“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 with Maud Gonne,” “a pretty ideologue of the Nineties”; with her this Yeats “tagged along” and found himself “out on a limb.” It is not the slang that matters, but the lack of feeling that it reveals when used in this context. We are still conscious of this when the writer assumes a judicial air to tell us that Joseph Plunkett’s poetry was “baroque and chryselephantine”; that “Never a disciple of Pater, A. E.’s sense of beauty was based upon intense consciousness of moral responsibility” and—crushing verdict—that “A.E. never mastered English prose.”
Mr. Thompson has “read up” his two subjects reasonably well, and when he follows his authorities—which he does not always do—and when his authorities happen to be right—which is not always the case—his summary accounts of various aspects of the Irish national and literary movements will be of some use to readers for whom these subjects have the charm of novelty. Similarly the précis of the plot of The Plough and the Stars (which takes up fifteen of his twenty-five pages on O’Casey) will doubtless interest persons who were in some way debarred from reading or seeing that interesting play. Otherwise, The Imagination of an Insurrection has, in this reviewer’s opinion, little to recommend it. Not only does the treatment of the two movements in themselves fail by reason of lack of sympathy and sensitivity, but the attempt to relate the movements turns out to involve no more than an energetic assertion of the proposition that imagination has a place in history. “History often repeats itself, but imagination must always be more flexible than factual knowledge to see that history never repeats a pattern in the same way.” This ponderous revelation, attained on the penultimate page, is not even true: nothing is less likely than “factual knowledge” to suggest that history ever “repeats a pattern in the same way.”
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
There can be no sure answer to the question that troubled Yeats on his deathbed. Cathleen Ní Houlihan (1902) did powerfully affect “certain men” who took part in the Rising of 1916. One of them has recorded that for him and his friends the play was “almost a sacrament.” Yet it could not have had this effect if it had not touched a “stock response”: those who were so powerfully moved by this appeal to romantic nationalism, were already romantic nationalists, already drawn toward sacrificial exaltation. There may well have been “certain men” who were moved by Cathleen Ní Houlihan at a crucial moment in their young lives; men who here contracted the infection that was to kill some of them in Easter Week, 1916. But it is overwhelmingly likely that, if their resistance to the revolutionary infection was so low that they succumbed to Cathleen Ní Houlihan they would have been fatally infected by something else, between 1902 and 1916, even if Cathleen Ní Houlihan had never been written, and if Yeats and Maud Gonne had never existed. It is certain that the leaders of the Rising—Tom Clarke and Pearse and Connolly—were there quite independently of even the most patriotic manifestations of the Irish Literary Renaissance. The real “literature of the Rising” was not that of Yeats and Synge and Lady Gregory: it was Wolfe Tone’s Autobiography; it was Speeches from the Dock and especially Robert Emmet’s speech; it was the patriotic verse of Thomas Davis, “Speranza” (Oscar Wilde’s mother) and Fanny Parnell; it was John Mitchell’s Jail Journal; it was Sullivan’s God Save Ireland and Ingram’s Who Fears to Speak of ’98? The writings of the Irish Literary Renaissance had positive and political impact only when they inscribed themselves clearly within this tradition, as with Cathleen Ní Houlihan or with Lady Gregory’s Rising of the Moon. These are hardly the works for which lovers of literature in other lands have interested themselves in the Irish Literary Renaissance. The trouble with discussion of “literature and revolution” is always that the literature which most interests the literary is different from the literature which most interests the revolutionary.
THE IRISH REVOLUTION would have happened—to the extent that it did happen—even if the great Irish writers of the first part of the century had never existed. It could be contended with some force that the greatest work of the Irish writers is entirely independent of the Irish revolutionary movement. Joyce early turned his back on all Dublin’s chatter, religious, literary, and revolutionary; Synge, in the classical aristocratic manner, preferred the unspoiled peasantry of the Gaelic West to the politicized babus of the urban lower-middle classes and the trade unions—who made the revolution: even in Yeats’s case, his greatest poetry was written, not in the bliss-was-it-in-that-dawn period, but in the Twenties and Thirties, in the doldrums of disillusion, when Irishmen felt as Frenchmen did after the over-throw of another tyranny:
Que la République etait belle—sous l’Empire!
