Celtic Junction Arts Review

A History of Irish Literature: 1155-1800: A View from the Mississippi

Dr. Patrick O'Donnell

Tyrone Guthrie Theater by Chris Gallevo 2007

Lost in its midnight blue cloak, the Guthrie Theater today stares meditatively down on the pale yellow arches of the Stone Arch bridge and the tumbling waters of Saint Anthony Falls. It was originally opened by its Anglo-Irish director and founder, Sir Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971) in 1963 across from the Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis. This Anglo-Irish or English-Irish identity of Guthrie had deep roots in the mingling and conflict of the politics, religion, culture, and history of Ireland with English colonialism and settlers. Guthrie, although born in England regarded himself insistently as Irish (or ‘Anglo-Irish’ as English people resident in Ireland or Irish-born of English descent were termed) and was based in his home of Annaghmakerrig in Newbliss, county Monaghan where the idea for the founding of this premier regional theater was crystallized over lengthy breakfasts with his colleagues Oliver Rea and Peter Zeisler in 1959. The theater was subsequently moved to its new location overlooking the Mississippi by Dublin-born, Joe Dowling where it opened in 2006 with the performance of the complete cycle of the plays of Anglo-Irish Abbey Theatre playwright, John Millington Synge (1871-1909), Druidsynge, presented by the visiting company of Galway’s Druid Theatre. What are the deep hybrid and colonial roots of this imaginative Anglo-Irish heritage that has manifested on the shores of the Mississippi here in Minnesota?

 The colonial story of Ireland begins in 1155 with the Laudabiliter papal bull of the first and only English pope, Nicholas Breakspear, Adrian IV (pope from 1154-9) which eventually saw the English language transposed to Ireland by granting Henry II the right to enter and “civilize” the country and “[in the words of the Laudabiliter] subject its people to law and to root out from them the weeds of vice”. In 1170, ‘Strongbow’, Richard de Clare, the Norman Earl, landed in and conquered Waterford, took Dublin from its High King, Rory O’Connor, and subsequently, King Henry II arrived in Ireland in 1171 and gained the submission of the majority of the Irish kings. By the thirteenth century, the Anglo-Normans and their characteristic tall rectangular castles with arrow-projecting slit windows dominated Ireland. Four languages were used in Ireland: Irish by the native people; Latin in the Church; Norman-French by the new conquering elite; and, English by their servants and followers. As Terence Dolan asserts: “French was the mother tongue of the Norman invaders of Ireland.”1 There is thus a minor tradition of French writing in twelfth-century poetry – the most important example is undoubtedly The Song of Dermot and the Earl, (authored by Morice Regan between 1200-1225) which tells of how Rory O’Connor, High King of Ireland, exiled Dermot MacMurrough, king of Leinster and Dublin, who subsequently got the aid of Strongbow (the earl of the poem’s title) to restore his kingdom and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. The most important Hiberno-English verse work is The Land of Cokayne from 1330, a satirical look at gluttony probably directed at a Cistercian monastery by a Franciscan author! Thus Norman and Irish were conjoined and a fresh hybrid form was created.

But the Normans famously became more Irish than the Irish themselves and by the fourteenth century they had adopted Irish as their main language. Indeed in 1366, at the Statutes of Kilkenny, efforts were made to halt the Gaelicization of the ruling classes. As Dolan states: “the Statutes proved to be a notable failure, particularly in the matter of the use of the Irish language.” It would not be until the Tudor plantations of the sixteenth century that English influence would take root in Ireland.  The dominance of the Irish language was of concern to the English authorities and the Lord Chancellor Gerrarde is recorded as protesting in 1578: “all English, and the most part with delight, even in Dublin, speak Irish, and greatly are spotted in manners, habit and conditions with Irish stains.” The creative hybridity that would result from the advent of the Anglo-Irish sensibility (including such figures as W.B. Yeats and Sir Tyrone Guthrie) would galvanize Irish literature into a world-wide phenomenon in the early twentieth century. Yet the Reformation would add a politicized religiosity to Ireland’s identity politics as the Irish speakers after the Tudor incursion would be inevitably Catholic while the determined English speakers would be Protestant.

