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"Mr. Brown's masterpiece..."
-- Michael Foote in the London Evening Standard

The Politics of Irish Literature
by Malcolm Brown

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The Politics of Irish Literature
From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats

by Malcolm Brown

Chapter One
History and Poetry: Some Irish Paradoxes

LET US MAKE a list of four names: G. B. Shaw, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence. If we asserted that these were the most distinguished writers in the British Isles during the first half of the twentieth century, we would probably not provoke much argument. But what a queer list it is, for three of the four were born in Dublin. A solitary, provincial city, noted in the commercial almanac chiefly as a shipping port for cattle on the hoof -- why should it have been called upon to supply most of a great nation's prime literary talent? A tentative answer that insinuates itself into our thought is that culture must breed most where most is going on, where the most profound and excruciating issues drive toward resolution. For, if Dublin in the last hundred years was the least opulent city in the British Isles, it was at the same time the most exciting.

Out of what is civic excitement generated, if not out of history? From Norman times to the nineteenth century, the history of Dublin was mostly the history of the Anglo-Irish wars. Norman, Plantagenet, Brucite, Marian, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Cromwellian, Williamite, French Revolutionary, and Napoleonic -- all the wars were reducible to one simple, transparent motif: Irish misfortune under foreign conquest. After Waterloo the wars recessed while Britain became the workshop of the world; and amid the celebrated advance of Victorian times, Ireland was the retarded child. There used to be a commonplace saying that Warsaw's slums were the foulest in all Europe; but an Irish poet demonstrated statistically that by comparison with tsarist Poland, Victorian Ireland had got much the worst of it. Out of the mountain of sociological data that describes the unhappy condition of Ireland, a single bit can serve for a summary, if the neo-Malthusians will allow it: in the eighty years between Young Ireland (1842) and the Treaty (1922) -- roughly in the life span of Yeats's father -- the population of England and Wales multiplied two and one-half times, but the population of Ireland shrank to one-half its original size.

Through the centuries of dominion, English statesmen found little occasion to exhibit toward Ireland the spirit of reciprocity that had successfully cemented their union with Scotland. Irishmen they regarded as just another of the lesser breeds, a prostrate enemy always behind in the indemnity payments. They adventured into Ireland, one historian has said, "as men visit a wreck on a neighbouring coast." Gladstone freely confessed that the English record in Ireland was the darkest stain upon the history of a splendid people. His testimony is informed, and we must underscore it. It is the pons asinorum leading into every phase of Irish cultural insight, and woe to the inquirer who cannot cross it, whether from sentimentality toward the ancien regime or from an obsession for irony, a "Paradox Lust" in Joycese. Cecil Woodham-Smith has noted that the study of Irish history requires a temporary conversion of the greatest English heroes into villains, and that Elizabeth I, Cromwell, William III, and (one might add) the younger Pitt and Lord John Russell will appear in Irish history in a special characterization quite distinct from their English or perhaps even their absolute stature. This conversion is not just optional, it is essential.

Indignity, chronic wretchedness, and occasional episodes of the most acute agony made up the permanent norm of Irish life. The corollary was perpetual Irish disaffection, alternately flaring defiantly or sputtering in impotence, but never quite dying away. One hundred years ago Ireland was a minor agrarian nation, poor and defenseless, while England was the most formidable power the world had ever known. There were Irishmen who refused to be overawed. They fell into the habit of defying English authority whenever they believed themselves able. When not, they cried shame in a loud voice upon the political Union binding them to Great Britain and employed the deadly Irish asperity in desecrating the imperial ideal which trueborn Englishmen understood to be ordained of God. One hundred years ago this dispute showed no sign of resolution or self-exhaustion, and it was ordinarily classified as "insoluble."

All English statesmen since the Wars of the Roses understood that the Irish tie was not secure. As realists they recognized the weight of Irish hatred and the probable embarrassments of statecraft that the amputation of Ireland would impose upon a dismembered kingdom. They knew the danger of adverse precedent and looked for guidance in the truism that so long as any first defection from the empire could be prevented, additional ones could by definition never occur. These truths they both "knew" and "embodied," to use the Yeatsian discrimination. They never questioned the wisdom of their fixed policy of crushing at convenience all Irish national ambitions, and neither moral argument nor physical threat altered their resolve in the slightest. "The Repeal of the Union we regard as fatal to the Empire," Lord Macaulay proclaimed in Parliament, "and we will never consent to it -- never . . . never . . . never . . . never till the four quarters of the world had been convulsed by the last struggle of the great English people for their place among the nations." In defiance of Macaulay's resolve, the Irish nationalists could bring no arms or likelihood of arms. Yet they posted up the reply: "If Irishmen are ever to enjoy the rights of human beings, the British Empire must perish."

