December 2000

ISSN 1473-219X







Colonial Ireland: cultural legacies of Ireland’s colonial past

John Brannigan, Trinity College Dublin

When Samuel Beckett was asked by a French interviewer, ‘You are English, Mr Beckett?’, he famously replied ‘Au contraire’, thereby suggesting that Irishness was somehow opposite to, but also inextricably linked to, Englishness. Throughout the 20th century, Irish writers and artists have worked within the parameters of a definition of Irishness that was intimately connected with, if also often at odds with, the notions of Englishness which had become familiar to Ireland throughout its long history as a colony. Some, like Daniel Corkery, would attempt to reject the influence of colonialism by defining Irish identity in opposition to Englishness. Others, like Oscar Wilde, would embrace the influence of England by appearing to become fully-fledged Anglophile writers. More often, Irish writers and artists were somewhere in between, constructing a hybrid, Anglo-Irish identity which yet wrestled free of colonialism, as Yeats tried to do, or anticipating an Irish identity which utilises the idea of belonging to a trans-national, European or global community as a way of liberating itself from the claims of the British Empire, as in Joyce’s writings. Shaw recognised the paradoxes left in the wake of colonialism for English and Irish identities, that just as the Irishman could only, it seemed, come alive when in England, so too the ideal Englishman could now only be found in Ireland. In short, if we examine Irish writing and culture throughout the 20th century, the legacy of colonial relations between Ireland and England is evident everywhere. This is hardly surprising given that the colonisation of Ireland began in the 12th century, and, for the Republic of Ireland, would end formally only in 1922, after which the various economic, political, cultural and indeed psychological effects of colonialism had to be dealt with. This essay will sketch the ways in which Irish writers and artists represented and imagined the colonial experience and its aftermath throughout the 20th century and, towards the end, argue that Ireland is now at the point of being able to move beyond the legacy of colonialism, of becoming fully a post-colonial culture and state.

There are various views among Irish studies academics regarding when Ireland first produced a post-colonial or anti-colonial literature and culture. Some rigidly adhere to the idea that post-colonial literature can only emerge after colonialism has been effectively removed by political and military means. Others argue that post-colonial literature emerges with the first signs of cultural resistance to colonialism. Declan Kiberd argues, for example, that the 17th-century historian and poet Geoffrey Keating might be seen as one of the first post-colonial writers in Ireland (even when colonial rule was at the height of its power) because he began to challenge the hackneyed assumptions and commonplace representations of English colonial discourse. He did so, as Kiberd points out, in much the same way as the revival writers would do later. He countered the most insistent dogmas of colonialism, but he also poured his energies into preserving and celebrating the ancient lore and histories of Ireland. Three centuries later, and writing in a different language, William Butler Yeats did the same. Yeats collected the stories and fables of Irish peasant life, along with the folk tales of ancient Irish legends, and he used these to attempt to demonstrate that the Irish were as noble, heroic, romantic and glorious as other peoples.

Ireland was, of course, at the end of the nineteenth century, the political oddity of Europe. Ireland’s population was in decline since the Famine of 1845-50, whereas most of the European nations were growing rapidly. Ireland was still struggling to implement land reforms which would end feudal agrarian rule in Irish society, whereas most European nations had created economies driven by industrial production and had shifted away from land-based economies long before. Ireland was still caught in an unequal colonial union with England, whereas most European nations were imperial powers rather than colonial possessions. Most European nations, as a result, had a growing sense of security and complacency in knowing the strengths of their own culture and economy would turn into the aggressive egocentric drive for power which resulted in the two world wars. Ireland in the 1890s, however, was at a loss for political leadership, lacking a stable sense of cultural identity, and uncertain about the future status of Irish society and culture in the political union with Britain. It had lost its distinct language and culture, was losing many emigrants including writers to England and America, had lost its campaign for home rule in the scandalous downfall of Charles Stewart Parnell, and had become more and more like a province of England under the long shadow of the union. It is no surprise to find, given these fundamental differences between Ireland and the rest of Europe, that Ireland did not follow the European trend in art and literature.

