Celtic Junction Arts Review

A History of Irish Literature: 1800-2020: A View from the Mississippi

Patrick O'Donnell

Via findagrave.com. By R.E.H. (CC by 2.5)
W.B. O’Donoghue
General J. O’Neill

One of the most curious links forged between Ireland and Minnesota was an expedition by Irish Fenians into Manitoba, Canada in the early 1870s. While it might be hyperbolic to characterize this as a “Fenian invasion of Canada” it was undertaken with sincerity and resolve. The Minnesota-based Irish nationalist schoolteacher William B. O’Donoghue and General John O’Neill led a small invasion force of about thirty five nationalists from Minnesota into Manitoba in 1871. They hoped to join up with Louis Riel and attack Winnipeg to rattle the British.  They were halted and arrested  by American soldiers at the Hudson Bay Company’s outpost. O’Donoghue, following his arrest, returned to his home in Minnesota and is buried in Rosemount. In recent decades, devotees of Irish nationalism regularly gather around his grave usually in April to read from the Easter Rising Proclamation and to declaim and recite Irish poetry to honor his memory and dedication. What issues in Ireland could spur such an extraordinary if quixotic determination to strike against British authority in Canada by passionate Fenian Minnesotans in the 1870s? The motivating forces animating their expedition were a belligerent Irish nationalism angered by the British colonial mismanagement of their native land particularly after the Famine of 1845-1852 and a passionate love of Ireland expressed in its literary culture.

Thomas Moore (1779-1852)

Bridging the difficulties of the eighteenth century with the only more disastrous calamities of the nineteenth century is the first Irish national poet, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), whose patriotic lyrics and evocations of the integrity of Ireland’s continuous and ancient culture in his Irish Melodies (1808) offered an imaginative salve and balm to the reversals of Ireland’s political fortunes. He would prove to be enormously important in imbuing Irish literary identity with an ever-growing sense of nationality. The music and cadence of his lyrics would influence the auditory imaginations of Irish poets from Thomas Davis in the 1840s, to William Butler Yeats in the 1890s, and Seamus Heaney in the 1970s. He became the central figure in Irish nationalism’s counter-offensive against the propaganda of the colonizing elites now removed to London after the Act of Union in 1801. A central lyric is “The Minstrel Boy,” which evokes both the ancient archetypal imagery of old Ireland, the warrior energy of Irish myth, and the sense of duty, fidelity, and loyalty to a traduced Ireland that would continue to have power for the martyr-poets of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.

Moore's Melodies, Centenary Edition 1880
The Minstrel Boy to the wars has gone,
In the ranks of death you will find him,
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his bright harp slung behind him,
Land of song, said the warrior bard,
Though all the world betray thee,
One sword at least thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee.

The nineteenth century saw the steady development of Irish cultural nationalism as the possibility of Catholic Emancipation (from the culturally and economically destructive Penal Laws) was effected by legislation in 1829 pioneered by the great Irish leader, Daniel O’Connell. This spurred the rise of a Catholic middle class as enfranchisement seemed to suggest that the Act of Union itself would be revoked and Ireland would have its own parliament. It was not to be in the nineteenth century as the calamity of the Famine (1845-52) descended leading to a million dead and more than a million more emigrating in a bitter scattering to Canada and the United States. Irish nationalists like John Mitchel perceived it to be a deliberately engineered genocide designed to clear the Irish from the land and make the country more amenable for raising cattle for export to the factory-clogged cities of industrial England. The Famine, widely seen as the greatest social disaster of Western Europe, inevitably radicalized a nationalist movement that had metamorphosed through the United Irishmen’s revolt of 1798, to the rebellion of the Young Irelanders in 1848, to the formation of the revolutionary Fenian movement of the 1850s. The Fenians commenced a bombing campaign in England in the 1860s, determined to bypass constitutional means, to gain a Republic through dynamite and destruction.

Courtesy Library of Congress, Public domain. Published in Boston in 1872.

The Famine changed Ireland utterly. It led to an almost irreversible decline in the Irish language and made the Irish a more Catholic people as the devotional revolution of the 1870s offered a more rigorous puritanical code and organized practice to fill the void left by the cultural apathy and passivity created by the Famine. The Catholic priest became a figure of greater fascination and power in the Irish cultural imagination. More importantly than the elevation of Catholicism to an ever-increasing central role was the perception that the English had failed completely to come to the assistance of a distressed population within the borders of the United Kingdom. This dereliction of moral duty demonstrated that the Act of Union was a sham. Ireland could simply not trust England. It had its own cynical and imperial agenda for Ireland which was not in that country’s true interest. Separation between the islands became an unavoidable imperative as the Fenians set up newspapers and a power base in the Irish communities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and even Minnesota (motivating schoolteacher, William B. O’Donoghue to join in with other Fenians to “invade” Manitoba in 1871.)

