Celtic Junction Arts Review

A History of Irish Literature 600-1155: A View from the Mississippi

Dr. Patrick O'Donnell

From the hills of County Kerry,
To the shores of Londonderry,
From Galway Bay to Dublin,
And their numbers were not small,
Came each youthful Boy and Maiden,
With health and beauty laden,
To uncles, aunts, and cousins,
Who were settled in St. Paul.

Patrick J. Hill “The Irish American Club.”

Paddy Hill’s poem commemorates the familial and personal connections that Irish people have had to Minnesota. Although the Irish American Club began in the 1940s, Irish identity in Minnesota clearly emerges beginning in the 1830s with the exploits of Irish ex-soldiers from Fort Snelling, and continues to reinvent itself in business, cultural, educational, athletic, artistic, and dynamic formations up to the present. To consider the ample literary history of Ireland from the viewpoint of Minnesota is to realize the importance of hybridity and cultural exchange to questions of political and personal liberty and liberation. There is no one simplistic strand to Ireland’s literature. It is a variegated, diverse, and complex weave of many heritages and voices much like Minnesota’s own cultural psyche. This article will be the first of a series considering Ireland’s literary history from the banks of the Mississippi river which famously arises in the North Star state.

Charles Stewart Parnell, 1870-1880 Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cwpbh.03650
Charles Stewart Parnell ~1875.
Public Domain.
Archbishop John Ireland
Archbishop John Irealnd,. circa 1887.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota’s literary heritage has been enriched by a surprisingly wide range of Irish visitors who have included such prodigious figures as the great nationalist figure Charles Stewart Parnell. His visit to St. Paul in 1880 we will first briefly consider. The Democratic-leaning newspaper, The St. Paul Globe, documented the visit of Parnell, the Irish political strategist and land agitator. He received a rapturous reception all the way from Winona to the Merchant’s Hotel in downtown St. Paul. He was greeted by Archbishop Ireland and H.H. Sibley and he declared his determination to free Ireland from the pernicious and oppressive grip of landlordism. Archbishop Ireland took advantage of the occasion to get Parnell to endorse his own Catholic colonization schemes which saw Irish immigrants from the eastern cities and also directly from Ireland settled on large farms in Minnesota. The St. Paul Globe’s writer captured a key moment when an Irish emigrant emotionally greeted Parnell as he was about to leave St. Paul. “As all were safely ensconsed in the carriage, a lively son of Erin put his head in at the carriage window, and asked: 

“Which of ye is Mr. Parnell?”

“I am, “ answered Mr. Parnell.

“Will you shake hands with me?”

The shake was given, and the Hibernian admirer of Ireland’s patriot turned around to the crowd and said: “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” [Cheers and laughter.]

Probably Mr. Parnell appreciated this humble tribute as much as any of the enthusiasm which followed him at each step during his brief sojourn in our city.”

The playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde lectured here in 1881. The cultural nationalist and prophetic poet, William Butler Yeats spoke at the College of St. Thomas in 1904. The Irish language scholar and writer, Douglas Hyde appeared here in 1906 as part of a national lecture tour (1905-1906) organized by John Quinn, the celebrated New York-based lawyer and friend of W.B. Yeats. The Cork realist short-story writer and scholar, Sean O’Faolain visited in 1959. The short story writer and celebrated playwright, Brian Friel apprenticed at the newly opening Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1963. Correspondingly, Minnesotans as diverse as Ignatius Donnelly, Eugene McCarthy, John Berryman, and Robert Bly have integrated the notion of the Celtic in their own writings. Ireland and Minnesota share a sardonic wit that is evident when Irish people and Minnesotans gather. Neither takes its home place too seriously. Both are mockingly rueful on the self-absorbed question of their own uniqueness. A lady on winning a prize for being the “Distinguished Irish-American” received only a barbed response from her husband: “Distinguished from what?” Mark Twain on observing a river steamboat gliding along the Mississippi described it as a “wedding cake without the complications.” Howard Mohr, who wrote the satirical, How To Speak Minnesotan, speculated on whether Dubliner Samuel Beckett, author of the absurdist drama Waiting for Godot, wasn’t really a secret Minnesotan because his depiction of mundane repetition, pointlessness, and listless waiting seemed quintessential to life in the Gopher state. The Irish comic tradition is replete with satiric humorists such as Jonathon Swift, Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Flann O’Brien who mercilessly undermine the urge to pretentiousness or grandiosity. Minnesota has a long list of its own parallel humorists such as Sinclair Lewis, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Garrison Keillor, Howard Mohr, and Kevin Kling who equally deflate any exaggerated sense of Minnesota’s importance. Nevertheless, both places – the Land of 10,000 lakes and the only politically independent Celtic nation -share bristling pride and a sense of geographical, historical, and cultural “exceptionalism” which invites hyperbole and its corresponding humorous counter reaction.

