Two-faced Cathleen

The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916 A Study of an Ideological Movement

by William Irwin Thompson
Oxford, 288 pp., $6.75

We know from our literary histories,” writes Mr. Thompson, “that there was a movement called the Irish Literary Renaissance and that Yeats was at its head. We know from our political histories that there is now a Republic of Ireland because of a nationalistic movement that, militarily, began with the insurrection of Easter Week, 1916. But what do these two movements have to do with one another?”

It is an interesting question. Unfortunately Mr. Thompson is hardly qualified to answer it, because he has little understanding of either of the movements whose interaction he has undertaken to study. For the “nationalistic movement” this is clear even from what he thinks he knows from his “political histories.” The Irish Republican movement did not begin, militarily or otherwise, with the insurrection of Easter Week, 1916: it began, ideologically, no later than Wolfe Tone, and militarily no later than the Rebellion of 1798. No one was more conscious of this fact than the men of 1916 themselves. The Proclamation of the Republic was not a beginning, and not presented as a beginning: it was, and was presented as, the latest and the most momentous in a long series of revolutionary acts which made up the Irish nationalist tradition. Yeats himself clearly saw the significance of conscious revolutionary continuity when he wrote, in “Sixteen Dead Men”:

How could you dream they’d listen
That have an ear alone
For these new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone…

Recognition of the large, plain fact that 1916 was not a beginning would disarrange Mr. Thompson’s thesis—there having been no Irish Literary Renaissance to speak of in the days of Tone and Emmet—but I do not think it is for that reason that he ignores it. His scholarship is quite honest; only deficient in any feeling for his subject. He is saturated in that easy contempt for other people’s nationalism, which is the prerogative of nations so powerful that they take their own nationalist assumptions for universal truths. Connolly and Pearse according to him “shared the common futility of being nationalists.” It is a defensible view, but one which, if adopted, leaves little of interest to be said about Connolly and Pearse. If one held, for example, that “Washington and Jefferson shared the common futility of being nationalists” one might be wise not to devote one’s time to writing about the American Revolution. In writing what he calls “a cultural study of…[an] ideological movement, Mr. Thompson is fatally handicapped by his breezy contempt for the force that made the movement move.

IN WRITING about the Literary Renaissance—which interests him more—Mr. Thompson is differently, but again fatally, incapacitated. He writes horribly. It is true that some who are considered excellent critics also write horribly, but their contortions are a kind of anguished groping, while the quality in Mr. Thompson’s writing which makes us wince is the opposite: a jaunty insensitiveness. His Yeats was “riding the bandwagon …

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