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The Irish Renaissance

The so-called Celtic Revival involved a number of young poets and playwrights who worked to create a national literature which would express what they saw as the unique spirit of Ireland. This article presents two of the most prominent representatives of the Irish Renaissance.

Crowded Street in Limerick, Ireland in the 1920s

Ireland has a history of trouble and conflict. The country was colonized by the British as early as the 12th century, and was over the years and centuries exploited and oppressed by harsh rule from London, especially during the reigns of King Henry VIII in the 16th century and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell a century later. Irish Catholics were literally hunted down becaue they refused to convert to the Protestant faith. Irish culture was for centuries limited to Celtic tales and folklore, but as the opposition against British rule grew and became more organised (Sinn Fein and the IRA were established in the 1880s) the country also saw a revival of art and literature.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Irish Poet and Statesman William Butler Yeats

Irish Poet and Statesman William Butler Yeats

Yeats was born into a family of gifted artists, and he spent much of his youth wandering in the wilds of County Sligo listening to the old folk tales and heroic legends of Irish freedom fighters. He travelled abroad but his roots were in Ireland; he dreamed of a free Ireland and a national poetry that would be modern but true to Irish and Celtic traditions. His life coincided with a period of turbulent times for Ireland – the Easter Uprising in 1916, the First World War, establishment of The Irish Free State in 1922 and the following civil war. Yeats was active politically and was for a period a senator representing the Free-Staters (1922-28), in the new Irish parliament. He wrote poetry and plays which were acclaimed by an increasingly large audience, and in 1924 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His writing belongs in the modernist tradition and he embraced the new and experimental poetry by American modernists, such as Ezra Pound. His early poems are lyric annotations influenced by Irish folklore, often musical in their expression, but later he developed a sharper style with a more modernist imagery. Follow the links below and read some of W.B. Yeats’s most famous poems. In 2011, the Irish/British rock group, The Waterboys, recorded an album of Yeats’s poetry adapted for music. Check the link for more information.

Four Selected Poems by William Butler Yeats

Poetry Meets Rock

James Joyce (1882-1941)

Irish writer James Joyce

Irish writer James Joyce

Unlike Yeats, James Joyce turned his back on the so-called revival of Irish culture, even though he was a part of it. From his self-imposed exile in Paris he criticised the Celtic movement, which he claimed “was exploiting the Irish Renaissance”. The fact that his first collection of short stories, Dubliners, was published in England, and not in Ireland clearly confirms his antipathy towards his home country. James Joyce is one of the most typical representatives of the modernist literary project. His three major works are A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939). His technique and style was obscure and experimental; like a genuine modernist writer Joyce violated all rules of language, both grammar and punctuation; and his long sentences, which would often go over several pages, make his texts a rather demanding task for the reader. His technique is called “stream of consciousness” and presents the thoughts and associations going through the mind of the protagonist. The “plot” of Ulysses has a timespan of a day, yet it is a novel of more than seven hundred pages. The text has many references to ancient Greek literature and it is packed with details of nearly every aspect of life. The book was initially banned in the USA for a decade due to explicit erotic language. But despite its complexity and experimental approach Ulysses is counted as one of the most influential works of prose in the 20th century. When Joyce was confronted on his unintelligible style, he replied that his writing “was for those readers who would dedicate their lives to his books” – no less… But if Ulysses is cryptic and complex it is an easy-reader compared to his next book; in Finnegan’s Wake he took his literary experiment to the limit. In 2010, a panel consisting of literary critics, writers and publishes sat down to pass a final verdict on Finnegan’s Wake – and they concluded that the book is simply unreadable. Read the following quote from the book and see if you agree:

Arrah, it’s herself that’s fine, too, don’t be talking! Shirksends? You storyan Harry chap longa me Harry chap storyan grass woman plelthy good trout. Shakeshands. Dibble a hayfork’s wrong with her only her lex’s salig. Boald Tib does be yawning and smirking cat’s hours on the Pollockses’ woolly round tabouretcushion watching her sewing and dream together, the tailor’s daughter, stitch to her last.”

Politics and Literature

It is an interesting feature that a country’s liberty and independence go hand in hand with its literary awakening. It is hard to say which of the two spurred the other, but Ireland’s birth as an independent nation would perhaps not have come so soon were it not for the growing cultural identity brought about by writers and poets. Examples of this symbiosis are W.B. Yeats’s political career and the fact that a poet (Douglas Hyde) became President of Ireland in 1938. So the conclusion may be that poetry and literature are far from limited to an isolated cultural sphere, but are in some way inseparable from life itself and the reality that surrounds us.

The Irish Renaissance - Tasks and Activities

Last updated 05/24/2018
Written by: Jan-Louis Nagel

Learning content

Literature after 1900

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Subject Material

Tasks and Activites

External resources

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