National identity in the dramatic works of Yeats, Synge and O'Casey

Thesis (M.A.), 2006

102 Pages, Grade: 1,85



1. Introduction
1.1 The perception of Ireland abroad and within the country
1.2 Resistance: a national movement in Ireland
1.3 Decisive dramatists

2. Influential groups/persons prior to the Irish Literary Revival
2.1 Young Ireland
2.2 Standish O’Grady’s History of Ireland: Heroic Period
2.3 Charles Steward Parnell ─ a political precursor of the Irish Revival

3. The Irish Revival – the development of a cultural revolution
3.1 The Gaelic Athletic Association
3.2 The Gaelic League as promoter of the Irish language
3.3 ‘Inghinidhe na hÉireann’ ─ An Irish feminist movement

4. Yeats and the literary movement in Dublin
4.1 The Irish Literary Theatre and the establishment of the Abbey Theatre
4.2 Controversies: double reading of Irishness

5. The first national dramatic writings of the Irish Literary Theatre
5.1 Cathleen ─ the traditional female personification of Ireland
5.2 The Countess Cathleen (1899)
5.2.1 The peasants as imperfect Irish people
5.2.2 Yeats’s new, unconventional mode of writing
5.2.3 ‘Selling one’s soul’ in the literature and historical context of Ireland
5.2.4 Devils in disguise: merchants and colonisers
5.2.5 The key role of the countess
5.3 Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902)
5.3.1 The play’s historical implication
5.3.2 Cathleen Ni Houlihan as the missionary of Irish patriotism
5.3.3 Yeats’s nationalistic message beyond the theatre

6. John Millington Synge, the enfant terrible of the Abbey
6.1 The Playboy of the Western World (1907)
6.1.1 The celebrated parricide
6.1.2 Christy, the anti-hero
6.1.3 Pegeen, the embodiment of Irish womanhood
6.1.4 The audience who performed the play
6.1.5 The Playboy in line with Cathleen Ni Houlihan ?

7. Sean O’Casey, the post-war playwright
7.1 Juno and the Paycock (1924)
7.2 The male ‘paycock’ in opposition to the female goddess
7.3 O’Casey’s plea for humanity
7.4 Juno, the heroine of the domestic world

8. Conclusion: “A nation and its theatre are born out of conflict”

9. Appendix: Map of Ireland

10. Works cited and consulted

11. List of illustrations

1. Introduction

Although the high age of imperialism is thought to have started in the late 1870s, this does not hold true for English-speaking areas (cf. Said 1993, 220). Ireland, having been colonised by the English well over seven hundred years before, is an exception as England’s oldest colony. As early as the 1150s, Ireland was ceded to Henry II of England and was eventually settled by him in 1171 (cf. ibid). From then on, the colonisers started “quite consciously to modernize, develop, instruct, and civilize” (ibid, 223) the Irish, since imperialism after all was an educational movement. On account of this ‘teaching’, all native features of the Irish, above all their Celtic history, had to give way to the colonisers’ equivalents. As a consequence, Ireland’s national identity also suffered immeasurably in the course of time as the Irish themselves did.

The alien power “affected the details and not just the large outlines of [Irish] life” (ibid, 221), reflected in various fields which had been anglicised. Concerning the Irish language, Gaelic, which used to be Ireland’s mother tongue, it had been increasingly replaced by English since the nineteenth century. Similarly, the ancient Gaelic culture, its traditions and national Irish literature were displaced as well. There was hardly any aspect left which still expressed truly Irish thoughts and ideas, to say nothing of an independent identity of Ireland.

This thesis will focus on the cultural struggle for a reawakening of the Irish consciousness. In particular, three key writers of the Irish Literary Revival at the end of the nineteenth-century ─ William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), John Millington Synge (1871-1909) and Sean O’Casey (1880-1964) ─ are at the centre of attention. They initiated a literary movement to re-establish an Irish national identity within Ireland and abroad. During this struggle the dramatists had to overcome various prejudices against the Irish, which will be briefly presented in the following before I will discuss the Irish Literary Revival and the three writers.