Table of Contents
The Politics of Irish Literature by Malcolm Brown

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The Politics of
Irish Literature

From Thomas Davis to W.B. Yeats
by Malcolm Brown
Part I: The Peculiar Irish Setting
1. History and Poetry: Some Irish Paradoxes
2. Thomas Davis' Ireland
Part II: Young Ireland
3. O'Connell and Davis in Partnership
4. The Nation's First Year
5. The Retreat from Clontarf
6. Black '47
7. '48 and Insurrection
8. Beside the Sickbed: Carlyle, Duffy, Dr. Cullen
9. John Mitchel after '48
Part III: Fenianism
10. Mr. Shook
11. Fenianism Mobilizes
12. O'Leary and the Irish People
13. "The Year for Action"
14. The Agony of Fenianism
Part IV: Home Rule
15. The Ballot Box Once More: Isaac Butt
16. Parnell and Davitt
17. The Land War in Mayo
18. After Kilmainham: Bakhuninism in Phoenix Park
19. After Kilmainham: Davitt and Standish O'Grady Take Stock
20. The Irish Party in Maneuver
21. Enter: W. B. Yeats
22. Catastrophe
23. Poetry Defends the Gap: Yeats and Hyde
24. Literary Parnellism

Praise for
The Politics of Irish Literature
cover thumbnail for "The Politics of Irish Literature" by Malcolm Brown

"This brilliant study of the intersection of politics and literature in Ireland amounts to a dazzling portrait gallery. Reading it one feels about one the breath, warmth, and passions of the dead all come alive again."
-- Sean O'Faolain in the Manchester Guardian

"Mr. Brown's masterpiece has made me want to hire a nearby housetop and recite whole chunks to every passerby..."
-- Michael Foote in the London Evening Standard

"The author of the best book on George Moore now gives us what is in all likelihood the best book on the politics of modern Irish literature."
-- Virginia Quarterly Review

Professor Malcolm J. Brown with his son, Bruce Brown, Sumas, WA, July 1988

University of Washington Professor Malcolm J. Brown (1910 - 1992) with his son, Bruce Brown, in Sumas, WA, July 1988.

Additional reading -- Malcolm Brown's George Moore: A Reconsideration. Also see Bruce Brown's commentary on The History of the Corporation for Malcolm Brown's contribution to that work.

Time after time the nineteenth-century Irish rebels marched against the might of the empire, and always they were beaten back. Time and again they regrouped, shifted strategy, and prepared to march again. Ireland became the prototype of colonial unrest, an advance model for a great deal of subsequent world history. Most of the standard stratagems by which a small nation may defy a great one are Irish improvisations-among them, the very powerful (if often insufficient) weapon of nonviolent "moral force," the technique of the boycott (named for the astonished Connaught land agent who was its first victim), parliamentary obstruction, and urban guerrilla harassment against an army of occupation.

Beleaguered English authority in Ireland replied with imaginative countermoves. It updated ancient methods of divide and rule and made an Irish Sudetenland of Orange Ulster. It blanketed the land with old-fashioned constabulary and modern secret police. It set up numerous reform commissions and instituted a bold but tardy scheme of land redistribution. Most auspicious experiment of all, it found the good sense, when all seemed clearly lost, to order the British garrison to march up the gangplanks of waiting troopships and sail away. In 1921 that day did come at last; the compulsive word "impossible" dropped out of the discussion of Irish affairs and Ireland became, as foretold in Thomas Davis' old fighting song, "a Nation once again." Frank O'Connor remembered the hot summer morning in 1921 when the gates of Cork barracks swung open and the departing British troops in full war kit filed out. Cork men wept happily as "seven hundred years filled with more anguish than a world beside could show" were brought to a close.

On that July day the English statesmen who had always found strength in "the integrity of the empire" suddenly had to live with the fact that the integrity was broken. Their magic verbalism now worked its magic for the opposition. A provincial dispute had thereby blown up one of the great storms of modern history. Using Irish methods, India and Burma in their own good time detached themselves from English domination. After them came a stampede of new nations, as decolonialization around the world re-enacted the Irish pattern.

