Irish culture’s remarkable response to the political turmoil from 1891 to 1922

Irish art during the period both mirrored and shaped events in the political sphere

Between the death of the Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell in October 1891 and the shelling in June 1922 of republicans in Dublin's Four Courts by Free State forces, Ireland witnessed a period of remarkable achievement in the arts.

Parnell's campaign for Home Rule at Westminster collapsed after he was exposed as the lover of Katharine O'Shea, then the wife of one of his own party's MPs. A rancorous split opened up between Parnell's supporters and his detractors – not just in the Irish Parliamentary Party, but in Irish society more generally. The country divided on the issue and the prospect of an independent Ireland drastically receded. But WB Yeats, aged 26 at the time of Parnell's death, saw artistic opportunity in political disaster. Before the "soft wax" of Irish culture would set again, he declared that he wanted to seal it with the "right image".

In collaboration with other similarly committed artists, patrons and audiences, Yeats aimed both to decolonise Irish art and to restore Ireland to its place among the great world cultures. Irish artists would avoid provincialism by cultivating what he called “an exacting criticism, a European pose”; this project of recovery was to replace party and sectarian allegiances. Yeats gave this movement a specifically “Celtic” inflection that would distinguish it as an ancient, spiritual alternative to what he regarded as the soullessness of British and of modern mass society.

The Irish Revival, in which Yeats remained a leading figure, achieved extraordinary successes. Reversing a tradition of Irish literary expatriation, some writers in touch with currents of experimental art and literature in Europe returned to the country and – following Yeats's example – their subject matter became Irish. These included the novelist and critic George Moore, a devotee of Zola and Turgenev and friend of Manet and Degas; later, Moore wrote a colourful memoir of the revival, titled Hail and Farewell (1911). Meeting Yeats in Paris in the late 1890s, John Millington Synge was persuaded to spend time living among the islanders in Aran. Synge's intimacy with the language, poems and stories of the people of the west of Ireland inspired his plays for Yeats and Augusta Gregory's Abbey Theatre, among them Riders to the Sea (1904) and The Playboy of the Western World (1907).


Yeats’s ideal of a unified Irish culture proved elusive. The first production of Synge’s Playboy in Dublin provoked riots: some members of the audience were incensed by its portrayal of flirtatious young women and by what they took to be a return to stage Irish buffoonery. Moore’s family’s house, Moore Hall in Co Mayo, was burned down by republicans in 1923. It was perhaps predictable that some of those working for agricultural and industrial development, the promotion of Gaelic games or the revival of the Irish language – middle-class Catholics in the main – would clash with the patrician Yeats. Other activists focused their energies on the underground planning of armed rebellion.

As Yeats records in Easter 1916, the Rising was for him – as for many in the country – a shocking event. In the wake of an insurrection that cost the lives of several of the writers and intellectuals – James Connolly, Thomas McDonagh, Padraig Pearse – among its leadership, artists could no longer imagine themselves to be at the centre of things. As Yeats put it: "My movement perished under the firing squads of 1916." Sinn Féin's radical programme, arising from the Proclamation of the Republic during the Rebellion, was eventually endorsed by popular vote in the 1918 general election.

However, following disputes in the Dáil over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 that had brought the War of Independence to a close, the country began its slide towards the Civil War. In the Four Courts, republican Ernie O’Malley recorded that a piece of artillery pierced one of his volumes of Synge illustrated by the poet’s brother Jack Yeats. The Irish split was back. This one was bloodier and even more enduringly consequential than the Parnell split.

The central play of Seán O'Casey's Dublin trilogy, Juno and the Paycock, set in the Dublin slums during the Civil War, was first staged in 1924. The play registered the country's grief for the victims of the conflict: "O Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin' son was riddled with bullets?" Other key works directly concerned with the Civil War appeared much later. These include O'Malley's The Singing Flame, published posthumously in 1978. This was originally written as part of his memoir of the War of Independence, On Another Man's Wound (1936). Even after decades there were concerns about how some of his surviving former comrades might react to the book. Many once overlooked documents now provide historians with varied perspectives on experiences of the Civil War – for example, the prison diaries of republican writer and novelist Dorothy Macardle, which date from her period of incarceration in Mountjoy and Kilmainham.

Women artists

Some early 20th-century women artists subscribed enthusiastically to Yeats's revivalism or to the politics of cultural nationalism. These included republican dramatist and journal editor Alice Milligan in Belfast and designers Susan and Elizabeth Yeats (from the same talented family). The Yeats sisters, influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement, founded the Dun Emer Guild and the Cuala Press. Their work was based on versions of Celtic ornamentation in textiles and print.

Architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray meanwhile contributed to modernism in a style that owed nothing to the archaising tendencies of the revival. In 1922, Gray opened a gallery in Paris, Jean Désert, to showcase her work. Painters May Guinness and Mary Swanzy had encountered modernists including Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse while studying in Paris and later developed elements of Fauvism and Cubism in their own compositions. In 1956, James White stated that Guinness was "the first of her race to paint her way in to the heart and spirit of the new movement of the 20th century".