Seamus Heaney, 1996
Seamus Heaney, 1996
Image bh002449, Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Both places have distinguished literary traditions: the first American Nobel laureate (1930), Sinclair Lewis, grew up in small town Sauk Center while the most significant Irish-Catholic novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald was raised in the pristine and dignified environs of St. Paul’s Summit Avenue. Ireland, in turn, has produced four laureates: W.B. Yeats (1923), Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969), and Seamus Heaney (1995). The works of three of these laureates – Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney – have appeared on the stage of the Guthrie Theater, while two of these laureates visited Minnesota.  Yeats arrived in 1904. Seamus Heaney visited to speak at the Guthrie Theater twice in 1997 and in 2011. This last visit coincided with their production of his reimagining of Sophocles Antigone renamed The Burial at Thebes.

Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis, Nobel Prize for Literature 1930. Library of Congress. / CC BY-NC 2.0
O’Shaughnessy Poetry Prize Winner Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh
2020 O’Shaughnessy Poetry Prize Winner
Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh.
A lamented cancelled visit due to
the global pandemic.

To examine Yeats’s time in Minnesota in 1904 will be helpful to see how the literary bridges between Ireland and Minnesota have been formed. Yeats arrived in St. Paul in minus twenty degree temperatures in January 1904, stayed at Pierce Butler’s red brick double house on the corner of Hamline and Summit Avenues, dined with St. Thomas college’s president, and gave a talk on campus on the subject of Irish literary ideals. His Abbey Theatre would open later in December. His soul-wounded and soul-healing poetry in its romantic, caustic, and modernist phases would reverberate in the imaginations of many Minnesota authors. Indeed, a crucially instructive comic scene in Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 satiric novel of Midwest small town life, Main Street, depicts Carol Kennicott trying to instruct her complacent and distant doctor husband in the ways of modern culture by reading Yeats forcibly aloud to him. He retreats defensively behind the dual shields of his newspaper and cigar smoke. Yeats would percolate steadily in the imaginations of other writers. Eugene McCarthy would quote him extensively, and Robert Bly would credit him as an influence. It is not unusual for his lyrics to be chanted in any convivial gathering of Minnesota poets, particularly when such a gathering is welcoming the latest O’Shaughnessy Poetry Prize winner straight from Ireland. This prize of $5,000 has been continuously awarded annually to a living Irish poet since 1997 by the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. 

What then are the concerns and roots of Ireland’s literary culture? Irish literature constantly fuses and conjoins disparate heritages to articulate a liberation of voice whether it be the Latin language releasing Old Irish into written form from the sixth to the ninth centuries or the English language fusing with modern Irish in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to create the dialect known as Hiberno-English. Essentially, Irish literature is a protest against the suppression of cultural memory and the paralysis that follows from overly rigid forms of authority whether colonial or religious. As a pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial literature, it argues for resistance to cultural invasion. It also argues for access to a wealth of knowledge, literacy, and the ability, (as a colonized people suffering from the denial of professional and educational opportunity under the punitive and culturally maiming Penal Laws enacted by the English administration from 1690 to approximately 1829), to advance in society while articulating one’s experience. Ireland’s literature is inherently educating its readers and listeners about the emotional history of Ireland and its struggle to radically preserve a memory of its ancient and mythic roots while freeing itself of a deleterious political union with the British Empire.