Afterward, the practical benefits of Irish liberation proved to be less than overwhelming. The new nation was "partitioned," that is, decapitated. Liberated Irishmen were disappointed to find that the burdens inherited from centuries of deprivation were not to be cast off overnight and that their aggressive nationalist instruments, born of adaptation to long English rule, were not demobilized easily, even after they had become a nuisance. Having pushed ahead of the times in escorting colonialism out the front door, Irishmen were also the first to discover that neocolonialism had slipped back through the kitchen window, as was said of God in Kant's metaphysics. Some Irish patriots confessed to a dead sensation of anticlimax in their hardwon victory. Ironists, especially of literary bent, have had a field day here. This phase of Irish history is not my story, but I might in passing give warning that in Irish matters, irony is often unsafe for the user. For example, Oliver St. John Gogarty once proclaimed that the Free State (the vessel of all the ironies and anticlimaxes) could never have survived except for W. B. Yeats. And nobody has ever proposed that independence ought to be called off as a bad job. Its long mission realized, Ireland subsided into repose, well earned and of uncertain duration. The ancient melodrama faded from Irish history and the foreign correspondents checked out of the Shelbourne Hotel. With lower blood pressure, Irishmen turned to confront the unheroic tensions and tasks of the new day.


One hundred years ago Irish political initiative flowed from the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), called the Fenians, an elite conspiratorial band of militant and battle-hardened nationalist partisans. For sixty years afterward the Fenians were to pursue their single goal-full separation of Ireland from the Union with Great Britain. They scheduled an insurrection for 1865, the year of Yeats's birth. They tried again in 1867, and twice they attempted a naval invasion of Canada. Their jail rescues were among the most sensational episodes of the century, as Ulysses reminds us. Later, some of them turned to capricious violence. Later still, standing in the shadows, they formed an intransigent cadre inside the respectable cultural and political organs of the constitutional nationalists. From first to last they harried the tired Irish moderates, warning that all the comfortable half measures must finally fail and that, in the words of James Clarence Mangan's bloody poem of 1846, "gun-peal and slogan-cry" must echo through the Irish mountain glens and "flames wrap hill and wood" before independence could be won.

In the dock and on the gallows the Fenians' demeanor was typically so proud and ferocious that sometimes their very enemies were converted. Their recklessness caught the Irish imagination. An exciting aura surrounded their raids, their escapes, their deaths, their colossal funerals, their colorful minor mechanisms of conspiracy-their disguises, codes, and secret movements "on the hillside" or "in their own keeping," as they put it. One of their secret codes inevitably made its way into Finnegans Wake.

All Fenians were war-oriented. But here agreement ceased and factionalism took over, accompanied by a hearty barrage of uncomradely abuse. As the original brotherhood fell apart, the dominant faction to emerge was the Clan-na-Gael, with headquarters in New York and led by an exile, John Devoy, a humorless Irish Cato. Devoy believed that Irish nationalists ought to make use of every weapon, not even excluding the legal. Curious to learn what a constitutional program could accomplish, he poured Irish-American money into Charles Stewart Parnell's Home Rule campaign and Michael Davitt's mobilization of land-hungry peasants in the Irish Land League. Devoy's spasmodic moderation outraged a rival Fenian faction, the "Dynamitards," led by Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, another exile hiding in New York. Rossa thought Parnell and Davitt "impure" and contemptible; and while waiting for the great war of liberation, he proposed to fill out the time with interim acts of terrorism in the Bakhuninist style. One of the Rossa group's degenerate splinters, the "Invincibles," carried out the notorious Phoenix Park murders in 1882, the year of James Joyce's birth. An illustration both of the Dynamitard mentality and of the extraordinary reach of cultural lag may be found in the opening pages of Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, which tell how a sixteen-year-old Irish boy found himself in a Liverpool hotel in 1939 determined (as we learn from Behan's biographer) to blow up the British battleships anchored in the Mersey with a package of sugar and some saltpeter.

Another Fenian fragment gathered around John O'Leary. Like all the rest, he waited hopefully for war against England; but he strenuously opposed Rossa's dynamite, Parnell's parliamentary campaign, and Davitt's peasant agitation, three equally damnable heresies in his opinion. Yet O'Leary's political differences had not fully isolated him from the two dominant wings, and in 1885 he was the most distinguished Irish revolutionary still alive, unbroken, out of jail, and at his Dublin post of duty.

Those who suppose that O'Leary was some sort of a boy scout in Irish history have misjudged their man. His purpose in life was to hasten the Irish revolution, not to impede it. In his old age all his reflexes from forty years of political work were intact. Shortly before he died and went down to his celebrated grave, he spoke at the dedication of a memorial erected in Dublin to honor James Stephens, the Fenian leader. He said: "This is not a time for making speeches. There is work to be done in Ireland, and every one of you knows what it is. Go home and make ready."s Young Joyce, watching O'Leary make his myopic course through the Dublin bookstalls, saw in him the living reminder of the Fenian principle of "physical force," the persuasion that it was wasted time to broach the Irish issue to an Englishman without a gun in hand. O'Leary had carried one himself in James Fintan Lalor's brief insurrection of 1849.

