parnell's party formed an alliance with British Liberals and seemed on the verge of pushing through a Home Rule bill when he was involved in a public divorce scandal in 1890. The Church condemned Parnell on moral grounds and Parnell died a year later. His supporters lost in the general election of 1892 (Hutchinson, 162).

James Joyce's Ivy Day in the Committee Room

Joyce's story takes place in the aftermath of these events when there existed an atmosphere of general disillusionment with mass democratic politics. Parnell's legacy and the political splintering that followed his death are very much in evidence in Ivy Day in the Committee Room. Both Mr. O'Connor, the first canvasser the reader meets (120), and Mr. Hynes, a canvasser for an opposing candidate (123), are wearing sprigs of ivy in their lapels in remembrance of Parnell and Mr. Lyons points out the hypocrisy of welcoming the British King Edward VII to Ireland when it is well known he is guilty of the "moral weaknesses" for which Parnell was attacked and toppled from power (134-5). Mr. Henchy credits Parnell with his one genius, being able, for a while, to unite the various factions in Irish politics in service of the larger goal of independence (135). The loss of this promise and the fragile unity Parnell briefly forged is what the canvassers mourn at the story's end with the recitation of Mr. Hynes' poem. The ironic unity of their shared grief contrasts with the splintering of the political alliance that brought Parnell down and temporarily dashed the hopes for Home Rule.

Joyce's story is emblematic of the political times in other ways. Though the political climate appears listless in Ivy Day in the Committee Room compared with the excitement Parnell had brought, the importance of voting and elections to the story's characters is clear. By 1910 over half the adult males could vote in parliamentary elections and by 1918 male adult suffrage was almost universal while about one-third of adult women could also vote and "to vote for nationalist electoral candidates was to participate in a collective affirmation of nationalism" though this electoral unity never signified unity in aims or political motives (Fitzpatrick, 414). The Catholic Church's involvement in politics was also profound and with its betrayal of Parnell, one can detect the distrust and suspicion with which many were coming to view it. In the story, Father Keon is portrayed as a skulking, unhealthy character whose "errand" is very suggestive of political corruption (127). Finally, the lack of economic opportunities for able young men is made plain in the discussion between Mr. O'Connor and the old caretaker of the caretaker's son (120-1). As Mr. Henchy points out later, "Look at all the factories down by the quays there, idle!...It's capital we want" (134). Though economic hard times were taking place all over Europe in the form of rising inflation, declining wages and trade dislocation, the eruption of class conflict in Ireland with the organization of the unskilled laborers of Dublin into the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1908 by Marxist leaders James Connolly and Jim Larkin tended to undermine nationalist unity and expose the failure of the various factions to reach the large working-class population (Hutchinson, 186). The two forces that Cleeve contends were at work in pre-WWI Irish revolutionary circles, one working-class and Marxist, the other middle-class and Nationalist (34), are detectable in the story with Mr. Hynes' defense of his working-class candidate, "a good honest bricklayer and a publican" (122), compared to the middle-class bourgeois politician "Tricky Dicky Tierney" (123) supported by the other convassers. These two forces would come together in the Easter Rising of 1916 with disastrous results for the Marxists (Cleeve, 34) but this period also saw the unification of the political nationalists of various stripes represented in Joyce's story, who were focused on a more secular, rationalist idea of nationhood with the cultural nationalists, focused on nation as represented by its distinct civilization of which William Butler Yeats was a prominent leader (Hutchinson, 12-3).

William Butler Yeats' Easter 1916

Cultural nationalism conceives of a nation as a creative force, nations are not just political units "but organic beings, living personalities, whose individuality must be cherished by their members in all their manifestations" (Hutchinson, 13) and as a movement, cultural nationalism seeks to "re-unite the different aspects of the nation-traditional and modern, agriculture and industry, science and religion-by returning to the creative life-principle of the nation" (14). Whereas political nationalists concentrated on the "practical" aspects of achieving independence, the cultural nationalists were concerned with imaginatively constructing (or reviving) a national identity that could exist in a metaphorical dimension alongside the actual steps toward statehood. Cultural nationalism attempted to address the "crisis of representation" alluded to earlier in which the Irish sought, for centuries in vain, to see themselves mirrored and represented in the society around them (Lloyd, 6). Since a civilization is a spontaneous social order, it cannot be constructed from above but must be "resuscitated from the bottom up"; thus, cultural nationalists tend to establish decentralized cultural societies and journals in order to inspire members in a given community by educating them to their common heritage (Hutchinson, 16). Cultural nationalism, like political nationalism, was a complex movement composed of various groups. In its most simple division, it first emerged in the 18th century among Irish Protestant settlers whose weak identity gradually formed out of a series of conflicts between native Catholics and metropolitan Britain. Later in the 19th century, cultural nationalism emerged among the native Irish community already powerfully defined by their Catholic religion and onto which a native Gaelic revivalism was grafted (Hutchinson, 46-7). Thus, the two movements were also defined by their differing emphases: The Catholic groups tended to concentrate on the revival of the native languages and the Anglo-Irish Protestant groups supported a literary revival whose writers wrote in English but who attempted to incorporate Irish dialects and syntax, as well as ancient myths and legends, into their works.

