‘Handbook of the Irish Revival – An Abundance of Riches and some Lessons for our own times’ Speech at 'An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922’ Edited by Declan Kiberd and P.J. Mathews
Abbey Theatre, 22nd June 2015
I am delighted to have the opportunity to launch this most important new publication, for which I was honoured to provide an Afterword. The ‘Handbook of the Irish Revival’ is an inspiring collection of writings of the period 1891 to 1922, a collection which invites us to reflect on the context, scholarship and courageous expressions that gave voice to the demand for, and the emergence towards, what was envisaged as a new Ireland; perhaps self-ruling, possibly autonomous, even independent.
The Handbook of the Irish Revival, with its commentary across 16 sections of gathered prose and poetry, allows a unique insight into a time of immense change for Ireland; some of these changes sourced within the Irish experience, but very significantly influenced by the great changes that were taking place in Europe and the world. This immense wave of change as seen through the concerns, the opinions, and the diverse visions of an inspirational group of men and women are what is summarised and the subject of comment in this book. The contributors to this publication include literary figures, political activists, sociologists, educators, journalists and religious. Many, of course, crossed these categories. The pens of those who wrote thus evoked an Ireland caught between the crumbling of old empires and the new and growing impulses to democracy.
A simple glance through the list of contributors serves too as an impressive reminder of the great ferment of vision, energy and imagination that filled the decades that preceded the emergence of the Ireland we inhabit today. The questions and dilemmas they faced were myriad as they pondered the direction in which their differing versions of a new Ireland might, or should travel; not least as to whether that Ireland should renew itself through a reclaiming, a reinvention, or an appropriate mythological construction of its past, or through a brave marching forward towards a path yet to be walked; or further, whether it was to be concerned with the task of imagination, as those such as Yeats would see it, or to focus on a more pragmatic adjustment to the pressing issues of the day, issues of survival, this latter being the road that was ultimately chosen.
Permeating each page of this book is a vibrant sense of possibility, a great desire to encounter and engage with the full spectrum of human possibilities. Apparent throughout is a profound commitment to diversity and plurality which responded to loss but also brought with it a great creative energy, seen as necessary for moving Ireland into a new circumstance. There is the commitment also to the development of ideas about Ireland that could move from an atmosphere of the slowly decaying landscape of a social class and ways of life that were in decline to a place that had the possibility of being energised by new thought and options.
That these decades constituted a moment, a movement, and a grouping worthy of special attention, is reflected by Yeats in his somewhat pessimistic, if celebratory, ‘Municipal Gallery Revisited’:
“But where is the brush that could show anything
Of all that pride and that humility?
And I am in despair that time may bring
Approved patterns of women or of men
But not that selfsame excellence again.”
The introduction to this book contains the suggestion to us “The best of them impel us to imagine our futures as audaciously as they imagined theirs.” If anything characterises the era, and the decades under review which inspired it, it is the belief of the participants that the gap could be closed between ideas and action, between the ideas of artists and the ideas of the wider community.
The Ireland of that time was one still galvanised in its nationalism by the legacy, and above all memory, of the famine; an Ireland which saw in rapid succession the founding of the Land League, the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League, as a generation of Irish men and women sought through such organisations to fashion an alternative Ireland and break the silence of a country devastated by famine and emigration.
Events in Ireland were, of course, taking place in a global context where a pinnacle of imperialist expectation and arrogance had been reached, and its unassailability was now under attack, The Boer War was widely viewed at home as an anti-imperial struggle, while the unfolding disaster that was the First World War, and the rhetoric that accompanied it, also encouraged a perception that imperialism was drawing its final but life demanding breath.
It was against such a background that a revival began to emerge in Ireland; a revival that did not simply look backwards to a romanticised Ireland of Celtic myth and legend, but sought to achieve a recovery of intellectual and applied energy for the achievement of a cultural and political autonomy in a modern and forward looking world.
The late 19th and early 20th century was, in addition a time of competing modernisms in an Ireland that was still under British rule, but an Ireland in which cultural nationalism had claimed a dominant place, within a cultural revival soon to take hold and flourish.
This literary renaissance of the time would come to shape a distinctive Irish literary culture which sought to separate Irish writing from its British counterpart, exploring themes and styles that reflected our unique Irish concerns and cultures.