Sixteen years later he was chairman of the council of war that had prepared the first attempted Fenian rising. He was editor of the seditious newspaper Irish People, and his efforts to use the paper to call Irishmen to arms had led to his arrest, trial, and conviction for treason felony. On behalf of the idea of physical force, he spent five years in English prisons and another fifteen years in exile.


In the long interlude of quiet between insurrection, O'Leary practiced patience, struggled to calm his hotheaded comrades, and took up the methodical tasks of organizing for the next insurrection to come. He liked to proselytize, when he could, among the Irish youth, specializing in those he might by luck steal from the ranks of the enemy, the "Ascendancy" - the Protestant landed gentry and their satellites, who made up the resident corps of English rule in Ireland.

O'Leary's second passion was belles-lettres. He had a poetess in his own household, his sister Ellen, author of "To God and Ireland True." Another lady poet, called "Eva of the Nation," and the novelist Charles J. Kickham were his particular friends. His rooms were stacked to the ceiling with books, and he owned the best Anglo-Irish library of his time. He knew Turgenev, du Maurier, Whistler, and Swinburne personally. His brother Fenians were puzzled when he tried to hold them accountable for familiarity with the world's literary masterpieces as well as for revolutionary virtue, but he felt his two passions were inseparable. He believed that Irish poetry must be national, and Irish nationalism poetic.

In the mid-1880s O'Leary felt more than ordinary delight when he made a convert of young William Butler Yeats, something of a defector from the enemy and, a bigger prize, a poet of great promise. This fact O'Leary was among the first to recognize as he estimated the value of his recruit. "It is one of the many misfortunes of Ireland that she has never yet produced a great poet," said O'Leary in 1886. But he added confidently, "Let us trust that God has in store for us that great gift." For Yeats the meeting with O'Leary was the fateful encounter of his life, placing "the poet in the presence of his theme," a favor Yeats repaid by giving O'Leary the affection of a son and the place of highest honor in his poems and memoirs. Under O'Leary's tutelage Yeats began the apprentice study required of the new Irish-Ireland convert. He planned first to soak himself in Irish literature, lore, folkways, and history. Next he would write Irish literature. Then, in emulation of O'Leary's instinct for political organization, he too would organize. He would make a literary movement for Ireland.

There exists a record of Yeats's first appearance at the London branch of the Irish Literary Society, where he had come one stormy night to lecture "in an eerie voice" on the fairies. From that start he moved in on all the Irish cultural clubs, stirring a membership of giggling girls to beautiful lofty thoughts. He collected other Irishmen into patriotic claques, book subscription schemes, debating societies, commemoration committees, and much later, as his crowning organizational achievement, into a national theater. Later on he sponsored a press, a modest patronage system, and an academy. Except for the Abbey Theatre, the results of most of this frenzied committee work were not very important. But apart from the committees, Yeats was a prodigy of joyful literary incitement. We have many descriptions of his persuasiveness, from George Moore's at the outset to Frank O'Connor's at the finish. For half a century Yeats kept Dublin in a pitch of literary excitement from which there was no immunity except in flight, if then. When his work was finished, he had proved beyond doubt that, however delicate and impalpable the materials of his art might be, the literary imagination can be summoned forth and organized rather easily when all the conditions are ready.

Year after year the roster of Irish writers lengthened: Douglas Hyde, George Moore, George Russell, Edward Martyn, Lady Gregory, John Synge, Padraic Colum, James Stephens, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Daniel Corkery, Sean O'Casey. Ireland, said Yeats, had rocked the cradle of genius; "nobody could have hoped for so much genius." The celebrated literary formulations accumulated and cohered into an imaginative cosmos. The "terrible beauty" and the "terrible state of chassis," the "clean burial in the far north," and the snow "falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves" became familiar catch phrases wherever books were taken seriously; and Ben Bulben and the Aran Islands were soon features of the literary landscape as common as Walden Pond and Egdon Heath. The beggar "rolling a blind pearl eye" and the Tailor of Garrynapeaka, Oisin and Angus Og, MacDonagh's bony thumb and the guests of the nation, Gypo Nolan and the man who invented sin, Mrs. Casside and Minnie O'Donovan, Sean Keogh and the Countess Cathleen-these and a thousand other creatures poured forth, jostling each other like Cruikshank's people on a Dickens title page. The cornucopia was the Irish literary movement, a loose fraternity of Dublin and Cork writers who hoped to put their careers in step with Irish history, marching, as it seemed, in full exultant surge into a resplendent future.


