Literatura Irlandeza


Irish Literature – Part One is a survey of the historical evolution of the Irish society and culture, with a focus on some representative moments in the literature of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. A historical survey of Ireland is presented as a starting point, continuing with an analysis of some significant cultural concepts like “the stage Irishman”, stereotypes or the Celtic Other. The course draws attention to the peculiar position of Irish writers like Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and J. M. Synge and their contribution to the development of a national literature and cultural identity. The moment of the Literary Revival is treated in several units as it is considered to be central both to the political and the cultural construction of Ireland.

Given the peculiar context and history, some attention is paid to the perception of the Irish culture from a postcolonial perspective, which explains the specific themes and approaches of major works. Nevertheless there is a moderate use of the postcolonial theory, given the special position of Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. Therefore some of the topics will be approached from other theoretical standpoints as well, with a view to enlarging the possibilities of understanding one of the most creative cultures in the world.

Course Objectives

Irish Literature – Part One aims at making students familiar with the most significant moments in the history of Irish Literature towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. It is designed for the Distance Learning programme of the Faculty of Letters, department of Romanian – English, as an elective course in the second year.

After completing this course, the students will be able to:

  • Identify key moments in the history of the Irish society and culture;
  • Identify major writers and their works;
  • Interpret literary texts from a postcolonial, psychoanalytical, feminist or structuralist perspective;
  • Compare literary works, motifs and devices
  • Write an essay on one of the topics indicated.

Preliminary Requests



For the understanding of this course and the successful performance of the tasks of each unit no special skills or previous knowledge are necessary, except for some background in literary theory acquired during highschool and the Romanian literature courses or Theory of Literature.

Course Structure

The Course in Irish Literature, Part One, is structured in two modules. The first module contains three units, giving a broad historical survey and focusing on the significance of the Literary Revival, including its greatest representative W. B. Yeats. The second module contains two units, each dealing with a major Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde and John M. Synge.

Each unit starts with an introduction and a presentation of objectives, followed by some general considerations. In some cases significant fragments from the works  are given in the form of examples and some tasks are suggested. The units end with a summary and a test.

At the end of each of the two modules there is an assignment which is compulsory for graduating the course.

Average Study Time

The average study time for the units is three hours, including the End of unit tests.


The final grade for the course will include a test with 2-3 general questions, amounting to 70%, and the answers to the Assessment tasks representing 30%.




1.1. Introduction

1.2. Competences

1.3 The Early Stages

1.4. The Conflict and the Invasions From the East

1.4.1. Example

1.4.2. To Do

1.5. The Sectarian Conflict


1.6. The Twentieth Century and the New Irish State                                                            1.7. Summary

1.8. End of Unit Test


1.1. Introduction

In this unit the main stages and events in the history of Ireland are viewed in connection to the cultural effects and the complex political background that created today’s unique Irish context. The focus is on the nineteenth and twentieth  centuries, as they are also the most culturally productive periods and in which the Irish identity was shaped and represented.

1.2. Competences

On completion of UNIT ONE students will be able to identify the main stages in the development of the Irish nation and the formation of today’s Republic of Ireland. They will understand historical processes and sources of conflict and will become familiar with dates, places and personalities that are significant in the history of the island.

Study time for UNIT ONE: 3 hours

1.3. The Early Stages

Ireland had an ancient civilisation dating back from the Mesolithic Age over nine thousand years ago. It underwent continuous transformations as people from Europe moved westward, but it was never invaded by the Romans or by Germanic tribes like most European territories. This enabled the Gaelic civilisation, Christianised in the fifth century, to flourish in the early Middle Ages. Between the ninth and the twelfth centuries, at a time when there was hardly any coherent manifestation of local cultures in the territories of the present-day Western European countries, Irish monks travelled throughout Europe spreading Christianity and the fruit of the Irish civilisation. The illuminated manuscript of the Book of Kells, today exhibited at the museum of Trinity College, Dublin, stands proof of the advanced artistic skills and tastes of the Irish in the ninth century.

The Book of Kells is a stunningly beautiful manuscript containing the Four Gospels. It is Ireland’s most precious medieval artifact, and is generally considered the finest surviving illuminated manuscript to have been produced in medieval Europe. The Gospels are written in Latin, which was the language of the religious sermons.

The Book of Kells was written on vellum (calfskin), which was time-consuming to prepare properly but made for an excellent, smooth writing surface. 680 individual pages (340 folios) have survived, and of them only two lack any form of artistic ornamentation. In addition to incidental character illuminations, there are entire pages that are primarily decoration, including portrait pages, „carpet” pages and partially decorated pages with only a line or so of text. As many as ten different colors were used in the illuminations, some of them rare and expensive dyes that had to be imported from the continent. The workmanship is so fine that some of the details can only be clearly seen with a magnifying glass. The great number of drawings can be accounted for by the fact that the book was exhibited in church during the Sunday sermon, which was in Latin, so that the illiterate people could look at the images representing the respective Gospel and understand the story.

The Book of Kells was probably produced in a monastery on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, in the early 8th century. After a Viking raid the book was moved to Kells, Ireland, sometime in the 9th century. It was stolen in the 11th century, at which time its cover was torn off and it was thrown into a ditch. The cover, which most likely included gold and gems, has never been found, and the book suffered some water damage; but otherwise it is extraordinarily well-preserved.

1.4. The Conflict and the Invasions From the East

Just like the British territories, Ireland attracted Viking raids from the end of the eighth century, and then Norman invaders, who settled especially in the East and the fertile lowlands of the South. Thus the North, called Ulster, remained the least affected province and continued to keep its Celtic heritage. Being an independent territory until the sixteenth century, it was soon perceived as a threat by the developing power of England.

By the time Elizabeth came to the throne in 1588, much of Ireland had been recovered, but Ulster largely remained beyond the Crown’s grasp.  Heading a formidable coalition of all the Gaelic lords of the north, Hugh O’Neill of Tyrone for several years inflicted severe defeats on the English in the 1590s. Eventually, due to intensified attacks, O’Neill had to capitulate in 1603. The final stages of this conquest were terrible: by burning corn and seizing cattle the English commanders caused mass starvation in Ulster and left bitter memories among the survivors. This was just the beginning of the continuous anomalous state of the Irish people under the British rule, which was to last until the beginning of the 20th century.

The settlement of Protestant English and Scots in Ireland starting with 1603 marked the beginning of the colonisation of the island, called “The Plantation of Ulster”. The incoming British who took over the lands never felt secure in Ireland and they could never manage their estates without Irish help. On the other hand the dispossessed Irish resented the intrusion of settlers with an alien language, alien customs, and alien religion. This led to political instability and rebellions, which were suppressed in blood by the British troops, the most terrible example being the repression led by Oliver Cromwell. It remained in the folk memory as one of the bloodiest episodes in the Irish history. Later in the same 17the century, during the Catholic King James II other two battles were added to the black pages of history, namely the battle of Boyne in 1690 and the one at Aughrim in 1991, when seven thousand Irishmen were killed in one afternoon. Even the contemporary national Irish poet Seamus Heaney dedicated a long poem to the Battle of Boyne and its devastating effects on the Irish psyche.

Starting with the 18th century, Ireland benefited from the effects of the Industrial Revolution and developed some local industries, especially linen, as well as trade. The flourishing of navigation also contributed to the development of ports such as Belfast and Newry. As the sectarian conflicts started to aggravate, the Crown intensified its armed interventions, while alternating military suppression with political actions, which culminated with the bribing of the weak Irish Parliament and its dissolution in 1800. This was the moment when the total Union with Britain started.

Example 1.4.1:

Here is the way in which the historian Jonathan Bardon describes the 19th century Irish history:

The Union: Poverty or Prosperity?

In the eighteenth century, Dublin was the second – largest city in the British Empire. After the Union the city’s textile industry found it increasingly difficult to compete with the power – driven mills and factories of northern England. For the same reason the domestic linen industry in mid – Ulster and west Cork, and the domestic woollen industry throughout the rest of Ireland, suffered catastrophic decline. A rapidly rising population depended ever more heavily on what the overworked soil could produce. The potato, the staple food of about half the inhabitants, was destroyed by blight in the 1840s; about a million people died from hunger and famine fever, and about million people emigrated.

There was a flight from the land, and those without the resources to go abroad often ended up in Belfast, which became the fastest – growing urban centre in the United Kingdom. At first growth depended on cotton produced by steam and water – powered machines. Finding it difficult to compete with Manchester, the mill owners transferred to the power production of linen yarn in the 1830s and 1840s and the power weaving of cloth in the 1850s and 1860s. During the American Civil War (when supplies of cotton wool were closed off) Belfast became the world centre of the linen industry.

Belfast became a city in 1888 (it was then the largest in Ireland), and by 1900 it was one of the great cities of the Empire, with the biggest shipyard in the world launching the largest ships in the world, the biggest linen mill, the biggest tobacco factory, the biggest tea machinery works, the biggest ropeworks, the biggest aerated waters factory, and the biggest gasometer in the world…but it was a city with severe problems.

1.4.2. After reading the fragment above, answer the following questions:

  1. What were, according to Bardon, the alternatives for the poor people of Ireland in the nineteenth century?

b. What was the greatest disaster for the Irish in this century?

c. How did Belfast become known throughout the world?

  1. Did the industrial development eradicate severe poverty in the late 19th and early 20th century?

1.5. The Sectarian Conflict

The development of Belfast in terms of number of inhabitants and economy went hand in hand with the clustering of its population in separate districts for the (mostly) British Protestants and for the Catholics. These distinct ghettos were separated by invisible frontiers and became the scene of ferocious  sectarian rioting. They continued in the 20th century, in spite of the increase of the Protestant population to 75 per cent, and the national question continued to grow in importance.

The Irish Catholics intensified their fight for independence and the abolishment of the Act of Union especially under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell. This contributed to several Parliamentary reforms in 1832, 1867 and 1872, which allowed a larger participation for the representatives of the Irish people and secret vote. By 1886 there were 100 Irish MPs, out of which 80 were nationalists seeking “Home Rule”, that is a Parliament in Dublin but with Ireland as part of the British Empire. The Home Rule Bill was finally rejected by the House of Lords, after passing the Commons.

Towards the end of the 19th century the divide grew stronger between the nationalist Irish, who aimed at an independent Ireland, and the Unionists who were afraid of losing their privileges. The conflict was not only political, but also cultural, expressed in various manifestations of the so-called Gaelic Revival. At the same time the political representation of Ireland at the Westminster Parliament grew in importance with the voice of Parnell, whose speeches had a destabilising effect on the British rule over Ireland. Although Parnell did not manage to obtain a real victory, his contribution to building the expectations and future course of action of the Irish patriots was undeniable.

One of the most impactful cultural forms of voicing the desire for independence was the speech made by Douglas Hyde in 1892 in front of the National Literary Society in Dublin, marking the beginning of The Literary Revival. Known under the title of “The Necessity For De-Anglicising Ireland”, the speech reveals the anxieties about the survival of the Irish spirit and the difficulties in re-constructing it.