From the mid 1880's to 1914, William Butler Yeats was at the hub of the Anglo-Irish literary revival "producing a stream of poems, plays, and manifestos" (Hutchinson, 131). I think there is no doubt, as Lloyd writes, that Yeats saw the function of the writer, and thus his own role, as one of mediating "the continuity of the national spirit," to uncover "common ground beneath political conflicts," so that Irish literature would become a central idea that formed a social bond (15). While Britain was preoccupied with fighting on the Continent, various leaders came together in 1916 to attempt to throw off British rule. James Connolly, leader of the Marxist political nationalists and cultural nationalists like Patrick Pearse and MacDonagh lost their lives either in the uprising or in its brutal aftermath. Ironically Pearse, a language revivalist, had promoted the idea of national redemption through the sacrifice of life (Hutchinson, 157) and Connolly's death marked the end of any realistic chance for socialist politics in Ireland. These three men, along with MacBride, are named by Yeats in Easter, 1916 in which he commemorates the passing of those that he knew who died in the uprising. But the poem also questions the revolutionaries' use of violence and whether the nationalist cause was worth such a sacrifice.

Yeats relied on the study of legend, mythology, and language to reveal the connection between the individual and the larger passions and dominant patterns of thought and being that made up the traditions of a people or a nation. In understanding these connections, one could arrive at a greater and truer reality than the everyday one we see around us. Yet in the first two stanzas of Easter, 1916 one can detect some confusion on the part of poet as he relates chance meetings before the uprising with those who later died and how they had seemed so ordinary; ironically, he seems startled by the posthumous discovery of the extraordinary within the ordinary. He exchanged with them "polite meaningless words" and mocked them behind their backs (84). One man seemed "sweet" and "sensitive" while another was a "drunken, vainglorious lout" yet they became the same, transformed through the sacrifice of their lives (84). The poet points out the tendency to transform martyrs into symbols by doing it rhetorically in the poem; their common purpose and subsequent death becomes, in the third stanza, a stone "To trouble the living stream" (85). But their common sacrifice seems "troublesome" to the poet, it is a "terrible beauty," and Lloyd suggests what troubled Yeats was that "this transformation takes place not through the intermediary of poetry but in consequence of violence itself" (69). Perhaps Yeats was reacting to a trend that Fitzpatrick notes took place in the year or so after the Uprising in which it became fashionable for youths to seek out arrest in order to attract admiration but Fitzpatrick also points out that while few nationalists believed violence was at all times an appropriate form of political expression "still fewer believed that it was never so" (405). As Frantz Fanon would write years later, "decolonization is always a violent phenomenon" (35). However, I agree with Lloyd's contention that Yeats is concerned with the paradox suggested by the symbol of the stone that both marks the deaths of national martyrs while causing one to recursively question its foundational function in the creation of a future state (71-2). Yet in the end the legitimacy of the "transformation" of violence and death in the founding of a nation is irrelevant. One may wonder if their deaths were "needless" but "We know their dream; enough /To know they dreamed and are dead" (85); the legitimacy of the sacrifice is achieved through the naming and remembrance of the martyrs led by the poet who writes "it out in a verse" (85).

