Irish Literary Movement Or The Celtic Revival

The term Celtic Revival applies to a school of writers who of late years have been calling attention to a wealth of unused literary material in Ireland, as Kipling had done for India and Barrie for Scotland. The school probably originated in a lecture by Stopford Brooke, a famous literary historian, on “The Need of Getting Irish Literature into the English Language”. Its changing centres have been the Irish Literary Society of London, (1891), the National Literary Society of Dublin, the Irish Literary Theatre and the later Abbey Theatre (1904). Among its examples are Hyde, Lady Gregory, Yeats, A. P. Graves and Katherine Tynan, to name only four of its many scholars, poets, dramatists and storytellers.

The original purpose of the revival or the literary renaissance of Ireland was to awaken interest in what was called ancient bardic literature. This was a misnomer, because the bards had no written literature; the first rule of their school was that every tale in verse or prose must be committed to memory verbatim and never under any circumstance committed to manuscript. The bardic tales were first recorded in Latin by missionary monks, who collected, it is said, enough to fill over a thousand volumes, few of which have ever been printed. Their chaotic quality may be judged by the contents of one volume, wherein the many tales are grouped under nine heads: Destructions, Battles, Voyages, Caves, Tragedies, Courtships, Loves, Elopements, and Migration.

These writers choose Bardic tales of Oisin (Ossian). Cuchulain, Deirdre-the legendary figures of Ireland-as their subject-matter. In short they turned to the abundant poetic and dramatic material cherished by living people of the Irish countryside, and in this field alone has their work any promise of enduring value.

Among the forerunners of the Celtic Revival mention must be made of William Alligham, the writer of The Fairies (1883) and Douglas Hyde who wrote A Literary History of Ireland (1899). Another important figure is that of W. B. Yeats. Because of his varied work as editor, essayist, poet, playwright, and co-founder with Lady Gregory of the Abbey Theatre is “the centre of Irish literature” Yeats is honoured as leader of the Celtic revival in England. His purpose was, he said, “always to write out of the heart of the Irish common people”. He also tried his hand at retelling Celtic mythology, as in The Seven Woods (1903), or in “The Wanderings of Oisin” or in his play Deirdre.

Then there were representative singers like Katherine Tynan. Other writers of the revival who had larger audiences in Britain and America— Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge, Lord Dunsany, and the rest-found small favour in their own land because, it was said, they misrepresented the Irish people. That is why many plays which they thought artistic raised a destruction in the Abbey Theatre. Katherine Tynan, who won instant favour by her “Waiting”, was by Irish folk regarded as “one of them”, for the odd reason that in some of her early books of verse, she came under the curse that afflicts almost every Irish writer, soon or late, by making him take sides in political squabble.

Synge appeared on the Irish stage like a response to the saying of Ruskin, that what the literary world needs is a man who can see clearly and write what he sees. It was on the advice of Yeats that he began to write. His plays were very interesting. “First of all, they deal at first hand with life as men and women now live it on the Irish sea-coast. And life, whether in a crowded city or a fishing village, is everywhere a complex thing, having both tears and laughter, nobility and savagery, Christian ideals and heathen habits. Every aspect of life was to Synge a challenge, its folly no less than its virtue; but somehow he contrived to make its bewildering complexity leave a total impression of what he called the two essentials of drama-reality and joy”. His best known play, and probably the most enduring, is The Playboy of the Western World, which added a picturesque word to our English vocabulary. Very different in appeal is Riders to the Sea, a one act tragedy as simple as a cross over a soldier’s grave, and as deeply impressive. There is no plot, and no need for one. We are present at a tragic hour when the fisher folk look upon life and death.

The renaissance of Celticism In English literature coincides with the acute stage of the Home Rule agitation, without being identified with it. By far the greater number of the persons who take an active share in the Celtic movement are Irish patriots; but every shade of political feeling is represented among them, from the most fiery advocacy of independence to a clatonic sympathy with the cause. They belong to English literature because they use English as their medium. Among novelists, a Carleton, a Lover, a Rever, as well as a Miss Edgeworth, plead for a neglected personality, translate it into another language, interpret it, rather than express it. Poets, on the other hand, following the lead of Thomas Moore, succeed less imperfectly in catching that subtle essence, the soul of a nation. Such singers as Mangan and Allingham are better attuned to the note which the emancipated sons of a free Ireland nowadays require.

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It was between 1885 and 1895 that the movement began as an active and organized crusade. From London where the first groups were formed, it spread to Dublin. Its leaders-Gavan Duffy, Douglas Hyde, Stopford Brooke- formulated a programme. The culture of Ireland was to be founded on a systematic endeavour to realise intellectual freedom. It was to renew its vigour by being refreshed from the fountain-heads of its originality: Ireland’s old texts, legends, tales, poems, which once translated, were to be developed so as to supply the invention of writers with themes and their imagination with visions. Meanwhile a mean was being found between English, a foreign tongue, and Gaelic, the national language, which was lifeless and read only by a few; Douglas Hyde unwittingly achieved a compromise by combining a groundwork of English vocabulary with a number of terms, phrases, dialectal words, in which the influence of Irish syntax and Irish ways of thinking was directly felt. The efforts of this group drew to it young men of talent; literary or dramatic associations, and a national theatre, were successively created.

Though its political and social aspect is of the highest interest, this movement is connected with the influences that have brought about the grant of independence to Ireland. In the eyes of the historian of literature, the course of the Celtic Revival before 1914 is summed up in the study of the personalities who joined it, bringing with them, along with their talents, tendencies of a different nature, and sometimes singularly at variance among themselves. These names have already been mentioned (Yeats, Synge, Moore, etc.)



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