Golden decade: How Irish writing roared in the 1920s

Joyce, Yeats, Shaw once dominated the world literary stage. What will the 2020s bring?

If one wishes to count in decades, the 1920s was surely the greatest single decade in Irish writing in English. What other one could equal it for the sustained quality of its artistry, the immediate and lasting impact of its major works, its conviction in the value of the written word?

There is scarcely a year in the decade in which something remarkable did not occur. In 1920, George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House premiered in New York. In 1921, WB Yeats published Michael Robartes and the Dancer, the volume that contains Easter 1916, The Second Coming and A Prayer for My Daughter. Ulysses made 1922 a watershed in modern literary history. Yeats received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923.

The Abbey Theatre produced The Shadow of a Gunman, the first work in Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy, that year, and Shaw’s Saint Joan, a play about political martyrdom, was premiered in New York. In 1924, O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock was staged at the Abbey; Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland, probably the most significant work of cultural criticism produced in Ireland that decade, appeared too. In 1925, Shaw received the Nobel Prize and Yeats published A Vision. This was the only the decade’s midpoint.

Yeats in Ireland and Sartre in post-war France could inspire and provoke a nation in ways few writers in any contemporary liberal democracy can do today

In 1926, O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars was staged in the Abbey, prompting riots. The year 1927 was a quiet one, though Shakespeare and Company published Joyce’s Pomes Pennyeach in Paris. In 1928, The Tower, one of Yeats’s finest volumes, was published. Anna Liva Plurabelle, extracted from Joyce’s Work in Progress, was also published by Faber & Faber and the Gate staged Oscar Wilde’s Salomé for the first time in Ireland. Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September was published in 1929.


In 1930, Yeats’s Words Upon the Window Pane appeared and a 24-year old Samuel Beckett, making a beginning, published Whoroscope.

Across the Atlantic, Irish-American writers made a real mark in the 1920s. Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones was staged in New York in 1920 and established O’Neill’s reputation as an experimental playwright. F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. In 1927, O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings premiered with Paul Robeson starring in New York, and in 1928 O’Neill won a Pulitzer Prize for Strange Interludes, premiered in New York that year.

They don’t belong to “Irish writing” in any direct sense, but O’Neill’s and Fitzgerald’s works mark a moment when Irish-Americans left a permanent stamp on American literature. O’Neill’s grandparents emigrated from Kilkenny in the wake of the Famine. His Irish-born father, James, grew up in a Buffalo slum, the family cared for by his mother Mary O’Neill when her husband returned to Ireland. James made a considerable fortune in American touring theatre. In two generations, the family had moved well up the class system, though Eugene O’Neill never forgot his father’s terror of the famine poorhouse or his family’s Irish or class origins.

The collective contribution these writers – Irish and Irish-American – made to the arts of modern poetry, fiction and theatre in a single decade is immense. It is worth remembering, too, that many of them engaged, some occasionally, some consistently, with public political issues.

Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats relates how on February 7th, 1921, the poet gave an address to the Oxford Irish Society, declaring to a young Irish republican student, James O’Reilly, that he would tell his audience “their king’s soldiers are murderous”. As good as his word, he used his oration to praise Sinn Féin justice and denounce the “Prussianism” of the Black and Tans.

On November 8th, 1923, he defended Joyce in Trinity College against the charge of dullness. Ulysses, Yeats responded, might be as long as Johnson’s dictionary and as foul as Rabelais, but “Joyce was the only Irishman who had the intensity of the great novelist”.

His 1925 Senate speech challenging the Cosgrave government’s anti-divorce legislation is better remembered today than these earlier contributions. Knowing his side would lose, Yeats told his listeners on that occasion that “There is no use quarrelling with icebergs in warm water” and that while his opponents would now carry the day “when the iceberg melts [Ireland] will become an exceedingly tolerant country”.

