Culture - Literature and Drama in English


Irish writing in the English language is called Anglo-Irish Literature to distinguish it from classical English literature on the one side and literature in the Irish Language on the other. The sense of tension in the word Anglo-Irish reflects a question of national identity which has energised that literary tradition from William Molineux’s Case of Ireland Stated (l698) to the Report of the New Ireland Forum of 1983, from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) to Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds (1939). Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was a contemporary of Aogán Ó Rathaille, last of Gaelic Ireland’s dynastic poets. Though the two lived on the same island their worlds hardly touched, and there is irony in the fact that one tradition was born while the other expired. Ó Rathaille’s theme was the decay of the old Gaelic Catholic order; Swift’s theme was the humiliation of the Irish Protestant nation at the hands of the London parliament. Neither writer heard the other’s voice. Yet the development of an Irish literary tradition was to involve the mutual discovery and interpenetration of these two nations, their languages, aspirations and culture.

The first great development in the 18th century, colonial, period was almost totally Protestant, its temper classical, its perspectives cosmopolitan, its focus London with its clubs, theatres and town houses. It could be said that the English comedy of manners from the Restoration to the rise of Romanticism was the creation of brilliant Irishmen, George Farquhar, William Congreve, Charles Macklin, Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The only sign of ‘Irishness’ in these writers was their affection for that comic personage - bibulous, irascible, generous, eloquent and sentimental - who came to be known as the ‘stage Irishman’.

These writers were typically educated at Protestant grammar schools and Trinity College Dublin. They gravitated to London, centre of the literary universe, and quickly became absorbed into that imperial consciousness. Swift, Steele, Burke and Sheridan were active in British politics. When Burke wrote about the miseries of Ireland it was in terms of a global responsibility that took in the French Revolution and the revolt of the American colonies. It was the duty of Augustan literature ‘with extensive view to Survey Mankind, from China to Peru’, and that perspective is reflected in the essays of Steele and the fiction and poetry of Goldsmith - though some critics have seen the withering of an Irish peasant community in his Deserted Village (1770).

With Swift it was different. His appointment as Dean of St Patrick’s, Dublin, in 1714 at once marked the end of his hopes for high ecclesiastical office and the start of his passionate involvement in politics. The problem of Anglo-Irish identity has seldom been better expressed than in his Drapier’s Letters, where he attacked Westminster for imposing its will on the Dublin parliament: ‘Am I a Free-man in England, and do I become a slave in six hours by crossing the Channel?.’ The feeling of resentment against England was a theme for pamphlet, satire and ballad through the century until the granting of legislative independence to the Irish parliament in 1782.

The new ‘Patriot Parliament’ brought not only a flowering of political thought and oratory - Grattan, Flood and Curran being the exemplary figures - but a surge of scholarly and poetic interest in that Gaelic Ireland that had seemed to be dying on its feet in the figure of Aogán O Rathaille at the beginning of the century. Charlotte Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry (see page 142) made available authentic Ossianic poems which had been only glimpsed in the famous forgeries of James MacPherson a generation previously. Edward Bunting published his Ancient Music of Ireland in 1796 and Thomas Moore was setting words to these airs in his famous Irish Melodies before the turn of the century. The spirit of the French Revolution and of the Romantic Movement in literature fuelled the patriotic balladry of the rebellion in 1798. But the sense of optimism and creativity which characterised these last years of the century was crushed by the Act of Union (1800) which abolished the Irish parliament and reduced the level of cultural activity.

The decades that followed were dominated by the ‘regional novel’. Its pioneer was Maria Edgeworth, daughter of a Protestant landlord, whose powerful influence on his own regional fiction of the Scottish Highlands was acknowledged by Sir Walter Scott. In her novels, most notably Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812) she addressed the vexed problem of Anglo-Irish identity, especially the role of the landlord divided between the lure of London and the responsibilities of his stewardship. Apart from their literary intentions these novels were directed at an English readership in an attempt to explain the condition of Ireland. Her lead was followed by Lady Morgan, and by the Catholic novelists, Gerald Griffin, John and Michael Banim and the prolific William Carleton, born to Irish-speaking parents in Tyrone in 1794. His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry provides the most authentic and vivid account of life among Ireland’s rural poor anywhere available.

