The Celtic Revival

The Late Nineteenth Century Debate Concerning the Revival of Celtic Culture
by Marie C. E. Burns

W. B. Yeats became the champion of Celtic culture and his poetry was a celebration of all things Gaelic. However, the dual cultural element was always present and because of it, the literary movement was fraught with controversy. It owed much to the way in which writers such as Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory turned to the legends, folklore and traditions of Ireland. But this provoked criticism from the Gaelic revivalist circles that were opposed to the conclusion that there could be a genuine Irish literature in the English language. (The Gaelic League Idea, 1972)  

Bards’ praises of courtly Celtic life include an imaginary itinerary through Ireland attributed to Prince Alfrith, who reigned in the seventh century. Exiled in Inisfail the Fair, Alfrith observed, in James Mangan’s translation:

. . . I found in Munster
Kings and queens and poets a many -
Poets well skilled in music and measure
Prosperous doings, mirth and pleasure
Sweet fruits, good laws for all and each
Great chess-players, men of truthful speech
. . . virtue, vigour and hospitality
. . . candour, powerfulness, bravery (The Irish Country House, p.3)

That was before the invasion of the Vikings, and two hundred years later, that of the Normans, who imposed feudal society on as much of Ireland as they could dominate. The country’s unconquered status resulted in a perpetual state of guerrilla warfare. By bringing in what they considered to be a superior civilization, the Normans were initiating centuries of division between Gael and colonist. Throughout the unsettled period that spanned the Middle Ages, the Gaels sought to maintain their independence with their own language and culture. (Somerville-Large, P., 1995)

Edmund Spenser, in 'A View of the Present State of Ireland' contended that the English presence in Ireland went beyond that of mere conquest. To him, colonialism was imbued with a moral dimension whereby social improvement would change the environment to allow

'the application of that inestimable good, the English Common Law'.

But the prevailing climate in Elizabethan Ireland would not permit the Common Law to be applied because of the inveterate barbarianism of the people, bound by loyalty to their septs and clans. He considered them beyond the law. He advocated military defeat and subjugation to bring them to heel so they could avail themselves of the benefits that the Common English Law could bestow on them.

A picture was painted of a ‘lewd, lawless, ignorant and licentious people’ who ‘sulk in their obstinate attachment to superstitious and ancestral loyalties’. Their hair is worn as ‘an enveloping mantle, the outward sign of inward deceit, suited as they are to disguise and concealment’. (Brown, T., 1988)

This perception prevailed, the romantic revival of later years doing little to change it, but accompanied by a rise in European nationalism which encouraged the elevation of national stereotypes to the level of racial characteristics, for some, it softened or blurred ‘barbarianism’ into uncorrupted, unsophisticated innocence.

Of writers in this vein, William Hamilton Drummond, an Ulster poet with personal knowledge of his dispossessed neighbours, in a work of 1811, discerns in the native Irish, sensitivity, sentimentality and a poetic nature. These attributes, if they were considered as such, were seen as impractical and unworldly. They, with the lawlessness ascribed to the Gael, served to justify the dominance of the Irish people by the English who deemed themselves of a steady, sober order and fit to rule. (Brown, T, 1988)

In 1859, the Breton, Ernest Renan, wrote 'The Poetry of the Celtic Races'. In its introduction, he lauds their

‘possession of a literature which, in the Middle Ages, exercised an immense influence, changed the current of European civilization and imposed it’s poetical motives on nearly the whole of Christendom’.

He sees the race which created it as having its own original way of feeling and thinking and that no other could equal its genius for ‘penetrative notes that go to the very heart’.

Although he acknowledges a worthy study of this ancient history, he sees ‘the divine tones’ doomed in the ‘growing tumult of uniform civilization’. He cites having been driven to their homelands by earlier conquest as the reason for the Celtic nations’ insularity, which results in their ‘hatred of the foreigner’ and having ‘reared an impassable barrier against external influences’. ‘Living solely on its own capital’ the Celtic race has ensured a pure and noble lineage.

Although Renan credits its people with pride, charming shamefastness, reserve, and infinite delicacy of feeling, he considers these as part of the weakness that prevents them from interacting with the outside world. That their culture is of the family has ‘stifled more extended organisations’. They have never displayed any ‘aptitude for political life’.

