More Or Less About Irish Literature


VOL. 13. APR-MAY 1922. NO. 9 & IO.

More Or Less About Irish Literature

    People sometimes ask, “Who are the greatest Irish Writers?” It is a difficult question to answer for several reasons. The chief reason is that the greatest Irish Writers are not born yet. Ireland has always been a country with a future, and she will go on being a country with a future till she has fulfilled her promise. Other countries live unduly in the past. England, France and Italy are all countries that have seen better days. To-day they have no Shakespeare, no Moliere, no Dante to show us. Ireland, at least, has seen no better days. The most brilliant epoch in her history lies nowhere in the past, but somewhere about the twenty-first century. Then, I fancy you will find her greatest writers with her greatest musicians, her greatest painters. “The best is yet to be.”
    Sometimes, it is made a charge against Ireland that she has produced no great literature to compare with the literatures of England or France, of Greece or of Rome. We are tempted in answer to exaggerate the genius of the literature we already possess, and to do the best we can to set up Irish rivals to the world’s great authors. But, as a matter of fact, even the most wonderful literature that Ireland has produced—the literature contained in the stories that have gathered around Finn and Cuchullain—seems, if one may judge by translations, to lack the final stamp of great authorship. The material in these, I think, is as beautiful as anything in Homer, but there was no Homer to give them a form that was as beautiful as the material itself. At least, they have not bequeathed to us any tradition of a great author such as Homer was. We know Deirdre, but we do not know the creator of Deirdre. “To know Diarmud and Grainne, but there is no writer of genius to share their fame on equal terms. I do not think it is entirely an accident that these beautiful figures are remembered, and that their creators are not remembered. Great as the heroic literature of Ireland is, it is still a literature of promise. It is something not yet finished—something that awaits the last touch of the great workman. None the less it is in these early stories, not yet finished, that we must look for the greatest literature that Ireland has yet produced. It is a literature of the dawn, a literature that seems at once to be older and younger than English literature. The dawn has been prolonged; it has often been clouded, and has even seemed to disappear in the darkness of the final night. But it will emerge. Even in the darkest hour there was always some Irish poet who foretold that it would emerge. In spite of the arrested dawn, however, Ireland has not failed in the last four centuries to make a real contribution to world literature. She stamped with her genius men of other races who settled within her borders, and I do not think it is an accident that Ireland has given to the world so remarkable a succession of comic writers as can be found anywhere outside France. In the comic prose-drama, written in English since the Restoration, there is hardly a single masterpiece that was not written by a man from Ireland. We have only to repeat 
the greatest names to see this—Congreve, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw and Synge. That is a literary record of which any country might be proud, and it is only a part of the record of Ireland. We must include Swift, who, it has been suggested, founded his “Voyage to Lilliput” on a common Irish folk-story; and Ireland may justly claim her share in Sterne, through his Tipperary mother. And it would be easy to mention a long list of lesser writers down to the authors of the immortal “Experiences of an Irish R.M.”