While the writers and artists of England and Europe pursued the dizzy aspirations of art for art’s sake, and were fervent in the belief that art had nothing to do with the messy business of politics, economics, history, and society, many Irish writers and artists equally became convinced that art and literature had everything to do with politics. So we find Douglas Hyde in ‘The Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland’, his address to the Irish National Literary Society in November 1892, arguing that Ireland’s cultural practices and forms of artistic expression have become debased and hideous as a result of British rule, and that Irish people must endeavour to revive Irish literature, art and culture as a means of restoring pride and dignity to the Irish people. One month after Hyde’s address, Yeats wrote in a similar vein in the United Irishman newspaper:

Is there, then, no hope for the de-Anglicising of our people? Can we not build up a national tradition, a national literature, which shall be none the less Irish in spirit from being English in language? Can we not keep the continuity of the nation’s life, not by trying what Dr Hyde has practically pronounced impossible, but by translating or retelling in English which shall have an indefinable Irish quality of rhythm and style, all that is best of the ancient literature? Can we not write and persuade others to write histories and romances of the great Gaelic men of the past, from the son of Nessa to Owen Roe, until there has been made a golden bridge between the old and the new? (Yeats, 1892)

In colonial conditions, where the colonised are conditioned to accept the values and culture of the imperial master as superior to their own, the choice of subject matter for literature and art is a political issue. In fact, it has been suggested that, in colonial conditions, every act of daily life takes on a political aspect. For Hyde and for Yeats, what Irish men and women read, how they dress, live, dream, what they aspire towards or reject, where and in what manner they live, betrays their political and cultural allegiance. In his youth, Yeats admired and liked to read the works of nineteenth-century Irish authors like Gerald Griffin, William Carleton, Sheridan LeFanu, John Banim and Charles Lever, but he began to realise that all of these authors had written about Ireland for an English audience, and that they had tailored their images of Ireland to suit the expectations of their English readers. Yeats was determined to avoid playing up to English readers, and this was increasingly apparent as a result of the alienation he felt while living in London. During his time in London, Yeats was a frequent companion of Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons and Oscar Wilde, all of whom were advocates of the ‘art for art’s sake’ philosophy, but Yeats saw a distinct difference between English culture and Irish culture. Fuelled by his fond memories of Sligo and Howth, and by his pride in the ancestry and Irish ways of his family, Yeats attached himself ardently to the idea of an Ireland which was more lively, hopeful and beautiful than the England in which he resided in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and he wrote later in the United Irishman in October 1892:

In England amongst the best minds art and poetry are becoming every day more ends in themselves, and all life is made more and more but so much fuel to feed their fire. It is partly the influence of France that is bringing this about... Decadence is now the dominating thing in many lives. Poetry is an end in itself; it has nothing to do with life, nothing to do with anything but the music of cadences, and beauty of phrase. This is the new doctrine of letters.... It is not possible to call a literature produced in this way the literature of energy and youth. Here in Ireland we are living in a young age, full of hopes and promises - a young age which has only begun to make its literature. (Yeats, 1892).

Yeats comes to see this same difference between the imperial cultures of England and France, which have come under the spell of the artistic theory of decadence – the belief that art exists purely to produce pleasure and the colonised culture of Ireland, for which art, as with many other aspects of life, is deeply political. The prevalence of this philosophy of decadence indicates for Yeats the maturity, perhaps even the decay, of English culture. The fact that England has no need to politicise its art and literature indicates its self-confidence, even its complacency, which leads Yeats to see English culture as a spent force. Ireland in contrast is young, energetic, ‘full of hopes and promises’, and these hopes and promises are not just signs of a cultural revival, but also of a political revival. And, of course, Yeats turns out to be one of the most important figures in recognising and promulgating the idea that literature in Ireland is a politicised form. For Yeats, the decadents believed that life was merely to be consumed by art, but for him and his fellow revivalists, art would have to mould and forge life into a new shape. And so began the now prevalent idea, although not without its own controversy, that in Ireland in the 1890s, in the lull left by the fall of Parnell’s home rule campaign, culture had taken the place of politics in countering English colonialism.