Comparing them unfavourably with the manliness and progressiveness of the conquering nations, Renan charges the Celtic race with having a feminine property (hardly complimentary considering the low status women endured in British society at the time) and being resistant to modern civilization (aware though he is of this destructive effect on native culture). Not seeming to be able to progress, the Celt appears to be resigned to his fate. He lives in his doleful isolation where, with his great powers of imagination and inherent need of illusion, he dreams of an avenger that will deliver him from his oppressors.

The overall impression one would get from Renan’s essay is of a romantic, politically ineffectual people stuck, by choice, in an unworldly way of life, hoping for a miracle to allow them to stay there. But Renan is a Celt - he does not discount miracles! He concludes on a reflective ominous note, using Poland as an example:

'Who shall say what in our own times has fermented in the bosom of the most stubborn, the most powerless of nationalities?'

There was a lot fermenting in the bosom of Ireland.

By the end of the 1600s, Ireland had become the private property of an almost exclusively Protestant and English-speaking land-owning class, later known as the Ascendancy. (Murphy, Anglicisation of Ireland: A Model for the Linguistic Imperialist)

Now, in the mid 1800s, the country was suffering the effects of ‘the great hunger’, called so rather than ‘famine’; since there was plenty of food but it was shipped out of the country because the Irish could not afford to buy it. Nearly half of the Irish population either died from famine-related diseases or emigrated to escape their plight.

Some commentators have accused the English government of genocide, but another analysis would be a callous indifference toward an unsupportive ethnic group long perceived as less than 100% human, coupled with an unwillingness to spend taxpayers’ money on such undeserving and ungrateful people. (Emigrants and Exiles, 1985) The Irish were suffering forced evictions from their tenant and sub-tenant holdings because they were unable to pay the extortionate rents demanded by their Anglo-Irish landlords.

'It has been estimated that 50,000 evictions took place between 1847 and 1850' (The Irish Country House, p.267)

The Penal laws had already made it difficult for Irish people to keep to their own culture, which naturally included their religion, and language. At the famine’s end there were only 300,000 monoglot Gaelic-speakers left in the country. (Emigrants and Exiles, 1985)

Educating Catholics was forbidden by the British authorities. Consequently, they had attended makeshift illegal ‘hedge-schools’ until, in 1831, the introduction of primary school education in the English language continued the attempt to erase the native Gaelic and Gaelic culture and replace it with one that would make for greater control, rendering the native Irish more biddable. (Hickey, M., 2001) Long standing animosity towards England now had become a genuine hatred. (Collective Trauma: Insights From a Research Errand, 2002)

Matthew Arnold seems to have been aware of the brewing ‘fermentation’. In his Study of the Celtic Literature, he decries the fact that no one has ever studied the Celt objectively. While most of his compatriots would be happy to be rid of all things Celtish, he considers it all right as long as it is not associated with nationalism and that English is the spoken and written language.

He would deem it only natural (rather than directed) and merely a matter of time until the course of modern civilization would swallow up ‘separate provincial nationalities’ and would, of necessity and for the better, produce an all English speaking people ‘in these islands’. He does not see the Celtic languages as hoping to ‘count for much’ in modern life, but does believe that the Celtic literature is worthy of study in an historical sense, leading as it may to a spiritual power.

Arnold bemoans and cites the loss of his own country’s culture to the Philistinism of the industrial age. Seeing the advances of science as a means to self-knowledge, he deduces that, contrary to what was previously avowed, there is no great divide between the English and the Indo-European family. He claims a brotherhood with the Celt and adopts the Celt’s characteristics as part of his own heritage. They include a lively personality – keenly sensitive to joy and sorrow, quick perception, warm emotion, a peculiarly near and intimate feeling of nature and the life of nature.

To him, the Celt is attracted to and close to the secret of natural beauty and natural magic. He is sociable, hospitable, eloquent, admired – but overall sentimental, ‘airy and unsubstantial’. Fortuitously for him and them, the Anglo-Saxon has a much broader range of attributes since they also inherited the down-to-earth qualities of the Germanic race that keep their feet firmly on the ground.