Throughout the first half of the l9th century there was steady work in Gaelic manuscript study, folklore and translation by scholars like John O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry and Sir Charles Petrie, and such poets as Jeremiah Joseph Callanan, Edward Walsh, Samuel Ferguson and James Clarence Mangan. Their activities centred largely on the Ordnance Survey of the 1830s, the Dublin University Magazine and later The Nation newspaper; this had been founded in 1842 to renew the cause of Irish nationalism which had in a sense been shelved during O’Connell’s campaigns for Catholic Emancipation and later for Repeal of the Union. The Nation, addressing itself to an indigenous readership and insisting on the concept of autonomous Irish nationhood, could be said to have heralded the end of ‘regionalist’ writing. The cultural dimensions of nationality had by now been adumbrated in a substantial body of poetry based on native sources, historical, social and mythological. Therefore, when William Butler Yeats found himself at the head of a literary renaissance in the last years of the century he claimed the Nation poets as his cultural ancestors:

Know, that I would accounted be True brother of a company That sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong Ballad and story, rann and song

Nor may I less be counted one With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson.

The two most arresting events of the literary renaissance were, arguably, the performance of Yeats’s Countess Cathleen and Edward Martyn’s The Heather Field on a double bill in Dublin in 1899, and the publication of George Moore’s The Untilled Field (1903). Both events involve the interpenetration of the two cultures, both have resonances well beyond Ireland, and both contain in embryo the essential features of the movement. Yeats’s play, performed by an English company of actors, explored a traditional theme; Martyn’s brought Ibsen’s social realism to bear on Irish rural life. Moore, on the other hand, had returned to Ireland having made himself a reputation for adapting Zola’s naturalism to the English novel in Esther Waters. He was approached by the Gaelic League - recently founded by Douglas Hyde with the aim of reviving Irish as a spoken language - to write a number of simple stories which might be translated into Irish to act as models for its fledgling writers. As he proceeded with the task he realised that he could do for his own country what his friend, Turgenev - an exiled landlord like himself in Paris - had done for Russia in his Sportsman’s Sketchbook.

Moore remained in Ireland for the first decade of the century, long enough to write his finest novel, The Lake, and to compose his imaginative history of the literary revival, Ave, Salve, Vale, which began to appear in 1911.

Meanwhile, the theatre movement prospered. It found a permanent home in the Abbey Theatre in 1904, and by then a body of distinguished playwrights had emerged under its auspices - John M. Synge, Lady Gregory, Pádraic Colum and Yeats himself. Synge was the greatest and most controversial: his Playboy of the Western World caused a famous riot on its production in 1907. His death in 1909 ended the first great phase in the Abbey Theatre’s history.

In poetry Yeats moved from that early mode of the ‘Celtic Twilight’ which had reached its climax in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) to the engaged, muscular and combative poetry of The Green Helmet and Responsibilities (1914), whose title betokens a strenuous involvement with social and political issues. His contemporary, George Russell (‘AE’), continued in that vein of Celtic mysticism which he had shared with the early Yeats, though his ‘first disciple’, James Stephens, revealed a more adventurous and experimental spirit. In 1912 Stephens published, side by side with his most mystical volume of poems, The Hill of Vision, his novel of the Dublin slums, The Charwoman’s Daughter and his classic fantasy, The Crock of Gold. His experiments with prose fiction showed the way to a succession of fantasists including Flann O’Brien, Mervyn Wall, Eimar O’Duffy, even James Joyce himself, as in the Celtic grotesqueries of the Cyclops episode of Ulysses.

Joyce chose the expatriate route towards his chosen territory, what his hero Stephen Dedalus had called ‘silence, exile and cunning’. The route had already been taken by Boucicault whose witty melodramas like The Colleen Bawn and The Shaughraun relied to a great extent on the stock figure of ‘the stage Irishman’; and by Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw who had dominated the London stage in the 1890s. After his dazzling success with The Importance of Being Earnest and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Wilde died tragically in the last year of the century. Shaw continued to entertain London with his plays, prefaces and conversation for another fifty years.