Here are some fragments from Douglas Hyde’s famous address:

Example 1.5.1.


When we speak of “The Necessity for De – Anglicising the Irish Nation”, we mean it, not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish, and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English.

This is a question which most Irishmen will naturally look at from a National point of view, but it is one which ought also to claim the sympathies of every intelligent Unionist, and which, as I know, does claim the sympathy of many.

If we take a bird’s – eye of our island today, and compare it with what it used to be, we must be struck by the extraordinary fact that the nation which was once, as every one admits, one of the most classically learned and cultured nations in Europe, is now one of the least so; how one of the most reading and literary peoples has become one of the least studious and most un – literary, and how the present art products of one of the quickest, most sensitive, and most artistic races on earth are now only distinguished for their hideousness.

I shall endeavor to show that this failure of the Irish people in recent times has been largely brought about by the race diverging during this century from the right path, and ceasing to be Irish without becoming English. I shall attempt to show that with the bulk of the people this change took place quite recently, much more recently than most people imagine, and is, in fact, still going on. I should also like to call attention to the illogical position of men who drop their own language to speak English, of men who translate their euphonious Irish names into English monosyllables, of men who read English books, and know nothing about Gaelic literature, nevertheless protesting as a matter of sentiment that they hate the country which at every hand’s turn they rush to imitate.

I wish to show you that in Anglicising ourselves wholesale we have thrown away with a light heart the best claim which we have upon the world’s recognition of us as a separate nationality…It has always been very curious to me how Irish sentiment sticks in this half– way house – how it continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them; how it continues to clamour for recognition as a distinct nationality, and at the same time throws away with both hands what would make it so. If Irishmen only went a little farther they would become good Englishmen in sentiment also. But – illogical as it appears – there seems not the slightest sign or probability of their taking that step. It is the curious certainty that come what nay Irishmen will continue to resist English rule, even though it should be for their good, which prevents many of our nation from becoming Unionists upon the spot. It is a fact, that although they adopt English habits and copy England in ever way, the great bulk of Irishmen and Irishwomen over the world are known to be filled with a dull, ever – abiding animosity against her, and – right or wrong – to grieve when she prospers, and joy when she is hurt. Such movements as Young Irelandism, Fenianism, Land Leagueism, and Parliamentary obstruction seem always to again their sympathy and support. It is just because there appears no earthly chance of their becoming good members of the Empire that I urge that they should not remain in the anomalous position they are in, but since they absolutely refuse to become the one thing, that they become the other; cultivate what they have rejected, and build up an Irish nation on Irish lines.

But you ask, why should we wish to make Ireland more Celtic than it is – why should we de – Anglicise it at all?

I answer because the Irish race is a present in a most anomalous position, imitating England and yet apparently hating it. How can it produce anything good in literature, art, on instructions as long as it actuated by motives so contradictory? Besides, I believe it is our Gaelic past which, though the Irish races does not recognize it just at present, is really at the bottom of the Irish heart, and prevents us becoming citizens of the Empire, as, I think, can be easily proved.

To say that Ireland has not prospered under English rule is simply a truism; all the world admits it, England does not deny it. But the English retort is ready. You have not prospered, they say, because you would not settle down contentedly, like the Scotch, and from part of the Empire. “Twenty years of good, resolute, grandfatherly government”, said a well – known Englishman, will solve the Irish question. He possibly made the period too short, but let us suppose this. Let us suppose for a moment – which is impossible – that there were to arise a series of Cromwells in England for the space of one hundred years, able administrators of the Empire, careful rulers of Ireland, developing to the utmost our national resources, whilst they unremittingly stamped out every spark of national feeling, making Ireland a land of wealth and factories, whilst they extinguished every thought and every idea that was Irish, and left us, at last, after a hundred years of good government, fat, wealthy, and populous, but with all our characteristics gone, whit every external that at present differentiates us from the English lost or dropped; all our Irish names of places and people turned into English names; the Irish language completely extinct; the O’s and the Macs dropped; our Irish intonation changed, as far as possible, by English schoolmasters into something English; our history no longer remembered or taught; the names of our rebels and martyrs blotted out; our battlefields and traditions forgotten; the fact that we were not of Saxon origin dropped out of sight and memory, and let me now put the question – Now many Irishmen are there who would purchase material prosperity at such a price? It is exactly such a question as this and the answer to if that shows the difference between the English and Irish race. Nine Englishmen out of ten would jump to make the exchange, and I as firmly believe that nine Irishmen out of ten would indignantly refuse it. ………………

So much for the greatest stroke of all in our Anglicisation, the loss of our language. I have often heard people thank God that if the English gave us nothing else they gave us at least their language. In this way they put a bold face upon the matter, and pretend that the Irish language is not worth knowing, and has no literature. But the Irish language is worth knowing, or why would the greatest philologists of Germany, France, and Italy be emulously studying it, and it does possess a literature, or why would a German savant have mate the calculation that the books written in Irish between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and still extant, would fill a thousand octavo volumes.

I have no Hesitation at all in saying that every Irish-feeling Irishman, who hates the reproach of West-Britonism, should set himself to encourage the efforts which are being made to keep alive our once great national tongue. The losing of it is our greatest blow, and the sorest stroke that the rapid Anglicisation of Ireland has inflicted upon us. In order to de-Anglicise ourselves we must at once arrest the decay of the language. We must bring pressure upon our politicians not to snuff it out by their tacit discouragement merely because they do not happen themselves to understand it. We must arouse some spark of patriotic inspiration among the peasantry who still use the language, and put an end to the shameful state of feeling-a thousand-tongued reproach to our leaders and statesmen-which makes young men and women blush and hang their heads when overheard speaking their own language.

We can, however, insist, and we shall insist if Home Rule be carried, that the Irish language, which so many foreign scholars of the first calibre find so worthy of study, shall be placed on a par with-or even above-Greek, Latin, and modern languages, in all examinations held under the Irish Government. We can also insist, and we shall insist, that in those baronies where the children speak Irish, Irish shall be taught, and that Irish-speaking schoolmasters, petty sessions clerks, and even magistrates be appointed in Irish-speaking districts. If all this were done, it should not be very difficult, with the aid of the foremost foreign scholars, to bring about a tone of thought which would make it disgraceful for an educated Irishman-especially of the old Celtic race, MacDermotts, O’Connors, O’Sullivans, MacCarthys, O’Neills-to be ignorant of his own language-would make it at least as disgraceful as for an educated Jew to be quite ignorant of Hebrew.

1.6. The Twentieth Century and the New Irish State

Although the Unionists had the support of the Conservative Party at Westminster and were decided to fight by all means to stop Home Rule, by 1914 it became imminent.  In 1913 the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed, and in April 1914 a huge consignment of German arms was smuggled in. However, the government reconsidered the act and proposed an amendment which allowed nine counties of Ulster to opt out of the Home Rule, which marked the partition of Ireland. During the Great War (1914-1918), in spite of some economic development due to the needs for the war machine, the actions for independence continued. A great rebellion took place in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916, organised by the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was quickly repressed and its leaders executed in public. The separatist party Sinn Fein (meaning “ourselves”) started its activity in 1917 and aimed at full independence. Nevertheless the 1918 elections did not bring any significant change and it was only in 1920 that Home Rule became law for two thirds of the island (the twenty six southern counties) with local parliaments in Dublin and Belfast and some representatives in the Westminster Parliament. The Ulster Unionists had obtained what they wanted, namely six counties in Ulster remained under British rule, with a parliament in Belfast. After some more IRA campaigns that were defeated, a truce was agreed in 1921 and in December the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed, recognising the Irish Free State (made up of the twenty-six southern counties) with a status similar to the dominion in Canada. Northern Ireland also had its own parliament, but remained subservient to London. Here the fights between the separatista and the unionists continued and intensified in the next years, making hundreds of victims on both sides. In the two biggest cities, Londonderry and Belfast there were numerous riots, shootings and assassinations, and the government’s response was the creation of an armed police force. The situation in Northern Ireland remained problematic, as one third of the population, the Irish Catholics, were now ruled by their historical enemies, while the Protestant majority feared that the situation could be threatened if Dublin or even London decided to help the Irish. Economically, Northern Ireland also suffered an acute depression between the two world wars due to the loss of some international markets. The human loss of Belfast in the World War II was very great, but the post-war British government policies supported the economic growth which resulted in vast improvement in educational, health care, and living standards. The partition of Ireland was reinforced with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the 1993 Joint Declaration, by which the British government repeated its position with respect to the Irish issue, namely that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority there wished in to be.

The civil strife in Northern Ireland registered periods of intensity, like the turmoils and killings of 1968-1969 in Derry and Belfast, the January 1972 so-called “Bloody Sunday”, when paratroopers killed thirteen men in Derry during a demonstration and the terrible IRA atrocities that followed. The British government sought to control the violence and – in co-operation with the Dublin government – to find a constitutional compromise, which included the sharing of power by Protestant and Catholic elected representatives. All the attempts failed, being opposed by the unionists, and violence continued at a high level. On 21 July 1972 or “The Bloody Friday”, the IRA detonated twenty bombs in Belfast within one hour, Earl Mountbatten and two boys were killed in County Sligo, then eighteen soldiers in 1979. The 1970s were probably the bloodiest decade in the whole century, and the protests continued by IRA prisoners, culminating with ten of them starving themselves to death, attracted public sympathy in the Catholic community. That is why some constitutional solutions were sought, including cross-border cooperation and the consultative role of the Republic of Ireland. Between 1985-1990 Ulster opposed this policy, but the cooperation between Dublin and London on security matters continued and the Sinn Fein’s electoral support of the community declined.

Violence increased again in the early 1990s as the Provisional IRA got large consignments of arms and explosives from Libya, and loyalist paramilitaries got weapons from South Africa. All the attempts at reaching new agreements, including talks with Sinn Fein leaders, failed, due to incessant killings on both sides. On 15 December 1993 John Major and Albert Reynolds launched the Joint Declaration at Downing Street, which reaffirmed the constitutional guarantee to Northern Ireland, stated that Britain no longer had any “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland, acknowledged the right of self-determination but subject to the consent of a Northern majority, and held out the prospect of exploratory talks with Sinn Fein three months after an agreement to stop the IRA campaign of violence.

After 1995 the level of violence decreased, and many positive signs appeared. In the 1990s the Republic of Ireland became the economic “Celtic Lion” of Europe, with the greatest growth rate in the EU, and the North started on a growing trend as well.

1.7. Summary:

The Irish civilisation is the result of a long process of development starting with the prehistoric age and flourishing long before other European territories. It was a Celtic civilisation whose remains today include the language, some legends and artifacts. Starting with the seventeenth century most of the island’s territory was taken over by British settlers and gradually Ireland lost its political independence while its economic position was very backward. The struggle for independence intensified at the end of the nineteenth century and in 1922 the Free Irish State came into being. This was not the end of the conflict, as tension grew in the northern counties that continued to be part of the United Kingdom.