Culture took on the role of anticipating and generating the conditions in which colonialism could be opposed and overcome in Ireland. For Yeats it was as important, if not more important, to create the material conditions in which it would be possible for a national literature to grow, than to write and produce poems, prose, and plays which were themselves patriotic or nationalist. In his work at the Abbey theatre, in fact, he often avoided commissioning plays which he knew would be excessively and ostentatiously Irish in theme, and tended, where possible, to favour drama which was experimenting with form and technique, or which was influenced by some of the European dramatists, particularly the symbolists. What Yeats had learned from his early readings of nineteenth-century Irish writers such as Gerald Griffin, the Banim brothers and William Carleton was that a national literature required not just writings which adopted Irish themes or celebrated aspects of Irish life, but which would also appeal to Irish readers, and could be produced, performed and published in Ireland for Irish people. This can be claimed as the single biggest legacy of the writers of the Irish literary renaissance – it was not the literature which they produced but the material and cultural base which they established through societies and theatres. The institutions which they established allowed Irish people to experiment with ways of representing themselves, and therefore gave those people some degree of cultural independence. Yeats founded the Irish Literary Society in London in 1891 and then the National Literary Society in Dublin in June 1892 in an attempt to inaugurate a cultural revival. The National Literary Society, in particular, became a launching pad for new efforts to revive interest in Irish culture, and in part led to the creation of the Gaelic League in 1893, when Eoin MacNeill and others set up an organisation designed specifically to revive the Gaelic language. Yeats’s friend Douglas Hyde, who was the first President of the National Literary Society, resigned from Yeats’s movement in order to become President of the Gaelic League. Organisations set up in the 1890s, for the most part, tried to stay out of politics, and even when Hyde called for the de-anglicisation of Ireland, he insisted that he was speaking of culture only and not politics. Yeats too believed that the cultural revival which was under way ought not to be connected with any form of political movement, and in fact had created the National Literary Society because Parnell’s death had left a lull in Irish political debates and movements. The National Literary Society fostered a series of lectures, talks, readings and publications which contributed to the general sense that Irish culture, particularly ancient Irish folklore and mythology, was to be valued and treasured. It is perhaps true to say that without the National Literary Society Yeats would not have established the connections he needed to make the Abbey theatre work. The Abbey, and the Gaelic League, were probably the two most important cultural institutions of the period leading up to independence. They fostered confidence that Ireland had a long, separate cultural tradition of its own, which had been laid low by colonial oppression, but could be revived again, with or without the revival of the Gaelic language.

What is notable about the revival period from a post-colonial perspective is that very few of the revival texts engage with the specific events, instances or trends of colonial history. Other than the odd encounter with the scene of a nationalist uprising, such as in Yeats’s Kathleen Ni Houlihan, or in Lady Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon, colonialism does not appear as a visible, present force in Irish life. Its effects are visible everywhere – in the poverty and paralysis of Joyce’s Dubliners, in the frustration and feelings of entrapment of George Moore’s The Untilled Field, in the despair and famine of Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen. But there are very few redcoats visible, and little mention of the power and machinery of colonial government. With the exception of Joyce, for the most part, the Irish writers of this period concentrate on the myths and legends of pre-colonial history (Yeats, O’Grady, Gregory), or on the peasantry of the western edges of Ireland, who remained peripheral to, and sometimes almost outside, the influence of colonialism (Synge, Martyn, Hyde). This seems to be, in other words, the first phase of post-colonial literature, as Chinua Achebe describes it, the phase in which writers attempt to return nostalgically to the myths and fables of a time of pure freedom prior to, or outside of colonialism. But the revival writers are not as native or as simple as this. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is also about the complex relationship between the myths of heroism and the reality of political violence, and it is possible even to read Synge’s play as a criticism of writers such as Yeats and Patrick Pearse, who extolled the heroic violent deeds of the legendary Cuchulainn but who were often reluctant, particularly in Yeats’s case, to endorse the violent deeds of the present. Synge was not just harking back to an age or place innocent of colonialism – he was also interrogating the attitudes towards, and the perceptions of, the local, random acts of anti-colonial violence. Yeats too cannot be accused of embracing a simple nostalgia for a pre-colonial world. Although his attitudes towards the political and military struggles of the nationalist movement against colonialism were often ambivalent, he also devoted some of his poetry to the voices and symbols of anti-colonial violence. As Lynn Innes has argued, his poem The Rose Tree is remarkable for the silence of Yeats’s voice, and the emphasis on the voices of the dead Pearse and Connolly, who had led the disastrous uprising against the British Army in the centre of Dublin in Easter 1916:

O words are lightly spoken,’
Said Pearse to Connolly,
‘Maybe a breath of politics words
Has withered our Rose Tree;
Or maybe but a wind that blows
Across the bitter sea.’
‘It needs to be but watered,’
James Connolly replied,
‘To make the green come out again
And spread on every side,
And shake the blossom from the bud
To be the garden’s pride.’
‘But where can we draw water,’
Said Pearse to Connolly,
‘When all the wells are parched away?
O plain as plain can be
There’s nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right Rose Tree.