Edmund Spenser oil painting
Edmund Spenser oil painting. Public Domain.

The most important English Renaissance writer based for almost two decades in Ireland is Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) who was the “first of his nation to advance a coherent argument for the systematic colonization of Ireland by English people.”2 That this program of colonization would destroy Irish culture was a price that Spenser was more than willing to advocate. His primary objective was to encourage settlers from England and Scotland to plant both the Protestant faith and loyalty to the crown. He formulated a program of cultural superiority that would shape the ascendancy of the Anglo-Irish in Ireland until the Act of Union in 1800. His crucial political work is A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596). Spenser condemns the Old English (or Hiberno-Normans) for their contamination with Irish culture, and argues for the forcible suppression of Irish cultural memory and blocking its transmission. Effectively, his work is a manifesto for atrocity and conquest resting on an assumption of English superiority. This program of conquest and suppression was enacted in reality following the military defeat of the Ulster Irish aristocracy at Kinsale in 1601 under the leadership of the English Lord Mountjoy (1563-1606). Following the example of Spenser, Fynes Moryson (1566-1630), depicted in his Itinerary (1617), this program of colonization and destruction. These polemical works had a prolonged malignant effect on the politics of Irish writing and identity as Protestant pro-English writers were gradually opposed to Catholic nativist writers. This would prove to be a prolonged and perfidious opposition. In 1690, the vestiges of the old Gaelic order were defeated at the Battle of the Boyne with the subsequent imposition of the Penal Laws and the banning of Irish natives from land ownership and professional education and advancement.

De slag aan de Boyne by Jan van Huchtenburgh – www.rijksmuseum.nl: Home Info, Pic, Public Domain

“The dividing line between ‘history’ and ‘literature’ was never clear or distinct in early and medieval Irish culture, and this amalgamated lore and history of the Irish race was part of the living texture of the world and world view that differentiated the Gaelic race from their neighbours and from the invaders from England.”3 The counter-reaction against the colonial propagandists and apologists was led by Geoffrey Keating who wrote Foras Feasa ar Eirinn ( A Basis of Knowledge about Ireland) in the 1630s “Keating set out to refute the ‘lies’ written about Ireland by Giraldus and the Elizabethans, and to establish the antiquity, piety, and courage of the Irish.” Another important project of cultural refutation and rescue was The Annals of the Four Masters (begun in the 1620s) by Franciscans returning from the Continent. The vicious lying propaganda of the English apologists was stoutly refuted by a resolute phalanx of Catholic intellectuals. Yet despite these textual defenses, following the defeat of the Gaelic order at the battle of Kinsale, Irish chieftains were assimilated into the centralized English colonial regime and Irish learned poets and professors fell into decline as their patronage abated and they faced the hostilities of the English authorities. The bardic orders that had sustained  Irish language writing collapsed as English surged into positions of power, legality, and business, particularly after the Flight of the Earls in 1607. Yet on the continent, Irishmen founded an Irish College in 1603 in Louvain in Belgium and it became a sustaining catalyst for the Counter Reformation and Irish patriotic writing as “exiled Irishmen. . . who went to continental Europe. . . worked hard at preserving records, writing grammars, compiling dictionaries and fostering the use of language for didactic and polemical purposes.”4

Coláiste na nGael, Lováin
Entrance to the Irish College, Leuven, Belgium. The inscription reads Dochum Glóire Dé agus Ónóra na hÉireann (‘For the Glory of God and the Honour of Ireland’). By aoduibh. – Self-photographed, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6487949
Black Rose

One of the most successful poetic means of preserving Irish nationality from the incursions of the colonial hostile culture was achieved in the Aisling (dream vision poem) in which a slumbering male poet is enchanted by a spéirbhean (sky woman) – a personification of an affronted Ireland – a political allegory employed with greater and greater emotional force from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries following the collapse of the ancient Gaelic cultural and political order. Roísín Dubh (the little black rose) becomes a popular name for this symbol of the Irish national psyche by the time these allegorical vision poems become explicitly patriotic nationalist verse in the nineteenth century. One of the best of these aisling poems is Ceo Draíochta (‘Magical Mist’) by Eoghan Rua ó Súilleabháin in which the strange woman reveals her ancient lineage as the bride of the kings of Ireland.