1.8  End of UNIT TEST

1. What is The Plantation of Ulster?

2. What is the oldest manuscript in Ireland?

3. Describe the social and economic situation of the Irish in the nineteenth century.

4. What was Parnell’s contribution to raising awareness about the situation of the Irish people both inside and outside the country?

5. What was the main idea of Douglas Hyde’s speech entitled „The Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland”?

6. When was the Irish Free State set up?

7. Mention three moments in the escaladation of the conflict in Northers Ireland.


2.1. Introduction

2.2. Competences

2.3. The Celtic Civilisation

2.4. The Celts and the Perception of Their Culture

2.5. The Literary Revival: Reconstructing Irishness

2.6. The Abbey Theatre

2.7. Summary

2.8. End of Unit Test


2.1. Introduction

This unit deals with issues of Irish identity and its cultural representations. The impact of the Celtic civilisation is briefly stated and the stereotypes about the Irish are viewed historically and with a postcolonial focus. The emphasis in the second half of the unit is on the importance of the Literary Revival as a cultural reconstruction of the nation that led to the political construction that followed.

2.2. Competences

On completion of UNIT TWO students will be able to better understand the essence of the Irish identity in connection with its Celtic past and with the outside representations of Irishness. They will become familiar with the cultural movement called Revival and its most important representatives.

Study time for UNIT TWO: 2 hours

2.3. The Celtic Civilisation

The Indo-European populations known as Celts, probably originating from central Europe, started settling in Britain in the 5th century BC and in Ireland in the 3rd century BC, where they found a culture that had existed for some 2000 years. The testimonies of classical authors like Tacitus are the most important sources for this civilization, which extended from Ireland to Asia Minor, and which survived in Ireland more than in other continental territories due to the isolation of Ireland which prevented a Roman invasion in the 1st century AD. It even outlasted the strong attacks of the Vikings in the 9th and the Normans in the 12th centuries AD. Plato, Aristotle  and other Greek historians, made comments of the habits of Celtic tribes, like their valiance in chariot battles or the habit of fighting naked, their fondness of speaking in riddles or their love of learning.

In spite of their ethnic diversity, the Celts can be said to share a common culture, reflected in their social and political institutions, religious beliefs and languages. Celtic religion associated deities with rivers, wells and trees (thus the oak was sacred and there were animal Gods).

Celtic languages were located historically in southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, northern Italy, Spain, France and on the islands of Britain and Ireland. They were known as Gaulish in France, Celtiberian in Spain, and in Britain the languages surviving to the present: Gaelic – in the form of Irish and Scottish  – and Welsh and Breton. Migrations in the ancient world brought Celtic languages in the Danube valley and even to Asia Minor, where they are testified in the 4th century AD.

For the past 2000 years the Celtic languages have been threatened by the pressures of Germanic and Latin languages, which led to the extinction of the Continental Celtic language, and even in Britain and Ireland, they survived in very limited territories. Welsh, with about half a million people, is probably the best preserved. Scottish Gaelic has practically died out on the main island but survived in the Hebrides. In Ireland, although nearly one million people declared themselves as speakers of Irish at a census, as a community language it is still spoken by very few people in the westernmost territories and in some smaller islands.

2.4. The Celts and the Perception of Their Culture

In order to understand the culture and characteristics of the Irish people, it is necessary to confront two different perspectives: one from the outside, loaded with stereotypes and representing the image created along the centuries by the British neighbours, who defined themselves in opposition with “ the Celtic Other”, and the inside perspective, the way in which the Celtic spirit is reflected in the cultural productions of the populations that lived on the Irish territory, and, more recently, by the Irish writers themselves.

Mathew Arnold, an English poet-critic and Oxford Professor from 1857, was among the first scholars to study Celtic culture and language, as demonstrated by his lectures On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867) and his famous anthropological work Culture and Anarchy (1869). He regarded the Celtic psyche as “essentially feminine”, lacking the pragmatic spirit and steadfast powers of the Saxons, but Arnold considered that a combination of the two dispositions could be beneficial for the British culture. While Arnold’s views may be considered as justifying the political subordination of the Irish, it also contributed to the emergence of the Literary Revival in the last two decades of the 19th century, providing the Irish with reasons for taking pride in the highly imaginative nature of Irish literature.

The stereotypes about the Irish are epitomized in the expression “the stage Irishman”, usually referring to both characters in fiction and in real life and emphasizing or distorting national characteristics. Most often the presentation of the stage Irishman was meant to amuse audiences by exaggerating certain features. Thus the Irish were presented as boastful, garrulous, unreliable, hard-drinking, belligerent and cowardly at the same time, illogical, uneducated, using the distinctive Hiberno-English dialect which was neither English nor Irish. The usual positions in which the Irish were represented were those of household servants, hucksters, fortune-hunters or soldiers. Irish characters can be found in Shakespeare’s plays, the best known of these being Captain Macmorris in Henry V, but the first stereotype stage-Irish appears after the Restoration of the English monarchy (end of 17th century). The growth of a patriotic movement in Ireland towards the end of the 18th century led to increasing challenges and even protests against such stereotype representations. At around 1900 there were vehement protests in Ireland, such as the one caused by John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World, considered to present a false negative image of the Irish peasantry. During the 20th century playwrights tried to avoid trivializing Irish characters, and both audiences and critics had a continuous vigilance against stage-Irishness in any form. Occasional manifestations of racial caricature in plays or films were met with resentment and protest.

One of the most outstanding voices in creating a less biased representation of the Irish and actively engaged in the cultural de-colonisation of his country is Declan Kiberd, Professor at University College Dublin. In his work The Irish Writer and the World he unmasks the mechanisms which create fetishes, “images” for national identities, and which result in peoples like the Irish or the Jewish “being defined, derided and decided by others”.

Professor Kiberd considers that the Stage Irishman was a caricature invented in England, “based on ignorance and fear of the Other”. The English have always looked at their Celtic other in order to see themselves, and in spite of the feeling of superiority that this comparison always involved, it also involved a continuous implicit dialogue, some sort of relationship or spiritual bond. The need to imitate the Other was felt on both sides, and most of the greatest Irish writers displayed a masterful use of the English language and a subtle understanding of cultures and people. Oscar Wilde is probably the best example here, as we are going to see in the next unit, demonstrating how easily Englishness could be performed, and that it too, could become a stereotype. In fact, according to postcolonialist theorists, the colonized are interested in observing the habits and behaviour of the colonizers and in subverting the order by imitating the masters. The intention of subversion or challenge of the oppressive power is always present in colonized countries, and Ireland is no exception. As Declan Kiberd says:

Such a view of the Other was a neurosis, for the neurotic is one who behaves as if the identity of his antagonist is all that determines his own (just as male hysterics act as if their masculinity is in all things the reverse of that which is called ‘feminine’). Many narrow-gauge Irish nationalists bought into this reactive thinking, patenting an Ireland that was less a truly liberated zone than a sort of not-England, in which every virtue of the colonising country had its equal but opposite Irish counterpart. In that depressing context of endless oppositionism between both parties, the Stage Irishman was of some limited value, offering a recognisable figure through which both sides could at least begin to negotiate. Even though the figure had been created by a succession of English playwrights, there was a very real sense in which Irish people chose to occupy the assigned role, if only to complicate and ultimately to challenge it.

2.5. The Literary Revival: Reconstructing Irishness

Ireland was the first modern state in which the cultural revolution preceded the political one. If the Free Irish State was set up in 1922, the Irish intellectuals and patriots started a campaign for re-asserting the national values and traditions in the last decade of the 19th century. Douglas Hyde’s speech The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland was a sort of starting signal for a series of actions that were intended as a cultural movement more effective than the political fight for Home Rule.

William Butler Yeats was among the first to realize the importance of reappraising the Irish legends and folklore, and initiating a cultural movement that would replace the political fight for Home Rule and land reform. He published a collection of Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), which together with Douglas Hyde’s collection Beside the Fire (1890) became the first authentic collections of folklore in Irish. The National Literary Society founded by Yeats in Dublin and The Gaelic League continued to militate for the national spirit and the spread of the Irish culture abroad. At that moment of increasing industrialization worldwide, the Celts and other so-called primitive peoples were thought to possess an instinctive understanding and knowledge, as suggested by Yeats’s volume The Celtic Twilight (1983), and the book set a trend of return to original and ancient truth that characterized the Revival.

Among the most significant publications were Standish O’Grady’s History of Ireland: Cuculain and His Contemporaries (1880) and The Coming of Cuculain (1895), which celebrated the heroic ancient Celtic king who became the dominant fictional figure of the Revival. Yeats himself presented him in his Cuchulain cycle of plays and in poems, and Lady Gregory wrote a narrative with the figure of Cuhulain as a central character. The other celebrated figure of the Celtic legends was a female character,  Cathleen Ni Houlihan, who was often presented as a symbol of Ireland itself.

Other significant publications interested in cultivating the history and folklore or researching into Irish language and literature followed: Standish O’Grady’s Silva Gaelica (1892), a large anthology of stories translated into impressive English prose; Hyde’s The Story of Early Gaelic Literature and Literary History of Ireland. The Irish Texts Society was founded in 1899 for the publication of Gaelic texts and of an Irish-English Dictionary (1904).

The literary Revival attempted to present a unified Irish culture built around the figures of the legendary past and the simplicity and nobility of the rural class, especially in the Western part of Ireland, still unspoiled by industrialization and political fights. This idealization of the Irish peasant was also strongly criticized by some of Yeats’s contemporaries, such as J. M. Synge, whose play The Playboy of the Western World focuses on the violence and harshness of the poverty-stricken peasants of the Western counties. This unflattering representation was received as an insult by the nationalist audiences at the Abbey Theatre.

The Literary Revival comes to a close with Yeats’s poem Nineteenth Hundred and Nineteenth (published in 1922) and Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Joyce attacks many of the Revival’s main figures for their exaggerated Celticism or for nationalism, intolerance and hatred. Against such limited attitudes he sets the broad humanity of Leopold Bloom, a Jew and a “citizen of the world”, and Stephen Dedalus, the open-minded and rebellious artist in becoming.

The Revival contributed to creating an image of a pastoral, mythic, unspoiled Ireland that fascinated even British audiences and readers and influenced subsequent writers in the twentieth century. It reflected the renewed enthusiasm for Gaelic literature, language and culture. Its spirit was continued even towards the end of the twentieth century by the Field Day theatrical company, founded in Derry by the playwright Brian Friel, and the associated literary movement which set out to redefine Irish cultural identity. This movement included famous writers such as Seamus Deane, Seamus Heaney and the film-maker David Hammond.

2.6. The Abbey Theatre

Probably the most active and prestigious cultural institution growing out of the Literary Revival was the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, set up initially as The Irish Literary Theatre in 1898 and then becoming The Abbey in 1904. It concentrated around it all the great writers of the age following the death of Parnell, the Irish hero who tried to save Ireland by his speeches in the British Parliament. If previous Anglo-Irish playwrights such as George Farquhar, R. B. Sheridan and Oscar Wilde had successfully written for London audiences, The Abbey was intended to found a new Irish drama. The founder directors of the company were William Butler Yeats Lady Gregory, later joined by J. M. Synge and Lennox Robinson, and they promoted Irish values and new writers alongside classical drama productions.