1.1 The perception of Ireland abroad and within the country

Due to England’s dominant position as the coloniser, the Irish were generally perceived as weak and uncivilised. England was regarded as the embodiment of authority and stood in striking contrast to the negative picture of Ireland. Two issues emphasised this condition even more, one being Ireland’s perception as “the bestial, feminine other, or the opposite of the English norm of civilised masculinity […]” (Suess 2003, 65), the other the existence of the Stage Irishman in English and Irish theatres.

For centuries Ireland has been characterised by British imperialists and Irish nationalists as female: “she is Hibernia, Eire, Erin, Mother Ireland, the Poor Old Woman, the Shan Van Vocht, Cathleen ni [sic] Houlihan, the Dark Rosaleen” (Innes 1993, 2). While Irish nationalists at the end of the nineteenth century focused on positive aspects of this female presentation, the English perceived Ireland in negative terms. The colonisers associated femininity with passivity, weakness and emotion and applied this view to Ireland and the Irish. Contrary to Ireland, England echoed masculinity. In the Victorian and Edwardian Age, masculinity not only used to represent patriarchal principles, but, in addition, it was the ruling force concerning scientific and rational theories of “natural” dominance (cf. Suess 2003, 11). The English made use of that picture by claiming to be “[…] the world’s primary movers and shakers” representing “strength, aggression, authority, and rationality” (ibid). As a consequence, this typical view was also taken up by essayists in order to comment on the gender issue, which was closely connected to power. Authors such as Matthew Arnold or Ernest Renan drew up a comparison between England and Ireland in their writings, which was based on the gender-power relations. The image of Ireland as exclusively female offered an explanation for the country’s deficiency and dependence on the male England. Thus, society succeeded in turning Ireland’s femininity into a scapegoat: “Using science and reason to justify the sovereignty of masculinity (and Englishness), it demonised femininity (and Irishness) as an enemy to progress while bolstering itself“ (ibid). Obviously, the images of masculine England versus feminine Ireland, which soon reached other areas such as political economics, medicine and popular literature, was enough to prove that Ireland got what it deserved in the eyes of society. Being associated with a woman, Ireland was meant to lead a dependent life oppressed by the male without a voice of its own to protest against the country’s condition.

Another negative stereotype of the Irish at that time was embodied in the figure of the Stage Irishman. It began to appear regularly in English theatres in the eighteenth century and existed throughout the nineteenth century, until the Irish Literary Theatre tried to put an end to this humorous depiction of the Irish. The popular drama used the Stage Irishman to portray Irish men and women as buffoons, i.e. ridiculous comic figures. Being presented as lazy, crafty and drunken on stage, the Irish again fell victim to the English. It is no surprise that the femininity that was attributed to Ireland in general also appeared on stage again. The Irish were depicted as behaving in an emotional and childlike way. On the whole, they were seen as mere comic figures the audience was supposed to and actually did make fun of in public.

According to Fitz-Simon, there were two categories of the Stage Irishman: the buffoon and the Irish braggart. The latter was likely to be a soldier or ex-soldier, who showed off by claiming to have seen the whole world while actually never having left his own country (cf. Fitz-Simon 1983, 94). Naturally, in the end the braggart on stage provoked laughter in the theatres as well. In addition, the Stage Irishman was presented as a peasant, as ‘Paddy with his Pig’, who is well-known as the existent Irish stereotype. Since Ireland was an almost entirely rural society, Irish people were reduced to being poor peasants. This is illustrated in the following quotation: “[…] there dance[d] clumsily in his hob-nailed boots and his knee breeches and his swallow-tailed coat, the red-nosed, potato-faced figure of the stage Irishman“ (MacAnna in O’Driscoll 1971, 91).

