Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800

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Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts Since 1800

The nineteenth century opened with the members of the Irish parliament voting themselves out of existence by their approval of the Act of Union. Just two years before, the 1798 Rebellion ended with the bitter defeat of the insurgents and great bloodshed. The mood of the country and its distressed state did not seem conducive to the production of a lively literature. Nevertheless, notable work was produced and the seeds sown that would lead to a great flowering in the twentieth century. The first important figure to emerge was Thomas Moore, who published his Irish Melodies between 1807 and 1834. Although his lyrics are sentimental, they took on great power when sung to native airs, and became enormously popular in England and Ireland. For the English, Moore's Melodies were an introduction to Irish Celtic culture which prepared them for what would follow throughout the century. These melodies also became the most popular musical items of the century. Samuel Ferguson produced the century's most important work in translation in such works as Lays of the Western Gael and Lays of the Red Branch, which introduced readers to the rich poetic tradition in Irish poetry and mythology, and which had much to do with rebuilding a sense of identity that had been lost and diluted through the deprivations of the previous centuries. Thomas Davis was a founder of the Nation newspaper in 1842, the organ of the Young Ireland movement, though his greatest legacy has been the political ballad, first published in book form in 1843, and reprinted regularly throughout the century. Another contributor to the Nation was James Clarence Mangan, author of "Dark Rosaleen," one of the most famous of all Irish poems. Although Mangan knew little Irish, he was able, with the help of translations, to treat of ancient Irish themes and in this way continue the cultural revival and forward notions of national awareness. Many have considered Mangan to be the Irish Poe by virtue of his decadent work, his addictions, and his early death.

Nineteenth-Century Literature and the Arts

The first—and to some readers the best—Irish novel of the century, was Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, published in 1800. Here, using the voice of Thady, a simpleton narrator, we are shown how the fortunes of the estate-owning Rackrents have been dissipated through four generations of mismanagement. One of Edgeworth's main objectives in her work as a whole is to provide a blueprint for the improvement of the landlord class in Ireland. Time and time again, she urges absentee landlords to return to their estates from London and learn how to manage them properly, a message she conveyed most effectively in Ennui and The Absentee. Another well-known novelist and a contemporary of Edgeworth's was Lady Morgan, the author of such historical romances as The O'Briens and the O'Flaherty's. The first of the great Irish Gothic novelists of the century was Charles Robert Maturin, the author of Melmoth the Wanderer and other novels, and he was followed by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, whose best-known novel is Uncle Silas, and by Bram Stoker, whose Dracula remains the most revered work in the genre. Nearly all of these Gothic novels are set in the decaying Big Houses of the Protestant Ascendancy whose decay allows for the emergence of deranged souls to fill the vacuum. Appearing at the end of the century was Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, a remarkable Gothic novel by an Irish writer using an English setting. William Carleton is the author of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830–33), in which he provides the most honest and sympathetic portrayal of rural Irish life during the early part of the century. Other notable figures are Gerald Griffin, whose most important work is The Collegians (a novel that was granted a second life when it was dramatized as The Colleen Bawn by Dion Boucicault in 1860), and John and Michael Banim, who wrote Tales of the O'Hara Family.

Many important developments occurred in the final years of the nineteenth century that set the literary agenda for the following century. The Gaelic League was founded in 1893, an organization whose purpose was the promotion of Irish language and culture. One of its guiding spirits was Douglas Hyde, who would eventually become the first Irish president, and it was his belief that Ireland needed to be de-anglicized in order for it to assume an identity separate from England. Hyde was also the collector and translator of the Love Songs of Connacht, a popular and important contribution to the literature of the time. Yeats was a prime mover in the founding of the National Literary Society in Dublin in 1892, which, in turn, led to the founding of the Irish National Theatre Society in 1902 and the Abbey Theatre in 1904. A decade that had begun with the fall and death of the Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891, and the gloom and division that followed, closed with a great degree of forward movement on the cultural and literary front. At the same time as important work was being produced in Ireland, Irish writers resident in England continued to be prominent. Oscar Wilde's plays Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Earnest were written and performed with great success, and George Bernard Shaw, who had begun to take a central place in London' cultural and political life, published his volume Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant.