Carmilla. Art by David Henry Friston, 1872. Public domain.
Maturin (1782-1824)
Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). Public domain.
Bram Stoker autographed photogravure by Downey. Public domain.

Before considering how Ireland broke with England, it will be instructive to consider the Gothic mode in Ireland from 1820-1912 as it is very much embroiled in Irish Protestant colonial and private guilt. It has three major authors: Charles Robert Maturin (1782-1824) whose classic Faustian novel of terror and the supernatural, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) was admired by Baudelaire and influenced Oscar Wilde. The finest and most creative stylist was Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73), who wrote one of the first lesbian vampire novels, Carmilla, and who provided the tool box of narrative techniques and strategies employed by the most famous and popular figure, the Dublin-born and educated, Bram Stoker (1847-1912). The crucial image of the aristocratic autocrat, Count Dracula, being unable to see his face in a mirror was symbolic of the colonial English and their psychological inability to see the destructive aspect of colonialism in the mirror of their rhetoric. There was one Anglo-Irish figure who did see guilt in the mirror and became determined to remove the colonial vampire class of landlords from Ireland: Parnell.

Charles Stewart Parnell
Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) Public domain.

Charles Stewart Parnell, a Cambridge-educated landlord of flinty Anglo-Irish stock was disgusted with the tales he heard as a child of the devastation of the Famine and, fired with the ideals of Irish nationalism, set out to systematically demolish the colonial institution of landlordism as a preparatory step towards full independence from England. He is credited with creating the disciplined modern political party and paralyzing the London parliament with his policies of filibustering and vote bartering. Combining with the tough nationalist, Michael Davitt, who ran the Land League using techniques of peaceful resistance such as the boycott, they defeated the landlord class. They brought the political classes of England around to granting the peasantry the right to buy back the land from the landlords which from 1870-1903 dissolved the institution of landlordism and largely returned the land to the Irish people. The result, particularly after the death of Parnell in 1891 following the trauma and stress of his secret love affair with Kitty O’Shea being revealed publicly in a messy divorce case, was a displacement of political fervor into culture. The resulting cultural nationalism insisted on the primal difference between Ireland and England, but also laid the groundwork for a culturally independent political state. This would be achieved beginning with the Easter Rising of 1916 led by the poet and educator Patrick Pearse, and the Irish socialist, James Connolly. The colonial project had failed in most of Ireland barring the northern counties. The process of revolutionary decolonizing had begun.

W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), Irish poet.
W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), Irish poet. Public domain.
Lady Gregory
Augusta Lady Gregory (1853-1932). Public domain.

The crucial figure in this transformation of Ireland’s culture was the founding personality animating the Irish Literary Revival, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). He absorbed his romanticism from William Blake, his mysticism from the London-based, Order of the Golden Dawn, his romantic nationalism from the tradition of patriotic versifying exemplified by Thomas Moore, Thomas Osborne Davis, and James Clarence Mangan, and his revolutionary nationalism from the flinty but determined old Fenian, John O’Leary. Arguably, the most important event in the career of Yeats was the founding of the Irish National Theatre, the Abbey, in 1904. The determined cultivation of a canon of dramatic writing was  expressed formidably in the work of Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge (whose masterpiece is The Playboy of the Western World (1907), and Sean O’Casey (whose masterpieces are Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926).  Yeats’s own plays are intensely lyrical and focus on mythological types of Ireland such as the warrior Cúchulainn, son of the sun god and a mortal woman from the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology, who embodies an indomitable resistance to invading forces. Yeats was a poet of world significance winning the Nobel Prize in 1923. His finest poems embroil his personal life and his decades-long unrequited love for the great Irish nationalist beauty and agitator, Maud Gonne, with the public activity of infusing romantic cultural nationalism into lyrics of mystical fervor and incantatory mesmerizing force. Poems such as “No Second Troy” and “Easter 1916” exemplify this dual intertwined bardic voice. The biography of Yeats unfolds in parallel to the decolonizing process of the making of the modern Irish state after the Proclamation of the Republic in 1916, the War of Independence (1919-1921), the founding of the Free State after the Treaty in 1922, and the subsequent Irish Civil War from 1922-23. Yeats provides bardic almost choral dignity to all of these convulsions attendant on the birth pangs of a nation.