Among the first performances was Yeats’s play Countess Cathleen (May 1899), George Russel’s Deirdre and Lady Gregory’s pleasant comedies based on Irish folkways. Some Irish plays that were to become classical were first rejected by the theatre, like George Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island (1905), while  Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (1926) and Juno and the Paycock were some of the most important premieres. The Abbey was at the heart of all the main cultural controversies of the first part of the twentieth century.

The Abbey became the first state-subsidized theatre in the English-speaking world in 1924. In the early 1950s the Abbey company moved to the nearby Queen’s Theatre after a fire had destroyed its playhouse. A new Abbey Theatre, housing a smaller, experimental theatre, was completed in 1966 on the original site. While the Abbey today retains its traditional focus on Irish plays, it also stages a wide range of classic and new works from around the world.

2.7. Summary:

This unit made a survey of the significant moments in the development of an Irish culture and literature at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of twentieth century literature. The unit first placed the Celtic element in a historic context and presented the identity difference it brought to public attention, including the stereotypal image of the stage Irishman. Then the focus shifted to the Literary Revival, the  cultural movement intended to rebuild national identity after the destructive effects of the nineteenth century history.

2.8. End of UNIT TEST

1. What Celtic languages are known today?

2. How did Mathew Arnold define „the Celtic Other”?

3. What kind of image does the stereotype called „the stage Irishman” present?

4. What is Professor Declan Kiberd’s position towards this stereotype?

5. How did the writers of the Literary Revival attempt to reconstruct the Irish Identity?

6. In what way is the Abbey Theatre and the plays it promotes different from other institutions of the kind?


3.1. Introduction

3.2. Competences

3.3. General Considerations

3.4. The Poems of the Historic Cycles

3.5. The Irish Issue

3.5.1. Example

3.6. The Meditative Poems

3.7. Summary

3.8. End of Unit Test


3.1. Introduction

In this unit you are going to analyze some poems by the first great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. Yeats’s importance as a public figure, especially his activity as a director of the Abbey Theatre, was presented in Unit Two. Now the emphasis will be on his poetic work.

3.2. Competences

On completion of UNIT THREE students will become familiar with some of Yeats’s major texts, dealing with Irish issues or with broader philosophical topics. They will be able to discuss the major themes and devices of his poetic work and compare poems and devices with the aim of refining their analytical skills.

Study time for UNIT THREE: 3 hours

3.3. General Considerations

As a poet, Yeats is a late Romantic, being attracted to old legends and myths, to history and to the nature of rural Ireland which inspired some of his meditations, to magic, spiritualism and astrology. As he wrote poetry for nearly sixty years, there is a great variety of styles and ideas in his work.  There is the simplicity of local Irish legends and ballads, the complex symbolism of poems about Gaelic mythology, a more direct and bitter tone in poems concerned with public contemporary events, or the deep meditative form of philosophical poems.

He was also busily engaged in writing articles and reviews of Irish literature, edited William Blake’s poems, helped the activity of the Gaelic League and published several collections of Irish fairy tales and legends.

His volume of poetry published in 1893, The Celtic Twilight, gave its name to the kind of romantic, misty, dreamy and melancholic poetry that was being produced at that time by several imitators. It was the result of his research in the Irish folklore and his interest in Hiberno-Irish, the language spoken by country people steeped in oral traditions. This Celtic stage in his poetic career reached a climax in the volume The Wind Among the Reeds (1895), with symbolic and esoteric lyrics.

Yeats wrote many love poems dedicated to Maud Gonne, a nationalist and eccentric young woman, to whom he proposed several times, but was constantly refused. After being actively involved in the Literary Revival and the theatrical life of Dublin for several decades, he became a senator of the Free Irish State in 1922 and participated to the educational reform of the country. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1923 and continued to write poetry. Among his well-known volumes of poems mention can be made of The Wind Among the Reeds, In the Seven Woods, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, The Winding Stairs and Other Poems, New Poems.  In 1928 he published a magnificent poem, The Tower, focused on legends surrounding Thoor Ballylee, the problem of age and mortality, war and love. It was also the title of a whole volume containing some of Yeats’s greatest lyric poems, among which Sailing to Byzantium (in which the poet attempts to escape time by taking refuge in art), Meditations in Times of Civil War (making a survey of the troubles of modern Ireland), Among School-Children ( a wonderful meditation on the mutability of life), Leda and the Swan ( dealing with the major theme of the volume, namely the brutality of history).

Yeats was unanimously recognized as the leading literary figure in Ireland in his time, the founder of modern Irish literature in English and one of the greatest modern poets in any language.

3.4. The Poems of the Historic Cycles

A place apart in his poetic work is taken by the poems related to the historic cycles. Leda and the Swan describes the rape of Leda by Zeus who took the form of a swan, a rape which resulted in the birth of Helen, the destruction of Troy and the disintegration of early Greek civilization:

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

According to the poet’s own statement, he wrote the poem as a meditation upon the static and individualistic condition of mankind after the French Revolution, when “nothing is possible but some movement, or birth from above, preceded by some violent annunciation.” Thus the union of Leda and Zeus is seen as a significant one between the human and the divine , announcing a new civilization.

Two Songs From a Play is a poem focused on the end of the second Greek cycle and the beginning of the Christian phase. Each of these stages begins and ends in violence, which is regarded by Yeats as the engine of history. The first stanza focuses on the myth of Dionysus, born of a mortal, Persephone, and Zeus. He was torn to pieces by the titans, but Athene snatched his heart from his body and brought it to Zeus, who swallowed it, killed the Titans, and begat Dionysus again upon another mortal. The Muses sing of it as a play because they regarded the ritual death and rebirth of the god as recurring, part of the cycles of history.

Yeats speaks of “a second Troy” as  a return of the Golden Age, his romantic vision, sometimes coupled with astrological perspectives,  being very often concerned with the evolution and destruction of human civilization. The poem ends with a typically romantic view of mutability and transitoriness:

Everything that man esteems

Endures a moment or a day.

Love’s pleasure drives his love away,

The painter’s brush consumes his dreams;

The herald’s cry, the soldier’s tread

Exhaust his glory and his might:

Whatever flames upon the night

Man’s own resinuous heart has fed.

3.5. The Irish Issue

The poem Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen belongs to the same volume The Tower, and was first published under the title Thoughts upon the Present State of the World. It arose out of “some horror at Gort” as the poet declared, during the period when the guerilla warfare waged by the Irish Republican Army was countered by the activities of the British forces. The lines are full of intensity and foreshadow the poetic responsibility taken half a century later by the other national poet, Seamus Heaney:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare

Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery

Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,

To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;

The night can sweat with terror as before

We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,

And planned to bring the world under a rule,

Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

The present is seen not only as violent and unreasonable, but also as a mockery of the high ideals that had been expressed only a few years before (“Come let us mock  at the wise”), a time of the blind and of “angry cries”.

Yeats’s best-known poem that deals with the contemporary events in Ireland is Easter 1916. The poem was written one year after the uprising that was meant to overthrow British rule and gain complete independence. On that Easter day, April 24,  about 700 armed patriots (members of the Irish volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army) occupied the important buildings in central Dublin. The revolt was repressed by the British troops after about four days and fifteen of the leaders were sent to court martial and executed in public. They became national heroes and it is this spirit of solidarity with them that the poem celebrates.

The poem is constructed in four stanzas of unequal length and with a clear structural pattern. In the first stanza the future heroes are presented as ordinary people that anyone could meet in the dull streets of the capital and they were not given any particular attention. In the “motley” world of Dublin everything seemed to be petrified in meaninglessness or useless mockery. It is the last two lines of the stanza, which are emphasized by repetition in other two stanzas, that indicate the difference these heroes’ gesture made:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

The idea of change is reinforced by repetition and determination with strong adverbs like “utterly”. The result of that change is expressed by an oxymoron, “a terrible beauty”, and remains therefore ambiguous until the end of the poem.

The second stanza is the celebration of some of the revolt’s leaders who are sketched in a few lines each. They were acquaintances of the poet, like Countess Constance Markievicz, an Irish nationalist who joined the Citizen Army and who was sentenced to death but then the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. After 1918 she was the first woman to be elected to the Westminster Parliament, but she refused the position and continued to oppose the Treaty and to serve gaol sentences. Another patriot celebrated by Yeats is Patrick Pearse, a member of the Irish Bar, an orator, who published poetry and prose in English and Irish. He was in charge of the revolt’s headquarters at the General Post Office in Dublin. Another poet and critic who died in 1916 was Thomas MacDonagh, a professor at University College, Dublin. The poet even celebrates one of his rivals, Major John MacBride, who was “a drunken, vainglorious lout” and who had married Maud Gonne. He is one of those who resigned their part in “the casual comedy” of submission and acceptance of British rule and contributed to the change, the birth of the “terrible beauty”.

The third stanza places the idea of change within a broader frame, moving from the social area to the natural world, where besides movement, there seems to exist a permanent element, the “stone”, keeping a balance and a centre. The metaphor of the stone is resumed in the fourth stanza but with a different meaning, and the whole stanza is dominated by question marks which render the poet’s doubt in connection with the necessity of the sacrifice made by the heroes he names once again in celebration:

Example 3.5.1.

This is the fourth and final stanza of Yeats’s poem Easter 1916:

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, no night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

An what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connoly and pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Interpret the fourth stanza of the poem answering the questions it contains and explaining the metaphor of the last line, „a terrible beauty is born”.

3.6. The Meditative Poems

Yeats’s romantic dispositions include various meditations on history, art, religion, or the evolution of the human society in its multiple aspects. Among School Children is one such poem which is based on a series of contradictions: youth – old age, past – present, essence – appearance, reality – representation, philosophy – ordinary life, body – soul, divine – profane, religious love – erotic love. All these are brought to the poet’s mind by the simple situation of a classroom where children learn basic things like reading, history and counting and where he comes as “a public man”, that is as an inspector, a representative of the Government of the new Irish Free State. The old man is stared upon by the children and he falls into a meditative mood which evokes not only his personal past, but the whole spiritual evolution of mankind. The most vivid image in his mind is that of the beautiful Maud Gonne, whom he imagines as a school child. Her image is envisioned as a Ledaean beauty, painted by Italian Renaissance painters. The poet even depicts himself as a young boy, so that his present old age contrasts with the better days of his youth. The glories of the past and the inevitable doom and decay of everything are also related  to great ancient thinkers Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras, the first one being evoked for his theory of the shadows:

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays

Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;

The end of the poem is a meditation on the distinction between appearance and essence, part and whole, as embodying all the previous oppositions:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

In his maturity work Yeats often expressed his worries about the irrational violence taking place everywhere around. The rise of communism after the atrocities of the WW1, the violence at home, the destruction of a whole set of values together with the loss of the old world, all this inspired a series of poems which, in good romantic tradition, are meant to warn his contemporaries of the disastrous effects of such actions. Thus the poem The Second Coming presents a view of the gyres, the representation of the historical cycles in the form of a whirling spiral with repetitive aspects of growth followed by decay. It is a gloomy, pessimistic view of historical change, in which one age is the reversal of the preceding one, and the Second Coming undoes all that has been achieved in the centuries of Christian civilization:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

If Christ’s birth had been a revelation and salvation, this Second Coming is likely to bring in a new era of irrational force suggested by the beast with the shape of a lion slouching out of the desert with a gaze “blank and pitiless as the sun”.