As a result of the mid-century potato famine, emigration, and continuing efforts to suppress it, the Irish language was not spoken as widely throughout Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century as it was at the beginning. Nevertheless, some notable writers made their marks. Brian Merriman, author of Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The midnight court), the great burlesque poem, lived until 1803. Antaine Raiftearaí wrote many poems, the most famous being the short lyric, "Mise Raiftearaí" (I am Raiftearaí). The most important nineteenth-century painters are Daniel Maclise and William Mulready. Maclise is best known for his large narrative paintings, most notably The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow, while Mulready's best work is to be found in such small scale narratives as "The Last In."

Twentieth-Century Literature and the Arts

In twentieth-century Irish literature certain important themes recur and are explored, defined, and refined in poetry, fiction, and drama. Irish writers have continued to focus on their relation to place, politics, history, the private world, and those points where the public and the private collide. The early agenda is set by William Butler Yeats, whose figure and achievement continues to cast a large shadow over the enterprise. The principal concerns present in Yeats's work are Irish mythology, Ireland of the revolutionary and postrevolutionary periods with its attendant heroes and villains, and the poet's preoccupations with love, mortality, and his search for immortality through mysticism and art. Although his work is compelling throughout his career, his greatest achievements as a poet are to be found in the second half of his career in such landmark poems as "Easter 1916," his poem about the Easter Rising; "The Wild Swans at Coole," a vision of rural paradise; and "Sailing to Byzantium," a profound meditation on aging and the quest for immortality. Throughout his life as a writer, Yeats continued to produce drama for the Abbey Theatre, most notably At the Hawk's Well, The Words upon the Window-Pane, and Purgatory. He continued to take a leadership role in the Abbey Theatre and was instrumental in seeing many great Irish plays performed at the theatre in the early part of the century. Of particular importance are Lady Gregory's Cuchulain of Muirthemne, J. M. Synge's The Well of the Saints and The Playboy of the Western World (the latter causing some patrons to riot because they felt Synge had insulted Irish womanhood) and Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman and The Plough and the Stars. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. A contemporary of Yeats's was George Moore, whose memoir Hail and Farewell provides an entertaining account of Irish cultural life in the early part of the century, and who also wrote The Untilled Field, an important collection of short fiction.

James Joyce, in common with his younger disciple, Samuel Beckett, spent most of his adult life outside Ireland. His most important works are Dubliners, a collection of short fiction, and his novels: A Portrait of theArtist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. Beckett is best known for Waiting for Godot, his absurdist play, and for Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, his trilogy of novels. Even though both Joyce and Beckett were considered major innovators internationally, they were slow to be accepted by Irish critics and readers. Another important disciple of Joyce is Flann O'Brien, the author of the comic novels At-Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman. O'Brien wrote in both English and Irish, and his novel An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) along with Máirtín Ó Cadhain's Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay) are the two most important works of fiction written in the Irish language during the first half of the century.

The middle period of twentieth-century Irish poetry is dominated by Austin Clarke, Louis MacNeice, and Patrick Kavanagh. Clarke is best known for his long poems Mnemosyne Lay in Dust and Tiresias, and for the short, often pointed lyrics which comprise the major part of his Selected Poems. Louis MacNeice was born in Belfast, educated in England, and spent much of his adult life in London. He wrote many memorable Irish poems, the most famous being "Carrickfergus," an autobiographical account of his Ulster upbringing. Patrick Kavanagh, born and raised on a farm in County Monaghan, is the most important poet of this period, and his work has had an enormous influence on many of the poets who were to follow him, Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland in particular. In his long poems, The Great Hunger and Lough Derg, Kavanagh shows that the romantic version of rural life presented by Yeats does not match reality. The rural world, in Kavanagh's view, is dominated by various hungers: social, intellectual, sexual, and economic. Toward the end of his life, Kavanagh produced his great lyric poems: "Canal Bank Walk," "Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin . . . ," and "The Hospital." Other notable poets of the period include the trio of modernists, Denis Devlin, Thomas MacGreevy, and Brian Coffey, as well as the two most prominent Irish language poets, Máirtín Ó Direáin and Seán Ó Ríordáin. Much of the best fiction during the period is in the short story, and the most prominent figures in this genre are Sean O'Faolain, author of Midsummer Night Madness and Other Stories; Frank O'Connor, who wrote Guests of the Nation; and Mary Lavin, author of Tales from Bective Bridge. Also important is Elizabeth Bowen, who wrote The Last September, one of the best of the Big House novels, and the trio of James Stephens, Mervyn Wall, and Eimar O'Duffy, all of whom wrote Irish-based fantasies.