Ogham writing on stones at Adare Manor
Photo by Scott Boylan /CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Irish writing begins with carvings on standing stones. These indentations on such stones were based on Latin lettering and consist of very rudimentary inscriptions. Such vernacular and indeed primitive markings have been subject to romantic embellishment in the marketing of the “ancient” in connection to Ireland. While it is difficult to precisely date such almost negligible carvings, effectively a substantive tradition of Irish literature really begins in the sixth century after monasteries adapted the Latin language as a written medium. Christianity is traditionally credited with arriving in 432 A.D. following the ministrations of St. Patrick, a probably Welsh-born Romano-Briton who returned to Ireland to convert the pagan people from their Druidic polytheistic practices. Tradition credits him with being an enthusiastic founder and supporter of monasteries. It is within their scriptoria that a recorded tradition of Irish writing flourishes.  Thus the history of Irish literature from the standpoint of 2020 can be said to span 1,500 years of unsurpassed creativity and fecundity and to consist of one of the world’s more remarkable canons of writing. 

To begin our narrative then, it will be necessary to dwell on the historical figure of St. Patrick. The two earliest literary documents concern the Romano-Briton, Patrick and his Confession and his Letter to Coroticus. Patrick founded Armagh and successfully spread the Christian gospel. As the scholar, Charles Doherty states “it was men like Patrick who introduced the Irish to the Latin alphabet and the basic elements of grammar.”1 He was a particular advocate for monastic orders in Ireland. Because the Romans had never arrived in Ireland, Latin was a foreign scholarly tongue. Monasteries had stones carved with Latin alphabets and manuscripts sedulously devoted to its grammar. The Latin alphabet was employed to transcribe Irish, creating the oldest vernacular European literature north of the Alps. Irish monks loved classical learning especially Virgil. The monastic libraries were amply stocked with classical literature. 

Glendalough Monastery
Glendalough Monastery
By © Superbass (via Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA 4.0
Four Evangelists
Four Evangelists
By Book of Kells / Public Domain

Central to the history of Irish writing from the sixth to the twelfth centuries were the great monasteries of Ireland: Clonmacnoise, Kells, and Glendalough. Seats of learning and industry, they earned Ireland the famed title in the Middle Ages: Land of Saints and Scholars. These monasteries were sites of transcription, copying, and learning. The adopted Latin language was a platform that allowed a permanence to be added to a vast compendium of myths, tales, poems, and aphorisms that had been central to the druidic oral learning of Celtic pagan Ireland whose learned classes would spend up to twenty years learning a huge body of traditional knowledge. Thus the first major confluence of cultural forms is the Celtic and the Christian: the pre-literate memory-based culture and the literacy of organized Christianity mingled in creative confluence.  The learned classes of fili (poets), ollaimh (professors), and druid valued oral memorized learning above all. These learned classes had authority and status in ancient Ireland equivalent to that of kings. Through ties of kinship, the monkish fraternity and the extensive and highly esteemed class of fili communicated and collaborated in recording a corpus of Irish writing (much of it hundreds of years older than the advent of literacy) to establish the earliest written form of this canon of world writing. The file (poet) was the hub and living archive of the local king’s memory, prestige and authority. Eulogies, genealogies, histories, and defensive satires were part of his professional qualifications. This confluence of an industrious writerly community in the monasteries with a prodigiously learned and articulate professional class of poets explains the burgeoning of the Irish literary tradition. The Irish language was translated into the Latin form.

The Flowering Of Ireland book cover

The seventh century is a high point in Irish writing with hymns praising St. Patrick becoming particularly prevalent. The ninth century saw both incursions from Norse Vikings and a flooding out of scholarly teachers to the continental schools. The most famous of these was Eriugena (meaning ‘Irish-born’) who taught at the French court of Charles the Bald and assisted with an early version of a minor Renaissance at this monarch’s learned court. A master of Greek as well as Latin, Eriugena’s masterpiece was a philosophical text, De Divisione Naturae (‘The Division of Nature’), a curious blend of Christian and Neo-Platonic mystical theology. Katherine Scherman in The Flowering of Ireland: Saints, Scholars, and Kings states: “The brightest luminary of Charles’s court, and a philosopher centuries ahead of his time, was Johannes Scotus, later called Eriugena. . . He was probably born around 810 A.D., and he received a fine education, including Greek, in Ireland. In 847, driven out by the rampages of the Vikings, he crossed over to France. His reputation as a Greek scholar preceded him. Though the monastic schools of Ireland were not very strong in Greek, it was taught there, whereas on the Continent the knowledge was forgotten. And though the Irish were indifferent scholars of the language, they were responsible for its European revival in the Middle Ages.”