Now we must move into a minor key, for here the fine harmony between Irish poetry and Irish nationalism begins to jar. For all its splendors, the history of the literary movement was also a history of troubles. In the first years of the movement Yeats had come to know well the squalls of Dublin public life, but he had ridden them out expertly. He had the support of O'Leary's wing of the nationalists, and he could safely count on the friendliness, or at worst the neutrality, of most other Irishmen. They applauded when he wrote of Irish topography, wedding race to "hill and wood." When he wrote "The Tables of the Law," they did not applaud and neither did they complain, but amiably acquiesced in his explanation that there must be an art for the few as well as for the many. In 1899 Cardinal Logue, who had not read Countess Cathleen but thought it probably heretical, was routed in public combat and silenced, and by a Protestant poet. Yeats did not even have to accept Arthur Griffith's offer to send out his strong-arm patriots, who stood by anxious for a chance to silence the pious hecklers.

Somewhere along the way Yeats's Fenian support was alienated and his working platform knocked from under him. He drifted free of the course O'Leary first set for him. O'Leary now had new disciples who looked toward 1916. Yeats challenged them for possession of the patriot's magic name; for while they had distinctly heard the old man say, "Go home and make ready," Yeats had only heard him say, "There are things no man should do, even to save a nation." Old comrades became irreconcilable enemies. Griffith's boyos now came to the Abbey Theatre as disrupters instead of cohorts. The collaboration of poet and people turned sour, and a paralyzing sense of futility settled over the writers, deadening the joy with which they had first launched their busy Irish projects.

Yeats's own poetic voice fell long silent. His often-quoted tribute to O'Leary as the origin of "all I have set my hand to" shifted into reverse in the next sentence: "I read with excitement books I should find unreadable to-day, and found romance in lives that had neither wit nor adventure."9 His attitudes veered about and grew embittered against his "fool-driven" land. Brooding hopefully on Armageddon, he began to spin out his cycles of history, tinkering among his wheels within wheels with a fervor reminiscent of a retired British colonel caught up in the Shakespeare-Bacon theory. Moore began saving up his spleen for Hail and Farewell, composed for five years in secret like an infernal machine assembled in the basement; then he went into exile, if voluntary expatriation may be so called. Synge died hounded and rejected. Next came a generation of writers specializing in antipatriotism. Systole, diastole-the idealist gave place to the "born sneerer." Irish writing passed into the hands of James Joyce, Liam O'Flaherty, Sean O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor, Patrick Kavanagh, and Austin Clarke. Yeats's indignation against Ireland arrived at the insult-sexual ("On Those That Hated the Playboy"). Joyce pushed on to the insult-carminative in the close of the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses, and stands as champion of the literary method that guaranteed a tavern brawl.

The insolence of poets, shouted from afar, from Zurich or Belgravia, or ventured under the license allowed a dying man, answered a blow with a blow. To be rejected in Dublin was not just an ordinary rebuff. Shelley, Byron, and Walter Savage Landor had embarked, too,. on political adventure, and William Morris even saw the inside of a jail. But their disputes were always free and fair, merely a grave difference among English gentlemen. For reasons easy to discover, Irish debate did not honor such rules of war. Dublin's verbal warfare was pitiless and deadly-whence arose her aesthetic causes celebres. Not counting the lesser skirmishes, five poetical disputes expanded into engagements known the world around. (1) During the week of 1907 in which Synge's Playboy of the Western World opened at the Abbey Theatre, riots occurred each night protesting unpatriotic aspersions against Irish chastity and loving-kindness. (2) Dublin's city fathers rejected with insolence the offer made by Lady Gregory's nephew, Sir Hugh Lane, to give a collection of paintings to the city, conditional upon the erection of an art gallery astride the Liffey to house them. (3) Joyce's failure to publish Dubliners in Ireland proved the respectable Dublin literary publishers to be liars and cowards. The Dublin popular press, supported by the cackle of bigotry and ignorance, subjected the Irish writers to a cross fire of sarcasms and mean conjecture for two decades. (5) Ireland celebrated her independence by inaugurating in 1929 a literary censorship whose zeal in the cause of old-maidish prudery achieved laughable, unimaginable, Platonic perfection.

Time hardly healed these wounds. After public derision of the poets had wearied itself, a massive, glacial indifference settled in. Said Yeats: "We and all the Muses are things of no account." Today the edifice of Irish literature is best known to Irishmen by hearsay, as another of those "attractions" -- like Bunratty Castle, though less remunerative -- which, for reasons that remain mysterious to the native, draw strangers from afar and sustain tourism. Foreign pilgrims used to lament that Yeats's Galway tower, Thoor Ballylee, which had once enshrined a lonely poet in communion with mysterious wisdom, had been repossessed by the milch cow, Ireland's other tribal totem older than Yeats's Anglo-Irish horse. Recently the cows were driven out and the tower was restored; not by popular demand, though, but by the Irish tourist board.


