1916: Ireland and the Challenge of the Cultural Revolution

As we move toward the centenary celebrations of 1916 it is important to remember the contribution made by artists and writers who, as part of the Cultural Revival, contributed to the construction of the Irish nation.

By Martin McConigley, UCC School of English.

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Many believe that the Revival was primarily a celebration of the Irish nation, long before that nation would become a political reality. Playwrights and poets, it is said, attempted to find a deeply buried Irish identity, by recovering ancient myths and legends, by anthologising stories, and producing plays in the Abbey theatre in Dublin.

There is value in this position; when one considers the work of Augusta, Lady Gregory, and a young William Butler Yeats, it is impossible not to be reminded of the stories of Fergus, Cú Chulainn, Deirdre, Oisín and Cathleen ní Houlihan (first played by Maud Gonne) that they popularised.

But, as important as this celebration of Irish culture was within the Revival, it would be inaccurate to reduce Irish writing at the turn of the 19th century into an amalgam of unquestioning patriotism. The men and women who lived and wrote during the tumultuous decades leading up to the Rising did not just take part in the revival of ancient ways, they demanded a contemporary cultural revolution. These artists were innovators and rebels, working tirelessly to understand what a “new” Ireland might look like.

They challenged the Irish people to envisage a nation that would be able to hold all the inhabitants of the island, irrespective of religion, one that would end the terrible poverty (economic and spiritual) felt under colonialism.

The Cultural Revolution was underpinned by a belief that Irish society needed to do more than rebel against the English crown. Playwrights and poets insisted that a new form of community was necessary, one that was reflective and willing to accept change.

John Millington Synge was one such voice. Synge was born in 1871 and died, prematurely, in 1909. During his short life, he rejected the conservatism of his own class, the Anglo-Irish, travelled to the Aran Islands to learn Gaeilge, and wrote a play that caused a riot in the Abbey theatre.

Though Synge did not live to see the Easter Rising, his work calls attention to the type of society he dreamed would emerge in Ireland. In each of his plays the audience is reminded that it is not enough to win a politically “free” nation, they also had to think about the type of nation this would be. As Synge highlights, in all his great plays, it is the role of the writer to criticise, as well as celebrate, and to help the audience imagine a better society. The viewer is presented with a typical small community, and into this enclosed world come characters who challenge the accepted way of life, going against the conventional grain.

In The Well of the Saints, for example, we are introduced to a blind couple, Mary and Martin Doul. It is immediately clear from their dress that they are poor, living as beggars, out in the harsh elements. Despite their “ugly” appearance, however, they speak as though they are beautiful and attractive. Early in the play they encounter a Saint and their blindness is cured. This great miracle, however, has unforeseen consequences. When Martin first sees his wife he moans:

“Your hair and your big eyes, is it? … I’m telling you there isn’t a wisp on any grey mare on the ridge of the world isn’t finer than the dirty twist on your head. There isn’t two eyes in any starving sow isn’t finer than the eyes you were calling blue like the sea.”

It’s a strange and wonderfully comic story that presents a miracle in such a light: where the gift of sight is viewed as a curse. But this makes perfect sense when we understand that Synge is interested in the ways that actual sight can block the imagination, as people fail to see any possibilities beyond the mundane reality. Living in the land of the fully sighted, being forced to exist in desperate drudgery, Martin Doul laments: “I’m thinking by the mercy of God it’s few sees anything but them is blind for a space.”

The play ends with the Douls reclaiming the gift of physical blindness and being rejected by the villagers.

Similarly, The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots at the Abbey in 1907, offers to the community the character of Christy Mahon. This young man brings poetry and “garrulous” tales of murder and revolution to a quiet Irish community, but, like the Douls, he is rejected when his vision challenges the status quo.

The Abbey on Tour  Tom Vaughan Lawlor as Christy Mahon, in The Playboy of the Western World, by J M Synge, directed by Ben Barnes. Photo: Tom Lawlor
Tom Vaughan Lawlor playing Christy Mahon in a 2004 Abbey Theatre production of JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Picture: Tom Lawlor

He is accepted by the people so long as he limits himself to talking; as soon as action is contemplated the other characters turn on him. At the end of the Playboy, Pegeen Mike, the woman he loved, realises too late that she and her community have rejected a man capable of provoking societal change: “Oh, my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World.”

The same instinct for national criticism is offered in the poetry of WB Yeats, where the reader encounters both the Revival and the Revolt, both reinforced by the same resistance to simplistic national celebration.

In ‘To a Shade’, written in 1913, Yeats imagines the ghost of an Irish hero (Charles Stewart Parnell most likely) returning to his home town, where a monument has been erected in his honour. The poet advises him to have a look around, but not to linger, as the town continues to destroy those who would serve it. This is proved by the fact that a contemporary hero (Hugh Lane perhaps):

“… has been driven from the place, And insult heaped upon him for his pains, And for his open-handedness, disgrace;

Your enemy, an old foul mouth, had set The pack upon him.”

While this poem is certainly in reaction to a specific historical event, it captures Yeats’ suspicion of “the pack” that would reject those who dedicated themselves to social revolution. Yeats advises the shade to return to Glasnevin Cemetery and to cover his ears with dust, and angrily asserts:

You had enough of sorrow before death — Away, away! You are safer in the tomb.

The Cultural Revival is better thought of as a Revolution. It was a period that celebrated Ireland, but its exponents were not afraid to oppose the society they loved. They were never content to merely concoct the propaganda of a perfect Irish nation, but challenged the inhabitants of the island to imagine a better society.

In Synge’s plays and the poetry of Yeats, we find communities that propose revolution but oppose social change, and happily turn against the very people who offer vision and hope. The artist always has a complex relationship with her or his readers, and it would be foolish to believe that the Revival writers wrote only of legendary heroes and romantic myths.

As the centenary of the Irish nation approaches, it is again necessary to listen to the writers who worked 100 years ago and to accept the challenge they provided. It is not enough, they remind us, to celebrate the nation; we must consider the kind of nation we have created.

In ‘The Fisherman’ (1919) Yeats, frustrated and saddened, talked about a society in which he witnessed “The beating down of the wise / And great art beaten down”. This was not the Ireland imagined by the Revolution.

Martin McConigley is a recent Irish Research Council scholarship and a PhD student in University College Cork, researching partition’s impact on Irish fiction.


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