The Celtic Revival

Celtic Revival / Irish Literary Renaissance

The Celtic Revival, (also known as the Irish Literary Revival) began when Irish writers such as Lady Gregory, "AE" Russell, Oliver St John Gogarty, Padraic Colum, Edward Martyn, Edward Plunkett and William Butler Yeats stimulated a new appreciation of traditional Irish literature and Irish poetry in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is a movement that aimed at reviving ancient Irish folklore, legends, and traditions in new literary works. The movement was the cultural aspect of a political movement that was concerned with self-government for Ireland and discovering a literary past that would be relevant to the struggle for independence.

But the Celtic Revival was also closely related to the English Arts and Crafts Movement's aim of social and artistic reform and was part of the general upsurge of Romantic interest in the Middle Ages.

Following the unsuccessful Irish Catholic rebellion of 1798, the Irish Parliament was dissolved, and the Act of Union, which took effect in 1801, made Ireland part of the United Kingdom. Nationalist movements and conflicts with Britain dominated Irish history thereafter. In 1829 Catholics gained full political rights, but campaigns to repeal the Act of Union failed. From 1845 to 1849, a blight destroyed Ireland's potato crop, the principal food source of the people. As a result of starvation and emigration during this period, Ireland's population fell by 20 percent. Agitation for land reform became widespread in Ireland after the potato famine, as did agitation for Irish rule.


Most 19th-century Irish fiction from before the famine was written to explain the Irish to the English or to amuse readers outside Ireland who were interested in regional literature. Castle Rackrent (1800) is an indictment of irresponsible Anglo-Irish landlords written by Maria Edgeworth, an English-born woman who lived in Ireland. This novel and others by Edgeworth offer a realistic portrayal of Irish peasant life at the time, tempered with understanding and humor. The Wild Irish Girl (1806), a novel of manners by Anglo-Irish Lady Morgan, was sympathetic to the Catholic political cause. William Carleton's collection, Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830), captured Irish rural life shortly before the famine, while his novels The Black Prophet (1847), The Emigrants of Ahadarra (1848), and The Tithe Proctor (1849), depicted the suffering it produced.

After the famine, the most significant Irish fiction focused on land. The popular nationalist novel Knocknagow, or the Homes of Tipperary (1879) by Charles Kickham attacked landlords' victimization of tenant farmers, who were barely able to feed themselves after satisfying their landlords and who wore out the soil in the process. Emily Lawless countered with Hurrish (1886), a novel that criticized the violence of Irish farmers directed against Protestant landowners.

Irish Renaissance

By the late 19th century the Irish had lost faith in political solutions to Ireland's problems and turned to cultural nationalism instead. In 1893 Eoin Mac Neill and Douglas Hyde founded the Gaelic League to restore Irish as the spoken language of the country; the organization eventually became the driving force for the assertion of Irish identity. The search for Ireland's lost Gaelic heritage ushered in a period known as the Irish Renaissance in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. The Irish Renaissance was spearheaded by the energy of its major figures: writers William Butler Yeats, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, and John Millington Synge.

  • Yeats: June 13th, 1865 - January 28th, 1939; founded Irish Literary Theatre and Abbey Theatre with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, J.M. Synge
  • Lady Gregory: March 15th, 1852 - May 22nd, 1932; wrote for both theatres; produced a number of books taken from Irish mythology
  • Synge: April 16th, 1871 - March 24th, 1909; died of cancer
  • Martyn: 1859 - 1923 Irish political and cultural activist, playwright
  • Russell: April 10th, 1867 - July 17th, 1935; pseudonym "AE"
  • Oliver St. John Gogarty: August 17th, 1878 - Sept. 22nd, 1957

An Irish National Literary Society was founded in Dublin in 1892. It held lectures on the Celtic tradition in an effort to spark public interest in a revival. The first signs of the Irish and Anglo-Irish traditions coming together occurred in 1893. That year Douglas Hyde, who wrote in both Gaelic and English, brought out The Love Songs of Connacht (1893), English translations of Irish folk poetry whose beauty would have an enormous effect on Yeats, Gregory, and Synge.