The motif of the gyres as a representation of the motion of history appears in several poems, including the one with this title, The Gyres, published in a later volume entitled New Poems.

Interpret these first two stanzas of the poem focusing on the aspects the poet chooses for exemplifying the movement of the gyres:

The Gyres

The gyres! The gyres! Old Rocky Face, look forth;

Things thought too long can be no longer thought,

For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth,

And ancient lineaments are blotted out.

Irrational streams of blood are staining earth;

Empedocles has thrown all things about;

Hector is dead and there is a light in Troy;

We that look on but laugh in tragic joy.

What matter though numb nightmare ride on top,

And blood and mire the sensitive body stain?

What matter? Heave no sigh, let no tear drop,

A greater, a more gracious time has gone;

For painted forms or boxes of make-up

In ancient tombs I sighed, but not again;

What matter? Out of cavern comes a voice,

And all it knows is that one word ‘Rejoice!’

Meditations about artistic forms and styles are a constant preoccupation with Yeats. They are often intertwined with reflections about the transitoriness of all natural forms as opposed to the “artifice of eternity” embodied by artistic creations like the Byzantine mosaics or the objects made by Grecian goldsmiths, as suggested in the poem Sailing to Byzantium.

When contemplating works of art, Yeats refers to general frames of mind that characterize mankind, so that a specific object becomes symbolic of systems of value or historical moments in the history of culture. This is also the case of the poem entitled Lapis Lazuli, inspired by a carving in lapis that the poet received as a birthday present. The poem begins with reflections about the mounting political conflicts of the 1930s in which Italy and Germany were involved, and the poet mentions the Zeppelins that had raided London in the First World War. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and heroines (Hamlet, King Lear, Ophelia and Cordelia) are contrasted with the contemporary world lacking their dignity, their broad vision and ecstasy at the approach of death: “ They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread”. This tragic play performed with joy indicates the power of transfiguration that true art inspires, a transcendence of the mere mortal condition. It is precisely this transfiguration that the piece of carved lapis lazuli inspires. The representation of the three Chinamen climbing a steep mountain makes the poet envisage not their effort or “the tragic scene they stare”, but the delight they feel when reaching the top of the mountain and their glittering eyes when listening to the music one of them, who is carrying a musical instrument, will likely play. Aesthetic pleasure thus intermingles with a type of heroism that raises not only the one who performs artistic activities  but also those who contemplate them to a  sublime state.

3.7. Summary:

This unit presented some significant moments in the poetic creation of William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s greatest poet of all times.

His extensive work is divided into three thematic categories for the sake of clarification: the poems of the historical cycles, the Irish poems and the meditative poems, but in fact his work is much more diverse. The brief analyses of the poems chosen are accompanied by some examples that illustrate Yeats’s style and thinking.

3.8. End of UNIT TEST

1. Name some of Yeats’s volumes of poetry and give examples of well-known poems

2. Mention some general topics in his poetry.

3. What are the themes of „Two Songs From a Play”?

4. What Irish issue is focused on in Nineteen Hundred Nineteen and Easter 1916?

5. What historical moment is dealt with in Easter 1916?

6. What doubts and anxieties does the poet express in the last stanza of Easter 1916?

7. Analyze the motif of the gyres. In what poems is it used and what does it signify?

ASSIGNMENT 1.  Summarize the major developments brought by the Literary Revival and its representatives to the construction of the Irish cultural identity. Write about 400 words.


4.1. Introduction

4.2. Competencies

4.3. General Considerations

4.4. The Importance of Being Earnest

4.5. The Mirror of Society

4.6. A Postcolonial Reading

4.6.1. Example

4.7. Summary

4.8. End of Unit Test

4.1. Introduction

This unit makes a brief presentation of the dramatic work of Oscar Wilde, with a focus on his play The Importance of Being Earnest. After some general considerations  about his work and social image, the discussion of the play is divided into two main areas: the interpretation of the social aspects and the more recent postcolonial reading of some scenes and motifs.

4.2. Competencies

At the completion of Unit Four the students will be able to argue for Oscar Wilde’s place in the canon of both English and Irish literature. They will be able to identify key aspects of his drama, of his devices and style. They will provide reasons for a postcolonial reading of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Study time for UNIT FOUR: 3 hours

4.3. General considerations

By his full name Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854 – 1900). He was  a playwright, poet and author of numerous short stories and one novel entitled The Picture of Dorian Gray. An eccentric and complex personality, he was one of the celebrities of London of the late Victorian age, but as a result of a series of trials, Wilde he lost prestige and was imprisoned for two years’ hard labour.

Oscar Wilde owes his personality and his home education to his mother, an Irish patriot. He then continued his education at Trinity College, Dublin, and at Oxford, where he joined the Aesthetic movement (interested in making art of life). His social life was full of poise, associated with the fashion of dandyism, which attracted him some criticism, but also respect in the literary and aesthetic circles to which he belonged. He became famous for the paradoxes and witty sayings which were extensively quoted and he very much cultivated this image of witticism. Upon his arrival in the USA for a lecture tour, Wilde reputedly told a customs officer that „I have nothing to declare except my genius”.

Oscar Wilde’s first published work was Poems (1881), followed by the children’s stories The Happy Prince (1888), and a collection of essays called Intentions (1891). But his real literary fame came from his drama, which became quickly a real success on the London stage:  Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893). An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

4.4. The Importance of Being Earnest

This is one of the most widely performed English comedies and a wonderful portrait of the Victorian society, manners and values. It is set both in London and in the countryside during the late Victorian era and is full of witty dialogue and satire against the Victorian shallowness and hypocrisy.

The main characters are two pairs of young people, Jack Worthing and Gwendolen Fairfax, and Algernon Moncrief and Cecily Cardew, all of them very mundane, superficial, libertine and irresponsible. The young men lead a double life, inventing masks for their social convenience. Thus Jack becomes Earnest in London, and he invents a brother in London in order to escape his countryside duties (where he has a ward, Cecily) whenever he pleases. Algernon (Algy) invents a friend Bunburry who is seriously ill and in constant need of his care in order to escape boring social duties that his aristocratic position imposes, and this game is called “bunburying”. Gwendolen is the daughter of Lady Bracknell, one of the most vivid characters in Wilde’s plays, and in spite of her mother’s very strict attitude, she develops a relationship with Jack, whom she pretends to love for his name, namely Earnest. Much of the humour of the play derives from this name, as both young men claim to be called Earnest, then when their real names are revealed, they both plan to be re-baptized Earnest. Jack apparently discovers at the very end, when the secret of his birth and parentage is revealed, that his true name was Earnest and that his social position is worthy of Lady Bracknell and her daughter.

The two imaginary people created by Jack and Algernon might symbolize the empty promises or deceit of the Victorian era. Not only is the character Ernest anything but earnest for the majority of the play (the pun of the name becomes obvious), but he also doesn’t even really exist. Both of them allow Jack and Algernon to live a lie while appearing to observe the highest moral standards. They can thus indulge in their libertine behaviour without suffering any consequences. The attitude they adopt betrays the Victorian society’s lack of real values and admiration for style, money and social rank.

A central motif and element of the plot, the handbag in which Jack was found as a baby at Victoria Station by his benefactor, the late Mr. Cardew, becomes another subversive element that Wilde ingeniously uses to reveal the loss of real values in the Victorian age. Lady Bracknell even takes it as a true representation of Jack’s social status in the absence of his real parents. The unexpected revelations made by Miss Prism, the governess, turn the bag into a tool of upward social mobility, an object that confers Jack an identity at last. His identity had been in crisis all along not only due to his Bunburying game or to his status as a foundling, but also due to the fact that the other indication of his origins is the Brighton line of Victoria Station where he had been found. It was situated at that time at the intersection of two different directions, the western one leading to the wealthier parts of London, and the eastern one to the more impoverished areas.

The image of the dandy, both in this play and in Oscar Wilde’s own life, is representative for the London society of the age. The posture of „conspicuous idleness, immorality, and effeminacy” that some critics distinguish in it, allowed a distancing from the exaggerated materialism of the middle class. As Rita Felski says,

„Like woman and like the work of art, the dandy can be perceived in aestheticist doctrine as quite useless; exalting appearance over essence, decoration over function, he voices a protest against prevailing bourgeois values that associate masculinity with rationality, industry, utility, and thrift”.

4.5. The Mirror of Society

Some critics have recognized the role Lady Bracknell plays at more than an individual level: she can be considered to represent the larger society’s work to fit individual subjects into socially recognized categories. Not only does she educate her daughter “with utmost care”, but she has a constant tendency of referring all attitudes or actions to the social rules of the upper classes. When Algernon claims he does not care about social duties, Lady Bracknell acts on behalf of Society: “Society never speaks disrespectfully of Society, Algernon”. She therefore assumes a role larger than her own position, she feels she represents her whole social class. It is in this position that she approves or disapproves of the two marriages in the play, in fact her attitude changes from one extreme to the other depending on the wealth and name of the eligible protagonists (Cecily and Jack, the two “outsiders” of her family until the end of the play). From most of Lady Bracknell’s utterances, we can realize how the subject is socially constituted, not only through titles and fortune, but also by the supportive discourse of those empowered to make the rules. For her Algernon, who has no means of his own and has to marry into money, “he has nothing but his debts to rely on”, or, „Algernon is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?”

It is the looks of the man that are marketable here, and this represents one of the famous inversions of positions and roles that the play performs: in the traditional patriarchal societies it is the woman’s beauty which becomes marketable in marriage. But Oscar Wilde chooses to subvert the common view of the Victorian order and presents “womanly men and manly women” whose role is not only to create a comical effect, but also to destabilize a rigid social order. The Importance of Being Earnest can thus be read from a postcolonial perspective as a critique of the English society made by an Irish writer who became very familiar with the subtleties of the language and of the culture it represents. “I am Irish by race”, Oscar Wilde once said, “but the English have condemned me to speak the language of Shakespeare”. To his San Francisco audiences he was even more direct in this attitude: “The Saxon took our lands from us and made them destitute… but we took their language and added new beauties to it”. Such statements, as well as some of the episodes in his life, reveal the fact that Wilde had always felt as an outsider in England, an Irishman.

The inversion of gender identity is manifest in many scenes and utterances in the play: the women read German philosophy or discuss the physical appeal of men, while the men lounge elegantly on sofas and eat muffins or cucumber sandwiches. It is women who propose marriage, while men are expected not to be public figures, but to perform household duties, according to Gwendolen’s  description of her father:

Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that. It makes men so very attractive.

