The strange death of Romantic Ireland
They are among his most famous lines, but when WB Yeats declared that ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone’, what was he referring to, who killed it – and did it really exist in the first place, asks DAN MULHALL
I FIRST CAME across WB Yeats’s poem September 1913 and its refrain, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave” during my schooldays and have returned to it many times since. A century after the poem’s composition, it may be time to conduct an inquest into the strange death of Romantic Ireland.
George Dangerfield’s book, The Strange Death of Liberal England, describes the decline of the British Liberal Party, brought on by a combination of the Irish Home Rule crisis, the first World War and the rise of the labour movement. In Ireland, another great political party suffered a calamitous decline. The Irish Party, which had been a major political force at Westminster since the 1880s, effectively ceased to exist after 1918.
That decade, whose centenary we are now marking, was a tragic and violent one in European history. It was scarred by war and revolution. In Ireland, it was a time of conflict and upheaval that culminated in the achievement of independence in 1922.
Those years were also rich in Irish literary achievement. WB Yeats produced three important collections: Responsibilities (1914), The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) and Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921). James Joyce published Dubliners (1915), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922). Sean O’Casey’s three great plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, although written a few years later, are all set during Ireland’s revolutionary decade. This was a time during Ireland was evidently seething with both political and creative activity.
I expect that any inquest would need to establish whether there was a fatality. Who died? How did it happen? Who was responsible? And what were the implications of those events?
The poem in which Yeats reported the demise of Romantic Ireland appeared in The Irish Times on September 8th, 1913 – which, coincidentally, was the date James Joyce chose as Molly Bloom’s birthday. In 1913, Yeats was 48 years of age. He had been a leading figure in Irish literary life since the early 1890s, when he had led the charge for the creation of a national literature, insisting that “there is no literature without nationality and no nationality without literature”.
Was there a death? Yeats strongly believed that something precious about Ireland had been lost during the years before 1913. A decade earlier, he had founded the Abbey Theatre and had written an inspirational nationalist play, Cathleen ní Houlihan. During the years that followed, he became increasingly frustrated with the course of events in Ireland, with what he called “the seeming needs of my fool-driven land”. Those he sees as guilty in the demise of Romantic Ireland are savagely derided. They “fumble in a greasy till” and “add prayer to shivering prayer” until they have “dried the marrow from the bone”.
Many of his contemporaries would certainly have contested Yeats’s image of national decline. After all, Ireland’s Home Rule movement appeared in 1913 to be on the verge of accomplishing its elusive goal. The Third Home Rule Bill had been introduced in 1912 and seemed destined, despite dogged opposition from Ulster Unionists and British Conservatives, to pass through the Westminster Parliament in 1914. This was designed to give Ireland its own parliament, albeit with limited powers, for the first time since 1800.
In 1913, members of the Gaelic League would have felt part of an exciting national movement aimed at reviving the Irish language. Founded in 1893, the League rapidly became something of a consuming passion for an emerging generation of Irish nationalists. Many of those who participated in Ireland’s struggle for independence were drawn into political activity by their enthusiasm for the revival of Irish.
Advocates of what was called an Irish Ireland – people such DP Moran, who edited the Leader – sought to promote the idea of a self-reliant, self-sufficient Ireland, thoroughly Gaelic and Catholic in character. Moran, who cajoled his readers to eschew what he called “West Britonism” had little time for Yeats, whom he subjected to frequent, biting criticism.
Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin, founded in the early years of the century, brought a new dynamism to nationalist politics, although before 1916, it posed no threat to the ascendancy of the Irish Party. Griffith would hardly have recognised the Romantic Ireland that Yeats mourned. Griffith was a pragmatist who urged Irish parliamentarians to withdraw from Westminster and establish a breakaway assembly in Ireland. The Irish labour movement was beginning to come into its own in the second decade of the 20th century, and it was the Dublin Lockout that inspired Yeats to put pen to paper in September 1913. Finally, those who read the poem in the then staunchly unionist Irish Times probably revelled in this report of Romantic Ireland’s decline and fall.