Thursday 22 August 2019

Books: Voices heard as a nation was formed

History: Handbook of the Irish Revival, Declan Kiberd & PJ Mathews, Abbey Theatre Press, pbk, 512 pages, €18.99

WB Yeats, who features in the Irish Revival Anthology, circa 1923
WB Yeats, who features in the Irish Revival Anthology, circa 1923
Maude Gonne also features in the anthology.
The Abbey Theatre (circa 1930) published the anthology, featuring writings from Yeats and Gonne, as part of its contribution to the centenary.
Handbook of the Irish Revival

Maurice Hayes on a new anthology of writings from a century ago

Reflecting in retirement on his period in office, Augustine Birrell, Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1907 to 1916, opined that he had found the programme of the Abbey Theatre of far more significance than monthly reports from the RIC. He might have been listening to many of the voices in this rich selection of texts, subtitled An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922, published by the modern Abbey as a contribution to the centenary celebration.

The period covered by this volume saw significant changes in the fortunes of political parties, a struggle to find and express a new sense of identity and what it meant to be Irish, new impetus in the attempt to revive Irish as a vernacular and the emergence of what came to be known as Anglo-Irish literature, and all this in a period of social upheaval, of industrial unrest in the growing struggle between capital and organised labour, in the run-up to, and during, a world war and revolution, and the perception that only self-government achieved by force could ameliorate dire poverty, chronic overcrowding and the worst housing in Europe.

The actors in this multi-layered drama included many of those with vivid faces whom Yeats memorialised in his great poem, and which Roy Foster has caught so brilliantly in his book of the same name. The editors here spread their net much wider than Foster's young, urban, middle-class elite, in covering activity across the island (or most of it) under a number of categories ranging from a country in paralysis, through women's suffrage, education, religion, language revival, theatre, religion, social conditions and armed insurrection to post-revolutionary tristesse.

Because of the more serious and formal nature of their contributions, the texts on offer are much less glittering, less glitzy, often more banal as people draft constitutions and hammer out manifestos. They are, however, typically acute and stylishly expressed under a variety of headings from JM Synge (sharp on social commentary, questioning the modes of the language revival and the future of the Gaeltacht and the emergence of a Catholic middle-class of grasping gombeen men); James Joyce, casting a cold eye on politics, literature and life; Seán O'Casey, a working man's voice; Shaw; Sheehy-Skeffington; the Colums and a host of minor characters.

Then there is Maud Gonne's typically tart comment on Yeats's poem 'Easter, 1916': "My dear Willie, I do not like your poem. It is not worthy of you or of the occasion... not one which our race would treasure and repeat." At least as literary criticism, it ranks higher than Pearse's contemptuous dismissal of Mr Yeats as "a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank".

Where Pearse does come through as having something worthwhile to say is in developing his ideas on education, which are still refreshingly modern - child-centred, democratically organised schools, with an emphasis on the arts, sport and practical pursuits and what are now trendily called STEM subjects.

The rich collection of texts and the skill with which they have been selected and arranged does reflect the ferment of the debate which was taking place in Ireland at the time - but what it reflects is mainly the debate within nationalism.

There are few significant voices from within Unionism and little attempt to understand that world view. Both the Ulster Covenant and the 1916 Proclamation are quoted in full, but while the editors are at pains to trace the genesis of the latter in earlier texts, there is no comparable attempt to explain why so many people were prepared to sign the former in their blood.

At this remove, too, Eoin MacNeill's "The North began…" article which was so influential at the time comes across as romantic twaddle in its representation of Northern unionist attitudes (from a man who should have known better), a simplistic view that was to dismiss contemporary unionism as a temporary aberration from which northern protestants would soon recover, putting in mind Padraic Colum's caustic comment on Alice Milligan, that "it was as if there had been no Ulster Plantation, no John Knox and no industrial Belfast."

The last section of the volume is elegiac in tone, as indeed is Foster's book, as those who enter the struggle with high hopes face disappointment as conservative forces move in to control what had been won by the revolution, and as the national consensus breaks down in a bitter and brutal civil war. Those who had hoped for social change, for the liberation of women and the loosening of clerical control saw the values they had rebelled against reinstated and reinforced, and the new state become a Catholic country for a Catholic people, the mirror image of (and his justification for) Craigavon's sectarian regime.

The idealism of those early texts, too, reminds us of how much unfinished business there is, how many unfulfilled promises and shattered dreams. The language has not been restored, the Gaeltacht has shrunk to a fraction of its extent a century ago, and there is an endemic housing crisis, with 80 families a week becoming homeless in Dublin, and the 1910 dream of not holding Gaelic games near public houses has been submerged in the ubiquitous sponsorship of all sport by beer firms.

Not the least valuable parts of the volume are the, at times, quirky, but always illuminating, side notes and chapter headings - even if they do at times view the material through the lenses of modern academic criticism, investing the texts with a profundity that would have escaped the notice of contemporaries; but that's a minor quibble.

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