With these stereotypes of the Irishman the English succeeded in making fun of Ireland and the inhabitants. The picture of the Stage Irishman achieved a wide distribution through the theatres and newspapers. This helped to strengthen the prestigious image of the English while Ireland was commonly regarded as inferior and dim-witted. The ridiculed figure of the Stage Irishman existed not only on English and American stages, but even on Irish stages in the nineteenth century. Irish dramatists “[…] offered an exaggerated and unrealistically simple view of Ireland […]” (Hogan/Kilroy 1975, 17). Yet, this unlikely and unfair portrait was not perceived as extraordinary at all. Even the Irish audience could laugh at their own ridiculous depiction.

1.2 Resistance: a national movement in Ireland

This attitude of the Irish changed in the course of time. While the superiority of the English in any area of Irish life increased, the resistance in Ireland mounted as well. According to Said, in general, much of the resistance to imperialism was performed in the context of nationalism, a term which for him “identif[ies] the mobilizing force that coalesced into resistance against an alien and occupying empire on the part of peoples possessing a common history, religion, and language” (Said 1993, 223).

This surely holds true for Ireland. During the nineteenth century, the Irish developed a national consciousness which enabled them to lay claim to their native history, religion and language, above all to their national identity embodied in all of these aspects. The Irish were aware of their negative perception especially from outside but also from within their country. Since the English picture of the Irish “[…] had bitten deeply into the[ir] native consciousness […]” (Watson 1979, 25), England was seen as an increasing threat. For the first time, there was the “concern that the Irish sense of identity was in danger of erosion, perhaps even of disappearance” (Townshend 1998, 39). The Irish started to develop a “pronounced awareness of European and Western culture as imperialism” (Said 1993, 224), which, according to Said, is a necessary prerequisite for any colony in order to initiate a nationalist revival. It allowed these colonies “to assert the end of Europe’s cultural claim to guide and/or instruct the non-European or non-mainland individual” (ibid). Applied to Ireland, at the end of the nineteenth century, this new awareness of nationality caused a cultural as well as a literary revival, which will be examined in this thesis.

The so-called Irish Revival included a reawakened interest in Irish literature as well as in the Irish language (Gaelic revival) and in Celtic elements (Celtic revival) (cf. O’Brien 1998, 94) and was foremost a cultural movement. It “aimed at attaining not only political freedom [from England] but cultural freedom as well” (Bandopadhyay 1997, 26). Various societies, which developed in the wake of the Irish Revival, shared the aversion to all things English and focused on Irishness instead. The Irish faced their damaged national identity and started to change their condition by attacking and replacing the negative stereotypes of Ireland, including the Stage Irishman.

Since the loss of identity was also mirrored in the lack of national Irish literature, the idea of a new mode of characteristically Irish writing appeared. Though there existed Irish writers at that time, they mostly wrote for English audiences and did not reflect ideas and emotions of Ireland at all. Since they were still under English rule and had not yet woken up to the seriousness of their situation as a colony, Irish writers were mainly concerned with how the colonisers saw the Irish instead of creating their own Irish canon. Hence, there was no model, no established literary tradition for future Irish writers to follow. This lack of orientation made it even harder to establish a new mode for expressing an Irish identity, a fact which is emphasised in the following quotation:

The literary tradition tells a writer who he is and provides him with models for future productions. Without this, he is faced with a lack of identity. But if the writer comes from a former colony, such as Ireland, then this lack of identity is exacerbated by the confusion surrounding Irish identity in general. […] A solution to this problem was to be found in nationalism.