    I have heard it denied by a writer of distinction that Ireland possesses comic genius in a high degree. Irish humour, it was said, was an import from England. Even the stage-lrishman, apparently, was an inhabitant of the English Pale, and had no counterpart in the real Ireland or in real Irish literature. Irish literature, the argument went on, was itself pro-eminently grave, dignified, tragic. Certainly the comic element in the old literature is proportionately small compared to the comic element in the best Anglo-Irish literature. That is no reason, however, why the Irish genius should not in later generations have found an outlet in comic literature, and there is every reason, I think, why it should. I will tell you why. Irishmen were forced by the ruin of their civilization in century after century to console themselves with such of the arts as did not require a settled place or a secure prosperity for their perfection. There was no chance of producing a great home literature, while the home might at any moment tumble about one’s ears. Music did not develop, painting did not develop. Beethoven could not have composed the Ninth Symphony with a sword at his breast, yet, an Irish artist may be said to have lived with a sword at his breast for centuries after the coming of Strongbow. Conditions might become a little more settled, but as soon as a new Ireland seemed to be born, roof and wall would again be tumbled in, and the Irish genius was never as homeless as when at home. Men do not write in such circumstances, at least they do not write masterpieces. They have to turn to the forms of art from which pleasure may be snatched, even in hiding and in the intervals of chaos. That, I think, is why the Irish turned to the art of conversation, and the art of the short song—two arts in which they are unequalled. Oscar Wilde once said to Willie Yeats, “We Irish are too political to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.” To be a nation of talkers, as the Irish are, is not an evil but an achievement. Conversation is the traditional Irish substitute for poetry, and, to us who have heard it by the roadside and around the fire, not a bad substitute either. Mr. Yeats seems to think that conversation is the enemy of poetry. We know, however, that it is the friend of comedy. Poetry is the child of the isolated spirit: comedy is the child of the social spirit. Hence the Englishman, whose house is his castle, is more likely to write poetry than the Irishman, while the Irishman, whose house is an open house when it is not a ruin, is more likely to become a conversationalist and to cultivate comedy. Thus the Irish gift of comedy is, in a sense, the direct result of the tragedy of Irish history. The arts that could not flourish in public found a sort of private existence in the homes of the people, and as laughter is the most sociable thing on earth, the comic spirit kept alive in Ireland even in the valley of the shadow of death. I do not know enough of the old literature to trace the development of the comic spirit throughout the ages. I do not know who made the first bull, or whether it was made before the English invasion, but I suspect it was made on purpose. But the bull is only one of the minor elements in Irish comedy. In modern days it has had a good many defenders, and, if it sometimes begins in confusion of thought, it often produces an admirable dramatic effect. The Ulster Unionist expressed his meaning as picturesquely as it could be expressed when he said “Before the Home Rule Bill is enforced, Asquith will have to walk over many dead bodies—his own included.” Here the comic effect is produced by one thought colliding with another. It is not in the bull, however, that we shall find the old tradition of Irish comedy, but in satire. We know what competent satirists the old bards were, and the terror in which a poet could put a plain man or a king, by threatening to write a satire upon him. We find traces of the same comedy of abuse—the comedy of vituperation—in the stories of the heroic age, as when Leag the charioteer of Cuchullain, hurls the most extravagant epithets at his master in order to sting him into more wonderful things about an Irish leader than Leag said about Cuchullain. This vituperation plays a part in the comic traditions of Ireland. You will find it in Douglas Hyde’s “Religious Songs of Connacht,” and in the Poems of Raftery. Whatever view we may take of the work of Synge, he seems to me to be true to the Irish tradition on this point. He loved the same vehement, picturesque, mocking speech, the startling and satiric images pressing on each other’s heels in vehement profusion. The practice of gorgeous denunciation—a practice in which O’Connell was an expert—shows only one aspect of the Irish comic spirit. It is in the art of conversation that this spirit has found its fullest expression. Here you will find narrative, proverb, repartee, the unsuspected adjective, the flower of speech, in as ingenious and delightful combination as anywhere in the world. It was a nation of controversialists that invented the proverb “Contention is better than loneliness.” The very atmosphere of a land of good talk has, I contend, had its influence on a long line of comic writers in English, from Congreve to Mr. Shaw.