The other issue brought out by Lloyd above (69-71) is that in Easter, 1916 Yeats may be working out his realization that through their self-sacrifice, the national martyrs have asserted their complete identity with the nation, consequently displacing the poet's symbolic deployment of the lore of the country. Poetic reflection is relegated to a secondary place in which the poet records the transformation after it has occurred, evidenced in the passive "All changed, changed utterly" (84). Though Yeats acknowledges those who became national martyrs, it is clear the poet is disturbed not only by the violence they engaged in but by the level of their sacrifice which in a very real way transcended language. And in transcending language, such a sacrifice not only displaces the poet's authority but subverts the faith that many cultural nationalists had in the power of literature and language to transform a nation. Conversely, Easter 1916 committed the remaining revolutionary leaders in blood to Pearse's vision of an Irish speaking republic, thus Gaelic revivalism became part of the official ideology of the nation (Hutchinson, 307). Or as Cleeve succinctly puts it, because of the tragic events that took place in Easter 1916, "Political nationalism and the Cultural Revival Movement became one and the same" (24). And perhaps this uniting of forces, even at the expense of compromised ideology, gave the nationalist movement the final impetus it needed to secure an Irish Free State.

Though the initial popular response to the Uprising was one of antagonism, this mood changed to anger after the leaders were executed and a military regime was imposed. With the cultural and political nationalists now working together, albeit dominated by middle-class urban revivalists, they capitalized on the popular mood and taking into account the combined factors of the failure to implement Home Rule and the threat of British conscription in 1918, were able to revive nationalist fervor. The Sinn Fein nationalist movement won victory in the parliamentary elections of 1918 (Hutchinson, 189) and, when hostilities began between Irish and British forces in 1919, Sinn Fein mobilized widespread popular and clerical support and finally secured an independent (if partitioned) state in 1921(Ibid.). Many opposed the partition treaty but Kiernan maintains that the rebel fighting in the brief civil war that followed in 1922-3 was done by "little more than a scattering of guerrilla bands" (49).

Patrick Pearse, martyr in the Rising of Easter 1916, had predicted "A free Ireland would not, and could not, have hunger in her fertile vales and squalor in her cities..." (Brown, 13). Yet free Ireland was no different than most post-colonial states. The nationalist struggles were in large part led by a middle-class that was "partly formed and to some degree produced by the colonial power"; after independence they replaced the colonial force and "one simply gets the old colonial structure replicated in new national terms" (Said, 74). Ireland's economy had been deliberately and artificially distorted and retarded by centuries of colonial management and the Free State inherited these stagnant economic conditions. The economic stultification found a resonant echo in an intense period of social and religious conservatism. The cultural flowering that characterized the pre-independence years, the product of invigorating clashes between Anglo-Irish cultural nationalists, literary revivalists, political nationalists, and Gaelic language enthusiasts, withered in the homogenous, largely rural and traditionally Catholic environment of the twenty-six newly liberated counties. The Irish Catholic Church, throughout the 1920's and 30's, censored foreign books, films, and newspapers (Cleeve, 27). Writers who had fought in the liberation struggle, like Frank O'Connor and Liam O'Flaherty, were particularly disillusioned when their work was censored by the ruling ideology during this period (Brown, 154). It is against this backdrop that Rock-of-the-Mass, published in 1929, takes place.

Daniel Cockery's Rock-of-the-Mass

Rock-of-the-Mass tells the story of an Irish Catholic peasant farmer, Michael Hodnett, who manages within his lifetime to move his family to, and finally purchase, a farm previously owned by the gentry called Dunerling East. Yet the years of unrelenting hard work take their toll in the deaths of his wife and several of his children due to overwork and sickness. The lush fertility of the new farm contrasts sharply with the old family farm that has been left behind with its rocky, barren hillsides and chilling mists. After centuries of large-scale land appropriation and transference from Catholic landowners to Anglo-Irish settlers who often then required high land-rent fees of tenant farmers that tended to keep peasant farmers in poverty, the Irish peasant's obsession with the land is understandable. When those who own the land control the land, a fundamental thread within any nationalist movement is for the local inhabitants to regain land control and ownership. And even though land reform slowly took hold in the years preceding independence, mostly due to the efforts of the Land League, with an act in 1903 making it possible for two-thirds of the tenantry to be in possession of their farms by 1917 even though they still paid rent (Kiernan, 32), poverty was widespread and peasant ownership was rare. As a typical, hardworking Irish Catholic peasant, the struggle to hold, maintain, and wrest a living from the land emerges as the central struggle of Michael's life. This struggle is made all the more difficult by the crushing poverty he and his family live in most of their lives, an outmoded legacy of colonial policies. Only Michael's youngest sons benefit from the prosperity that Michael's hard work eventually achieves. Thus, though the story details the ability of some exceptional Irish peasants like Michael to better their lives, lift themselves from poverty, and purchase their own property in post-colonial Ireland, in an underdeveloped and stagnant economy the struggle is still almost inhumanly difficult.