In the 1950s a new generation of writers emerged who finally brought Irish writing out from under the shadow of Yeats, Synge, and Joyce and provided it with new energy. The poets sought to explore and define a new, more prosperous and outgoing Ireland that had begun to replace the isolation of the post-independence nation. Their work has remained thematically innovative and formally daring. In The Rough Field, John Montague provides the first extended poetic meditation on the role of history and place in the developing "Troubles" in the North of Ireland, while in The Dead Kingdom, he explores the lives of those Irish who became lost in America as part of the Irish diaspora. Thomas Kinsella, a more hermetic poet than Montague, has explored the realm of loss of language and one's place in the world. James Liddy is the most exuberant poet of this generation. His work is influenced primarily by that of the American Beat Generation, and it is through his work that the beat influence was introduced into Irish poetry. The poet Richard Murphy is primarily associated with the west of Ireland, County Galway in particular, and is notable for his exploration of the natural world and the lives of fishermen. Another notable poet of this generation is Pearse Hutchinson, whose work, written in both English and Irish, explores the lives of ordinary people, in particular the urban dispossessed.

The fiction produced by the writers who began publishing in the 1950s is similarly rich. Brian Moore's most acclaimed works are his early Belfast novels, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Emperor of Ice Cream. A significant amount of Moore's work is set outside of Ireland, reflective of the fact that he spent most of his adult life in Canada and the United States, and of a new direction among Irish fiction writers. John McGahern is well known as both a novelist and short-story writer whose best work is Amongst Women and High Ground. William Trevor has written many novels and collections of short fiction, although his most acclaimed work remains The Ballroom of Romance, whose title story is an important exploration of loneliness and sexual longing in rural Ireland. Aidan Higgins has written many volumes of fiction and memoirs, the best of which is his first novel, Langrishe, Go Down, an exploration of the Big House on the verge of collapse. Edna O'Brien has been the most controversial writer of this generation. The Country Girls, her first novel, banned by the state censor and burned in her local village, became in time a trilogy of groundbreaking work that explores the inner lives and aspirations of women. In drama, the dominant figures are Brian Friel, author of many important plays, the best known of which are Philadelphia Here I Come, Translations, and Dancing at Lughnasa, and Tom Murphy, who wrote The Morning After Optimism and Bailegangaire. Throughout the century the Abbey has remained the dominant Irish theater, although it has often been challenged by the Gate, and by Galway's Druid Theatre.

The 1960s saw the resumption of the "Troubles" in the North of Ireland as well as the emergence of an important group of poets who have dominated Irish poetry since their inception. The best known of these poets is Seamus Heaney, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Heaney, born at Mossbawn, about thirty miles northwest of Belfast, has produced a remarkable body of varied work over the last thirty years. Although the political turmoil of Northern Ireland has an important place in his poetry, the work has not been overwhelmed by it. Heaney examines the points of intersection between the natural and human worlds. By contrast, Derek Mahon's complex, elegant, and highly structured work notes the loss of order in the contemporary world. Michael Longley's poetry is classical in tone and influence. He gazes at Belfast through the prism of classical literature and philosophy to help define the city, its people and its predicaments.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century a new second wave of poets from the North has emerged. The most prominent figures in this group are Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Tom Paulin, and Frank Ormsby. Muldoon's work, centered both on Ireland, where he grew up, and on the United States, where he lives now, ranges wide in themes, forms, and attitudes, and provides his readers with an ironic and postmodern view of the Irish experience. Ciaran Carson's best-known book is Belfast Confetti, a volume of narrative verse whose purpose is to reveal the vital essences of contemporary Belfast. Medbh McGuckian's work is sometimes considered difficult, even inscrutable by readers. In her luminous poetry, she reveals the interiors of experience. In recent times important works of fiction have also emerged from the North of Ireland, the most important of which are Robert MacLiam Wilson's Ripley Bogle and Eureka Street, and Deirdre Madden's Remembering Light and Stone.