Drama, however, was the literary form that best captured the ideals of the Irish Renaissance and established Ireland's literary reputation. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and playwright Edward Martyn published their Irish Literary Theatre manifesto in 1899, promising to create a national theatre for Ireland. The Irish Literary Theatre, which opened that year, was succeeded in 1902 by the Irish National Theatre Society. In 1904 the Society opened the Abbey Theatre, whose purpose was to present Irish plays about Irish subjects. The plays it produced dramatized Irish myth and history and portrayed Irish peasant life realistically.

In its first year the Irish Literary Theatre produced Yeats's The Countess Cathleen and Martyn's realistic drama The Heather Field. The Countess Cathleen aroused controversy, especially among Catholics, because its heroine sells her soul to feed her starving tenants during a famine. One of the theatre's biggest successes was Cathleen n Houlihan (1902), produced in the theatre's fourth season. Now accepted as written by both Lady Gregory and Yeats but originally attributed to Yeats alone, Cathleen n Houlihan dramatized a myth of blood sacrifice that transforms a poor old woman, a symbol of Ireland, into a young girl.

Lady Gregory's other nationalist play, The Rising of the Moon (1907); her comedies Spreading the News (1904) and The Workhouse Ward (1908); and her tragedy The Gaol Gate (1906) also enjoyed success at the Abbey.

Synge had met Yeats in Paris in the late 1890s, and Yeats had urged him to go to the Gaelic-speaking Aran Islands off Ireland's northwest coast, where he could study the Irish language and observe the ways of the people. The knowledge Synge gained by following this advice informed his later work. In 1903 the Irish National Theatre Society staged Synge's comedy In the Shadow of the Glen (1903). In the play an Irishman fakes his own death in order to catch his young wife making marriage plans with a tramp who urges her to take to the roads with him. The play was construed as an attack on Irish women and was poorly received at the time.

Another Synge comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, opened at the Abbey in 1907 and also stirred controversy. It told of a young man who becomes a hero in a small Irish town when he claims to have killed his father. At a time when the Irish people were developing a national pride, audiences regarded the play as insulting to the Irish, and riots broke out in the theatre. But The Playboy of the Western World, like In the Shadow of the Glen, eventually became a classic of the Irish Renaissance.

End of the Irish Literary Renaissance

From 1916 to 1922 Ireland was in open rebellion against Britain. The rebellion began on Easter Monday in 1916 with an uprising that became known as the Easter Rebellion or Easter Rising. The leaders of the Easter Rebellion were executed afterward, an action that outraged the Irish people and won sympathy for the nationalist cause.

One of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion was poet Patrick Pearse. From 1903 to 1909 he edited the Gaelic League newspaper The Sword of Light and encouraged the development of a modern literature in Irish. Pearse also wrote stories, poetry, and essays himself in Irish and in English. His Collected Works (1917) were issued in five volumes after his execution for his part in the Easter Rebellion.

The uprisings of 1916 to 1922, a period sometimes referred to as the troubles, marked the end of the Irish Renaissance. Writings of the 1920s and 1930s reflect the disillusionment of the Irish people after the failure of the nationalist independence movements and the partition of Ireland. Playwright Sean O'Casey revived the Abbey Theatre, which had faltered as a result of a curfew during the troubles, with his trio of plays that take place in Dublin's slums and revolve around Ireland's struggle for independence. The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) and Juno and the Paycock (1924) have guerrilla warfare as their background. The third play, The Plough and the Stars (1926), focused on the Easter Rebellion. Dublin audiences rioted over O'Casey's critical portrayal of the nationalist martyrs only ten years after the rebellion.

Disillusionment with Irish life also can be seen in the work of James Joyce, one of the most important writers of fiction in the 20th century. Joyce considered the Dublin of his youth a 'center of paralysis,' dominated by the Catholic Church and British political authority. However, he did not join the nationalist movements and felt that he was insufficiently appreciated by the writers of the Irish Renaissance.

Another important poet of early 20th-century Ireland was George William Russell, known as . His early work, including Collected Poems (1913), addresses questions of Irish independence and forms part of the Irish Renaissance. Later works, such as The House of the Titans and Other Poems (1934), meditates on the world of nature as a link between humanity and God. mentored several younger poets, including James Stephens.

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