Delicious, sweet, tender, she answered,
Ever shedding tears down in her pain:
“I am none of those women you speak of,
And I see that you don’t know my clan.
I’m the bride wed in bliss for a season 
– under right royal rule – to the King
Over Caiseal of Conn and of Eoghan
Who ruled undisputed o’er Fodla.

While Irish language poetry employed the allegory of the beautiful but beleaguered female as representative of the colonized Irish psyche, Anglo-Irish writing in English also employed allegory but added a barbed satiric sensibility. 

Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas, detail
Portrait by Charles Jervas, 1710. Public Domain.

The greatest Anglo-Irish Protestant figure of the eighteenth century was Johnathan Swift (1667-1745) who exemplified what Andrew Carpenter describes as a “double vision” because of the irreconcilable contradictions of Ireland as an Irish-speaking nation unjustly ruled by an English-speaking garrison. Swift is the first writer of world stature to emerge in Irish imaginative literature. All subsequent major Irish writing in English owes some level of debt to him. Indeed, Frank O’Connor, the great realist short story writer, would insist: “Dublin is Swift  and Swift is Dublin.” Swift’s satire casts its ironic glow over the hypocrisies of colonial Dublin.

Penal Laws had been enacted after the Flight of the Earls in 1607 which prohibited Catholics from public political positions; these laws were only intensified after Cromwell’s suppression of Irish rebellion (1649-53) when major ownership of land by Catholics was prohibited, priests were subject to summary execution, and access to education was highly restricted for the majority Catholic population. While there was some amelioration to these laws after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the ill-fated support of Catholics for James II who was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 returned a tone of hostility to the Crown’s view of Catholics. Following 1695, harsh Penal Laws were enacted that barred Catholics from public office, education in Trinity College, holding fire arms, and entry into the legal profession.

First edition of Gulliver's Travels.
First edition of Gulliver’s Travels.

Swift’s life (1667-1745) and career spanned the enactment and increasing severity of the Penal Laws and the rise of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy. While he was a famously cantankerous and frustrated figure in Dublin, his Irish contexts ironically propelled him to genius. As Andrew Carpenter has noted: “His imagination has a fantastic, grotesque side closer to that of the Irish comic tradition that to anything in English literature.” 5 An outsider in exile in Dublin, his responses to the questions of his day are ferocious, unrestrained, and steely. What caused this ferocity in his imagination? He was culturally ill-at-ease lost in a sea of vibrant Catholic Irish speakers with their own access to an ancient body of song, music, aphorism, folktale and mythology that was formed over millennia of tradition and recitation. As Carpenter insists: “the English language as spoken in Ireland was different in many respects from that of England, influenced partly by the syntax and vocabulary of Irish, as Swift himself pointed out in his Dialogue in Hybernian Stile.” He gradually transcended the prejudices of the colonial Anglo-Irish that denigrated Irish culture and became an enthusiast for Irish harping and Irish language poetry. Permanently resident in Dublin as the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral after 1714 and equally permanently removed from a position of political influence as a government counsellor in England, his satire burgeoned in response to the hypocrisies of colonial rule. “In effect, the paradoxes and distortions of the truth that made up life in Ireland gave Irish writers a kind of double perspective on everything, a double vision. . . The Church of Ireland, for example, was not the church of the people of Ireland; the Irish parliament, with its grandeur and its speaker and its mace and its traditions was actually subordinate to the English privy council in everything.” What appeared as reality was in effect fantasy. Thus the variability of perspective that characterizes his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is more easily understood against the hypocrisies of Anglo-Irish colonial misrule. “Anarchy of mind and technique mark Swift and the other writers of the eighteenth century.” The double vision is best presented via an unreliable persona such as that of the increasingly madly over-rationalizing Gulliver who by the end of the book wishes to live in a stable all the better to emulate his hyper-rational horse masters, the Houyhymmhmms. As W. B. Yeats stated: “Swift haunts me: he is always just round the next corner.”