Michael's emotional attachment to his old farm, founded on years of toil but also on family memories and the comfort of a traditional way of life, make him question, like Yeats in Easter, 1916, whether the life given has been worth the sacrifice. Michael's anxiety centers around the Rock-in-the-Mass, a stone formation on his old farm and from which the farm gets its name, where secret Catholic Masses were held in previous centuries when it was illegal for Catholics to practice openly. A local superstition that "where a Mass was ever celebrated an angel is set on guard for ever and ever" (100) causes him to fear that the protection such a supernatural presence brings will be lost if he moves to Dunerling East. But though the idea is implied that the death of his family members may be due to the loss of this protection, the old man himself doesn't express regret that he moved but only regrets that as the farm became more successful and he is finally able to purchase it, his loved ones are not present to share his triumph with him. Only when he catches a distant glimpse of the old farm as he is walking the outer fields of the new one and contains these two, like the past and the future, within a simultaneous field of vision does he re-establish the emotional connections that bind him to the land and unite his new life with his old, thus helping him to banish the "darkness and loneliness" of hard won but solitary triumph (108). And interestingly, in attempting to express all that his life of loss and struggle has meant to him, Michael finds himself unable to utter "even the first word of all the words that rioted within him" (110); as Yeats expresses in Easter, 1916, there are levels of experience and sacrifice that transcend language. By the story's end Michael has become a symbol of continuity because of his sustained efforts and advanced age, his experience filtered through his long but surprisingly clear memory, he bridges the hard and traditional life of the Irish peasant with the slow but perceptible emergence of Ireland into the modern world. But Michael's story is exceptional, more suggestive of possibility rather than prototypical, because the narrative also subtly alludes to other details of modern Ireland such as the waves of young Irish emigration that started in the 1930's (Cleeve, 32-3) shown in the case of Michael's son, Stephen, who has emigrated to America. Thus, in terms of the lack of economic opportunity in Ireland for able young men, little seems changed almost thirty years later, almost twenty after independence, since the young canvassers huddled around the fire in Joyce's Ivy Day in the Committee Room.

Much debate has gone into the question of exactly what is Irish literature? Must it be written in Gaelic or, if it's written in English does it lose its purity by being translated through the language of the former oppressor? Obviously, this paper does not attempt to address this issue directly but in my choice to focus on the theme of Irish nationalism and its centrality to modern Irish experience I am suggesting an approach and definition that might be more to the point, more descriptive of actual Irish experience than proscriptive of abstract notions and categories. Because of his idealism, Yeats may have failed to grasp some political realities but he did understand other real and profound processes such as the notion of transformation. He believed in the Irish instinct for the center, that in their faith in their own experience and the fact of their survival, their culture had the power to reflect and recreate their continuity. Given the current popularity of all things Irish/Celtic, he was right. The much touted Irish obsession with the past is simply the logical condition of any decolonized nation whose history is yet to be made or is being made as we speak and modern Irish literature, one chapter in an overarching cultural narrative, both reflects this myriad and multi-level process and is the social space in which Ireland's regeneration and transformation can be worked out, again and again. Such a process is the heart that circulates the life-blood of a culture and the dominant theme of nationalism that Irish literature explores and reflects in all its facets is proof of the culture's continuing vitality.


Brown, Terence. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922-79. Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1981.

Cleeve, Brian Talbot. A View of the Irish. London: Buchan & Enright, Publishers, 1983.

Corkery, Daniel. Rock-of-the-Mass. Edited by Ben Forkner. Modern Irish Short Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 1980.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963.

Fitzpatrick, David. "The Geography of Irish Nationalism, 1910-1921", pp. 403-39. Edited by C. H. E. Philpin. Nationalism and Popular Protest in Ireland. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Hutchinson, John. The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic Revival and the Creation of the Irish Nation State. London: Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1987.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York: Signet Classics, 1967.

Kiernan, V. G. "The Emergence of a Nation". pp. 16-49. Edited by C. H. E. Philpin. Nationalism and Popular Protest in Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Lloyd, David. Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Movement. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Lustick, Ian. State-Building Failure in British Ireland & French Algeria. Berkeley, University of California, 1985.

Said, Edward W. "Yeats and Decolonization," pp. 69-93. Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Welch, Robert. Changing States: Transformations in Modern Irish Writing. London: Routledge, 1993.

Yeats, William Butler. Selected Poems and Three Plays by William Butler Yeats. Edited by M. L. Rosenthal. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1962.

© 1996 Shirley Galloway


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