(MacCarthy 1997, 103)

In this respect, the Irish Literary Revival (ILR), which found its main expression in drama, is particularly decisive. It takes up a great position within the Irish Revival and is at least partly responsible for the creation of a new Irish identity within the country. The writers of the Irish Literary Revival dedicated themselves to a new way of dramatic expression which concentrated on a revival of the Irish or rather Gaelic past. While focusing on their Gaelic roots, which had been suppressed by the English for centuries, they protested against everything British. The new Irish plays were performed in the first Irish Literary Theatre, established in 1899, which was to become the Abbey Theatre in 1904. It was in general considered to be Ireland’s national theatre. New Irish playwrights provided their audiences with Irish plays which “in manner, dress, accent, syntax, setting, and plot were to represent the opposite of all that ‘Stage Irish’ had meant for centuries” (Suess 2003, 58 f.). In addition, they also contributed to the depiction of Ireland represented by women, “both as images of an ideal order which they sought to restore, and as images of an Ireland that had been betrayed, or had collaborated in its own betrayal” (Innes 1993, 178).

1.3 Decisive dramatists

The period of the Irish Literary Revival brought an important change in Irish literature and Irish society. It has also had a lasting impact on Irish history since the literature of the dramatic movement was partly responsible for future political developments in Ireland, such as the Easter Rising[1] in 1916. This thesis will focus on the beginnings and the development of the Irish Literary Revival with regard to the works of Irish dramatists who succeeded in establishing a new type of national identity in their works. Although there are several distinct personalities who were important for the literary movement, the main focus of attention will be laid on three dramatists in particular whose most important works will be examined in detail: William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey.

These writers did not form a homogenous movement. Each of them had their own artistic outlines, including different ways of portraying Ireland and expressing Irish identity. This approach often violated the (political) nationalists’ definitions of Irish writing. In their eyes, the Irish dramatists did not portray an ideal Ireland. In fact, Yeats, Synge and O’Casey rather depicted what they regarded as the ‘real’ Ireland, which often caused controversies. In addition, the Irish Literary Revival was first and foremost an Anglo-Irish movement. The three dramatists had a Protestant background. Since being Irish became more and more synonymous with Catholicism, these Protestants were less accepted than Catholic writers. They were confronted with suspicion by the Irish, who doubted the Anglo-Irish writers’ title as truly ‘Irish writers’. Not being Catholic led to a decisive question: Could a distinctly Irish national literature be created appropriately by Anglo-Irish writers?

Regardless of the controversies, each of the writers discussed in the following was equally important in creating and shaping national ideas, albeit in a different way. The process of influencing existing nationalist beliefs falls into three stages, each of them standing for one of these Irish dramatists.

The first stage was primarily concerned with the plays of William Butler Yeats, who was without doubt the outstanding figure in the development of the dramatic revival. As a dramatist Yeats was always in favour of imagination and poetic drama. His writings primarily focus on Ireland’s Celtic past but also deal with Irish peasant life, which was dignified. By presenting the Gaelic culture with its legends and heroes Yeats intended to make the Irish conscious of their historical and mythological heritage. He used traditional Celtic symbols and shaped them in his own way. With this, he succeeded in transferring them into contemporary Ireland with a slightly different, additional meaning. The most influential symbol is that of Cathleen, which always used to be the personification of Ireland. Yeats’s play The Countess Cathleen (1892) on the one hand and Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902) on the other (the latter was authored collaboratively by Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory) turned the traditional Cathleen into a symbol of a heroic, patriotic Ireland. Therefore, Yeats managed to create a unifying national symbol for Ireland, which led to a spiritual (re)awakening of the Irish.

The second decisive dramatist of the Irish Literary Revival is John Millington Synge. He did not join the literary movement until the opening of the Abbey theatre in 1904. Yet, from then on, his plays dominated the theatre until about 1907, two years before his tragic early death at the age of thirty eight. Therefore, he was an important playwright for the second stage of the Irish Literary Revival. At the time Synge’s plays were performed, the Irish had already begun to shape a new identity, which was not least due to Yeats’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan. It is important to realise that Synge’s writings differed from Yeats’s proposed ideals since Synge did not focus on Ireland’s Celtic past. Instead, he laid the emphasis on his empirical studies of the Aran Islands. As a result, his works focus on the west of Ireland, its inhabitants and their distinctive language. Synge was regarded as the enfant terrible of the dramatic movement and his works mostly led to controversies. His masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World (1907), even caused riots. At the beginning of the twentieth-century the play was seen as a violation of the existing picture of nationality. Nevertheless, the play represented Synge’s personal conception of Irish identity.