Wilde’s inversion of gender roles could be interpreted in several ways, and one of them is connected to his contempt of Victorian norms and of the extreme Victorian division between male and female, seen as two separate spheres.

Inversion functions at various levels in the play, from characters to language games, especially paradoxes. At the level of characters, another notable inversion is that exemplified by the role of servants. In the play, it is servants who set the agenda for their masters, as for instance Miss Prism negligence that leads to the loss of Jack as a baby. The language games are constantly used to subvert meaning and the Victorian pretenses of morality and respectability. If effeminacy makes men attractive, hypocrisy is also defined rather paradoxically. When meeting Algernon in the second act, Cecily expresses her supposed anxiety towards him for being a „really wicked person”, but when he denies it, she turns the claim back on him: „If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy”.

Study the inversion of gender roles in the following fragment in which Gwendolen meets Jack and, with Algernon’s help, they manage to have a few moments on their own before the appearance of Lady Bracknell.

Also pay attention to the role of language and of names.

JACK: But you don’t really mean to say that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Ernest?

GWENDOLEN: But your name is Ernest.

JACK Yes, I know it is. But supposing it was something else? Do you mean to say you couldn’t love me then? GWENDOLEN [Glibly.] Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.

JACK Personally, darling, to speak quite candidly, I don’t much care about the name of Ernest… I don’t think the name suits me at all.

GWENDOLEN It suits you perfectly. It is a divine name. It has a music of its own. It produces vibrations.

JACK Well, really, Gwendolen I must say that I think there are lots of other much nicer names. I think Jack, for instance, a charming name.

GWENDOLEN Jack?… No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations…. I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude. The only really safe name is Ernest.

JACK Gwendolen, I must get christened at once- I mean we must get married at once. There is no time to be lost.

GWENDOLEN Married, Mr. Worthing?

JACK [Astounded.] Well… surely. You know that I love you, and you led me to believe, Miss Fairfax, that you were not absolutely indifferent to me.

GWENDOLEN I adore you. But you haven’t proposed to me yet. Nothing has been said at all about marriage. The subject has not even been touched on.

JACK Well… may I propose to you now?

GWENDOLEN I think it would be an admirable opportunity. And to spare you any possible disappointment, Mr. Worthing, I think it only fair to tell you quite frankly beforehand that I am fully determined to accept you.

JACK Gwendolen!

GWENDOLEN Yes, Mr. Worthing, what have you got to say to me?

JACK You know what I have got to say to you.

GWENDOLEN Yes, but you don’t say it.

JACK Gwendolen, will you marry me?

[Goes on his knees.]

GWENDOLEN Of course I will, darling. How long you have been about it! I am afraid you have had very little experience in how to propose.

JACK My own one, I have never loved anyone in the world but you.

GWENDOLEN Yes, but men often propose for practice. I know my brother Gerald does. All my girl-friends tell me so. What wonderfully blue eyes you have, Ernest! They are quite, quite blue. I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present. (ACT ONE)


4.6. A Postcolonial Reading

In his book entitled Inventing Ireland, Professor Declan Kiberd interprets the play as “a parable of Anglo-Irish relations and a pointer to their resolution”. He builds his postcolonial interpretation on Wilde’s art of inversion and the device of the Double.  If in psychology and psychoanalysis the Double may represent a way of getting rid of frustrations and embarrassments, in the special situation of the Irish context, it may be taken as the Englishman’s relation to the Celtic Other. Literary characters that created a double for themselves are involved in crimes or have feelings of guilt, as is the case of Dr. Jekyll, or Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s own novel. Similarly, England had tried to annihilate Irish culture, which had always been a sort of mirror that reflected mostly unpleasant aspects.

Bunbury is Algy’s double, embodying in a single fiction all that is most creative and most corrupt in his creator. Bunbury is the shadow which symbolizes Algy’s need for immortality, for an influential soul that survives death; and at the same time Bunbury is that ignoble being to whom the irresponsible Algy transfers all responsibility for his more questionable deeds. The service which the Irish performed for the English, Bunbury discharges for his creator: he epitomizes his master’s need for a human likeness on the planet and, simultaneously his desire to retain his own difference. Hence the play is one long debate about whether or not to do away with Bunbury. Lady Bracknell’s complaints sound suspiciously like English claims that the Irish kept on changing their question” (Kiberd 1995:42).

The solution of getting rid of Bunbury is not a final one, for the creator and his creation are closely linked, and once the double is denied, it becomes a sort of fate that haunts the creator; so Bunbury comes to set the agenda for Algernon, or Jack’s brother sets the agenda for him. In the case of Jack, when he decides to “kill” his brother and tells Cecily and the others about his death, ironically his brother Algernon ( revealed to be a brother only at the end of the play) appears in flesh and blood and ruins his plans. Similarly, the Irish had recently demonstrated the power of a weak nation over the imperial power through Parnell’s speeches in the Westminster Parliament and the actions of the Irish nationalists which destabilized and sometimes paralyzed politics in London. Moreover, the motif of the double also accounts for the duplicitous position of England with respect to the Irish issue, the continuous alternation of use of force and conciliation. After periods of strong coercion, it was convenient for the English Victorians to alleviate their feelings of guilt by offers of reconciliation. As a true Irish, Wilde therefore made a witty and deep critique of imperial culture, being one of the first great writers engaged in such a gesture, be it in the disguised form of a comedy of manners. His personal life was also a demonstration of how identity can be duplicated: he became more English than the English, mastering their language better and displaying an eccentricity that could be taken for a fashion, but was in fact subversive  and critical of the establishment. In fact Oscar Wilde had discovered what James Joyce was to express two decades later, namely that an Irishman only became fully aware of his identity when he left his country. As Declan Kiberd and other postcolonial critics remark, identity is dialogic, the Other is not only an enemy but also the truest friend, as it is from the Other that a sense of the self is derived. That is why Wilde loved England as Goethe loved the French. And he could better express his Irish side by adopting the cultural forms and expressions of the stronger culture.

The Importance of Being Earnest demonstrates, through its reversals of situation, changes of attitude and unexpected turns, that all power is unstable and it ultimately depends on the powerless. It promotes the revolutionary ideal of the self-created man or woman, a model that Lady Bracknell herself, the epitome of Victorianism, supports when advising Jack to manufacture his identity by “acquiring some relations as soon as possible”. Beyond its comic effect, the remark reveals the belief in a construction of identity that defeats real circumstances or determination.

The famous scene of Jack’s interview by Lady Bracknell in order to determine his eligibility as a suitor for Gwendolen is a subtle demonstration of how the powerful attempt to impress by their power, but at the same time of their weaknesses.

Example 4.6.1.

Act One.

LADY BRACKNELL: How old are you?

JACK Twenty-nine.

LADY BRACKNELL: A very good age to be married at. I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

JACK [After some hesitation.] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.

LADY BRACKNELL: I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square. What is your income?

JACK: Between seven and eight thousand a year.

LADY BRACKNELL[Makes a note in her book.] In land, or in investments?

JACK: In investments, chiefly.

LADY BRACKNELL: That is satisfactory. What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up. That’s all that can be said about land.

JACK: I have a country house with some land, of course, attached to it, about fifteen hundred acres, I believe; but I don’t depend on that for my real income. In fact, as far as I can make out, the poachers are the only people who make anything out of it.

LADY BRACKNELL: A country house! How many bedrooms? Well, that point can be cleared up afterwards. You have a town house, I hope? A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, could hardly be expected to reside in the country.

JACK: Well, I own a house in Belgrave Square, but it is let by the year to Lady Bloxham. Of course, I can get it back whenever I like, at six months’ notice.

LADY BRACKNELL: Lady Bloxham? I don’t know her.

JACK: Oh, she goes about very little. She is a lady considerably advanced in years.

LADY BRACKNELL: Ah, now-a-days that is no guarantee of respectability of character. What number in Belgrave Square?


LADY BRACKNELL [Shaking her head.] The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However, that could easily be altered.

JACK Do you mean the fashion, or the side?

LADY BRACKNELL [Sternly.] Both, if necessary, I presume. What are your politics?

JACK: Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist.

LADY BRACKNELL: Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate. Now to minor matters. Are your parents living?

JACK: I have lost both my parents.

LADY BRACKNELL: Both?… That seems like carelessness. Who was your father? He was evidently a man of some wealth. Was he born in what the Radical papers call the purple of commerce, or did he rise from the ranks of aristocracy?

JACK: I am afraid I really don’t know. The fact is, Lady Bracknell, I said I had lost my parents. It would be nearer the truth to say that my parents seem to have lost me…. I don’t actually know who I am by birth. I was well, I was found.


JACK: The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL: Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK[Gravely.] In a hand-bag.


JACK [Very seriously.] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag- a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it- an ordinary hand-bag, in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag? JACK: In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

LADY BRACKNELL: The cloak-room at Victoria Station? JACK Yes. The Brighton line.

LADY BRACKNELL: The line is immaterial. Mr. Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate, bred in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that remind one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? As for the particular locality in which the handbag was found, a cloakroom at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion- has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognized position in good society.

JACK: May I ask you then what you would advise me to do? I need hardly say I would do anything in the world to ensure Gwendolen’s happiness.

LADY BRACKNELL: I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.

JACK: I don’t see how I could possibly manage to do that. I can produce the hand-bag at any moment. It is in my dressing-room at home. I really think that should satisfy you, Lady Bracknell.

LADY BRACKNELL: Me, sir! What has it to do with me? You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter- a girl brought up with the utmost care- to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel? Good morning, Mr. Worthing!

[Lady Bracknell sweeps out in majestic indignation.]


Oscar Wilde did not embrace the Irish theme realistically or directly, but it lies at the core of his play

and finds new ways of expression. Instead of describing a degraded Ireland, he showed what was

degraded in Britain, and suggested the close relationship between the Saxon identity and the Celtic

Other. The motif of the Double is very useful in this respect. At the same time, his inversion of gender roles hinted at the subversive potential of literary works.

4.7. Summary:

This unit analyzed the contribution of Oscar Wilde to the development of Irish drama at the end of the nineteenth century. The focus is on the well-know play The Importance of Being Earnest, and its theme and characters are briefly presented in order to support the analysis of the social issues and the postcolonial reading of the play. Two key fragments in the play are quoted in order to demonstrate Wilde’s use of stylistic devices and his subversive techniques.

4.8.  End of UNIT TEST

1. How can you describe Oscar Wilde’s public image?

2. Who are the main characters in The Importance of Being Earnest?

3. What is the role of the Doubles in the play?

4. What does the image of the dandy reprsent in Oscar Wilde’s time?

5. Describe Lady Bracknell as a representative of the Victorian upper class.

6. How does Wilde use the art of inversion? To what effect?

7.In what way can this play be read from a postcolonial perspective?