O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars prompted a riot at the Abbey which still possessed an audience passionate or excitable enough to make one. Norah Hoult’s short story collection Poor Women! (1928) portrayed the inner consciousness of women from varied class backgrounds struggling with religion and suggested that new constituencies were starting to find their own voices. Bowen’s first novel launched the career of a superb stylist.

Still, if the 1920s was a glorious literary decade, changes soon to come would irrevocably alter Irish writing and literary production generally. The first Pan-African Congress met in Paris in 1920 and the Harlem Renaissance was getting into its swing in New York. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1920 and in 1922 Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement began in India.

O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, in its own way a critical commentary on the 1915 US occupation of Haiti, and a work that gave a leading role to an African-American character, now looks a decidedly dated play that deploys crass stereotypes of African-Americans and Caribbean peoples. The African-American actor Charles Gilpin, who played the lead role of Brutus Jones quarrelled continuously with O’Neill and throughout the production changed the n-word in the dialogue to “Negro” or “coloured” – to O’Neill’s chagrin.

As the non-white colonies of Britain and the US asserted themselves in the decades ahead, the kind of casual racism to be found in most white writing in the 1920s would be called out more and more vigorously. And as Irish society settled into conservative state consolidation, and most Irish writers failed to connect with new struggles emerging across the British Empire, much Irish writing lapsed into its own version of a post-independence insularity and would not long remain to the fore in the annals of anti-colonial struggle.

In 1925, John Logie Baird transmitted the first television image and in 1928 made the first transatlantic TV transmission from London to Hartsdale, New York. In 1929, the Academy of Motion Pictures conferred its first awards, known as the Oscars, in Los Angeles. Though the full effects would take time to impinge on Ireland, when TV and cinema created new publics locally and globally, and shaped new kinds of attention and distraction, the literary author’s authority, like an iceberg in hot water maybe, slowly declined.

In the familiar narratives of the 20th century, TV and cinema threw light on a darkened autarchic Ireland and created a more open society. This seems at best partially true. They also locked Ireland even more firmly into an Anglo-American transatlantic perspective, to the point that it could sometimes seem that anything happening beyond Great Britain or the United States scarcely mattered.

In any event, as the world became media-saturated over the course of the 20th century, in western-style liberal democracies especially, fewer and fewer writers would enjoy the immense public esteem once commanded by major 19th-century writers such as Victor Hugo or Émile Zola in France, Charles Dickens or George Eliot in England, or Leo Tolstoy in Russia. Yeats in Ireland and Sartre in postwar France could inspire and provoke a nation in ways few writers in any contemporary liberal democracy can do today.

It is easy to criticise in retrospect, but the writers themselves may not always have helped matters. When Yeats rejected Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie in 1928 and O’Casey left in dudgeon for London, the fallout may have damaged both. The Abbey Theatre lost its only serious left-wing political writer; O’Casey’s experimental works in London never had the impact of his Dublin plays . The Abbey, Irish political drama and O’Casey may all have been the long-term losers.

More generally, with the advent of what was already beginning to be called “mass culture” (FR Leavis’s Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture was published in 1930), many of the greatest writers of the time tacked in the opposite direction towards avant-garde difficulty and specialist-audience obscurity.

Joyce’s Work in Progress, published as Finnegans Wake in 1939, is an astonishing feat with many admirers but few avid readers. Yeats’s alienation from the new Ireland to which he had tied his fortunes led to works such as On the Boiler, published by the The Cuala Press in 1939; it was a fanatic rant seething with eugenicist disdain for the lower classes, mainly Catholic in Ireland. The strident anti-populist impulse that disfigures his later life especially set a pattern in Irish letters repeated later by others including Francis Stuart and Conor Cruise O’Brien, the former drawn to Hitler’s Germany, the latter indulging in late career belligerent Zionism and Islamophobia.

In an age of celebrity, Beckett would win celebrity by apparently eschewing celebrity. One way or another, the tango between writer, media and public remains even now tortuously difficult.