The third stage of the Irish Literary Revival began at the end of a revolutionary and politically active, albeit unsettled, period. It was dominated by the post-war playwright Sean O’Casey, whose works were also performed in the Abbey. Starting his career in the 1920s, i.e. during a time of political uproar in Ireland, O’Casey commented on the realities of Ireland’s fight for independence. While he used politics as a mere background of his works, he was primarily concerned with the working-class people of Ireland and their daily problems. O’Casey’s ‘Dublin Trilogy’ exemplifies the effect of political uproar on marginal people in Ireland, as in Juno and the Paycock (1924).

In this thesis I argue that Yeats, Synge and O’Casey helped Irish literature to become Irish, to become national again. They did not always fulfil the expectations that society had of them when expressing a subjectively Irish reality that they themselves had experienced. Nevertheless, and maybe even because of that, each of the three dramatists dedicated their own version of Irishness to the theatre. Thereby they “were of prime importance in creating a new Irish identity and thus contributed significantly to the efforts of the wider national movement” (Grote 2003, 221).

To understand the deeper meaning of the dramatists’ works it is necessary to begin by illustrating the social context at that time, for a dramatic work is always shaped and influenced by the environment in which it exists, as is its audience. This thesis sheds light on a very special atmosphere in a country, which was in desperate need of a national re-awakening. Various national movements, above all the literary movement, contributed to a new national awareness at that time. By focusing on the Irish Literary Revival, based on a variety of Irish dramatic writings, the medium theatre deserves a special treatment. After all, a play is exclusively written to be performed on stage and to be internalised by the spectators. Due to this, the theatre becomes part of the dramatic work and is thus decisive concerning the play’s message. Therefore, I agree with the following statement that

in times of acute national consciousness the theatre is the form of literature that makes the most direct appeal to the public, becoming at times a means for propaganda, but ultimately the means by which the deeper life of the people is expressed.

(O’Driscoll in O’Driscoll 1971, 12)

Along the lines of this statement, Yeats, Synge and O’Casey used the theatre to spread their nationalistic messages across Ireland, which will be illustrated in the following.

2. Influential groups/persons prior to the Irish Literary Revival

Although the Irish Literary Revival did not start until the end of the nineteenth century, there were movements or rather persons who had dealt with national thoughts before that. Actually, they influenced the future writers of the literary movement and thus can be seen as a decisive inspiration concerning the essential frame of their literary concept.

2.1 Young Ireland

According to Fallis, the first true Irish nationalists emerged during the 1840s under the name Young Ireland (cf. Fallis 1977, 25). The members, young poets such as Thomas Davis (1814-45) as its leader, Charles Gavan Duffy (1816-1903) and John Mitchel (1815-75), wanted to promote a distinctively national literature dealing with Irish life and Irish values. By focusing on harps, shamrocks and round towers and by introducing the tricolour flag (green, white and orange) the group “emphasised the iconography of modern Irish nationalism” (Killeen 2003, 34). Young Ireland strove for Irish independence and made an attempt to regenerate its country culturally. It provided the readers with Irish literature in English. In addition, the members created a weekly newspaper , The Nation, which was considered as ”the first articulate voice of the new nationalism in Ireland” (Fallis 1977, 25).

However, Young Ireland did not have the chance to flourish nor to develop its national propaganda properly due to its sudden downfall. It only existed until 1848 on account of a failed armed uprising in that year and, above all, due to the Great Famine in Ireland at that time. Still, the movement “[...] had a lasting influence on Irish history” (Fallis 1977, 25). The members of the Irish Literary Revival were inspired by Young Ireland, too. Especially William Butler Yeats was impressed by the national literature and partly used the concept for his own writings.