Meanwhile, as if through the mechanics of Yeats's interlocking cones, the literary slump in Ireland was balanced off by boom times abroad, where Irish writers were finding a very friendly welcome. Fastidious journalists in London declared Moore to be one of the most accomplished stylists of our language. An Englishwoman, Miss A. E. F. Horniman, who was also a Unionist, came forward to subsidize the Abbey Theatre. Yeats went often to dazzle the American lecture circuit, was considered for a British peerage, and won the Nobel Prize. Synge's box office in London was a sellout; some of the Abbey actors were called to opulence in Beverly Hills; and O'Casey reported that the Yankee dollar made up nine-tenths of his royalties. Joyce's fame, emanating out of Paris, shot up in dazzling splendor, and he became the most talked-about writer in Europe.

Yeats and Joyce both died at the opening of the Second World War, and at its close, as the Cold War commenced, a reassessment began in earnest. An enormous Yeats-Joyce-Irish scholarly and critical corpus accumulated, to which seemingly everybody, including the present writer, contributed his mite. The academic channels of belles-lettres filled with encomiums. Such a mass of posthumous laudation gathered about the great Irishmen that James Stephens' old-fashioned praise of Yeats in 1948 -- "perhaps the greatest since Tennyson" -- sounded like another case of Dublin spite. American appreciations traveled overseas to the desks of Dublin newspaper book-page editors who, unlike many of their countrymen, often knew their Irish literature expertly. They courteously reviewed them all, patiently pointing out the foreigner's inevitable errors -- that Standish O'Grady was the name of two different men, that the naval bombardment of the General Post Office and the shelling of the Four Courts were not the same historical transaction, and so on. Now and then they betrayed a humorous wonderment at the commotion, like Synge's old Aranman who concluded that Irish studies must be the chief occupation of the outside world.


The reverberations of acclaim won by Irish writers abroad among strangers and, on the other hand, the chilly reception accorded them by their fellow Irishmen make a cultural anomaly that has no parallel. Other great international writers one thinks of -- Goethe, say, or Victor Hugo or Mark Twain -- were indigenous above all and found their esteem abroad only a mildly pleasant echo of their esteem at home. The Irish writers' formally declared purpose was even more explicitly national. Yeats was to be at "one with Davis, Mangan, Ferguson" (an ambition criticized as immodest by the Dublin press). Lady Gregory wrote "to give dignity to Ireland," George Moore to record "what Paddy Durkin and Father Pat would say to me by the roadside." Even Joyce, as every undergraduate knows, aimed to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." These were the ideals; in actuality they had to find all their friends in Paris, in Sweden, in Naini Tal, in New Haven, in Sassenach England, while Paddy Durkin and Father Pat passed by on the other side.

Playing over a familiar score, we have now reached the page where the popular disenchantment-with-Ireland motif is usually sounded. According to the customary interpretation, O'Leary was a type of the tempter who leads poets down the political road to artistic suicide. Better the Irish writers should have taken Ezra Pound's advice to "swill out these national movements"; then they might have been spared their victimization by the Irish multitude, which spurned and soiled their generous high gifts. Have the writers not themselves cried out in pain that Ireland is "the old sow that eats her farrow," a land of "stupid, boorish, and dispirited people," "maimed at the start" by "great hatred" in "little room," where nothing could thrive but the "convent, the public-house, and the racing meet," or in another of George Moore's triads, where nothing could thrive but the celibate: the nun, the priest, and the bullock? Has it not been written that the Irish informer is "indispensable" to Ireland's "hurley-stick rebellions" and that "all that was sung, all that was said in Ireland is a lie"? Irish literature sometimes seemed to know no other subject than the vulgarity and greed of the party politicians, the life-denying bigotry of the clergy, the ignobility of the Irish rabblement. Second thoughts on this conclusion would seem to be not merely gratuitous, but actually perverse.

But what fickle haters the writers were. Irish ignobility, Irish grandeur, these contraries flashed on and off with such a wayward impulse that the Irish do seem surely a queer sort of people at the latter end of the Western world.

A Muse by these is like a mistress used,
This hour she's idolized, the next abused.

Yeats's "indomitable Irishry" of today were his "rats" yesterday, and Joyce's lousy Irish cur mutated occasionally into a noble wolfhound. Literary commentators are more consistent. They do not forgive Dublin the trouble she gave her writers. Their outlook is somewhat myopic, for when all is said, Dublin's bounty was infinitely more generous than Sweden's. "Strife is better than loneliness," said Yeats's favorite Gaelic proverb. To understand what he meant, one must try to imagine the Irish writers transported to Belfast, or Sheffield, to keep the comparison to English-speaking cities of Dublin's size, or to the author's own city, Seattle, where theater riots are naturally quite unknown.