For those to whom it matters, the coming decade will be a time to look back, to celebrate, to think critically about Irish literary achievement. No commemorations or conferences in the 2020s, however, will return us to the 1920s. Nor will any amount of Booker Prizes or Tony Awards greatly change the situation of the contemporary writer either.

Today, accomplished poetry, literary drama and maybe even the literary novel are typically quiet niche pursuits closer to ballet or opera than to the novel and poetry a century ago. TV or cinema can make an occasional sensation of The Commitments, The Butcher Boy, Brooklyn or Normal People, but transmedia adaptability doesn’t typically do much for the work of a Derek Mahon or Sinéad Morrissey. Even when they do serve fiction writers, such as Colm Tóibín with Brooklyn, they rarely serve as their more ambitious works, such as Tóibín’s The Master.

The streaming companies that secure strong ratings on the back of works like Normal People rarely repay the favour to the literary world. Though a good novel with a neat story will always serve their purpose, it would be idle to look to Hulu or Netflix for serious critical programming on modern writing. Since writers contract to publishing corporations, and publishing corporations to distribution behemoths like Amazon, or to conglomerates like Disney or Time Warner, the writer, as much any other profession, lives in a world saturated in neoliberal capitalist hierarchy and values.

Looking back on Irish writing in the 1920s, two obvious things stand out: how male that world was and how Protestant. After the fall of Gaelic Ireland, the world of Irish writing and the Irish visual arts were a Protestant stronghold and Joyce’s exile and Daniel Corkery’s crankiness need to be understood in that context.

Neither privileged masculinism nor Protestant patricianism inhibited work of quality. Yet, like ours now, the 1920s world was changing faster then than anyone could keep up with. Did Yeats in 1901 look farther into the future than he knew in Ireland and the Arts when he wrote: “We who care deeply about the arts find ourselves the priesthood of any almost forgotten faith, and we must, I think, if we would win the people again, take upon ourselves the method and fervour of a priesthood. We must be half humble and half proud.”

In a 21st-century Ireland where “almost forgotten faiths” are the norm, writers struggle, like priests or ministers, for real vocation and publics that care. Still, young writers continue to appear and even Trinity College, the early 20th-century heart of Irish dullness, continues to produce a few. The Irish generation that came of age after the 2008 financial crash has moved sharply leftwards and wants its own new Ireland. Its support for causes like that of the Palestinians or Black Lives Matter indicate that its views are more internationalist than narcissistically nationalist. The current pandemic and its fallout may push them further to the left.

Today, several youthful Irish writers, most prominently Sally Rooney and Oisín Fagan, announce themselves Marxists, resurrecting another “almost forgotten faith”, and are doing their best to create a new Irish political fiction capable of speaking to their own era. Their task will not be easy. For all the attention, nationally and internationally, lavished recently on Rooney, what her Marxism might mean for Irish writing today has generated little comment.

What does it mean to be a Marxist writer in the 21st century? Or to be an Irish one more particularly? How can it become something more than a marketing tag a distinguishing brand image? These are questions for critics even more than for writers like Rooney. However, for Irish critics to address such questions well, they will need to take capitalism, Marxism and literature all equally seriously, a rare enough occurrence in Irish studies.

The fact that Rooney and Fagan both attended Trinity reminds us, if reminder is needed, that the literary arts have always been, for better or worse, the preserve of elites. This has not changed greatly since the 1920s. No one can cut a leftist swathe in that world without difficulty. Still, the ambition is to be admired and bespeaks of the writers a faith in themselves and in literature, and a hope for a responsive public willing to consider the issues they raise seriously.

As we move into the centenary of the 1920s, we must wish these young starters well and hope that they, and their readers, can be half humble, half proud, and set our ambitions high. There is a literary tradition to inspire, much in it to emulate, much to avoid, much to renew.

Joe Cleary teaches English and Irish literature at Yale University. Cambridge University Press will publish his Modernism, Empire, World Literature next year.