An important development in Irish poetry from the 1980s to the present is the appearance of a brilliant generation of women poets. Until recently, women poets felt excluded and marginalized in the Irish literary world. To date, the most important figure, as both writer and influence, is Eavan Boland. She has articulated the struggles that she faced as a young woman, mother, and poet in her volume of memoirs, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Her Time, and in many of her poems. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has published a number of important volumes, including The Astrakhan Cloak, in which Irish mythology is wedded to an original feminist outlook to produce a new Irish poetic vision. Ní Dhomhnaill writes in Irish, and her success has given fresh impetus to other contemporary Irish-language poets, such as Michael Davitt, Louis de Paor, and Cathal Ó Searcaigh, all of whom have published distinguished recent works. Mary O'Malley, in such volumes as The Knife in the Wave and Asylum Road, also introduces mythology into her work. In addition, her explorations of the west of Ireland are important and constitute the first sustained feminist interpretation of the western landscape. In Paula Meehan's work, in addition to many fine poems of love and family, ordinary Dubliners are given a voice. Other recently important women poets include Mary O'Donnell, Rita Ann Higgins, Sara Berkeley, and Moya Cannon. Besides the work produced by women, much important poetry has been published by Theo Dorgan, Tony Curtis, Greg Delanty, Sean Lysaght, Gerard Donovan, Dennis O'Driscoll, Michael Coady, and Pat Boran.

The contemporary theater continues to be dominated by Friel and Murphy, with the most important new talents being Sebastian Barry (The Steward of Christendom), Marina Carr (The Mai), and Conor McPherson (The Weir). Younger Irish fiction writers have found great international success. Roddy Doyle was the first Irish writer to be awarded the prestigious Booker Prize, in 1993, for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and his Barrytown Trilogy has been widely read. Patrick McCabe has found great success, both in literature and film, with The Butcher Boy, a gruesome tale of rural deprivation and madness. Similarly gruesome and equally impressive is John Banville's The Book of Evidence. Colm Tóibín's best-known novel is The Heather Blazing, an exploration of how the political and personal could collide in modern Ireland. Colum McCann's novels Songdogs and This Side of Brightness are notable for their lyricism and range; McCann views the Irish experience as local, global, and multi-ethnic. Such issues are also explored by Philip Casey in The Bann River Trilogy.

Although Ireland is most renowned for its contribution to twentieth-century literature, many notable artists of distinction have also emerged to enrich the other arts. During the period of the Literary Revival, painting was dominated by Nathaniel Hone, Roderic O'Conor, Walter Osborne, Sir William Orpen, Sir John Lavery, and John B. Yeats, whose work was diversely focused on landscape, historical themes, and portrait painting. The most important of the modern painters, Jack B. Yeats, brother of the poet, was able to produce important figurative and landscape painting, and, later in his life, brilliant abstract work. From the 1950s to the present, the best-known visual artists have been Barrie Cooke, Louis de Brocquy, Mainie Jellett, Robert Ballagh, Norah McGuinness, Derek Hill, Camille Souter, and Kathy Prendergast. The founding of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in 1951 to encourage the development and promotion of traditional music and arts and to train young people, provided a great boost to traditional music. In the following year the first Fleadh Cheoil festival of traditional music brought musicians together from all over the world. Since the 1950s, Irish traditional music has become popular worldwide. Ireland has also made highly important contributions to popular music, notably though the work of U2 and Van Morrison. From the 1980s to the present, Irish film directors have made many remarkable films, most notably Jim Sheridan's The Field and In the Name of the Father, and Neil Jordan's The Crying Game and Michael Collins.

SEE ALSO Antiquarianism; Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Beckett, Samuel; Blasket Island Writers; Drama, Modern; Fiction, Modern; Gaelic Revival; Gonne, Maud; Heaney, Seamus; Joyce, James; Literary Renaissance (Celtic Revival); Literature: Anglo-Irish Literature in the Nineteenth Century; Literature: Gaelic Literature in the Nineteenth Century; Literature: Twentieth-Century Women Writers; Music: Modern Music; Poetry, Modern; Raiftearaí (Raftery), Antaine; Visual Arts, Modern; Wilde, Oscar; Yeats, W. B.; Primary Documents: From "The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland" (25 November 1892); "Easter 1916" (1916); "The End" (1926); "Pierce's Cave" (1933); "Scattering and Sorrow" (1936); "An Irishman in Coventry" (1960); "Punishment" (1975); "Inquisitio 1584" (c.1985); "Feis" ("Carnival") (c. 1990)


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Eamonn Wall

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Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800

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