As the mystical abstraction of Yeats’s visionary dream of a republic became the solid and real phenomenon of a state, a school or realism grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in fiction to respond to the mundanities of the decidedly unheroic political and social conditions of this era. The authors Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain (both based in Cork) and Liam O’Flaherty (born in the Aran Islands off the west coast) exemplified this sober assessment of Irish failings. But the presiding genius of fiction equal ultimately in stature in world literature to Yeats was the self-exiled Irish prose writer, James Joyce (1882-1941). He offered a subtle multi-layered critique of the power of colonialism as enacted by both the British Empire and the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church as well as an equally caustic dismissal of dogmatic nationalism (represented by the bombastic Cyclops figure in Ulysses.)

A profile of a somewhat pensive and moody looking Joyce in a dark overcoat.
James Joyce (1882-1941). Public domain.

Joyce, like Shakespeare, was a lord of language, who created in fiction a zone of unconquerable intellectual and creative freedom that made Irish writing with all of its interconnected many-planed nuances a central platform for discovering the human condition and central to world literature. Like a literary Fenian, he blew up the realist solid and highly censored notion of the English novel and created works of liberating frankness and innovative energetic genius. The publication of his novel, Ulysses in Paris in 1922, became the defining moment of modernism as it plunged deeper than nationalism to present the consciousness of its three main protagonists, Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom, and Leopold Bloom in the modern urban setting of Dublin on June 16, 1904. The spectacular success of Joyce in demonstrating both the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ technique for revealing the intimacy of the uncensored private self and the mock heroic method of juxtaposing parallels with Homer’s Odyssey created a work of encyclopedic comic brilliance. It was the unexpected national epic of innovative genius that Yeats had hoped would arise.

George Bernard Shaw in 1911 by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

 Ironically, Joyce’s intentions were diametrically opposed to Yeats. His precursors were grimly and acidly realistic: the Norwegian truth-teller, Ibsen; the French realist and proto-naturalist, Flaubert; and the Irish cynic and critic of Yeats, George Moore. Like the polar opposites Plato and Aristotle and Freud and Jung, the two literary artists, Yeats and Joyce, are opposite but complementary. Joyce is earth-bound, candid, pragmatic, and uninhibited like Aristotle and Freud; Yeats is idealistic, visionary, and numinous and deals in archetypal universal images like Plato and Jung. The necessity of articulating enchanting idealism was expressed by Yeats: the equally important necessity of disillusionment and disenchanting realism was expressed by Joyce. Both authors apply a searching mobile and constantly evolving critique to Ireland’s possibilities and realities in a corresponding fashion to the searching ironic critique of England provided by the Irish exiles, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). Public domain.

The last figure in our narrative is the great playwright and novelist, Samuel Beckett (1906-89) who came under Joyce’s sway in Paris in the late 1920s and 1930s and was inspired to become a writer because of his example. Beckett’s role as the poet of loss and the void was cemented by the presentation of his classic absurdist work, Waiting for Godot in Paris in 1953. Beckett’s embrace of the void and desolation and abandonment in a skeletal and learned idiom can be interpreted as the culminating articulation of a central condition of annihilation and loss at the center of colonial extirpation. Paradoxically, the personage of a deeply learned and introverted Trinity College Dublin-educated Protestant, formally the class that produced the backbone of colonial authority, would be the voice of what Yeats had termed Ireland’s “proper dark” in his modernist visionary poem, “The Statues.” Psychologically, Beckett who spent several years in the thirties undergoing deep and thorough psychoanalysis described himself as suffering from having never been “fully born.” This is precisely the condition of England’s colony in Ireland.

His dismayed existential fragments are precisely the sighs and moans and anguished monologues of a stranded and failing colony. Godot as a symbol of Ireland integrating fully the Anglo-Irish had failed to arrive. If we can say that Godot will never arrive, it is only in the sense that paradoxically a vast and endlessly varied literature has been created over the 1,500 years considered in these essays because of the constantly changing meaning of that non-arrival. That absence and non-arrival is profoundly creative. The non-arrival of Godot can be symbolized as the failure of Ireland to become a copy of England or the failure of southern Ireland to absorb the northern Unionist counties and become a united Ireland. In Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s philosophical derelict old men observe with a dark wit: “There is no lack of void.” The void has been and will continue to be filled with writing. . .

In conclusion, Howard Mohr, in his satirical book, How To Talk Minnesotan, speculated on whether Dubliner Samuel Beckett wasn’t really sympathetically a secret Minnesotan because the absurd depiction of mundane repetition, pointlessness, and listless waiting seemed quintessential to life in the Gopher state. “You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that,” Samuel Beckett.

[Note: this is the third and concluding article in a series looking at the literary history of Ireland in terms of connections with Minnesota. Read part one here and part two here.]