Ogilby Portrait
Portrait of John Ogilby from a 1660 edition of Homer’s Iliad. Public Domain.

Irish drama took form largely in the period from the Battle of the Boyne (1690) to the Act of Union (1800) in the urban locales of the colonial power and was not a product of the Irish-speaking population. As Christopher Murray has stated: “the native literary tradition was bardic and oral, and did not include drama among its forms.” Irish theatre was a colonial theatre supported by the Crown’s representative, the lord lieutenant. John Ogilby (1600-1676), a Scottish man-of-the-theatre saw an opportunity in Dublin and collaborated with James Shirley (1595-1666) to open a theatre in Werburgh Street. Saint Patrick for Ireland (1639) by Shirley became the first Irish play in English produced in Dublin – curiously St. Patrick’s banishing of the snakes becomes metaphorical of colonial civilization displacing pagan (i.e. native) culture. Irish drama was effectively a propaganda vehicle for the virtues of English colonialism as the prologues of many of these ephemeral dramas gauchely praised the administration.

Smock Alley theatre, Dublin, on the site of the first Theatre Royal by Smirkybec – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Smock Alley (Theatre Royal) flourished on its opening in 1662 (again ably managed by the enterprising Ogilby) “as the first Restoration theatre in either England or Ireland grew in reputation until by the 1740s it was recognized as on a par with its two London equivalents, the theatres royal at Drury Lane and at Covent Garden.” 6 Protestant talent began migrating from Dublin to London from the end of the seventeenth century. Many were Trinity College, Dublin, alumni – a center of distinguished learning at the heart of Dublin that had been set up by the formidable Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, to assist in the Anglicization of the unruly colony and to deepen the connection between Dublin and London. For several centuries, it regarded itself as the sister university to the great centers of Oxford and Cambridge. As Murray underlined: “From William Congreve to Oscar Wilde the profile of the expatriate Irish playwright is of the polished man of letters, as eager for social status in England as for literary fame.”

George Farquhar, Public Domain

Comedy was the preferred medium for these Anglo-Irish writers even though there was a Heisenberg-like fluctuating uncertainty as to their identity: in Ireland, were they English? In England, were they Irish? Were they caught performing a mask of wit between the two diametrically opposed nations? Christopher Murray argues that “Anglo-Irish writers. . . ability to use the English language brilliantly masks an unease.” They made up for this unease by a form of self-obsession expressed imaginatively in works that were types of displaced autobiography. The first of these figures was George Farquhar whose upbringing was scarred by memories of both the Siege of Derry in 1689 and his fighting on behalf of the Protestant cause at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and who wrote comedies such as Love and a Bottle (1698), The Recruiting Officer (1706), and The Beaux Stratagem (1707) which all involve this method of camouflaged autobiography. He sets up a paradigm for other Anglo-Irish writers such as Arthur Murphy (The Apprentice (1756)), and Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer (1773)).  Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose family had been part of Swift’s Dublin circle, infused his plays, The Rivals (1775), The Duenna (1775), and The School for Scandal (1777) with autobiography. An insoluble problem of identity obsessed and animated and energized the dramatic writings of the Anglo-Irish. It was the creative flaw that formed their pearls of wit. Murray states: “the best writers who wrote for an English public, from Farquhar to George Bernard Shaw, consistently achieved a style that allows one to describe their wit as Anglo-Irish.”

Thomas Sheridan portrait
Thomas Sheridan, Public Domain.