The Rose Tree is comprised of a dialogue between Pearse and Connolly; and although it utilises the Blakean image of the rose tree, it contains none of the poet’s usual projections, questions, doubts, or personal symbolism. It is remarkable for the absence of Yeats from the poem. Instead, Yeats seems to allow the voice of the men of violence to espouse their cause through the poem, almost a part of the process of moulding those men into martyrs. It allows poetry to join in the effort of creating out of the disaster of the 1916 rebellion a myth of rejuvenation and rebirth. Yeats was critical of the rising himself, and felt that it had destroyed many of the conditions which he had been working towards, but the poem is free of any of his criticisms. Yeats seems to recognise that the forces of history have taken possession of poetry, and he allows his poetry to be infected by the growing strength of the anti-colonial cause. His silence within the poem perhaps indicates his reluctance to endorse anti-colonial violence fully, but it also suggests the inevitability of violence, of rebellion, of martyrdom. Just as Yeats gauged accurately the timing of a cultural revival in the early 1890s, he also gauged accurately the mood and feeling of the nation in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, and his poetry was swept up in the move towards independence which gathered pace in the years between 1916 and 1921.

However inevitable independence may have seemed during this time, when independence was achieved for the 26 counties which now make up the Republic of Ireland in 1922, it came in a form which was unacceptable to a large number of people. The broad coalition of cultural, social, political and military groups which engineered independence was not content with the shape the fledging nation acquired. The nationalists split into two camps, divided on the issue of the status of Northern Ireland, and a civil war even bloodier than the war of independence ensued. The labour movement and the working class lost out to the interests of the employers and investors who needed to be wooed by the new Government into bolstering the economy of the state. The suffragette movement faced the prospect of a state which embraced the conservative, often misogynist, doctrine of the Catholic church as its principal guide on issues of morality, education, health and social policy. Even the farmers and the shopkeepers, middle-class groups who were lynchpins of the nationalist movements, would lose out in the early decades of the state as the new government had hardly recovered from the economic effects of civil war when it had to deal with the effects of the Wall Street Crash, then the depression of the 1930s, then the austerity of World War IIand its aftermath. It took almost forty years before the new state enjoyed some degree of economic success. If the new state did not meet the expectations of these various political and social groups, it failed far short of the desires and dreams of its artists and writers.

Yeats, with his eccentric vision of a new Ireland which he shaped as 'Byzantium', was disillusioned with a state which seemed to be run by the very bourgeois bureaucrats he characterised as those who ‘fumble in a greasy till, and add the halfpence to the pence, and prayer to shivering prayer’. Yet he was one of the few writers who did contribute to the formation of the state, taking up a seat in the Irish senate, and chairing the committee which issued the first coins of the Irish state. But he was almost alone in serving the state in this way. Few other writers would do so. As a nation seemingly owing its independence to the efforts of its cultural and literary revivalists, it was ungrateful and mean-minded in what it gave back to writers and artists. The 1929 Censorship Act resulted in practice in the prohibition of the works of many of the Irish writers of the post-independence generation. As Brendan Behan once remarked, it became the case that a writer could not be critically acclaimed unless they had been banned. Although some books could be smuggled into the Republic, mostly by trucks returning from Northern Ireland along unapproved roads, in the main the Censorship Act, which was extensively used between the 1930s and the 1970s, endangered the material base of an Irish readership which Yeats and his fellow revivalists had worked hard to establish. It could have been destroyed were it not for the fact that foreign books, particularly English books, were equally likely to be banned by the Censorship Board. The state which Yeats had dreamed about as the embodiment of artistic vision and imaginative energy could now be seen sponsoring book burnings and promoting philistinism. Theatre was never subject to censorship in quite the same form, or to the same degree as printed matter, but the Abbey theatre increasingly was governed by a conservative programme of putting on plays which were conventional in form and quaintly rustic in character. Most of the major Irish dramatists of the mid-century, such as Behan, Beckett, John B.Keane, and the early works of Brian Friel, were turned down at the Abbey. Sean O’Casey suffered from the growing conservatism of the Abbey too. Having saved the theatre from financial and critical ruin in the 1920s with his Dublin trilogy, he was turned away when it came to The Silver Tassie. Ironically, it was Yeats himself, father of the modern Irish theatre, who was responsible for turning O’Casey away. As a result of such conservatism, most of the major Irish writers and dramatists of the mid-century were driven abroad. Beckett followed Joyce to Paris. Behan went to Paris too, but his successes would come in London and New York. Frank O’Connor and Mary Lavin went to the USA. O’Casey went to England, as did William Trevor and Edna O’Brien.

