Review: Handbook of the Irish Revival
A rich, if idiosyncratic, anthology of the thinkers that shaped modern Ireland
JM Synge sketched by Jack B Yeats
Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922
Edited by Declan Kiberd and P.J. Mathews
Abbey Theatre Press
What, or whom, do Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic have in common? The answer is God. The covenant “humbly relies on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted”. The proclamation “places the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms”. Covenant and proclamation are among the “writings” that this rich, if idiosyncratic, anthology invites us to mix and match. Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews draw on manifestos, memoirs, cultural and political essays, fiction, drama, poetry, song. Their object is to bring alive the “extraordinary generation of dynamic people” who “shaped the country”.
Like all anthologies, Handbook of the Irish Revival has its own shaping agenda. It is divided into sections, such as “Theatre Matters”, “Social Conditions” and “Women and Citizenship”, and the breezy introductions are not opinion-free: the Famine “was widely understood by the ruling classes as a stroke of divine providence to punish a degenerate people”. But Kiberd and Mathews hardly claim to stand outside the (continuing) “cultural and political debate” to which their anthology bears witness. They know that “different versions of the Revival have been produced at different historical moments”. And they believe that the present moment – “a time of national introspection during the Decade of Commemorations” – needs a new version.
Thus they diverge from “prominent thinkers” for whom “the entire Revivalist project was bogus and fraudulent”. They equally reject an “exclusive focus on the literary revival”, which has “cut off the artistic energies of the period from the political forces that informed them, thereby transmogrifying the movement into an elitist one of high cultural exchange between a privileged few”. This holistic approach is broadly welcome. For instance, it brings WB Yeats out of the cold in which he has often languished during Irish culture wars. Yet, when introspection becomes “national”, it’s possible to be overinclusive, to overextend editorial terms and categories. Take “revival”, which here covers every form of Irish artistic, intellectual and political endeavour before 1916. Back in the day, “movement(s)” more than “revival” seems the term of choice, although there’s a notable extract from John Eglinton’s 1904 essay On the Possibility of a Thought Revival in Ireland.
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Further, Kiberd and Mathews use the problematic word “revivalist”, both adjective and noun, to tie diverse folk into a totalising idea or dynamic. “Revivalist project” is a retrospective label. I also find it difficult not to see “revivalists” as a bunch of hymn-singers in a tent. The literary movement may have owed something to evangelical Protestantism (as the late Vivian Mercier argued), but it did not owe everything. And, today, “Irish revival” usually does mean “literary revival”, without “elitist” being necessarily attached.
The Handbook harks back to Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, from 1995, a work that tends to marginalise other objects of Irish literary invention. The notion of nation-shaping can swamp literary complexity, tempting critics to imbue later works with the instrumental drive of Young Ireland. Thus The Lake Isle of Innisfree is said to “praise the virtue of modest self-reliance – the very quality that Malthusian economists regarded as lacking in the Irish”. I doubt that Yeats’s bean rows would have amounted to a row of beans.
Kiberd and Mathews applaud an era that sought to close “the gap . . . between the aims of artists and the wider community”. Yet, as Yeats discovered in his quest for audience, the gap may become non-negotiable. Easter, 1916, central to the Handbook, is partly about this. Maud Gonne’s response (also included) reconfirms the point: “My dear Willie, No I don’t like your poem, it isn’t worthy of you and above all it isn’t worthy of the subject.”
It’s inevitable (and apt) that some items could belong to more than one section of the anthology. But there’s also an editorial quirkiness at work. Thus the Irish language figures as prominently in “An Irish Literature in English?” as in “Language Revival”. “Religion” contains heresies like Yeats’s The Secret Rose and Patrick Pearse’s Fornocht Do Chonac Thú. And the section title “Militarism/Modernism” does not imply that Italian futurism influenced the Ulster or Irish Volunteers. The section pivots on the Rising, with a nod to the Great War, and its introduction concerns “modernity” rather than “modernism”. “Imperial modernity” is contrasted with the superior modernity of those Irish who, through “a creative rapprochement with newly discovered pre-colonial traditions”, unleashed “the revolutionary shock of the old”, “modernism in the streets”. That certainly closes the gap between art and action. The co-option of “modernism” (as retrospective a term as “revivalism”) betrays anxiety lest the “revival” or Rising should be thought backward looking: not “radical”, not “international”, not avant-garde. Elsewhere Pearse is associated with a conjectural “Gaelic Modernism”, and Fornocht shakily likened to Beckett’s “negative theology”.
The editors commendably seek to “present the vigour of fractious debate” (sometimes joining in). They include, for instance, John Millington Synge’s unpublished letter to the Gaelic League, which excoriates “the incoherent twaddle passed off as Irish”. The ubiquitous presence of Synge’s prose is a pleasure of the Handbook. It’s interesting that nationalist critics, from Daniel Corkery to Kiberd, generally find Synge the most sympathetic literary-revival figure. In contrast, the choices from Yeats’s prose seem to mute his fractiousness.
“Revival” can’t square all circles. Many Irish Protestants are represented in the Handbook, few Irish unionists. And it’s tokenistic to include a paragraph by CS Lewis on “trench war”, even if followed by George Russell’s elegy conjoining Thomas Kettle and Thomas MacDonagh. Again, “Britannia’s huns” in the Foggy Dew ballad is glossed by a suggestion that “the British and German war machines were indistinguishable in the minds of those who had other priorities”.
This ignores the Proclamation’s call to “gallant [German] allies in Europe”. It’s also at odds with the Great War’s role as “shared history” in the Northern peace process; unionists even mutter about the “Greening” of the war. The Oranging of the Rising is unlikely to follow any day soon.
In some ways the Easter Rising was a commemorative act. And the post-1916 writings in the Handbook are highly conscious of their commemorative function. The Handbook itself reprises Troubles-inspired compendiums like the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. The Troubles, too, were a kind of grim commemoration, and the North remains partly trapped in a memorial vortex. As the Rising’s centenary approaches, is “commemoration” becoming synonymous with “celebration”? Kiberd and Mathews are ultimately celebrants, nostalgic for a “charismatic” generation remote from “our . . . risk-averse lives”. But (to cite Easter, 1916 again) perhaps “excess of love” should be resisted. The Handbook contributes most significantly to a more necessary noun: complication.
Edna Longley is a professor emerita at Queen’s University Belfast. She is the author of Yeats and Modern Poetry (Cambridge University Press)