Once in a great while events, trends and people propel periods of remarkable enlightenment, firming up hope in our better natures. The Irish Literary Revival, one such episode (circa 1890 to 1920) sandwiched between famine and freedom, came along at just the right time. It ransomed endangered history, tradition, language and stories during hard times, all the while supporting a free Ireland. R. Todd Felton’s new book, A Journey Into Ireland’s Literary Revival, is a comprehensive chronicle of the era complete with extraordinary photographs and maps that track the lives of some primary Revivalists—William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, John Millington Synge, George Moore, Edward Martyn, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Jack Butler Yeats, George Russell, Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz and Arthur Symons. Most of these visionaries were wealthy Protestant landowners (though self-taught dock worker Sean O’Casey rose from Dublin’s slums) who became united in their love for Ireland’s Celtic roots and turned to political activism in the name of independence.
A person perusing the careers of the Revival’s stars for the first time might find it easy to accuse some of “slumming” for a bit of reality entertainment. Surrounded by the struggling multitudes while enjoying the luxury of their leisure, it used to strike me as odd that their cause celebre would be all things Irish. However, Felton’s sure pen, big-picture narrative and succinct biographies broadcast the Revivalists’ true love for Eire. Many of them had enjoyed country childhoods where they learned of ancient traditions driven underground by churches, invaders and governments. The group’s support for the native language, along with its efforts to document Celtic heritage in the natural world, shouldered a startling activism in aiding and abetting a culture that their class spent so much time suppressing. Additionally, the author suggests that “perhaps only in Ireland would such a revolution as the Easter Rising, a brief and ill-fated effort to overthrow British rule, be fought by so many writers.” Literary Revivalists and patriots Padraig Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh were both poets, and MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, Willie Pearse, and Padraic O’Connor were involved in Edward Martyn’s Hardwicke Street Theatre.
Lady Augusta Gregory and W. B. Yeats organized the Irish National Theatre Society in 1890s’ Galway and helped open Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre in 1904. At first glance they would seem miscast as revolutionaries, but faith and fortunes notwithstanding, their Society featured performances championing common folks and political rebels. By 1911 the shows were on the road in America with luminaries like Franklin Roosevelt and Eugene O’Neill in attendance. Many traditional Irish tunes and folk songs became mainstream entertainment during the Revival. Old ballads and airs, popularized in the “Gay Nineties,” were standard fare for many of our grandparents and great-grandparents. A cursory look through any turn-of-the-century songbooks will reveal not only treasured ancient work, but also songs by Thomas Moore, George M. Cohan, Chauncey Olcott, Percy French, Seamus O’Farrell, John Francis Waller, William Rooney, and Patrick J. McCall.
John Millington Synge’s studies on the Aran Islands inspired his famous, riot-inciting dramatic comedy, “The Playboy of the Western World.” By bringing genuine Irish idiom to public attention, Aran Island stories banished the sorry stuff of stereotypical, oafish “stage Irish” characterizations. A Wicklow man, Synge was a solitary soul who relished his privacy under cloudy, windy skies swirling above the Islands just 30 miles out from Galway’s glimmering lights. Revered as “the last three islands of the European continent” with their pure Gaelic culture, the Aran Islands were home to natives disgusted with civil authorities and laws, as noted in Synge’s play. The author observes that “the local population in the play is drunk, on its way to getting drunk, nervous, spineless, or deformed in some way. The local heroes, or at least people who have done deeds worth noticing, are the criminals.” Lady Gregory traveled to the Islands to study folklore, and Yeats, Martyn, Moore and Symons also came for stories. Felton is a font of delightful anecdotes concerning these Revivalists, one noting that Irish poet Seamus Heaney purchased a former Synge residence in County Wicklow.
This absorbing book is also a splendid travel guide. Photographs (past and current) of the Aran Islands, Galway, Sligo, Maya and Dublin tempt with an armchair tour. Felton pulls together an irresistible road trip that included Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’s country home in Galway with its 14th- century tower blessed by the presence of the renowned bard Raftery who sheltered there in the early 19th century. In 1961 the Irish Tourist Board funded its restoration and established a museum that opened in 1965. Lady Gregory’s Coole Park estate, now run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, is not to be missed, and Galway City’s art scene boasts numerous festivals, programs and theatre companies. Sligo, Yeats’s childhood home, hosts a Summer School with tours of the author’s old haunts. Elected to the Irish Free State Senate, Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
Big county Mayo with its mountains, fields and bogs was home to George Moore, Catholic landowner and writer of “The Untilled Field,” a short story collection of Irish rural life. Moore Hall, his home place near Lough Carra, burned during the Civil War and stands in ruins today. Felton relates that “Moore brought dignity and emotional complexity to the study of Irish rural life even as Joyce subsequently was to bring them to the study of the Dublin poor.” The National Museum of Country Life in Castlebar near Moore Hall is one of Mayo’s historical jewels.
Early 20th-century Dublin was a battleground of contradictions—largely Catholic but controlled by Protestants, boasting beautiful buildings but, according to Felton, “home to some of the worst poverty in the world...arguably, as bad as that of Calcutta.” Today’s Dublin and its greater metropolitan area would seem a wonderland to the Revivalists, though they would still be able to trace their old trails around much of the interior. The section on the contemporary city discusses particulars concerning the Dublin Writers Museum and the Literary Pub Crawl, as well as historic landmarks.
A Journey Into Ireland’s Literary Revival leaves readers, especially Americans accustomed to wide open spaces, with a firm impression of how geographically close things are in a small country, how much everyone walked in the early 20th century, and how intertwined so many relationships were, regardless of class and creed. Above all, R. Todd Felton explores the Revivalists’ versatility as courageous, hands-on philanthropic change agents gone native. Soaring beyond noblesse oblige, with some severing significant bonds with their own comfortable ancestries, these heroes scored both sublime and practical triumphs.
Causes Robert Felton Supports
The Sierra Club, Soccer without Borders,