8. What does Lady Bracknell say about education in Example 4.4.1.? What is the implication?

8. How does Lady Bracknell conceive identity? Give examples from the fragment above.


5.1. Introduction

5.2. Competencies

5.3. General Considerations

5.4 An Overview of the Play

5.5. Poetry and Violence

5.6. Language and Identity

5.7. Example

5.8. Summary

5.9. End of Unit Test

4.1. Introduction

This unit makes a brief presentation of the dramatic work of Oscar Wilde, with a focus on his play The Importance of Being Earnest. After some general considerations  about his work and social image, the discussion of the play is divided into two main areas: the interpretation of the social aspects and the more recent postcolonial reading of some scenes and motifs.

4.2. Competencies

At the completion of Unit Four the students will be able to argue for Oscar Wilde’s place in the canon of both English and Irish literature. They will be able to identify key aspects of his drama, of his devices and style. They will provide reasons for a postcolonial reading of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Study time for UNIT FIVE: 3 hours

5. 3. General Considerations

Together with W. B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, John M. Synge was an enthusiastic promoter of the Revivalist concern with the preservation of the folk traditions of the Gaelic- Irish peasantry. Although a broad cultural phenomenon, encompassing historical, anthropological and sociological preoccupations, the Literary Revival is mostly associated with drama and the performances of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The audiences of the Irish National Theatre at the beginning of the twentieth century appreciated most those productions that contributed to creating a national identity or to promoting revolutionary or patriotic values, like those presenting heroic figures from the past or from Celtic legends. There were  some cases of nationalistic pressures on the Abbey Theatre and even violent riots requesting censorship of plays that presented negative portrayals of the Irish peasantry, as for instance Synge’s plays The Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy of the Western World. The Revival was therefore perceived as a movement of utmost cultural importance, able to counteract the imperial discourses that presented the Celts and the Irish in a subordinate position, inferior racially to the Aryan Anglo-Saxons because of their femininity, irrationality and childlike behaviour.

Synge is well known in Irish literature for presenting better than any other writer the Hiberno- English language that the Irish peasants spoke at that time. This choice represented a solution to one of the problems facing the literary revival, namely the impossibility of the Irish National Theatre to be really Irish if its plays were performed in English. Synge recognized that there was no tradition of Irish language drama, therefore he decided that his dramatic language would be a form of English based on the syntax and locutions of Irish.

Synge adopted his own style and vision in drama, rejecting Lady Gregory’s dream of a national drama that would „get at the highest and most disinterested feelings and passions of the people”. It is the aesthetic value more than the political value that interests him. He was deeply interested in studying the ways of the Irish peasants in the remote Aran Islands which were not affected by the spoiling effects of the Industrial revolution, and after his stay there he published ethnographic works of a great significance, like The Aran Islands, published in 1901. In it he described the shock of his encounter with the reality of people living in close contact with nature and the elements. He really did what Yeats had urged him to do when recommending him to go there, that is “express a life that has never found expression”.

He started from these observations in his playwriting as well, and like Yeats, had a romantic impulse in glorifying the authentic Celtic spirit. But at the same time, he adopted an artistic, detached attitude that is required for a true artistic representation, and the result of this lucidity led to the comic-serious mode he adopts in The Playboy of the Western World, recognized by most critics as a masterpiece of modern comedy and the master-work of the Abbey Theatre. It was first staged in January 1907 when it caused great riots. Growing out of a story Synge had heard on Aran, the play describes the complexity of a Gaelic community, its distrust and fascination with romancers and great talkers.

The success of the play is partially due to the quality of its language, rich in expressions and linguistic forms of the Hiberno-English dialect spoken in Western Ireland, in natural imagery, lyrical and violent at the same time. The theme of the play, focused on the portrayal of a village community and the growth of its main protagonist in both understanding and power of expression, also distinguishes this play from the more conventional theatrical productions of the time

In the Preface to his play, Synge explains the principles of good drama writing and the special conditions that must be taken into account by the Irish writers. He recognizes the need of a union between rich words and “the reality, which is the root of all poetry” because the writer by necessity reflects the language and imagination of his people. If this language and imagination is “rich and living”, the literary works will be likewise and will reflect reality in a comprehensive and natural form”. As if to counteract those critics who declared that the language of the play was not authentic, Synge states that he had heard those words he puts into the mouths of the Mayo villagers while he was still a child. He listened to ballad singers, fishermen and beggars and humbly acknowledges his indebtedness “to the folk imagination of these fine people”.

  On the stage one must have reality, and one must have joy; and    that is why the intellectual modern drama has failed, and people have grown sick of the false joy of the musical comedy, that has been given them in place of the rich joy found only in what is superb and wild in reality.  In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple, and such speeches cannot be written by anyone who works among people who have shut their lips on poetry.  In Ireland, for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery and magnificent, and tender; so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into bricks. (Preface)

Read the fragment above from Synge’s preface to The Playboy of the Western World and make a list of the qualities of a good play. Use your own words.

5.4. An Overview of the Play

The plot of the play is simple and so are the characters. A young man called Christy Mahon arrives at the country pub in a village of Mayo County coming from a “distant place in the hills”. He is tired and tells the story of how he killed his father and ran away from the police. Instead of being considered a criminal, Christy is praised as a hero and Pegeen, the daughter of the pub’s owner offers him a place in the house and good food in exchange for some help. Christy wins the hearts of all the girls in the village with the telling of his unusual story and in a sporting event becomes the absolute champion. This is the moment of his greatest glory and he crowns it by asking Pegeen’s hand in marriage to her father, Michael James. Pegeen was also courted by Shawn Keogh, her cousin, who wants to arrange the marriage with the drunkard father  by bribing him with his cattle. Christy is also courted by Widow Quin, rumoured to have killed her husband, and unlike the other girls, she is attracted to him for his real nature rather than the fantasies of virility and freedom he generates in the imagination of the villagers.

But Old Mahon, Christy’s father, suddenly appears and ruins the boy’s image revealing his lie. It is in vain that Christy attacks him again in order to kill him, The attitude of the villagers is no longer a favourable one, on the contrary, they treat him as a common criminal. The violence performed in heir presence turns them against him and, being afraid of the law, they tie him and torture him. This is one of the strangest scenes in the play, in which it is Pegeen who burns Christy’s leg, not Shawn Keogh, her suitor, who is a coward and had envied Christy for his bravery and success. Fortunately, Old Mahon enters the stage again and rescues his son from his captors. Christy now leaves with his father, but no longer obeying the old man, but in command. He is a wiser man now after being exposed to the experience of Mayo, he calls himself “a master of all fights from now”, and Pegeen laments his loss calling him “the only Playboy of the Western World”. Being transformed into an image of power and dignity, he expresses his disdain of the gullible Mayo peasants.

As mentioned above, there were great riots and protests at the Abbey theatre when the play was first performed. Yeats was the director of the theatre and as he was out of town, he received  telegram calling him urgently. The situation was full of irony, for the protests were caused mainly by the revelation of the violence inherent in the Irish peasant. The reaction of the outraged audience was precisely a confirmation of this violence, so Synge was ultimately right. Yeats had also referred to violence as a permanent feature of human civilization, but the historical or “mythic’ or rhetorical violence could be admired, while real and immediate violence was a despicable fact. It is even considered that Yeats was influenced in his treatment of violence by Synge’s conviction that violence and poetry went hand in hand. And this conviction was certainly shaped and reinforced during his stay in the Aran Islands. As Synge himself wrote in a letter, he believed that “the wildness and vices of the Irish peasantry are due, like their extraordinary good points, to the richness of their nature, a thing that is priceless beyond words”.

The criticisms of the play stressed the false image of Western Irish life and its “stage-Irish libel evoking a peasantry of alcoholics and ineffectual fantasists rather than a people ready to assume the responsibilities of self-government”. The love-scenes were also seen as inappropriate, while in fact Synge had taken inspiration from The Love Songs of Connacht, a collection of Gaelic poetry edited by Douglas Hyde. The physical prowess Christy demonstrates in sporting competitions was also seen as a parody of Cu Chulainn, a heroic legendary figure appreciated by the militant Irish patriots. Christy combines these cultural and heroic dimensions, but he is also a figure of anti-authoritarian and anti-patriarchal liberation and a human renewal of spirit.

5.5. Poetry and Violence

Poetry and violence are indeed closely interwoven in the play. Both Christy’s development and self-awareness and the manifestation of the villagers of Mayo are related to them. Pegeen is so fascinated by his story of violence and the poetic skills in telling it, that she compares him to the eighteenth century Irish poet Owen Roe O’Sullivan and to the Gaelic poet O’Suilleabhain who had died in a tavern fight because of his hot temper. She confesses her romantic perception and association of poetry with violence several times: “…I’ve heard all times it’s the poets are your like – fine fiery fellows with great rages when their temper’s roused”.

She expresses her admiration for Christy who is a grand fellow “with such poet’s talking and such bravery of heart”. Consequently she rejects Shawn Keogh for being “a middling kind of scarecrow with no savagery or fine words at all”.

Such a perception is no wonder for a country girl who had never left her village and whose predictable and uninteresting life was shaped by the Catholic community and by poverty. If Christy undergoes an evolution in the play, Pegeen on the contrary seems to be fixated in an inescapable condition. When she rejects Christy for “the dirty deed” which she no longer associates with poetry, she loses her imaginative apprehension and returns to the dreamless world that cannot be redeemed. The only possible redeemer is lost with Christy’s departure.

Just like Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw, Synge also operates with gender inversions, and not only for the sake of comic effects. Of course that Shawn Keogh is ridiculous when he is afraid to approach Christy even when the latter is tied, but the whole community of Mayoites seems to be more valliant in speech than in deeds. They exist as a community and enjoy this spirit when they share drinks in the pub and can manifest their verbal skills.  The women in the play, Pegeen and Widow Quin, take the initiative of wooing, and Pegeen is known to be able “to knock the head of any two men in this place”. Correspondingly, Christy is admired by all the girls in the village for his femininity (his small feet, his delicate phrasing), and he is surprised by them admiring himself in the mirror, a most typically feminine gesture. It is adequately commented upon by the girls: “Them that kills their father is a vain lot surely”.

Commenting on the proverb “Deeds are masculine, words feminine, Declan Kiberd remarks that:

… “but The Playboy tells a more complex truth about how these categories interpenetrate one another. Its men commit most of the verbal violence onstage and are actually less aggressive in action, whereas the women, schooled to repress their instincts, are consumed by unappeased pugnacious impulses. There is violence in Pegeen, as in many persons, and it has not been assuaged by the gallous story: this becomes clear when she lights the sod of turf to cripple her former lover. This brutal act, deemed to be beyond belief by many of the play’s first critics, is entirely in keeping with her character as revealed from the start. Emphasising this scene, the original production underscored Synge’s brilliant insight: that those who make rhetorical denials of their own violence invariably end up committing even more”.

The masculinization of women was part of Synge’s attempt to demonstrate that the females of remote village communities had retained their frank natural manners and were not touched by the false Victorian pretenses of the women in Dublin. They lack certain manners and refinement, but are equipped for the life of poverty and routine that is inescapable in their condition and retained the vitality of ancient times. Thus Pegeen’s gesture of violence at the end of the play is more suitable to her background than any other.