2.2 Standish O’Grady’s History of Ireland: Heroic Period

The same is true of Standish O’Grady’s famous book History of Ireland: Heroic Period, published in 1878 (cf. Fallis 1977, 5). Instead of dealing with Irish history as such the book presented the reader with legends of ancient Ireland. O’Grady mostly concentrated on stories of the ancient Irish hero Cuchulain, who, according to Yeats, “had the passion of victory, […] overcame all men, and died warring upon the waves, because they alone had the strength to overcome him” (Yeats 2001, 373). As a result, Cuchulain became a model hero to the Irish, embodying strength and virtue.

O’Grady’s focus on the Celtic past was a decisive inspiration for the writers of the Irish Literary Revival. Otherwise, Yeats would not have given O’Grady the honour of naming him ‘the father of the Irish Revival’ (Yeats cited in Kiberd 1989, 277). In addition, Seamus Deane remarked:

The essential ground-theme of all [O’Grady’s] writings is that of a lonely heroism betrayed. That, branching into the accompanying threnody for the loss of a sublime moment in civilization, and its replacement by a squalid, money-counting society, completes the background of Yeats’s social thought.

(Deane cited in Innes 1993, 44)

This ‘social thought’ was depicted by the writers of the literary movement, above all by Yeats. Similar to O’Grady, Yeats centred on the ancient past of Ireland, its traditions and heroes.

2.3 Charles Steward Parnell ─ a political precursor of the Irish Revival

The Irish politician Charles Steward Parnell (1846-91) had the same opinion about the Irish disadvantaged peasantry as the future Irish dramatists. Parnell tried to improve the situation of the peasants and was therefore involved in spreading nationalist ideas before the actual Irish Revival started.

In 1875, Parnell was elected to parliament where he committed himself to Home Rule for Ireland. He became president of Michael Davitt’s Land League in 1879 (cf. Mac Annaidh 2001, 155). This organisation campaigned for a reform in Irish landholding laws. It aimed at improving the situation of the rural poor through fairer rents; in other words it intended to “politicise[] the peasantry” (Watson 1979, 22). This aspect was important for future literary developments since it “[…] prepared the way for the transmogrification of the peasant by the writers of the literary revival” (ibid). Hence, the latter continued in a literary tradition what Parnell had tried to achieve politically before he fell from power and died soon afterwards in 1891. Parnell’s success in campaigning for the Irish peasantry was not forgotten. On the contrary, it indirectly shaped the way for the beginning of the Irish Revival. As Yeats noted: ‘The modern literature of Ireland, and indeed all that stir of thought which prepared for the Anglo-Irish war, began when Parnell fell from power in 1891’ (Yeats cited in Foster 1989, 431). Accordingly, unlike many other European nationalisms, in Ireland the culture followed the politics (cf. Killeen 2003, 74). Because of politicians such as Parnell, who “had set the material template for nationalism” (ibid), the cultural revival in Ireland began to flourish.

3. The Irish Revival – the development of a cultural revolution

At the end of the nineteenth century there was a sudden interest in Irish culture in general and Irish literature in particular. Therefore,

contemporaries were astonished at the speed with which cultural self-awareness grew in Ireland […] and already in 1893 Dublin critics were conscious that Irish literature had taken a new aspect, that there was an interest in books and ideas such as had not been known since the Young Ireland movement in the forties.

(Kelly cited in Chaudhry 2001, 203)

The increasing interest in literature replaced the commitment to politics at that time. That is the reason why the time between 1891 (Parnell’s death) and the year 1916 (Easter Rising) is seen as a “vacuum in politics” (Foster 1989, 431), for the political energy of Ireland was transformed into cultural energy. As a result, various national movements were concerned with the Irish culture. Hence, even before the foundation of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 there were organisations which propagated a cultural revival in Ireland and which therefore embodied cultural nationalism. Indeed, according to MacCarthy,

all the elements [of cultural nationalism] are there, the idea of ‘moral Regeneration’, the valuing of contacts with the grass roots, the rejection of the foreign and […] ‘resuscitation’, the idea that culture can be revived again from its once authentic and spontaneous origins.