Whatever the charms of the disenchantment-with-Ireland motif, the Irish historical place and time were in fact necessities to the poets. At the height of the movement Yeats and Moore liked to quote Turgenev: "Russia can do without every one of us, but not one of us can do without her-Woe to him who thinks he can, and woe two-fold to him who actually does without her! The cosmopolitan is a nonentity-worse than a nonentity; without nationality is no art, nor truth, nor life, nor anything." If the Irish theme were deleted from the work of Synge, Colum, Lady Gregory, Stephens, O'Casey, Joyce, O'Flaherty, O'Faolain, O'Connor, or Kavanagh, nothing at all would be left. If it were deleted from the work of Yeats, most of the best would be gone. The least Irish of the writers in the movement, Lionel Johnson, still did his best work in Ireland. "The green shadow of a Ferrara wall" or some other distant haven for the imagination often tempted the Irish writers. Sometimes temptation won and some alternative path was chosen. All did lead as predicted to nonentity. It is undoubtedly the case that had it not been for Yeats, John O'Leary's name would not be known outside of Ireland. But this proposition can also be turned around without absurdity. Or at least the point has been argued by one formidable witness, Frank O'Connor, who thought that "but for an accidental meeting with the old Fenian leader John O'Leary, Yeats might easily have ended as a fine minor poet like Walter De La Mare."

In a more elegant variant, the disenchantment motif concedes this dependence and grants that O'Leary's meeting with Yeats was a necessary first step in the operation of the "fortunate fall." Ireland made the bed where one could carry out the symbolist directive, se coucher dans la merde, and participated in the creativity of her writers in the sense that John Wilkes Booth might be said to have made a contribution to "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Irish experience is thought to be an agon and Irish literature a transfiguration of Irish ignobility into the exaltation of art. The Lane art gallery affair had put Lady Gregory through one of these transfigurations, the subject of a poem by Yeats, "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing." This poem was later paraphrased in W. H. Auden's familiar line on Yeats which fixes the attitude handily: "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry."


But was Ireland really mad? To look skeptically on Auden's infectious epithet discloses that it has been hiding one of those large intellectual vacuums that curiosity must eventually find disconcerting. What precisely was the relationship of the Irish literary movement to Ireland itself? The answer to the question calls for a bit of digging.

Our inquiry opens with a fact: in 1886 Yeats received from O'Leary certain Irish books that were to initiate his career. What were the books and what did they say? We can answer these questions by consulting a reading guide for patriots published by O'Leary in that year. This little pamphlet, What Irishmen Should Know, is interesting for its anticipation of several of Yeats's own opinions: that learning the Irish language was beyond the capabilities of the human brain, but that the Gaelic legends and poems were just as good in translation anyhow; that Irish folklore and mythology were precious national possessions, though lacking any imaginable applicability; that James Clarence Mangan was a better poet than Thomas Davis, but that neither one was the poet Ireland really deserved. As the pamphlet shows, O'Leary started his pupils out with a very inclusive course in Irish literature, not forgetting such fringe claimants as George Farquhar and George Berkeley. Upon this base he envisioned that a more intense fire would be lighted by the deeds and words of a group of literary revolutionists of the 1840s called Young Ireland, and by their mouthpiece, the Nation, the most important Irish nationalist newspaper in nineteenth-century history. That extraordinary journal had voiced decade after decade the unrehearsed responses of embattled, eloquent, and intelligent men to each week's new crop of Irish errors, lessons, small victories, and large frustrations, and it made a prime vehicle for the "felt history" of nineteenth-century Ireland.

Three members of the Nation's staff formed the core of O'Leary's reading program. The first figure of Young Ireland and the foremost cultural theorist of Irish separatism was Thomas Davis, dead forty years. His life work was the Nation itself; he published nothing else. Second to Davis, O'Leary placed John Mitchel, then some ten years dead, a Tom Paine turned Jeremiah, Young Ireland's wildest temperament, who later turned his great energies to proslavery journalism in Virginia. Yeats read his History of Ireland and also an earlier work, Jail Journal, a record of hatreds so intense that it has earned a sort of special immortality for the incandescence of its language. The third was Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, whom Yeats would soon engage in literary combat, cofounder of the Nation, a last survivor of Homeric days in Irish history during the 1840s. In 1880 he had been called into service as a polemical historian in order to answer a slanderous and tendentious history of Ireland that had recently been published by Thomas Carlyle's disciple, J. A. Froude. Many Irish rebuttals to Fronde appeared, but O'Leary gave the prize to Duffy's memoirs, Young Ireland.