In other words, not all modernists from Ireland were keen to be Irish modernists in any Yeatsian way. The term “Irish modernism” is itself a fairly recent invention, but one which usefully circumvents untenable distinctions between supposedly insular “national” artists and more cosmopolitan experimenters.

For example, the work of Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, who had also found their training and inspiration in Paris early in the 1920s, combined elements of Cubism with Celticism and Catholicism – as in Jellett's boldly colourful abstractionist variations on the motif of the Madonna and Child (see for instance Decoration (1923)). Jellett's and Hone's work was exhibited at the Society of Dublin Painters in 1923, alongside pictures by Paul Henry, Harry Clark and others. Hone's magnificent stained glass can be seen in several Irish churches, including in Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary.

In January 1922, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the Dáil – after Éamon de Valera had scrambled to replace it with a revised version of his own, the so-called "Document No 2". Later that month, a week-long World Congress of the Irish Race was held in Paris. Without reference to political divisions in Ireland, paintings and artworks by Jack Yeats, Elizabeth Yeats, John Lavery, Mary Swanzy and Sarah Purser, among others, were displayed at the Galerie Barbazanges in an exhibition associated with the congress, which featured an impressive programme of readings, lectures and music. (The centenary of the congress is currently being marked by several Irish cultural institutions and a digital recreation of the art exhibition, hosted by Trinity's Long Room Hub, can be viewed online.) This fanfare announced the arrival of a culturally distinctive self-governing Irish state. The prospects for the North of Ireland were evidently not discussed.


But how well did the radical art of the Irish Revival and of Irish modernism lend itself to the ends of cultural diplomacy or “soft power”? Was 1922 also a watershed in the development of modern Irish culture? Several generations of Irish artists, whether committed or not to some version of the resurgent nation, had been influenced by aesthetic disrupters and innovators. As well as depicting fragmentation and chaos, these artists had fostered utopian visions of transformative social change. How would such dreams fare in the chastened conditions of postcolonial state-building?

Big dates mattered to Yeats. Michael Robartes and the Dancer was published in 1921. This volume included Easter 1916 and other poems written in response to the Rebellion or cataclysms abroad like the Russian Revolution. In his elegies for Pearse, Connolly and others, Yeats acknowledged the martyrdom of the men of 1916. In a less celebrated poem, he noted that the brilliant, aristocratic Constance Markievicz, the most prominent woman leader of the Rising who had escaped execution because of her sex, was transformed instead into a mere "political prisoner". She had lost the sanctuary of her family home (Lissadell in Co Sligo) without gaining republican heaven. Yeats's verdict on her folly is severe. Towards the end of the collection, Yeats prayed that his daughter (the future artist Anne) would not follow the example of Anglo-Irish political women of his own generation.

Yeats set his monumental, seven-part Meditations in Time of Civil War in Thoor Ballylee in Co Galway – the Hiberno-Norman tower house that was his summer retreat during the 1920s. The sequence appeared in his collection The Tower in 1928. (In the meantime, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.) Yeats suggested that the colonisation of Ireland by his own ancestors, and the decolonisation that he was now witnessing, were both ferocious in their violence. He believed that Irish people in the revolutionary period had “fed the heart on fantasies/ The heart’s grown brutal from the fare”. Among other tragedies, the Anglo-Irish big houses of Ireland – regarded by the poet as centres of a noble culture – had been overrun by a mob.

In The Municipal Gallery Revisited (1938), Yeats declares: “‘This is not,’ I say/ ‘The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland/ ‘The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.’” Poetic vision has fed political dreaming, which has led to rebellion and disastrous civil war. But Ireland has nonetheless been resurrected from its 19th-century “deadness” in his youth to new Dionysian life. Yeats makes a virtue of being out of tune with an Ireland that he still claims proudly to have summoned into being.


James Joyce’s Ulysses, modern Ireland’s most important work of art, appeared in Paris just weeks after the ratification of the treaty, on February 2nd, 1922. This happened by chance – the book’s publication coincided with Joyce’s 40th birthday. It was joined in the same year by TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room – major works of literary “high modernism” that adapted techniques pioneered in the early 20th century to the transformed conditions of the post-first World War world.

Nevertheless, the coincidence of the dates was bound to seem significant. Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann wrote in 1977 that "Ulysses creates new Irishmen to live in Arthur Griffith's new state" (Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, became president of Dáil Éireann after de Valera's resignation following the treaty fiasco in January 1922). But who were these new Irish men and Irish women?

