New anthology of cultural and political writings provides profound insight into Irish Literary Revival


Central to the Irish Literary Revival, which was born of the paralysis that ensued after the failure of parliamentary politics in the late 19th century, was the yearning for a regeneration of collective cultural narratives that would inform unique artistic expressions of Irishness.

The various social and political failures of the previous century provided the genesis for the wellsprings of creativity from which some of the most gifted writers in the 20th century like W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey would derive their visionary art.

A new work, Handbook of the Irish Revival – An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891 – 1922, highlights many of the achievements and critical works of the most celebrated writers of the period, but also gives voice to some of the intellectual movement's lesser known contributors.

The collection of letters, essays and extracts from the works of the Revival's influential participants was edited by Professor Declan Kiberd, who was Chair of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at UCD and is now Keough Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and P.J. Mathews, who is a Senior Lecturer at the UCD School of English, Drama and Film at UCD.

Divided into 16 themed sections, the book covers issues as diverse as literature, religion, drama, the natural world, women's rights and the 1916 Rising.

The almost forgotten contributors to the historically and culturally critical period in Irish history include writers, such as Stopford A. Brooke, a churchman and writer, Mary Colum, a literary critic and writer, and Helena Molony, a republican, feminist and labour activist.

Many of the lesser known texts provide the reader with enlightening context on the social, political and cultural lives, values and aspirations of those involved in and on the periphery of the Revivalist movement.

One of the less prominent contributors to the Revival, Mary Colum, studied at UCD, and frequently attended both the Abbey Theatre and the Theatre of Ireland.

The schoolteacher was a co-founder of the Irish review in 1912 along with poet and revolutionary leader Thomas McDonagh. Her literary masterpiece Life and the Dream (1947) vividly evokes what it was like to be a young woman in Revival Dublin, where "The vigorous intellectual life of the city was open to students who wanted it, and even those who didn't could not have missed taking some of it in through the pores.

"The city was then drama-mad, and every actor with an ambition to play any drama, ancient or modern, tried it out in Dublin; if it passed the test of a Dublin audience, it could pass anywhere, it was the fashion to say, and Dublin believed the dictum."

Elsewhere, in his autobiography, Drums Under the Windows (1949), Sean O'Casey draws attention to the poverty-ridden conditions endured by large sections of the capital's population.

"He was leaning against a railing outside a tenement house in Summerhill on a damp November day, a cold sore in the moist air that looked dark under the leaden sky that panelled the heavens," he wrote.

"He was tired and sleepy, having worked for forty eight hours without a break as a member of a gang repairing a bridge that had shown signs of wanting to sit down and have a rest itself."

Artists, innovative thinkers and political activists agitated for a range of causes, including republicanism, pacifism, female suffrage and political sovereignty during the Revival, and some even tried to reinvent themselves by adopting a new 'ancient' language.

But despite the ostensibly united front, there were also significant ideological divisions between those who were considered key figures of the movement.

In his open letter, Can We Go Back Into Our Mother's Womb, one of the Revival's leading lights, J.M. Synge, criticises members of the Gaelic League, which was vehemently opposed to his highly controversial and most famous play, The Playboy of the Western World.

Contrary to the views of the Gaelic League, Synge did not believe Irish could ever again become the first spoken language throughout the country. He also feared that by concentrating on trying to learn Irish, people would end up without proficiency in either Irish or English.

"Much of the writing that has appeared recently in the papers takes it for granted that Irish is gaining the day in Ireland and that this country will soon speak Gaelic. No supposition is more false. The Gaelic League was founded on a doctrine that is made up of ignorance, fraud, and hypocrisy," he wrote.

The collection of writings also offers a reminder that the ideas and challenges that the Revival generation faced on issues such as sovereignty and citizenship are some of the same questions that could help renew our own cultural identity today in post Celtic-Tiger Ireland.

Editors Professor Declan Kiberd and P.J. Mathews said they hoped the Handbook of the Irish Revival would inform the debate surrounding the various significant historic centenaries, including the 1916 celebrations, due to be marked over the coming years.

"Our intention is to return to the moment that produced these writings and to attend to what the voices of this brilliant generation actually said; these writings belong to everyone, after all and we are delighted to make them available in such an accessible format," they said.