O'Leary's three Young Irelanders were all exceptional human beings in their separate ways. Their writings are impassioned, lucid, fearless, and in the English view, often criminal. They made up a powerful exhibit for O'Leary to offer a respectable young student like Yeats, who had to take his nationality mostly out of books. Yet the sum of their writings still left the Irish story only partially and obliquely told.

O'Leary's books were, in fact, secondary. The oral tradition was the main channel through which Irish nationalist sentiment flowed, and its chief expressions were folk proverbs, slogans, hero and villain symbols, ballads recited and songs sung, and the arguments and ruminations of the agrarian organizer, the parish priest, the publican, or some other village Nestor. Living Irishmen could remember when the peasants were universally illiterate, there were no popular books at all, and the oral tradition was the sole medium of communication:

By the fireside on a winter night, at fairs and markets, the old legends and traditions were a favorite recreation. The wandering harpers and pipers kept them alive; the itinerant school-master taught them with more unction than the rudiments. Nurses and seamstresses, the tailor who carried his lapboard and shears from house to house, and from district to district, the pedlar who came from the capital with shawls and ribbons, the tinker who paid for his supper with a song and a story, were always ready with tales of the wars and the persecution.

In Thomas Davis' time three-fourths of the Irish peasants were still illiterate, and in Yeats's time the oral folk channels remained vigorous. Illiteracy constituted one of the charms of the country for the literary.

Beyond question, Yeats established genuine Irish connections when he took up a stance receptive to O'Leary's Ireland. But neither of O'Leary's sources communicated perfectly to his understanding. In the popular oral tradition even O'Leary himself was never quite at home, as he sometimes lamented. Yeats's line of informants from "the indomitable Irishry" was also perhaps rather thin. Uncle George Pollexfen's cook out in Sligo; Katharine Tynan's prize folk specimen, Pat Gogarty, the cobbler of Clondalkin; and Lady Gregory's Gaelic-speaking paupers, always conveniently available for interview, hovering like "flies in winter" in the Gott workhouse (a scene which O'Faolain sketched sardonically in his story "The End of the Record") -- these could not easily bear the great weight of aesthetic responsibility Yeats's theories made them liable for. Here we find in embryo one meaning of his lifelong struggle with the problem of "abstraction," a problem little known to John Synge, "that rooted man," and even less to such indigenous and well-manured garden specimens as Joyce, O'Casey, or Kavanagh.

While Yeats's grasp of O'Leary's nationalism was often incisive, it was also somewhat blurred by willfulness and impatience. The Nation itself, the indispensable record, he did not know. A witticism disposed of his fellow patriots who went "daily" to "some public library" to pore over Thomas Davis' "old newspaper." Irish historians he held in the loftiest contempt. For a pure lyricist, his offhand opinionation would have been inconsequential. But in a poet who was rather aggressive in asserting his private historical insights, any failure of discernment would have to be noted, if only to highlight his areas of clear-sightedness. The function of a seer, etymologically speaking, is to see.

When Joyce came on the scene a generation later, he required no reading course in Irish history, having actually lived in it with an intimacy and depth denied to Yeats. As everybody knows, his Irish experience was extraordinarily compelling. It was somewhat circumscribed, though, by the selective absorption of the Irish past into the popular Catholic tradition. The "age of Burke and of Grattan" did not impinge at all upon his imagination, nor Young Ireland either, except for snatches of its songs; but he was passionately immersed in the Fenian and Home Rule episodes. His chief limitation as an Irish witness derives from the timing of his exile. He left Ireland in 1904 at the bottom of a dreary political downswing, and he tended to view the condition of Ireland as an infinite stasis prolonging that one miserable moment. As time passed and Irish history moved on, his exile necessarily rendered him increasingly remote and ignorant, but without any compensating adjustment of his self-assurance. The presumption of Ezra Pound to speak dogmatically on American affairs after a lifetime of absence is a parallel case. Still, insofar as Arthur Balfour's Ireland was once upon a time reality, Joyce was without rival in his mastery of its taste and flavor, its "felt history." His strength was Yeats's weakness.

Yeats was a witness more than once to the excesses of Irish ressentiment. When hatreds burst into frenzied spasms of futile destruction, it made an ugly sight, impossible to overlook, easy to deplore. But why was it that angry Irishmen stayed always at that simmer? One cannot discover whether he ever earnestly asked himself the question. And yet the question must be asked.

Next chapter...

"The Politics of Irish Literature" © Copyright 1973 Malcolm Brown

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