Such censorship and conservatism could be understood as the anxious reaction of the young state to the attentions of England and elsewhere. Much of the energy of the first governments of the state was absorbed by their efforts to control the shape and image of the new Ireland. While the governments of the 1920s gave very little direction to the state other than to mirror the structures which had been established under colonialism, the governments led by Eamon De Valera throughout the 1930s and 1940s attempted to reinstate a notion of Ireland as a pastoral, Catholic, and insular haven. Another interpretation of what occurred in Ireland in the aftermath of independence, which is characteristic of other societies emerging from colonial rule, is that such a huge amount of emotional, psychological and intellectual energy is expended getting rid of the coloniser that the new state is exhausted of vision and will in the period after independence. The post-independence writers tend to reflect this view. Ireland is represented as being devoid of the capacity to do anything other than mimic the colonial structures which it inherited. In the writings of O’Connor, Kavanagh, O’Casey, Behan, Edna O’Brien, Lavin and others, the characters tend to be constrained by the poverty of options open to them, and are often inhibited and tentative in every aspect of life, from Lavin and O’Brien dealing with its effects on the emotional sexual lives of their characters to Behan and O’Connor representing the effects that it has on the relationship between individuals and the state. The Ireland which emerged after independence was represented as sterile, impoverished and trapped in the legacy of colonialism.

Joyce, however, can be seen as an exception to the Irish revival prior to independence, because his writings also anticipate the problems of independence. In the ‘Circe’ chapter of Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom is dreaming of his rise to power as a nationalist leader, and of the adulation of the crowds as he leads them to the new promised land of independent Ireland, he is always compromised by the language he uses, or the form in which he addresses his followers. When he recalls for the pleasure of his audience the great day on which the enemy was defeated, Bloom’s description is borrowed from dubious sources:

BLOOM: On this day twenty years ago we overcame the hereditary enemy at Ladysmith. Our howitzers and camel swivel guns played on his lines to telling effect. Half a league onward! They charge! All is lost now! Do we yield? No! We drive them headlong! Lo! We charge! Deploying to the left our light horse swept across the heights of Plevna and, uttering their warcry, Bonafide Sabaoth, sabred the Saracen gunners to a man. (606)

Bloom is applauded after this speech as a credit to his country, and as a hero, but his description alludes to a bizarre mixture of colonial and expansionist wars. The overcoming of Ladysmith was in fact a raid by British troops, led by Hubert Gough, to relieve a supply depot which had been besieged by the Boers for 118 days. The Boer war is mentioned several times in Ulysses, largely as an example of the attempt to win independence. Here Bloom is speaking in the language of the colonial forces. His next line, ‘Our howitzers and camel swivel guns played on his lines to telling effect’, is typical of descriptions of the European wars of the 19th century, in which artillery was used first to bombard the lines of infantry troops. Then Bloom seems to be quoting from one of the most famous war poems of the 19th century, Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, with its opening lines ‘Half a league, half a league! Half a league onward! All in the valley of death! Rode the six hundred’, which refers to the disastrous attack by British cavalry on an entrenched artillery position at Balaclava, in the Crimean War. The Battle of Plevna was between the Russians and the Turks, in which the Turks held out in the city against a Russian siege for 143 days in 1877. English involvement was not direct, but the battle was of concern to them because it threatened to give Russia an upper hand in the Balkans area, which would conflict with British diplomatic interests. Finally, the reference to the hereditary enemy, the Saracens, and the cry 'Bonafide Sabaoth' are all references to the crusades. The hereditary enemy referred to the Moslems or Turks, who were engaged in holy war against the infidels, while the Saracens were Arab nomads who were opponents of the crusades. ‘Bonafide Sabaoth’ means ‘true armies’, or ‘chosen armies’ and conjures up the ancient phrase Yahweh Sabaoth, meaning God’s chosen armies. Bloom’s language, then, is borrowed from the language of English colonialism, European militarism, and the Holy Wars against the Moslems.

