Book review: Handbook of the Irish Revival

Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary

The Handbook of the Irish Revival contains violent material and covers a period when theatre was never so exciting because history itself was excited, writes Thomas McCarthy.

Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922

Edited by Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews

Abbey Theatre Press, €18.99

Book review: Handbook of the Irish Revival

WHO laments the destruction of our present Anglo-Irish aristocracy? Perhaps, in broad Ireland, not one. They fall from the land while innumerable eyes are dry,” wrote the aristocratic Standish O’Grady in 1900.

Ten years later, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington observed: “We all, Unionists and Nationalists alike, live overmuch on our past in Ireland. Our great past condones our empty present”; while five years before that Padráig Pearse had had his say: “Splendid and holy causes are served by men who are themselves splendid and holy.

O’Donovan Rossa was splendid in the proud manhood of him, splendid in the heroic grace of him, splendid in the Gaelic strength and clarity and truth of him.”

With such rhetoric and drama abroad it’s simply a miracle that the Abbey Theatre was able to sell seats on any Friday or Saturday night. But the Abbey Theatre itself was in the thick of the fray; like Yeats and Lady Gregory, it thirsted for accusation and responded both ferociously and adroitly to accusations from the various candle-lit hanging-mobs that crowded into its foyer and stormed the auditorium.

Nowadays, the Abbey finds itself caught in familiar cross-fire; it occupies a peculiar space within our national discourse — it has always existed between a rock and a hard-place, using plays and playwrights as the cutting tools of perpetual escape.

Between 1900 and 1923 theatre was never so exciting because history itself was excited, forcing literature and art to spill all the political beans available to human imagination. The grace and mask of the Noh plays were surely a pre-Beckett escape from the imperatives of politics.

Readers of Roy Foster’s Yeats biography, as well as the Cork City Library patrons who’ve seen the rolling exhibition of books and ephemera from the Decade of Histories, will not be surprised by any of the materials collated here by Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathews.

The editors have made a huge selection of witness documents; bound, it must be said, in a solid bullet-proof orange binding. Here’s the first book I’ve handled for some time that could survive being thrown across a committee room.

It must have been designed by a theatre carpenter who expected trouble. I don’t blame her, or him. The material is violent: it’s Ireland as we know and hate it. You’d be sick to death of this stuff, yet want to come back for more. The material here is still, depressingly, contemporary — as familiar and raw as a Fianna Fáil selection dispute in County Dublin or Sinn Féin hurt feelings in North Cork.

The editors have divided, without irony, their material into 16 sections, from the opening A country in paralysis? to After the Revolution. The opening section includes JM Synge, Peig Sayers, DP Moran and Lady Gregory, among others.

Missing, I would argue, are excerpts from two crucial books that were part of Cork City Libraries first exhibition on the same period, Contemporary Ireland by L Paul Dubois, with an Introduction by Tom Kettle (Maunsel, 1908), and the searing prosecution case against Catholic power, Priests and People in Ireland by Michael JF McCarthy (Hodges, Figgis, 1903).

The latter book sold thousands of copies, especially in Ulster, and it must have had a terrifying effect upon Presbyterian readers. It made an Ulster Refusal as inevitable as the Irish Revival; and the many hands that signed Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant must have felt its weight upon their hearts:

‘Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of the Empire.’

The nearly half a million Ulstermen and women who dissented publicly from Home Rule mercifully never saw the letter from the Capuchin Fr Travers printed here. The letter is part of Fr Travers’ extraordinary papers of the Rising, many recently made available through the RIA’s Digital Repository of Ireland project, (dri.ie), published here, I would guess, for the very first time.

It reads: “You will be glad to know that I gave holy communion to James Connolly this morning,” I said to Pearse when I met him. “Thank God,” he replied. “It is the one thing I was anxious about.”

The idea that Holy Communion was the one thing Pádraig Pearse was anxious about gives us an indication of the national drift that Protestants, including Yeats, and, more vituperatively, Lady Gregory, had worried about from the beginning. The heroes of the Republic were about to deliver a Catholic state in the South, a bulwark not only against the coming Bolshevism, but a bulwark against British Protestantism.

This outcome seemed pre-ordained (to coin a phrase); it was the delivery of our civic future into the arms of one confessional group — not a group that was evil, per se, for Irish Catholicism was and is saturated with spectacular goodness and grace. But the error was to allow one dominant Church to command the public sphere; it is an error from which the Republic has been trying to extract itself since 1916, if not 1829. Irish people should become citizens, not sheep.

This is where the Abbey Theatre comes in; and not only the Abbey, but theatres and intellectual life. As early as 1905, as early as the paranoid narrowness of Arthur Griffith and DP Moran, the Abbey had begun its long fight for intellectual freedom, for the integrity of Synge, the right of Yeats as playwright as well as the right of the Abbey to support progressive developments like Hugh Lane’s plans for a gallery of Modern Art.

In a very real sense, this latest Handbook, this gathering of historic evidence, continues the Abbey’s difficult, awkward tradition of getting stuck into a national debate. It’s not the creation of plays alone, but the creation of an atmosphere of engagement with national ideas, ideas that might create the possibility of new kinds of theatre. New writers are like moths, they move towards an area that seems to be sparkling. This Handbook is one of the Abbey’s most recent sparks.

Here, on p296 is Pearse’s Óró ‘Sé do Bheatha Abhaile — ‘Gaeil féin ‘s ní Francaigh ná Spáinnigh/ Is ruagairt ar na Gallaibh!,’ followed immediately by Jack Judge’s It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, a 1912 music hall song that was made famous by the Connaught Rangers at Boulogne and John McCormack’s subsequent recording: ‘Goodbye, Picadilly,/ Farewell, Leicester Square!/ It’s a long way to Tipperary,/ But my heart’s right there.’

Only in the re-imagining of literature and on the stage of a theatre can the two worlds of these songs share their common humanity. It has ever been the function of artistic life in Ireland to unite divided histories, to search for the common humanity within divided Irishness — you can see this humanity at work in Maclise’s Snap Apple Night or in George Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island.

It is at work here too, in the effort of these editors to cast their archival nets very wide, to include the Manifesto of the Ulster Literary Revival, The Constitution of the Irish Citizen Army; as well as Yeats’ Noble and Ignoble Loyalties, Birrell’s Things Past Regret and de Valera’s Legion of the Rearguard.

Such an effort in archiving, editing and understanding by Kiberd and Mathews reminds us of agnostic George Bernard Shaw’s words from Sceilig Mhichíl in 1910: ‘I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world.’


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