5.6. Language and Identity

Language is the central concern of the play. Christy is recognized as a poet by several characters in the play, and he comes to represent the alien poet whose mystery makes him attractive to the deprived community where he arrives. The admiration he receives encourages Christy’s vanity and his growing verbal display. Every time he tells his story, which happens several times during his first day in Mayo, he adds more embellishments to it, encouraged by the audience (especially the village girls) that gathers to listen to him and to offer him presents as signs of appreciation. Thus after a first prosaic version of his story (“I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull, and he went down at my feet like an empty sack”), the second time he tells it he uses exalted language and visual details:

With that the sun came out between the cloud and the hill, and it shining green in my face… He gave a drive with the scythe, and I gave a leap to the east. Then I turned round with my back to the north, and I hit a blow on the ridge of his skull, laid him stretched out, and he split to the knob of his gullet.

The developments of his poetic skills is accompanied by a significant change of personality. His life had been harsh, marked by extreme poverty, oppressive work and a tyrannical father. The only joy he could find was in the contemplation of nature, which reveals his poetic disposition. The encouragements he receives from Pegeen and the other women make him more confident, truly believing he is a daring and handsome hero, and therefore feeling above his former status and “the clumsy young fellows do be ploughing all times in the earth and dung”.

When he courts Pegeen he refers to his loneliness with a lot of persuasive force, describing it in vivid colours and a lot of feeling:

It’s well you know it’s a lonesome thing to be passing small towns with the lights shining sideways when the night is down, or going in strange places with a dog noising before you and a dog noising behind, or drawn to the cities where you’d hear a voice kissing and talking deep love in every shadow of the ditch, and you passing on with an empty , hungry stomach failing from your heart.

When he becomes champion of all races in the village, Christy’s prizes are very adequate for his artistic inclinations: a bagpipe, a blackthorn and a fiddle. In his love duet with Pegeen he reaches the maximum height of his poetic language and imagination, with rich imagery and elevated feeling:

When the airs is warming, in four months or five, it’s then yourself and me should be pacing Neifin in the dews of night, the times sweet smells do be rising, and you’d see a little, shiny new moon, maybe sinking on the hills… you’ll feel my two hands stretched around you, and I squeezing kisses on your puckered lips, till I’d feel a kind of pity for the Lord God is all ages sitting lonesome in His golden chair”.

When his father reappears he is betrayed by Pegeen who turns on him on his new displays of savagery. Her change of attitude is one of the most famous speeches in the play, revealing the pragmatic spirit and control that are more characteristic of the Saxon spirit than the Celtic one:

I’ll say, a strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk; but what’s a squabble in your backyard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there’s a great gap between  a gallous story and a dirty deed. Take him on from this, or the lot of us will be likely put on trial for his deed today.

The end of the play can no longer be of the same poetic kind. The experience that Christy gained makes him more self –reliant and less interested in the admiration of an audience or of a woman. He is presented as a real master of his life and a mature poet who achieves conciseness and depth to the detriment of ornamentation of his discourse. Although no longer a romantic dreamer, he still represents himself as a poet, bringing his change of personality  to a final point: “Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgment day.” Thus Synge succeeded in his dramatic purpose of making a nameless and banished peasant acquire a name and a heroic identity, a recognizable Irish hero with all the wildness, passion, and verbal dexterity of a bardic singer.

The identity issues of the play can also be read from a postcolonial perspective. For Synge’s purposes, Christy has to be an empty man at the beginning of the play, without a visible personality, a man who had been denied identity and freedom by his father’s authority. Thus he demonstrated the annihilation to which oppression may reduce a person or a community. He becomes attractive for the Mayo community precisely because they can inscribe on his emptiness their own desires and dreams. He is also perceived as a saviour, a Messianic hero, a cultural representation of the terrible state of dispossession of Ireland in the nineteenth century after the Famine and the massive emigrations. According to Declan Kiberd: “As saviour and scapegoat, as poet and tramp, Christy is their logical embodiment at the level of artistic imagination”. The significant moment of liberation for him is not so much his imitation of the poetic language of Mayoites and his success in embodying their imagination, as his realization at the end of the play, when he has formed his own conception of himself. He is no longer a simple reflection of other people’s dreams, but his own construction, a truly liberated individual. He thus embodies in an artistic form the decolonization necessary to the Irish nation.

5.7. Example

Read the following fragment from the end of the play and study the behaviour of individual characters and of the mob.

SHAWN.  Is it me to go near him, and he the wickedest and worst with me?  Let
you take it, Pegeen Mike.

PEGEEN.  Come on, so. [She goes forward with the others, and they drop the
double hitch over his head.]

CHRISTY.  What ails you?

SHAWN -- [triumphantly, as they pull the rope tight on his arms.] -- Come on
to the peelers, till they stretch you now.


MICHAEL.  If we took pity on you, the Lord God would, maybe, bring us ruin
from the law to-day, so you'd best come easy, for hanging is an easy and a
speedy end.

CHRISTY.  I'll not stir.  (To Pegeen.) And what is it you'll say to me, and I
after doing it this time in the face of all?

PEGEEN.  I'll say, a strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk; but what's
a squabble in your back-yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that
there's a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed.  (To Men.)  Take
him on from this, or the lot of us will be likely put on trial for his deed

CHRISTY -- [with horror in his voice.] -- And it's yourself will send me off,
to have a horny-fingered hangman hitching his bloody slip-knots at the butt of
my ear.

MEN -- [pulling rope.] -- Come on, will you? [He is pulled down on the floor.]

CHRISTY -- [twisting his legs round the table.] -- Cut the rope, Pegeen, and
I'll quit the lot of you, and live from this out, like the madmen of Keel,
eating muck and green weeds, on the faces of the cliffs.

PEGEEN.  And leave us to hang, is it, for a saucy liar, the like of you?  (To
men.)  Take him on, out from this.

SHAWN.  Pull a twist on his neck, and squeeze him so.

PHILLY.  Twist yourself.  Sure he cannot hurt you, if you keep your distance
from his teeth alone.

SHAWN.  I'm afeard of him.  (To Pegeen.)  Lift a lighted sod, will you, and
scorch his leg.

PEGEEN -- [blowing the fire, with a bellows.]  Leave go now, young fellow, or
I'll scorch your shins.

CHRISTY.  You're blowing for to torture me (His voice rising and growing
stronger.) That's your kind, is it?  Then let the lot of you be wary, for, if
I've to face the gallows, I'll have a gay march down, I tell you, and shed the
blood of some of you before I die.

SHAWN -- [in terror.] -- Keep a good hold, Philly.  Be wary, for the love of
God.  For I'm thinking he would liefest wreak his pains on me.

CHRISTY -- [almost gaily.] -- If I do lay my hands on you, it's the way you'll
be at the fall of night, hanging as a scarecrow for the fowls of hell.  Ah,
you'll have a gallous jaunt I'm saying, coaching out through Limbo with my
father's ghost.

SHAWN -- [to Pegeen.] -- Make haste, will you?  Oh, isn't he a holy terror,
and isn't it true for Father Reilly, that all drink's a curse that has the lot
of you so shaky and uncertain now?

CHRISTY.  If I can wring a neck among you, I'll have a royal judgment looking
on the trembling jury in the courts of law.  And won't there be crying out in
Mayo the day I'm stretched upon the rope with ladies in their silks and satins
snivelling in their lacy kerchiefs, and they rhyming songs and ballads on the
terror of my fate?  [He squirms round on the floor and bitesShawn's leg.]

SHAWN -- [shrieking.]  My leg's bit on me.  He's the like of a mad dog, I'm
thinking, the way that I will surely die.

CHRISTY -- [delighted with himself.] -- You will then, the way you can shake
out hell's flags of welcome for my coming in two weeks or three, for I'm
thinking Satan hasn't many have killed their da in Kerry, and in Mayo too.
[Old Mahon comes in behind on all fours and looks on unnoticed.]

MEN -- [to Pegeen.] -- Bring the sod, will you?

PEGEEN  [coming over.] -- God help him so.  (Burns his leg.)

CHRISTY -- [kicking and screaming.] -- O, glory be to God! [He kicks loose
from the table, and they all drag him towards the door.]

JIMMY -- [seeing old Mahon.] -- Will you look what's come in? [They all drop
Christy and run left.]

CHRISTY -- [scrambling on his knees face to face with old Mahon.] -- Are you
coming to be killed a third time, or what ails you now?

MAHON.  For what is it they have you tied?

CHRISTY.  They're taking me to the peelers to have me hanged for slaying you.

MICHAEL -- [apologetically.]  It is the will of God that all should guard
their little cabins from the treachery of law, and what would my daughter be
doing if I was ruined or was hanged itself?

MAHON -- [grimly, loosening Christy.] -- It's little I care if you put a bag
on her back, and went picking cockles till the hour of death; but my son and
myself will be going our own way, and we'll have great times from this out
telling stories of the villainy of Mayo, and the fools is here.  (To Christy,
who is freed.) Come on now.

CHRISTY.  Go with you, is it?  I will then, like a gallant captain with his
heathen slave.  Go on now and I'll see you from this day stewing my oatmeal
and washing my spuds, for I'm master of all fights from now. (Pushing Mahon.) 
Go on, I'm saying.

MAHON.  Is it me?

CHRISTY.  Not a word out of you.  Go on from this.

MAHON  [walking out and looking back at Christy over his shoulder.] -- Glory
be to God!  (With a broad smile.)  I am crazy again!  [Goes.]

CHRISTY.  Ten thousand blessings upon all that's here, for you've turned me a
likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I'll go romancing through a romping
lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgment day.  [He goes out.]

MICHAEL.  By the will of God, we'll have peace now for our drinks.  Will you
draw the porter, Pegeen?

SHAWN -- [going up to her.] -- It's a miracle Father Reilly can wed us in the
end of all, and we'll have none to trouble us when his vicious bite is healed.

PEGEEN --  [hitting him a box on the ear.] -- Quit my sight.  (Putting her
shawl over her head and breaking out into wild lamentations.) Oh my grief,
I've lost him surely.  I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World.

5.8. Summary:

John M. Synge based his work on his own experience of Irish country people and it  reflects the strange combination of hardship and imagination, which he considered a mark of identity for his nation. He rendered it in artistic form in his masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World by focusing on the formation of the hero’s identity and on his relationship with the village community of the Mayo County. The particular use of language, both as a Hiberno-English dialect and as poetic language, reinforces these issues and adds value to the play.

5.8.  End of UNIT TEST

1. What were the causes of the nationalistic pressures on the Abbey Theatre at the beginning of its existence?

2. What was Synge’s solution for the promotion of the Irish drama?

3. What resources did he use?

4. What were the grounds for rejecting The Playboy of the Western World?

5. What kind of gender inversions are made in the play? What is their role?

6. What are the stages of Christy’s development of sense of identity as reflected in his use of poetic language?

7. How can the play be interpreted from a postcolonial perspective?


Comment briefly on the contribution of Oscar Wilde and J. M. Synge to the creation of an original Irish drama. Write about 300 words.

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