The Abbey Theatre, first established as the Irish Literary Theatre Society, was founded to sow the seeds and reap the fruits of the Revival. The manifesto of the Abbey Theatre to ‘bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland’ was a foundational text informing the national conversation that would, it was hoped, re-craft our cultural and political landscape. The dramatic form played a key role in the Revival, both in linking to the mythic past and in bringing Dublin and Ireland out into the world.
During the window of time with which we are concerned this evening, the plays of Yeats, Synge and Lennox Robinson, and later O’Casey, shaped a new version of Irishness. As we can read in the section of the Handbook dedicated to theatre, developments in Irish theatre during this time were of global significance, as was acknowledged by, among others, Eugene O’Neill. Indeed, throughout its rich history, our national theatre has sought to reflect and interrogate the concerns and preoccupations of a nation, even when they were shabby. As is the case today, the impact of The Abbey has always been based on the excellence of its artists and the genius of our writers.
Key to the context of the great Irish revival was, of course the decline of an ascendant class which had, for more than a century, presided over both the political life and the cultural dimension of Irish society. Synge writes evocatively of the ‘broken greenhouses and moth eaten libraries’ slowly disintegrating in an Ireland determined to reclaim its independence and rediscover its heritage and culture.
The introduction to this volume too suggests to us that in the subsequent ransacking of memory of this period by those who sought to establish a rationalised version of these decades, omission was as important as inclusion. The Editors tell us –
“those who commemorated often sought to control the discourse in ways which made them the social successors. In that process much was forgotten – Connolly’s socialism, the dead in World War I, the role of radical women, the part played by the 1913 LockOut.”
The book being launched this evening makes good these exclusions from what were official versions.
There was much that was contradictory, antithetical, and even disturbing about the extraordinary period in our narrative that was the Irish revival, including the imagining and romanticising of the land and property by those who were often most removed from it. Later these issues of land and property would come to dominate independent Ireland and, together with a repressive pursuit of respectability and a captured spirituality, go on to claim an incredible price.
As to literature itself, there were gaps of a social kind. Yeats’ life experience was one lived apart from the people, as is captured in St. John Gogarty’s anecdote about his adventure with Yeats to the exotic land of Toner’s public house. Yeats yearning for an idealised Innisfree stands too in stark contrast to the writing of Peig Sayers amongst others, in which the fields of rural Ireland are so often a focus of hardship and fierce destructiveness.
Whilst both views are founded in their own reality, this contradiction reminds us of Edward Said’s assertion that Yeats’ was,
“a poet who belongs to a tradition not usually considered his, that of the colonial world ruled by European Imperialism now”,
Said added that,
“he appears to me, and I am sure to many others....... to belong to the other cultural domain”.
The achievement is to be able to, on the one hand, be faithful to collective memory and experience and on the other to lodge one’s creativity within the form that is hegemonic. It is the achievement of the writer from within the colonised invited to the literary parlour of the coloniser.
Said ascribes to Yeats the role of inspiring the anti-imperial work of Neruda, Cesaire and Darwish, suggesting that it was Yeats who first identified how the colonised can respond to empire without a disabling bitterness, and go on to address its contradictions while retaining its peculiar creativity. Indeed, inasmuch as he occupied a standpoint on the margins of Irish identity, Yeats poetry had to dig deepest of all to source the imaginative wells of ancient Ireland following his insistence that:
“Ireland should retain its culture by keeping awake its consciousness of metaphysical questions”,
Yeats, nevertheless, sees imagination, not simply a tool of memory, but as a powerful means of access to the unborn possibilities of humanity and the human spirit.
Yeats’ vision was of a future Ireland founded on wonder and beauty but built on imagination and possibility. The project he took up was at once a utopian one but also one that was public in nature, as would be evidenced in his own statements that his Nobel Prize was an award to Ireland and a recognition of the project of independence. Yeats and his allies, colleagues and friends, who populate this book were proudly committed to the public world and to the Irish people, past, present and future.
Language is a key theme and a major concern of the Revival. With the removal from power of those who had upheld a particular form of intellect and culture, in some respect founded on the quenching of an indigenous culture and language, new questions arose as to the positioning of our vernacular in a revived Ireland; for example, should that vernacular which was now to be promoted, to be viewed as a bridge back towards our ancient culture, or, should it be perceived as an impediment to a necessary moving forward towards the cosmopolitan thinking of a modern Europe?