Joyce’s devious and precarious course took him to Trieste, Pola, Rome, Paris and Zurich while he created a body of prose fiction that was to transform the novel. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man dramatised the inner consciousness of the growing artist with a suppleness and intensity of style never matched before or since in the bildungsroman. Ulysses (1922) deployed the mythic outline of Homer’s Odyssey to make its hero, a Dublin Jew named Leopold Bloom, the universal modern citizen and Dublin the archetypal metropolis ofwestern civilisation. Joyce’s relentless experiments with language and form went on to make Finnegans Wake at once the most brilliant and impenetrable prose narrative in the history of literature.

The short story continued to be a favourite vehicle for Irish writing. Daniel Corkery’s first collection, A Munster Twilight (1916), affectionately explored the ethos of his native province. His Hounds of Banba celebrated the guerilla warfare of the War of Independence in which his fellow Corkmen, Frank O’Connor and Seán O Faoláin, were actively involved. Their first volumes, O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation and O Faoláin’s Midsummer Night’s Madness in the early 1930’s, cast a colder eye on the armed struggle and on the quality of life in the new State. Beside them loomed the novelist and short story writer Liam O’Flaherty, whose vision of elemental life on the Aran Islands brought a new lyricism to the form. Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge (1942), with its passionate contemplation of life in the midlands, revived a sense of organic form which looked back to Joyce and forward to James Plunkett’s evocations of Dublin in his collection, The Trusting and the Maimed (1959).

The tradition of the ‘Protestant Nation’ which Edith Somerville and Martin Ross had inherited from dgeworth, Charles Lever and Charles Lover and developed in their witty Irish R.M. series, found its next great exponent in Elizabeth Bowen (1900-1973). Bowen’s novels, A World of Love and The Last September, explore the life style of the Cork gentry in a changing social and political world. The line continued through the light satiric fiction of Christine Longford and W. J. White to the brilliant short novels of Jennifer Johnston and the fiction of William Trevor, both of whom reflect the contemporary tragedy of Northern Ireland.

The second great phase of the Irish theatre began with Seán O’Casey’s ‘three blazing masterpieces’, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Plough and the Stars and Juno and the Paycock in the 1920’s. In the same decade Denis Johnston effectively introduced the techniques of Expressionism in The Old Lady Says No. Other notable dramatists of the time were Lennox Robinson, T. C. Murray, Paul Vincent Farrell and, a little later, Walter Macken and M. J. Molloy.

The contemporary theatre also displays both talent and vitality. Brian Friel, who had already achieved an international reputation with Philadelphia, Here I Come (1964), reached new heights of excellence with Translations, The Faith Healer and Making History (1988). Thomas Murphy, who had an early success with Whistle in the Dark (1961), scored a hit with his brilliantly experimental Gigli Concert (1983). His Bailegangaire (1985) was given its premiere by Druid Theatre Co. with Siobhán McKenna. This was followed by Too Late for Logic in 1989. Hugh Leonard, one of the few to conquer London and New York at the same time, has crowned his achievement with two brilliant sister plays, Da and A Life (Da has now been filmed). Other notable contemporary playwrights are Frank McGuinness with Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme (1985) and Innocence (1986); Michael Harding with Strawboys (1987) and Una Pooka (1989); Dermot Bolger with The Lament for Arthur Cleary (1989) and Blinded by the Light (1990).

The most daring of experimental dramatists has been Tom MacIntyre whose theatrical rendering of Kavanagh’s Great Hunger on the one hand, and of the inner workings of Swift’s creative psyche in The Bearded Lady on the other, have called forth the Abbey’s full resources of dance, mime, music, feature, costume and decor. The works of Thomas Kilroy (Talbot’s Box), J. B. Keane (The Field), Graham Reid (The Death of Humpty Dumpty) and Bernard Farrell (I do not Like Thee Doctor Fell) continue to sustain the liveliest period of Irish theatre since the death of Synge.