Arnold concedes that it is the Celtish aspect of the Anglo-Saxon’s character that is the very cause of error in not recognising the ‘way the world is going’. He knows that in governing Ireland, England has brought hatred upon itself from that quarter. He foresees trouble arising from England’s inflexibility. To forestall it, as well as counteract the effects of Philistinism, (among which he regards the creation of Fenianism), he advocates a renewal or revival of their culture by introducing chairs of Celtic so that, with a message of peace to Ireland 'we might reunite ourselves with our better mind and with the world through science'. (Arnold, M., 1866)

The powers that were should have taken heed. A surge of political nationalism in the 1880s was manifest in the foundation of the Land League by Michael Davitt and the drive for Home Rule headed by Charles Stewart Parnell. Although the movements lost some momentum with the death of Parnell, their pursuits were ultimately responsible for the fall of the Ascendancy and a rise of cultural nationalism. This coincided with popular revivals of cultures and languages world-wide, a consequence of growing empires having precipitated their demise. The cultural rights of colonies became a world debate. Nowhere more so than in Ireland, where from it sprang a renewed interest in all things Gaelic. Michael Cusack founded the G.A.A.

'to provide an effective means of concentrating popular interest on those games which the Association regarded as being essentially Irish in character' (The Gaelic League Idea, p.43)

Douglas Hyde was instrumental in founding the Gaelic League to encourage the teaching and speaking of the Irish language.

'A generation in the Gaeltacht had been brought up without a knowledge of how to read or write Irish' (Singe and the Irish Language, p.47)

His essay on the de-Anglicisation of the Irish is noteworthy in that he responds positively to Ireland’s previous culture. He also differentiates between being English and being anglicised. The anglicised were very often caught in psychological extremism – anti-Englishness is more virulent in these than among Irish speakers who tended to be at home with themselves and therefore easily cope with cultural difference. (Kiberd, D)

Cultural differences were at the heart of Ireland’s problems. Native and settler, Irish and Ascendancy, Catholic and Protestant – it did not matter how they were referred to (although Catholic and Protestant was the most common) – there were two Irelands. (Potts, W., 2001) The Irish Literary Revival that emerged with the spirit of the times had as a central idea, uniting the two Irelands. It is significant that the stalwarts of the movement were all of Anglo-Irish descent, W. B. Yeats being one of the most prominent.

In recognition of the theories of Renan and Arnold and the basis for their conclusions, Yeats wrote his essay 'The Celtic Element in Literature'. In it, he finds Arnold concurring with Renan’s view that the Celt has a passion for nature, imaginativeness and melancholy. Arnold goes further - the passion for nature comes from the mystery of it, imbuing it with charm and magic. The imaginativeness is a vigorous defence against the harshness of reality and the melancholy comes from ‘something’ about the Celt that cannot be accounted for but is ‘defiant and titanic’. (My italics)

Yeats recognises these characteristics as qualities and that where they are apparent in English literature they come from a Celtic source. He advises giving some attention to the views expressed by Renan and Arnold, and to ascertain where they may be of value. He warns that failing to look at ourselves as others see us, 'we may go mad someday' (revolt?) and the English will destroy the beautiful Celtic culture and replace it with what they will.

Yeats defends the Celtic temperament. It’s leaning towards mysticism is as old as time itself. That it features so in the imaginative Celtic literature is an affirmation that these works are in keeping with folk traditions, all of which delight in the ethereal nature of 'unbounded and immortal things'. His defence needs no flights of fancy. 'Surely if one goes far enough into the woods there one will find all that one is seeking'. In merely discussing a work of Gaelic poetry, Yeats manages to convey the art with which he is endowed. Does not 'dreams withering in the winds of time' evoke an appealing melancholy?

It is from this emotion that Yeats believes all art emanates. The Celtic movement, with it’s abundance of Gaelic legends, (lost and unknown but now recovered by European scholars) will stir the imagination and emotions of the world, a world which needs 'a new intoxication' to counteract the rationalism and materialism of the previous two centuries. Yeats envisages the Irish legends being an inspiration for the art of the twentieth century.