Joyce grew up in middle-class urban Ireland and attended UCD during the high point of revivalism and also of the “Gaelic” or Catholic-dominated nationalism with which Yeats and his colleagues often found themselves at odds. He resented the Protestant domination of Irish literature even as he rejected Catholic belief and sexual morality: his work calls down a plague on both of these houses. His Ireland would have a welcome for the children of Jewish eastern European immigrants or of British army officers, such as Leopold and Molly Bloom. Joyce foresaw that the new Irish state would be a capitalist one – even if it would not turn into a consumer society until late in the 20th century. Molly especially is associated with erotic desire, commodification and excess that are entirely disconnected from any broader collective political aspiration.

Joyce's earliest known literary work was a poem mourning Parnell and attacking the enemies who had destroyed him. He wrote Et Tu Healy? (addressed to Tim Healy, one of Parnell's fiercest critics from within his own party) at the age of nine. No copies survive. But his allegiances were clear enough. The young Joyce was a Parnellite, like his father John Stanislaus – although he gave an unsurpassed account of the trauma of the split for both sides in a scene set during a family Christmas dinner in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). His attitude to the post-treaty split is more complicated.

Finnegans Wake (1939), Joyce’s epic of a dreamlike Dublin, narrated in a newly coined polyvocal language, demonstrates his lasting fascination with disputes about the treaty. Éamon de Valera and his Document No 2 (and other foundational and disputed texts), the fraternal conflict of the Civil War, and Ireland’s troubled accession to semi-independence all haunt the novel. Through the character of Shem the Penman, Joyce places himself as artist at the centre of a spiralling story about a country that had been “bowed and sould . . . for a price partitional of twenty six and six”. (Here Joyce echoes Parnell’s rebuke of a half-century earlier to the Irish people: “When you sell, get my price.”)

The multivocality and universalism of Joyce's final work bear the imprint of the local quarrels and compromised achievements of the 1920s and afterwards. Civil War Ireland, at this "split hour of blight", becomes the basis for the book's allegory of a general, cyclical human history. As Seamus Deane puts it: "Finnegans Wake is Joyce's Irish answer to an Irish problem . . . If Ireland could not be itself, then by way of compensation, the world would become Ireland."

Uneasy accommodation

Neither revivalism nor Irish modernism were in fact shut down by 1916 or even by 1922. As the most dominant cultural group before independence, Anglo-Irish artists made an uneasy accommodation with the new regime, but revivalist institutions such as the Abbey survived and were supported by the state. The Free State, later the Irish Republic, used elements of revivalist and modernist design in its branding, coinage and some public architecture. Painters in more romantic or realist modes such as Lavery and Seán Keating created the best-known depictions of the personalities and events of the revolutionary period. But the non-representational modernist artists set a tone for a later experimental Irish visual culture. Their work was later continued by initiatives such as the Irish Exhibition of Living Art inaugurated by Jellett and others.

1922 appears to have been a turning point for Jack Yeats – perhaps the outstanding Irish visual artist of the era. Nicholas Allen and others have suggested that Jack Yeats's "late world of memory and colour stood against the dull uniformity of a false independence". In this, arguably Yeats joins with Ernie O'Malley and even with the ostensibly unpolitical Samuel Beckett in Paris in a late oppositional modernism that recognised the limits of the Republic that had actually been won.

Even after Ulysses, many of the great achievements of Irish literary modernism lay ahead – not just Finnegans Wake but WB Yeats’s A Vision (1925) and his Last Poems at the end of the 1930s as well. Elizabeth Bowen’s chronicle of the final days of a fictional big house in Cork, The Last September, arrived in 1929; The Heat of the Day, set against the background of the London Blitz, in 1949. Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, the finest modern novel in Irish, also appeared in the latter year.

Arguments about the revival and its legacies have continued to animate Irish criticism and cultural debate over the last century. In the decades that followed, writers Frank O'Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin, combatants in the defeated republican faction in the Civil War, and others, including Ó Cadhain, took issue with much of the revival but remained committed to what they understood as the ideals of 1916 and to building up a national culture in tune with European and international developments. Journals including The Irish Statesman, under the editorship of the pro-treaty George Russell, James O'Donovan's short-lived Ireland To-Day and later Ó Faoláin's The Bell contributed to a lively public sphere in which socialist and feminist politics were debated. Independent Ireland was not only a place of bitterness and repression.

When the issue of partition flared again during the northern Troubles, artists and intellectuals, many from the North and among them poet and critic Tom Paulin and actor Stephen Rea, again explored questions of language and colonialism, myth and stereotype, identity and violence. In part, this represented a return in new idioms and styles to some of the preoccupations of the revivalist and modernist generations.

Our nearly completed "decade of commemorations" has resurrected the spirit of the years between 1912 and 1922, the better perhaps to lay to rest the division, violence and bitterness of those times. History has not been wholly co-operative. Britain's own separatist insurrection, the Brexit referendum, took place in 2016; the decade of commemorations closes to the clamour of war in Ukraine. "The nightmare of history" is not easily placated. On that much at least Yeats and Joyce would have agreed.