After the death of Yeats the world of poetry was divided between Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh. Austin Clarke (1896-1974) moved into his great period in 1938 with a volume of lyrics, Night and Morning. His poetry was especially notable for its range of prosodic resource and the intensity with which it rendered what he called ‘the drama of racial conscience’. Kavanagh (1904-1967) is considered by many to have written the greatest long poem of contemporary Ireland in The Great Hunger with its tragic hero, a small farmer in Monaghan.

A number of outstanding poets began to publish in the 1960’s - Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Derek Mahon, Richard Murphy, Anthony Cronin, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland, Brendan Kennelly, and Seamus Heaney. Kinsella’s Nightwalker (1968) and Montague’s The Rough Field (1972) addressed in very different idioms painful questions of personal and national identity. The former’s Butcher’s Dozen was a controversial public response to the Widgery inquiry, while Montague’s long masterpiece remains a pertinent reflection on the tangled inheritance of Northern Ireland. Mahon, Longley and especially Heaney have evolved sophisticated responses to the matter of Northern Ireland with each in his own way facing the equally bleak questions of identity posed by the common human inheritance of a terrible century. Seamus Heaney (b. 1939) is Ireland’s best known poet of the present day, noted for his lyric evocation of the Ulster countryside with its tragic underdeposit of history. He has been Oxford Professor of Poetry and presently teaches at Harvard. Among his works are Station Island (1984) and Seeing Things (1991). Brendan Kennelly and Paul Durcan have garnered huge followings for poems that, in their different ways, offer a radical critique of modern Irish life. Michael Hartnett stands out as a poet whose unillusioned lyrics reclaim for the English language tradition characteristic themes of the part-submerged high-Gaelic tradition. All of these poets work in the central, lyric, tradition which comes down to us unbroken from the Gaelic, mediated through Yeats in the English language. Eavan Boland, a lyric poet with a keen sense of history and its exclusions, gives these inheritances a new cast, examining her life as a woman and Irishwoman of the late twentieth century from a considered feminist perspective. Her work has been influential in empowering a new generation of women poets.

The towering figure in fiction as well as drama after the death of Joyce was the Nobel Prize winner, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). Beckett’s first novel, Murphy (1938), launched him on an exploration, at once bleak and hilarious, of humanity’s absurdity sub specie aeternitatis, reaching its climax with the great trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Other versions of the absurd were pursued by his contemporary, Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) in At Swim - Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. Benedict Kiely and Brian Moore both began their writing careers in the fifties and have since kept in step in the range and variety of their themes and their experiment with fictional form. In the sixties The Barracks and The Dark marked the appearance of John McGahern as a remarkable novelist. Of the older generation, Aidan Higgins and Edna O’Brien have constructed memorable Irelands in their different ways, but the rising generation of prose writers, most notably Dermot Healy, Evelyn Conlon, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin, and Glenn Patterson, are all striking out into individual territories, apparently uninfluenced by their older contemporaries.

The seventies saw Francis Stuart’s crowning achievement in the novel, Black List, Section H, a psychological self-portrait of great intensity. It was also in this decade that John Banville published the first of his subtle, reflexive fictions, Long Lankin. He has since completed his trilogy, Doctor Copernicus, Kepler and The Newton Letter, in which he dramatises the birth of modernism in human consciousness. His novel The Book of Evidence was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1989.

Ireland in the 1990’s is celebrating a second literary renaissance. With the writers of the 1960’s still for the most part vital and publishing, there is now a new generation of considerable talent coming through: in prose Hugo Hamilton, Dermot Healy, Patrick McCabe and Roddy Doyle - winner of the 1993 Booker Prize for his novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha - have appeared to considerable critical acclaim as have, in poetry, Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian from the North, together with Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin, Paula Meehan, Thomas McCarthy, Philip Casey and Matthew Sweeney from the South. In theatre, Sebastian Barry, Dermot Bolger, Declan Hughes, Billy Roche and Marie Jones are already playwrights of considerable achievement.

by Michael Green
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