    At the same time these are not the writers who have kept alive the lamp of what we call Irish literature. Ireland may have no Shakespeare or Dickens of whom to boast, but she can at least boast that the flame of native literature was never allowed to die, but has been passed on from generation to generation, so the poets of the old line were still writing when the Irish revival took up the story. Spenser accused the Irish bards of being fomentors of unrest and disaffection, and certainly the passion of patriotism runs through their poetry. They were prophets of the Irish race, uttering the passions of the whole people. That is why so many of their magnificent poems, which appeal so strongly to those who love Ireland, make comparatively little appeal, even to the foreigner who is interested in our literature. The greatest literature expresses the soul of a man, not the soul of a race, and so a lyric from “ The Love Songs of Connacht” is literature that has a more universal meaning than even so splendid a poem as Taig Dall O’Higgins’ “Address to Brian O Ruarc of the Bulwarks.” A poem like the latter finds its echo in the breasts of other peoples who, like the Irish, have been broken under the harrow; but the passion that infuses it is not the passion of the normal life in which the love of a woman or children, the mystery of the universe, the beauty of the world, the passing of all things, and all the common sorrows and affections are the themes that move men deeply. At the same time the Irish poets did succeed in creating one supremely beautiful figure—the figure of Ireland. That is the figure that more than any other has inspired Irish verse. Not that beautiful love—poetry about women has not been handed down— some of the most moving love-poetry in the world indeed, such as “Donall 0g.” Poetry such as this, and the nature-poetry of the mediaeval poets give us something by which to measure the depth of the literary genius that has-yet been able to find only spasmodic and piecemeal expression in Ireland. It was certainly the figure of Ireland that was the presiding genius at the birth of our modern Irish literature in the English language. If the figure of Ireland were left out of the poetry of Mangan and Ferguson, their Work would lose as much in poetry as in patriotism. They handed on a lamp, and the lamp was something greater than themselves. Irishmen writing in English a century before had not been able to hand on the lamp because there was no English-speaking public in Ireland to help them to do it. It was only, as Thomas MacDonagh showed, after the spread of English in Ireland, when a great poet of the population began normally to think Irish thoughts in the English tongue, that it was possible for a distinctively Irish literature to grow up in Ireland. How long Ireland will continue to develope a literature in the English language it is difficult to prophesy. Some Irishmen have looked or it as a misfortune that the English tradition and the Irish tradition should have got interwoven in this way, and that Irish genius should have put its stamp on any but the national language. They hold that it makes the revival of Irish more difficult if English is thus semi-nationalised as a vehicle of the Irish spirit. I do not agree with them. The great thing was that the lamp should be handed down to the whole of the Irish people. As things were, this could only have been done during the last century by having a literature in English as well as a literature in Irish. Standish O’Grady was as necessary to the preparation of the ground for Irish literature of the future as was Douglas Hyde. Standish O’Grady is an excellent example of the part played by the Irish tradition in the making of an Irishman of genius. It seems to have been almost by accident that Mr. O’Grady, the Father of the Literary Revival, came into touch with the Irish tradition at all. He tells us how in his 24th year he was staying in a country house, when one rainy day, being unable to get out, he began to look through the books in the library and happened to open O’Halloran’s “History of Ireland,” in 3 vols. It was the first history of Ireland into which he had ever looked. It was then that his imagination got the first impulse and plunged it back among the gods and heroes of Ireland. No man has done more to interpret these gods and heroes to the imagination of modern Irishmen. Who has ever written more nobly of the creations of our early writers? . . . . .

    Modern Irish literature having gone back and rejoined the main stream of Irish imaginative life, cannot rest there. Our writers have gone back only in order to recover the right road, and having regained it, they have since been advancing towards the discovery of modern life. Our plays have become less and less mystical and more and more material. Our novelists, such as Mr. Corkery, Mr. O’Duffy, and Mr. MacNamara, are giving us fictions of the Ireland that is forming before their eyes. None of them, however, has yet created a figure in a modern setting as real as Cuchullain or Deirdre. None of them has created a figure as real as the figure of Ireland. Nor can they, I think, as long as Ireland does not possess a more settled civilisation than she yet possesses, a civilisation in which the imagination of men can play as freely over the whole of life as did the imagination of the Athenians.

    Christian Italy did not produce the greatest art while Christianity was a secret or forbidden religion, dwelling as it were, in the catacombs. The catacombs are the symbols of an underground and imprisoned life, amid which the arts cannot come to flower. It was only when Christian Italy got the freedom of the sun, however tumultuous a freedom, that she gave the world Fra Angelica and Fra Lippo Lippi. The conditions that produced great art in Italy are, generally speaking, the conditions that will produce great art in Ireland. The Irish genius must escape from the catacombs before we can have an Irish Shakespeare, an Irish Dante, an Irish Fra Angelica or an Irish Dickens. For, as I have said, the great artist is not a man standing alone. His people are partners in his genius, and great art is possible only if his people enjoy the essentials of a leisured, free and unhampered civilization. The scholars of the old days enjoyed something of this leisure and freedom within the quiet of the monasteries. Ireland has enjoyed little leisure or freedom of the kind since. To explain why and how it can be remedied might take me into politics, and, as you are a non-political society, I had better leave that part of the subject alone and bring my paper to an end.


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