Many ardently sought to ensure the preservation of, and to stimulate pride and interest in, a national language which after many years of British rule and the stealthy inroads of Anglicisation into our culture had, in the words of Douglas Hyde,
“made young men and women blush and hang their heads when overheard speaking their own language.”
The contradiction of envisioning and building a culturally independent Ireland through the medium of the English language was widely debated, as was the wisdom of abandoning a language that strongly connected us to a modern, plural and diverse Europe.
Throughout the readings in the Handbook there is an impressive sense of a connection between intellectual work, rooted in Irish experience and reality, but also influenced by the philosophical and literary work of Europe and beyond. It was a generous vision, a wide scholarship, one that acknowledged the contribution and classical sources of the peoples of Europe and beyond. It stands in such contrast to those dark moments of our contemporary times when entire peoples and their elected representatives can be denigrated in official discourse, and when there appears to be such little reference to the unifying capacity of a common cultural heritage and in the diversity of cultures that is truly human.
I very much hope that this great collection of readings will inspire a new generation to further explore the writings, teachings and thoughts of those whose work is gathered together in what is an inspirational publication.
I spoke earlier of how the writings included in this book spoke of harnessing our past to our future possibilities. The work in ‘Handbook of the Revival’ enables us to make a journey back to an intellectual atmosphere that is also an engaged one, encouraging us, in our time, not to be merely the passive recipients of either an arid and impoverishing set of political assumptions as to what our shared nations' achievements and prospects, or our European Union, might be.
It is appropriate that we be reminded of the importance of intellectually engaged work and its essential nature as the bedrock of a healthy democracy. There can be no doubt that we have recently been through a very painful period during which many people suffered greatly. It has been a time which once again plunged Irish citizens into a great aftershock characterised by an old phenomenon – emigration. There has been a loss of trust in institutions which once seemed unassailable.
In a number of speeches since my inauguration, at home and abroad, I have made the case for a pluralist scholarship, a remoulded, intellectual and practical engagement. Yes, we in our generation are challenged to combine the best of emancipatory thought that will re-integrate issues of economy, ecology and ethics. We will not be thanked for settling for anything less. Yet, one has to struggle for hope, one has to struggle to be optimistic. Our discourse now is not only inadequate but tends to the undemocratic in its absence of inclusion in a discursive sense, even lacking in, transparency as the gap widens between what is regarded as complex and instrumental on the one hand, and on the other, the necessary inclusive conversation that is the mark of a discursive democracy.
In recent times indeed, this gap has spawned the use of stereotypically-based generalisations that are not only lazy, in intellectual terms, but also unacceptable as the discourse of the shared members of a union that is in the throes of recovery from a failure of its guiding paradigms.
We, the peoples of Europe and the world, are capable of so much more. Our collective imagination must enable the creation, and the delivery, of new possibilities as we move forward to a more self aware and participatory future; a future where we reconnect with that which is truly human, and yes, utopian and visionary, where new ideas are given life in the public space, and a role for the State as delivering the normative aspirations of the people it serves is once again respected.
I am well aware that, among other European scholars, Jürgen Habermas has been inviting us to a discussion on how we can craft into being a new form of trans-nationalism that allows the peoples of Europe to retain their normative achievements, while embracing new shared competencies while leaving decision-making within a deliberative democracy, and a final deciding role for the elected representatives of the people. We need such a new conversation in our European Union, one that connects the people of Europe, their representatives and their institutions.
They are complex, those conversations that we must have, reflecting a complex society, with a complex set of problems. Just as the pieces in the Handbook reflect the contradictions and conflicts of the period which inspired the great Irish Revival of the early 20th Century. What all the writings in this excellent volume we launch this evening share is a willingness to engage, to converse, to dispute and to navigate a path forward that is inclusive of all citizens in their diversities and their similarities.
This publication stands as an inspiring invitation to all of us Irish and Europeans, global citizens, to become part of a new national conversation, and engagement, on how to craft more solid foundations on which to source our shared present and future. We must now rise to the challenge of pluralist scholarship and engagement in democratic debate.
I congratulate Professors Declan Kiberd and P.J. Mathews on their outstanding achievement in preserving and presenting evidence of some of the most important of those conversations which have shaped and influenced 21st Century Ireland, and providing us with an anthology which I hope will remind us that a national identity is a constant work in progress, a project to which each generation must make its own contribution as active citizens, rather than passive consumers marooned in some uncritical siding of human experience.