Identity has always seemed to be the defining theme of Irish literature. But Irish identity is a slippery thing. Just as you think you’ve grasped it, you come across an author, poet or playwright who muddles everything up again with their complicated heritage or odd political views. You can’t decide how far religion or the North/South divide are relevant, if it matters that an ‘Irish’ author spent most of their life in London, or if ‘Irish’ is really a definite category at all. And then, of course, what distinction ought to be made between literature actually written in Irish and that in English? Despite the preoccupation with questions of identity, the Anglo-Irish literary tradition has failed to agree on what it even means to call oneself Irish. And that is what makes the disproportionate contribution of this tiny island to world literature so astoundingly varied and versatile.
For me, the defining moment in Anglo-Irish literature is the Irish Literary Revival at the turn of the twentieth century. Before this, the most successful Irish writers had been people like Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde. Most left Ireland, choosing to live instead in London and, interestingly, all were Protestant, although Catholicism was the predominant religion of Ireland. Up until the Literary Revival, which was part of a wider Gaelic Revival in all areas of culture, Irish identity had been largely indistinguishable from British identity. Indeed, Wilde’s plays are some of the most quintessentially English in tone that I have ever come across, although his biting wit does have some flavour of the stereotypically Irish sense of humour. Very little of their work focused on recognisably ‘Irish’ issues.
One fascinating exception is Maria Edgeworth, born in 1768 to a landowning Anglo-Irish family. She satirised the figure of the Anglo-Irish landlord in the novel Castle Rackrent and used her writing to espouse socially progressive views about national identity as a sociocultural product, rather than an inherent, natural difference. Edgeworth’s realistic representations of Irish people and culture contrast sharply with the caricatures which were current in literature at the time.
The Gaelic Revival was a countrywide movement, encompassing organisations as diverse as the Gaelic Athletic Association, to promote Irish sports, the Gaelic League, promoting the Irish language, the Irish Literary Society and Inghinidhe na hÉireann, a revolutionary women’s society. It involved the rediscovery of traditional music and folklore, thanks to translators and collectors like Douglas Hyde and George Petrie, and the foundation of the Abbey Theatre in 1904. This theatre was the most significant achievement of a group of writers including W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, Seán O’Casey and George Bernard Shaw. They brought about a new wave of Irish literature which distinguished itself from the English tradition. Irish literature now contributed to a sense of national identity and pride, often accompanied by revolutionary or socialist ideals. It had a new emphasis on ordinary working class and rural people, and much of the Abbey’s repertoire was controversial in what remained a deeply conservative, Catholic society (Synge’s ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ famously sparked riots on its opening night).
Yeats is one of the most illuminating figures to consider in this question of Irish identity in literature. He was Ireland’s first Nobel Laureate and a major driving force behind the Literary Revival. Born in 1865, his life spanned one of the most turbulent periods in Irish history, witnessing the Home Rule debate, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the foundation of the Free State and the Civil War. Yeats drew on traditional forms, allusive imagery, folklore, mythology, spiritualism and the occult to produce writing which was described by the Nobel Committee as ‘inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation’. In response to the award, received in 1923, just a year after independence, he wrote ‘I consider that this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature, it is part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State’. Yeats was also a member of the former Protestant Ascendancy, but was a prominent nationalist, and was appointed to the Senate in 1922. He embodies the complicated identity of that loaded period in Irish history when revolutionaries and politicians were attempting to formulate a coherent picture of ‘Irishness’. Another huge influence, who sums up these contradictions even more succinctly, was his muse and lover Maud Gonne, who was both English heiress and Irish nationalist revolutionary.
Yeats tried to use poetry to educate readers about Irish cultural heritage and national history. He reworked Irish folktales in epic poems such as ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’ and ‘The Death of Cuchulain’. He tackled Anglo-Irish politics and British rule in decidedly political poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ and ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’. ‘In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markiewicz’ is a beautiful tribute to two sisters who had been heavily involved in the nationalist movement, fighting for an ideal of Ireland which Yeats saw as far removed from the romantic vision they had in their youth. Yeats’ poetry is infused throughout with a sense of Irish culture, and many poems such as ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘Leda and the Swan’ evoke nationalism in characteristically subtle ways. For me, ‘Easter 1916’ summarises the effects of the Literary Revival and this revolutionary period in Irish history: ‘All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born’.
Yeats is a perfect representative of Irish literature. He and Ireland’s other Nobel Prize winners – Shaw, Beckett and Heaney – remind us of the startling creativity which has emerged from this island. Yeats and the other proponents of the Literary Revival began the uncomfortable literary conversation about the identity of a nation, a conversation which stills troubles many. Heaney contributed a great deal, and writers such as Roddy Doyle, Colum McCann, Colm Tóibín and Martin McDonagh continue to do so. The question of how Ireland defines itself as a nation remains at the forefront of the country’s collective consciousness, especially after the recent state visit of President Michael D. Higgins to the U.K. – a first for the Irish Presidency. These are the issues which inspire great, if slightly frustrating literature; literature which offers no reassuring answers.