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Contesting the Irish Revival

Liam McNulty By Liam McNulty Published on September 16, 2016

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This article was updated on October 1, 2016

The final decades of the 19th century saw an Irish Revival in the arts and literature, forging a cultural movement which contributed substantially to the struggle for national independence. What legacy, however, did this movement leave for the post-independent Irish Free State?

The Revival permeated several spheres of Irish society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From elite literary culture downwards to the realms of leisure, language, and popular sports, the Revival, according to cultural critic Declan Kiberd in his classic Inventing Ireland, “achieved nothing less than a renovation of Irish consciousness and a new understanding of politics, economics, philosophy, sport, language and culture in its widest sense”.

As with many nations in the throes of modernisation, the Revival movement was often romantic and backward-looking, appealing to a mythical and idealised national past. In the realm of high culture, for instance, William Butler Yeats fuelled a neo-romantic literary style steeped in Celtic mythology, then-fashionable Victorian medievalism, and echoes of the earlier pre-Raphaelite movement.

Yet at the same time, the new cultural nationalist movement was not simply a late-blooming provincial romanticism. It had a modernist articulation, too, and a confidence that mainstream constitutional nationalism appeared to lack in the period after the death of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891. Many leading figures of the separatist movement, from Patrick Pearse to Constance Markievicz, would make the transition from cultural activities to modern republican politics.

One scholarly tendency has been to stress the ethnically essentialist, nativist and insular aspects of the Revival, and to counterpose them to the modernism of the likes of James Joyce. A straight line can thereby be drawn to the Catholic cultural conservatism of the Irish Free State, which institutionalised aspects of Revivalist literature. Roy Foster, for instance, in his seminal Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, argued that some of the “emotions focused by cultural revivalism around the turn of the [20th] century were fundamentally sectarian and even racialist.”

This is undoubtedly true. As the academic Joe Cleary has argued, however, the Revival was a variegated movement and a contested cultural space. It is best understood as “a complex cultural moment in which a declining Ascendancy colonial elite, an emergent anti-colonial, constitutionally democratic, but socially conservative Irish middle-class bourgeois nationalism, and more radical republican and socialist versions of anti-colonial nationalism engaged in a protracted contest for dominance within the Irish national movement.”

In many ways, this cultural contest mirrored the battle of social forces throughout the Irish revolutionary period. Though they were not leading participants in the Easter Rising or the War of Independence (1919-21), it would be the Catholic middle-class of large farmers, urban capitalists, and the Catholic Church, who would be the main beneficiaries of the struggle for independence and the victors in the Irish Civil War (1922-23).

The politics and culture of the Irish Free State were stamped with their image, in Cleary’s words, as “Gaelic not Anglo-Saxon, Catholic not Protestant, agrarian not industrial, religious not secular, and ascetic and pure rather than consumerist and permissive.”

This particular ‘Irish Ireland’ identity was then enforced by the powers of the newly-independent state right from the beginning. Among the legislation introduced after independence were the 1923 Censorship of Films Act, the Intoxicating Liquor Acts 1924 and 1927, and the Censorship of Publications Act in 1929.

In 1930, the Archbishop of Tuam warned Irish Catholics that they must “shun . . . as you would a pestilence” all imported literature, and lay organisations of Catholic zealots such as the Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) and the Catholic Truth Society (CTS) built substantial pressure for “evil” works to be banned.

Of course, the policing of morality and art sat uncomfortable with the many components of Irish society who were not included in this narrow vision of Ireland. “The moment we got rid of that tyranny [of British rule]”, complained the English-descended Protestant socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw, “we rushed to enslave ourselves.”

In reaction to the institutionalisation of the Revival’s most conservative aspects, left-wing critics of the Free State, such as Sean O’Casey and Liam O’Flaherty, took aim at the new government through the medium of literature.

O’Flaherty, denounced by one Free State minister as a “muck-raker” and a “Bolshevik”, wrote an excoriating denunciation of the corrupt clerical-‘gombeen’ axis in a fictionalised Galway (‘Barra’). The novel, The House of Gold, was one of the first books to be banned under the 1929 Act, along with books by Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse and Sean O’Faolain.

Literary censorship was not an isolated phenomenon, either, but an aspect of a wider authoritarian cultural conservatism. In the sphere of women’s rights, independence did not live up to the promise of many of those who had fought for it. The Revival had seen a flourishing of feminist activity, for example with the socialist feminist Helena Moloney writing in the Irish Citizen paper in 1914 that “there can be no free women in an enslaved nation’’, linking women’s struggle to the movement against colonialism.

Here, too, the Free State was a locus of conservatism, as patriarchal gender norms were reinforced. Women were exempted from jury service, married women were later excluded from teaching and the civil service, and the Catholic Church asserted its moral authority through its control of the education and health. Women’s sexuality was policed with a ban on contraception and the outlawing divorce.

As historian Senia Pašeta has argued, social policy and literary censorship were in fact closely linked. Though the need for the 1929 Censorship Act was often justified with reference to modernist or allegedly obscene works, a look at the list of books banned by the Free State confirms that a central dynamic to the drive to censor in 1920s and 1930s Ireland was the control of women’s bodies and the desire to deprive citizens of information about contraceptive devices and family planning.

To combat censorship, Yeats and Shaw founded the Irish Academy of Letters in 1932. It was followed in the early 1940s by the Irish Society of Intellectual Freedom, bringing together such figures as the republican historian Dorothy Macardle and veteran suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington to urge the withdrawal of the 1929 Act.

Literary censorship has declined in recent years, and the power of the Church has weakened, as demonstrated by the decisive vote in favour of gay marriage in 2015. Yet there is no call for complacency. A new blasphemy law was introduced in Ireland in 2010, and in 2016 the Censorship of Publications Board banned its first work since 1998.

As we celebrate the centenary year of the Rising, let us finally make good on the Proclamation’s promise of “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all” citizens of the Republic. 

    London-based library worker, interested in modern history, socialism and Ireland.

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