Up to the seventh century, Irish poetry didn’t concern itself with rhyme but up to the seventeenth rhyme became integral. Proinsias Mac Anna notes: “this extension of syllabic prosody has been attributed to the influence of Latin hymn metres mediated by the literati of the monasteries.”2 Ironically, the monks did not labor under the strict and stultifying conventions of the poets who normally spent as long as twenty years learning their craft, and could be innovative and playful in their transcriptions. They wrote in a simple and lucid style when dealing with religious subjects, but this became a defining trait of monastic verse particularly when pondering the wonder of God’s handiwork in nature and the lyric cry of the black bird in the seventh and eighth centuries. Druidic poets had been intoxicated by complexity; the monks were intoxicated by simplicity. This tradition is exemplified by the lyric “The Blackbird” (variously dated between the ninth and eleventh centuries): 

Ah, blackbird, it is well for you
Wherever your nest is in the thicket.
Hermit who rings no bell,
Sweet, soft, peaceful is your call. 

Such lyrics are a blend of three elements. First, an appreciation of nature as a teacher expressed in direct and immediate simplicity in vocabulary and diction and address. Second, an emotional compulsion – here it is a wistful appreciation of the spiritual harmony of the hermit-like blackbird’s life. Third, a sense of the seasons that rests on the earlier pagan rhythm of nature and the body of magical verse from the druidic fili. The blending of the natural, the pagan, the Christian, and the emotional creates a unique and luminous form: simple as a blackbird’s cry, and yet complex, layered, suggestive and as immense as a Zen haiku

Pangur-Ban-V2 by Liz Welch
Pangur Ban by Minnesota artist Liz Welch.

The Old Irish poems were often transcribed on the edges of Latin manuscripts as though they were valves of release from the dreariness of copying. The confluence of the monastic and the druidic was further complicated by the arrival of the innovation of the ascetic/anchorite movement in the Irish monastic community in the eighth-ninth centuries. Lyrics now enact an immersion into the wild searching for purification, harmony, and the bliss of natural simplicity. This impact of the anchorite’s sensibility (whether purely imagined or experienced by the scribe) adds a greater poignancy and pathos to longer Old Irish narrative poems of madness and exile such as Suibhne Geilt (Sweeny Mad), or the tales of the lovers, Deirdre and Naoise. The witty inventiveness of these monk-scribes is best exemplified by the poem, “The Scholar and his Cat” from the ninth century: 

Myself and White Pangur,
Each pursues his own calling,
When I’m engaged on my craft,
He’s intent on hunting.

The curious tones of the pagan and Christian also are evident in the poetic composition, “The Old Woman of Beare.” Here the sovereign goddess of the land of Ireland – young and old in cycling metamorphoses – becomes a dessicated nun longing for the former adulation of royalty and warrior heroes. 

Desmond Kinney's mural depicting the "Táin Bó Cúailnge" part of the Ulster Cycle.
Belfast artist Desmond Kinney’s mosaic depicting the “Táin Bó Cúailnge” part of the Ulster Cycle.
Photo by Jaqian /CC BY-SA 2.0