In ‘Circe’ Bloom seems incapable of imagining a nationalist future, with him as its leader, outside of the forms of rule which colonialism has fostered in Ireland. He is capable of great leaps of visionary and progressive faith, of envisaging a future which combines political independence with socialist and feminist ideals. He is even something of an environmentalist, dreaming up plans to save the centre of Dublin from traffic congestion by building new tramlines. But when it comes to imagining the language and forms which such power might take, he is incapable of breaking the colonial mould. He tries to imagine himself as leader:

(... Under an arch of triumph Bloom appears bareheaded, in a crimson velvet mantle trimmed with ermine, bearing Saint Edward’s staff the orb and sceptre with the dove, the curtana. He is seated on a milk-white horse with long flowing crimson tail, richly caparisoned, with golden headstall. Wild excitement. The ladies from their balconies throw down rosepetals. The air is perfumed with essences. The men cheer. Bloom’s boys run amid the bystanders with branches of hawthorn and wren-bushes.) (603-4)

Bloom is dressed in the symbolic regalia of English power – he wears the symbols of English power, spiritual authority, and peace, and he is greeted by the crowd in the same manner as a king would be heralded. Joyce is doubtless alluding here to the way in which Parnell was feted by his Irish followers as the ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’, and this for Joyce is a significant indication that although the Irish might have the vision to foresee the benefits of home rule, and perhaps even something even more progressive than home rule, they remain trapped in the myths and symbols of imperial power. Bloom is incapable of imagining power outside of the forms of power which he has been used to hearing and reading about in the history of English imperial power. This is hardly surprising in a way, as Ulysses constantly reminds us through the street-names, statues and legends of Dublin that it is a city embedded in English colonial power. Bloom is surrounded by the myths and legends of imperialism, and he is dependent on those myths for his ideas and beliefs of what power and authority entails. In this sense, Ulysses is offering us an image of Dublin and Ireland paralysed by imperialism, in much the same way as Dubliners concentrated on the paralysis of the will which was affecting the city. Bloom might be the new messiah of Ireland, the visionary who is capable of imagining an ideal Ireland, the Ireland which will emerge in the wake of independence. In this, he has the edge over the citizen and his followers, who remained rooted in the past, and whose version of nationalism seems to be simply the mirror image of colonial Ireland. But when Bloom dreams of the leader that he could be, the Ireland which he might create from his imaginings, it is hampered always by his dependence on the myths and legends of imperialism. And this is the problem which besets post-independence Ireland, that it remains trapped within the mentality and the inherited forms of colonial government and society.

In his capacity to criticise colonialism and nationalism, Joyce is the most notable influence on the critical stance of the post-independence writers. The Censorship Act, and the conservative programmes of state cultural institutions, may have had as their aim the creation of a literature and culture which reflected the ideologies and images preferred by the state, but what they fuelled inadvertently was a literature and culture dedicated to criticising the state. Where in the early decades of the century intellectuals had laboured to bring about the independent nation, in the mid-century intellectual labour could be found generating a counter-culture. It was embodied in the rise of revisionist history, led by Sean O’Faolain in The Bell, where he wrote that nationalism and the idea of the Gaelic nation ‘are inevitably and invariably a pack of lies, because they inevitably and invariably produce wildly passionate exhalations that obfuscate and madden like a drug’. It was encapsulated in the turn from nationalism to other forms of community and identity – John Hewitt’s celebration of internationalism, Patrick Kavanagh’s championing of the parish over the nation. It was evident too in the playful satire and parody which writers such as Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan brought to bear on the traditions and mythologies of Irish cultural identity. And out of the writers of the mid-century came a tradition of representing the darker sides of Irish life, which continues in work by writers such as John McGahern, Dermot Bolger, Eavan Boland, John Banville, Marina Carr, Martin MacDonagh and Paula Meehan. What’s interesting about all of these writers is that they have steered a course somewhere between nationalism and colonialism, often critiquing one as simply an inverted or perverted form of the other. But as yet none of them have moved beyond the course set out by Joyce, that of representing and criticising the paralysis and sterility of the post-independence state, even when the state seems to have galvanised itself into action and energy in the last few years.