The Literary Revival was to produce some of the greatest art the world has known. Yeats set out to write what he called a ‘sacred book’ on Irish cultural Renaissance. He knew that many of the Irish people had not had the benefit of education and consequently were not fully conversant with their Celtic literature and its heroes, so he incorporated the intellectual Gaelic mythology and the more popular, more accessible folklore in his works.

W. B. Yeats became the champion of Celtic culture and his poetry was a celebration of all things Gaelic. However, the dual cultural element was always present and because of it, the literary movement was fraught with controversy. It owed much to the way in which writers such as Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory turned to the legends, folklore and traditions of Ireland. But this provoked criticism from the Gaelic revivalist circles that were opposed to the conclusion that there could be a genuine Irish literature in the English language. (The Gaelic League Idea, 1972)

'Was it not a contradiction amounting to humbug for Celtic enthusiasts to harbour a profound distrust for everything English and yet to write in the medium of English to, as it were, burn everything except that most persuasive influence of all, her tongue?' (Nationalism in Ireland, p235)

Historically, Irish Catholics and Protestants have clashed because they represent two different cultures rather than two different religions, (yet the friction caused is termed as sectarian). The leading figures of the Literary Revival were Protestant. And they all avoided the subject of sectarian relations, their canon seeming to be – they must not give offence by any too direct utterance on the central problem of Irish life, the religious situation.

James Joyce was an exception. He alone was Catholic and he alone wrote specifically about the relationship between the two Irelands. (Potts, W., 2001) He was dismissive of the Gaelic language revival, mocking this ‘false’ Irishness when his characters greet and take their leave of each other in the native tongue but conduct their affairs in English. His works are full of examples where he emphasises the difference between the Anglo-Irish and the Irish, even the less obvious differences being markedly pronounced.

W. B. Yeats, an avid founding father of the Literary Revival, became the leading figure of the Irish Literary Theatre. From its inception, he was subjected to endless criticism as the theatre was seldom free from public controversy. His own play, The Countess Cathleen, was attacked as anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. The hostility to it

'must be seen as an understandable sensitivity of a predominantly Roman Catholic audience to what amounted to a fairly cavalier treatment of their religion by a Protestant set'. (Nationalism in Ireland, p.244)

Much more menacing for Yeats was the belief in most nationalists’ minds that Ireland’s art should reflect its nationalism and that the theatre should produce, in Yeats own words 'Nationalist propaganda disguised as literature'. (Nationalism in Ireland, p.245) His disillusionment was absolute.

Yeats has bequeathed to the world the product of his genius and to Ireland a legacy of incalculable worth, but the culture he so eloquently expressed was only part of our Irish heritage. He could not feel or understand the other part, the part that was fostered over eight hundred years when

'the prime concern was for a culture that would check the encroachment of the Saxon' (Nationalism in Ireland, p.246)

Arnold, M., On the Study of Celtic Literature, 1866
Boyce, D. G., Nationalism in Ireland, 2nd ed., 1991, Routledge, London
Brown, T., Ireland's Literature, 1988, The Lilliput Press Ltd., Mullingar
De Young, M., Collective Trauma: Insights From a Research Errand, 2002
Hickey, M., Irish Days, 2001, Kyle Cathie Ltd., London
Hyde, D., The Necessity for the de-Anglicisation of the Irish, 1892
Kiberd, D., Synge and the Irish Language, 2nd ed., 1993, Gill & Macmillan Ltd., Dublin
Millar, K. A., Emigrants and Exiles, 1985, Oxford University Press, N. York
Murphy, Anglicisation of Ireland: A Model for the Linguistic Imperialist
O Tuama, S., Ed., The Gaelic League Idea, 1972, The Mercer Press, Dublin
Potts, W., Joyce and the Two Irelands, 2001, University of Texas Press, Austin
Renan, E., The Poetry of the Celtic Races, 1859
Somerville-Large, P., The Irish Country House, 1995, Sinclair-Stevenson, London
Yeats, W. B., The Celtic Element in Literature

See also: An Introduction to W B Yeats and Tragic Joy, Yeats's Attitude Towards Art

© Marie C. E. Burns, December 2008


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