(MacCarthy 1997, 65)

Each of the national movements was unmistakably anti-British, which can be seen in the general resistance to British influences in any form . Thus, they focused on different aspects mirroring Irishness instead of Englishness according to their main concerns. The Irish wanted to prove that they were not inferior to the English but equally capable. On the one hand, it was impossible for them to claim that English aspects belonged to their Irish nationality. On the other hand, not to have any of these aspects could again prove their inferiority in the eyes of the English. The Irish found a solution in the national parallelism, a term coined by de Fréine in 1978 (cf. Tovey/Hannan/Abramson 1989, 16). Its application was quite simple: the Irish used typical English aspects for (re-)inventing an Irish counterpart, which then would accentuate Irish nationality. The result could be found in different areas. Whereas the English had football, the Irish invented Gaelic football. Other examples were the Gaelic script of the Irish as a counterpart to the Roman script of the English, or the revival of the Irish language, promoted by the Gaelic League, which was “the clearest and strongest expression of ‘national parallelism’ […]” (ibid).

In the following, I am going to present the most important cultural movements of the Irish Revival that embody the aforementioned national parallelism, so as to underline the fact that there were indeed distinct non-literary organisations which were also crucial for the development of an independent Irish identity.

3.1 The Gaelic Athletic Association

In 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was established in Thurles, County Tipperary. Its purpose was to revive Irish sports, especially to preserve and promote the ancient game of hurling (cf. Killeen 2003, 75). This is the reason why the members of the GAA were forbidden to play ‘foreign games’, meaning English games, such as football, rugby, hockey and cricket. The GAA was also responsible for the development of the famous Irish sport of Gaelic football, which became "the most popular spectator sport in twentieth-century Ireland“ (Killeen 2003, 75), an achievement of which the Irish are still proud. When the Archbishop of Cashel, Thomas Croke, blessed the newly established GAA, he pointed to the colonial situation of the Irish, especially to

the ugly and irritating fact that we are daily importing from England not only her manufactured goods ... but together with her fashions, her accents, her vicious literature, her music, her dances, and her mannerism, her games also and her pastimes, to the utter discredit of our own grand national sports.

(Croke cited in Townshend 1998, 39)

He continued with a realistic albeit pessimistic outlook for Ireland’s future by stating that “we [the Irish] had better abjure our nationality” (ibid), if Ireland were not willing to change its condition in the following twenty years. Croke did not solely restrict his statement to sports but made clear that the British were dominating every thinkable domain in Ireland. He spoke against any Anglicisation of his own country and especially propagated Irish sports. He emphasised his conviction that in order to re-establish a national identity Ireland had to do something about its current situation.

As well as being a cultural organisation, the GAA was also politically active. From the very beginning it was a Fenian vehicle[2], which allowed “[...] its members and organisers to combine politics and athletics as an aspect of the ‘perpetual war with England’“ (Boyce 1990, 217). It was even substantially supported by a radical secret society called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), known also as the Fenian Brotherhood. The GAA was aggressively Parnellite and then, after Parnell’s fall, belonged to the left of the nationalist movement (cf Killeen 2003, 75). On the whole, it “became the great popular mobilising force in Irish recreational life“ (Killeen 2003, 75), since it played a decisive part in emphasising the importance of Irishness and strengthening the influence of Irish culture on life. In doing so, it succeeded in providing the Irish with a native consciousness.