Yet the chatter on which Joyce turned his back continued to fill his head: Synge’s turning towards the Gaelic world was part of a general quickening of interest in that world, which was in turn a part of the revolutionary ferments; Yeats’s mind, in old age even more than before, was preoccupied and exalted by the politics of the past and of the present, by revolution and counter-revolution. In and around the Abbey Theatre, a center both of literary and political excitement, the two movements did interact, in a puzzled and intermittent way, sometimes in sympathy, more often bickering. Though the bickering was more conspicuous, I feel that the sympathy was more fundamental. The bickering came from the demands of the political leadership—that the theater should serve immediate and obvious propaganda needs—and the resistance of Yeats and Lady Gregory to these demands. The sympathy stemmed from a common quest for identity: a common rejection of bourgeois materialism (what Mr. Thompson calls “a rejection of civilization”); a common romanticism; a common conviction that Ireland had something of importance to offer to the world, and a common feeling that something exciting was afoot. In this last respect, the two movements did help each other. The theater’s refusal to make propaganda on demand for the revolutionaries itself made good propaganda—for the theater. And the existence of a theater which refused to make propaganda on demand was itself, in the longer term, good propaganda for the revolutionary cause: the Ireland which claimed to have so much to give to the world did indeed have something to offer, and did have men who were prepared to defend that something. Though each movement could have existed without the other, though each often ignored or scorned the other, each also acquired from the other a heightened sense of tragedy—and later of tragi-comedy.
WHEN DID IT ALL END? There is a rather widely held opinion that “the influence of the Irish Catholic clergy,” asserted after political independence and through the Censorship, put an end to the Irish literary movement. This opinion is congenial to those who dislike the Catholic clergy (often for adequate reasons) and also to those who are quick to perceive the futility of other people’s nationalism. As an explanation, however, it does not work. The influence of the Catholic clergy, in Ireland’s social and educational life, was quite as formidable—and in some ways more formidable—before independence as after. The reality of censorship—in schools and colleges and municipal libraries and in the life of the countryside and the small towns generally—had existed long before independence. The State censorship, when established in 1928, was notoriously incompetent and eccentric, and such efforts at censorship, when not backed by a powerful apparatus of terror, have normally—as in Tsarist Russia—served to stimulate rather than repress literary creation. What really happened was that the exalting sense of Ireland’s exceptional destiny which had existed before 1922 simply faded into the sheer ordinariness of a paternal, pettifogging, fairly decent little Republic. The dreams of the founders were unattainable. It wasn’t going to be a Workers’ Republic, as Connolly hoped, or a Gaelic-speaking one, as Pearse hoped, or a united one, as all the revolutionaries had hoped and assumed. The North was lost for good; the left-wing extremism flickered and died in the Thirties; so did the right-wing extremism of the Blueshirts. A melancholy sanctity prevailed. Yeats hated it but, as Mr. Thompson would say, “he tagged along,” finding himself, to his surprise, publishing a poem in De Valera’s Irish Press and defending De Valera’s policy of neutrality.
There is a tension and excitement, which can be creative, in the struggle to be free from something obvious like British Imperialism or Tsarist autocracy or white supremacy. The kind of partial victory and partial defeat which must be the only outcome of such a struggle must lead to a period of perplexity and bitterness, not exalting to the minds of the young. For Ireland that “post-independence” period may be thought of as ending about 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. There are signs that the period now beginning, dominated by those who are too young to be directly affected by either the illusions or the disillusions of the first half of the century, may prove in some ways—socially and institutionally rather than nationally—not less bitter than the Twenties and Thirties. There are some grounds for hoping that these new strains may prove more productive, both in politics and in literature, than was the time of disappointed liberty.
June 29, 1967