To summarise then, briefly. Irish literature became a counter-cultural literature in the early decades of independence, in reaction to the disappointing forms which independence took. In particular, the conservative vision of De Valera’s Ireland, which was arguably itself the most damaging manifestation of the legacy of colonialism in the state after independence, has left an indelible mark on the consciousness of Irish writers. Moreover, even as the state has moved progressively throughout the 1990s towards economic success (its excessive growth rates), cultural innovation (the programme of lowered taxation and special grants for filmmakers, writers and artists), and political confidence (its role in Europe, and a mature attitude to Northern Ireland), many of its writers tend to have remained preoccupied with the images and icons of colonial and nationalist Ireland, or at least not to have moved beyond the agendas set by nationalism and colonialism. In short, the literature and culture of the so-called Celtic Tiger has not yet emerged, apart that is from the more superficial and professional cultural phenomena such as ‘Riverdance’. However, perhaps the conditions for its emergence are already in place. Just as the revivalists recognised the importance of the material conditions in which a cultural and national revival might take place, so too it is possible to see in contemporary Ireland the conditions in which Irish culture may be able finally to move beyond the binary opposition of nationalism and colonialism. To do this, to become fully post-colonial, one must be able to leave behind the legacy of colonialism, but also be able to cease what Robert Gardiner called ‘intoning the colonial litany’, that is, blaming the ills of Irish society and politics on the effects of colonialism.

Fintan O’Toole has argued that in 1996, Ireland could be seen to have emerged from under the aprons of nationalism and colonialism, that it became possible in 1996 to understand the Republic of Ireland without reference to Britain. He cites four reasons for this claim:

1. The 75th anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, at which point Ireland was really too old to be holding colonialism responsible for everything which had happened since.
2. The Dublin summit of the European Union, at which Ireland took centre-stage in shaping the political and economic union of Europe, while Britain played a very marginal role.
3. The release of Michael Collins, successfully dramatising the birth of the Irish state, and giving the origins of the state a glamorous myth of origin.
4. Ireland producing more wealth per head of population than Britain, and therefore relinquishing the claim to be the hampered, impoverished neighbour.

Since 1996, Ireland’s economy has continued to outstrip Britain’s performance on most measures, and of course the success of the peace process to date in Northern Ireland, and the way that that has been achieved as a partnership between Britain and Ireland has enabled a more confident and independent attitude in the Republic. The Republic of Ireland has been able to move on from the questions and effects of colonialism in the last decade in a way which was never possible in the decades prior to this. It ought to have been possible after the late economic boom of the 1960s, but the re-emergence of violence which could be interpreted within the colonialist-nationalist paradigm in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s ensured that it remained firmly rooted in the imagination of the Republic. As Dermot Bolger notes in his introduction to The Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction, the Northern writers are notably now more pre-occupied with questions of colonialism and nationalism than are the writers from the Republic. Indeed, Bolger suggests that colonialism is a very distant concern for him in his own writing, and for many of the writers in the south. While writers close to the experiences in Northern Ireland, such as Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney and Frank McGuinness, have continued to write about colonialism (most notably McGuinness’s recent play, Mutabilitie, which features an encounter in Colonial Ireland of the 1590s between Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and an Irish poet-magician) there are a number of writers in the Republic who have exhibited an indifference to colonial and nationalist issues, and have been writing as modern (sometimes even postmodern) European writers including Bolger, Roddy Doyle, Clair O’Connor among others. For Bolger, it is in the studied indifference of these writers both to the colonial past and to the roaring 'Celtic tiger' that the future potential of a post-colonial Irish literature and culture may lie. As Shaw once wrote, the sign of a healthy nation is one that doesn’t have to address the question of nationalism at all, and the same goes for a nation which has moved beyond the legacy of colonialism. Its literature should be indebted in no obvious way to the stock-in-trade of colonial culture. Perhaps in a literature and culture which is indifferent to the colonial and nationalist traditions in Ireland it would be possible finally for Ireland to take Irishness for granted, and not to have to measure it against either a mythical ideal or a colonial stereotype.


Dermot Bolger (ed.) (1993) The Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction, London: Picador.
C.L Innes (1993) Woman and Nation in Irish Literature and Society: 1880-1935, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
James Joyce (1992) Ulysses: Annotated Students’ Edition (ed. Declan Kiberd), London: Penguin.
Declan Kiberd (1995) Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, London: Jonathan Cape.
Fintan O’Toole (1997) The Ex-Isle of Erin: Images of a Global Ireland, Dublin: New Island Books.
Mark Storey (ed.) (1988), Poetry and Ireland since 1800: A Source Book, London: Routledge.
W B Yeats (1989) Yeats’s Poems, ed. A. Norman Jeffares, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.
W B Yeats (1892) ‘Hopes and Fears for Irish Literature’, United Irishman, October.
W B Yeats (1892) ‘The de-Anglicising of England’, United Irishman, December.

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