A crucial treasure store of imaginative energy for almost all subsequent centuries of Irish writing was contained in the enormous corpus of Irish mythic tales. Irish mythology was classified in four huge cycles of tales: the mythological cycle, the cycle of the kings (especially those concerning Cormac Mac Airt), the Ulster cycle (concerning Cuchulainn), and the Finn cycle. The mythological cycle centers on the defeat of Balor of the Evil Eye (an inspiration for J.R. R. Tolkien in his depiction of Sauron in his brooding tower in Mordor), by Lugh of the Long Arm, a solar Celtic god. The cycle of the kings feeds into the Ulster cycle which depicts the Irish Achilles, the demigod warrior, Cuchulainn, and the Finn cycle recounts tales of Finn McCool and the Fianna, a band of legendary warriors that guarded Ireland. Pervading the hundreds  of extensive narrative tales is a profound sense of an Otherworld – a supernatural dimension that played havoc with the supposed constrictions of mundane time and space and rendered the finite world absurdly flimsy and malleable. Its numinous glow is one of the glories of Irish mythic narrative. This is the realm of the Sídh (pronounced “shee”). In modern English, the banshee (bean sídh) is a survival in popular folk form of such Irish legends. 

Brendan the Navigator
St. Brendan of the Gael, Fenit, Co Kerry
MrCharco / CC BY-SA

The Otherworld is variously called the Land of the Ever Young, the Many Coloured Land, and the Land of the Ever Living. Interestingly, this Land Beyond the Waves may have been colored by real historical voyages of hermitage, known as the White Martyrdom of exile rather than the Red Martyrdom of violent death for the faith. Irish clerics had voyaged as far as Iceland, but a body of manuscripts also claimed that the Irish Saint Brendan had made a voyage that led to the discovery of America. Characteristically, pagan and Christian Otherworld and paradise blend in motif and theme. The high point of this confluence is the eighth-ninth century, Navigatio Brendani, as Pronsias Mac Anna notes “the legend of St. Brendan’s quest ‘for the land of promise of the saints,’ fired the imagination of the whole western world in the later Middle Ages.” (Indeed so potent was this legend of an Irish monk from Kerry discovering America, that Tim Severin set out in 1977 to successfully recreate the journey according to the instructions from the ancient manuscripts, an event that he recounts in his book, The Brendan Voyage (1978)). Severin recreated an oxhide-hulled vessel according to the formulas of boat construction and navigation of the ancient texts. 

The picture of Medb on an Irish Series B one pound banknote.
“Medb” on an Irish Series B one pound banknote.
By Sean / CC BY-ND 2.0

Probably the most significant cycle of Irish mythology is the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’ comprising the heart of the Ulster cycle in which Queen Maeve of Connacht’s army raid into Ulster to steal the Brown Bull of Cuailgne (Cooley) resisted only by Cuchulainn. These manifold tales of wonder, heroism, and dread while ancient are also part of a living stream of inspiration in Irish literature that would inspire William Butler Yeats in his poetry and drama as he led the Irish Literary Revival (1899-1939) following the opening of a cultural and political void with the death of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891. Thus the immediacy of Irish mythic energy is apparent in any consideration of Irish writing. During the twelfth century, an effort was made to systematize the vast congeries of tales that had accumulated slowly since the sixth century as a mood of cultural unease had descended upon the country. With the Laudibiliter Papal Bull or decree of the first and only English pope, Adrian Breakspear in the eleventh century, the English throne was granted a probably fraudulent claim on Ireland resulting in the Norman incursion of Strongbow and the subsequent conquest of Ireland. As MacAnna notes: 

“Partly as a reaction to these developments, a certain cultural regrouping seems to have taken place, and from the gradual assimilation and eventual amalgamation of the native learned poets, the fili and the scholars of the old monastic schools, a new confederation of learned families came into being, which was to exercise responsibility for the cultivation of traditional learning. Among its remarkable achievements was the establishment of a strict code of metrics and a standard literary language that was adhered to by all learned poets throughout Ireland and Gaelic Scotland through the early thirteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century.” 

Just as Christianity allowed Irish writing to flower, so would the disruptions of conquest: the Normans in the twelfth century, the Elizabethans in the sixteenth, and the Cromwellian and Williamite conquests in the seventeenth. These disruptions would initially be experienced as traumas which would complicate the continuity of Irish literature.

1 Charles Doherty, “Latin Writing,” The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volume 1 (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1992, p. 62.

2Pronsias MacAnna, “Literature in the Irish language,” The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volume 1 (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1992),p.2.

[Note: Part Two of this literary history will appear in the next edition of the Celtic Junction Arts Review.]