where the writers are
Ireland's Literary Revival
Date of Review: 
Mike Gerrard

R. Todd Felton’s A Journey into Ireland’s Literary Revival is a fascinating and well-written account of the rebirth in Irish literary between the 1890s and the 1920s.

If Ireland were a state in the USA, it would rank 40th in size, just ahead of South Carolina. And yet the Emerald Isle has produces four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: WB Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969) and Seamus Heaney (1995). In addition, it also produced arguably the greatest writer not to have won the Nobel Prize: James Joyce.

In his book A Journey into Ireland’s Literary Revival (Roaring Forties Press), author and photographer R. Todd Felton journeys through Ireland himself in search of the people and places the contributed to a huge creative upsurge in Irish writing from roughly the 1890s to the 1920s. It was a period when people including WB Yeats, JM Synge, George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey were writing. James Joyce too, though the author only mentions Joyce in passing, as he was never one for movements and spent much of his life in exile from Ireland.

Felton has quite a way with words himself, and a relaxed style that brings the past alive. This is no dusty literary history, but an accessible account of a trip through Ireland, visiting the places that matter: County Galway, the Aran Islands, County Mayo, Sligo, County Wicklow and of course Dublin. The author has a nice, anecdotal style, and an ability to make the important historical events real. You feel you’re there as they happen, not merely reading a dry historical account.

I especially liked the long section on Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’s famous tower which inspired him so much, and which again Todd Felton brings vividly to life. As he does the Aran Islands, with their haunting beauty and remoteness. Yeats visited the Aran Islands, although they are most famously associated with the playwright JM Synge, and portrayed in his drama The Playboy of the Western World.

It’s a delight to read about places such as the Aran Islands, Sligo and County Wicklow, whose atmosphere (past and present) is caught well by the author. It’s not only because he has visited but also because he sees them through the eyes of the authors he’s writing about, sees how the landscapes and cityscapes influenced them. He understands them better because of it.

A Journey into Ireland’s Literary Revival is no guidebook. The only practical information is by way of maps, showing where all the significant places mentioned in the text can be found. And very good they are too. As are the author’s own photographs, which combine with historical photos, drawings and newspaper archives to provide this comprehensive yet accessible look at a period when Irish literature flourished—and because of which it continues to thrive, down all the years.