Beneath the wit there was also a propagandistic intent which was best expressed in the creation and representation of the native Irish as genial buffoons: the Stage Irishman. This figure was a polemical misrepresentation of the Irish native as largely charming and inoffensive at a time when rebellion continually seethed beneath the surface of Irish life, culminating in the fierce and bloody rebellion of 1798. In a parallel to the later misrepresentations of African-Americans, comic Irish servants full of contradictory blather defused colonial fear. “The comic Irishman,” observes Murray, “was simply a stereotype who offered a variation on the Shakespearean fool.” If servants were easy targets of comic relief, the potentially threatening figure of the Irish military officer was also defused in the caricature of the soldier braggart, large in physical stature and ungainly in his language which was liberally peppered with Irishisms such as Captain O’Blunder in Thomas Sheridan’s farcical study, The Brave Irishman (1743). Charles Macklin, setting a precedent that would reverberate through the centuries, wrote against this tradition in a play that succeeded in Dublin but flopped in London. It wasn’t until the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre by William Butler Yeats in 1899 that a substantive critical opposition was formulated against what Lady Gregory described as the “buffoonery and easy sentiment” of the Stage Irish tradition.

Oliver Goldsmith by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Oliver Goldsmith by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1769–70. Public Domain.
Maria Edgeworth
Maria Edgeworth. Artist: Unknown – Revolutionary Players. Original: Duyckinck, Evert A. A Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America, with Biographies. New York: Johnson, Fry, and Co., 1872. Public Domain.

Arguably the most significant Anglo-Irish figure after Swift was Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), a consummate man of letters and another Anglo-Irish wit concerned with the efficacy of morals and the role of benevolence in society. He refused to paint Ireland warts and all and did not hold a disagreeable mirror up to nature avoiding representing the reality of Penal Laws, famines, and rebellion against the Crown. His Ireland is largely idyllic with an undercurrent of melancholy and desolation. While his Anglo-Irish drama is part of a burgeoning body of brilliant and ironically inflected autobiographical work, he also was in a major presence in fiction with his novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).  Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy was the most innovative novel in the eighteenth century Anglo-Irish tradition. With its self-reflexive playfulness, shifting time sense, and unreliable narrator it owed debts to Gulliver’s Travels, and was an important precursor to James Joyce (1882-1941) and his many-planed experimental modernist fiction. The tradition of Irish fiction is dominated by the landlord’s daughter, Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) whose critically realist portraits of the tensions between landlord and dispossessed native reached a high point in her novel, Castle Rackrent (1800) which was published in the very year that the Act of Union abolished the increasingly independent and nationalistic Irish parliament and united Ireland more inflexibly to the United Kingdom and the one governing parliament in London. An embryonic Irish independence movement had been snuffed out in part because of fear that the example of the French Revolution would be emulated in Ireland and also because of the blood-soaked rebellion of 1798. This rebellion would be commemorated in the poem, “Requiem for the Croppies” by the Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney who visited Minnesota in 1997 (“Until, on Vinegar Hill, the fatal conclave. /Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.”). An event that was effected by egregious bribery and corruption, the Act of Union led to the decline of Dublin as a center of cultural and political importance and the rise of an ambiance of passivity and cynicism that would be registered in the imaginative works of George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, and Sean O’Casey. What was starting to stir in these works of fiction was a sense of nationality combined with critical reflection concerning Ireland’s social and political conditions. Ironically, these issues would take on a white-hot intensity in a form that would seem the epitome of genteel civility: the drawing room ballad and melody.

[Note: Part Three in this literary history will appear in the next edition of the CJAR. You can read Part One here.]


1.Terence Dolan, “The Literature of Norman Ireland,” Field Day Anthology, Vol 1, p. 141.

2.Nicholas Canny and Andrew Carpenter, “The Early Planters: Spenser and his Contemporaries,” Field Day Anthology, Vol 1,p.171.

3.Andrew Carpenter and Alan Harrison, “Ireland and Her Past: Topographical and Historical Writing to 1690,” Field Day Anthology, Vol 11, p. 235. 

4. Ibid.p. 275.

5. Andrew Carpenter, “Jonathan Swift” Field Day Antology, p.327.

6.Christopher Murray, “Colonial Irish Drama,” Field Day Anthology, Vol II, p. 501.