3.2 The Gaelic League as promoter of the Irish language

This holds also true for the Gaelic League, another Irish national, anti-British organisation. It was formed in 1893 by Eoin Mac Néill (1867-1945) and Douglas Hyde (1860-1949). The former was an historian of early and medieval Ireland while the latter was a scholar of Gaelic literature and language in Dublin (cf. Killeen 2003, 70), who was to become the first president of Ireland in 1938. The Gaelic League wanted to preserve Gaelic as the national language of Ireland. In addition, it campaigned to promote the study and proliferation of Gaelic literature (cf. Purdon 1999, 37). In 1892, Douglas Hyde had given a lecture on The Necessity for De-Anglicising the Irish People. Here, he stated that ‘[…] we [the Irish] will become what, I fear we are largely at present, a nation of imitators […], lost to the power of native initiative and alive only to second-hand assimilation’ (Hyde cited in Mathews 2003, 19). Obviously, he prophesied that Ireland would experience no change concerning its status as a colony in the future if nothing was done to prevent the country from succumbing English influences. The most important aspect for Hyde, in this respect, resided in the use of the native language. This was a necessary prerequisite in order to define Irishness again. Hyde became the president of the Gaelic League and made its aim quite clear: ‘[We] must at once arrest the decay of the [Gaelic] language’ (Hyde cited in Townshend 1998, 40).

The decay of the Irish language had been a result of the country’s historical background and was more than obvious in the 1880s. In the nineteenth century, there was a clear dominance of the English over the Irish language in Ireland. For the majority of the population English became the second language and then even the mother tongue. There were various factors which contributed to the continuing rapid decline of Irish and which helped the English language to gain an increasing ascendancy.

The first decisive event in the nineteenth century took place in 1801, the year in which the ‘Act of Union’ was passed. From then on, the Irish parliament joined the British parliament in the newly established ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. As a consequence, Ireland was more dependent on the British mainland and so, automatically more connected to, as well as dependent on, the foreign language. The development especially increased with the introduction of the system of the national schools in 1831, which made English the only medium of teaching at school (cf. Hansen/Carls/Lucko 1996, 81). Irish was not even taught as a subject. Naturally, this process led to a further decline, in the number of Irish speaking people in Ireland.

Still, it was probably the Great Famine of the 1840s that had the most drastic impact on the Irish and their language. The famine had tragic consequences for the whole population and for the future development of the country. Due to a devastating potato blight in the years 1845 to 1852 the population of Ireland decreased from 8.2 million to 6.5 million people. 10 per cent of the population died, another 10 per cent emigrated (cf. Killeen 2003, 44), in part to Australia, even to England, but mostly to America. In the case of the Great Famine one might therefore even speak of a language death since both death and emigration of the Irish population caused the immediate decline in the number of Irish language speakers and hence also of the Irish language as such, thus initiating the language death in the long run. Prior to the Famine about half of the Irish people spoke Irish. Of anyone who was born in Ireland between 1861 and 1871, i.e. after the Great Famine, only 13 per cent could still claim to be native Irish speakers (cf. Townshend 1998, 43), and at the end of the nineteenth century the majority of the Irish population was already predominantly English-speaking; for as Fallis notes, “the traditional language of Ireland, Gaelic, was virtually dead by 1880 [...]” (Fallis 1977, 31). By 1901 the number of monolingual Irish speakers had finally decreased to 0.5 per cent, and even those people who could still speak Irish at all amounted to only 14 per cent of the population (cf. Townshend 1998, 43).

The Gaelic League did a lot to improve Ireland’s language situation, which had also affected the national identity during the centuries of British rule. For Hyde there was only one way to restore the national consciousness of the Irish. He claimed that only through the Irish language was there a chance to regain the lost identity, since it was the only instrument that was not borrowed from the English but which was rooted deeply in Irish history and thus belonged exclusively to the Irish. Only through the use of Ireland’s native language could “Irish identity […] be secured for the future, so that Ireland could lead its own life in its own way, and with its own ‘centre’” (Tovey/Hannan/Abramson 1989, 18). Hyde took up the idea of the Young Ireland movement that a national revival included a cultural as well as a linguistic independence. In a Gaelic League pamphlet, Ireland’s defence – Her Language, Father Patrick F. Kavanagh emphasised the indispensable connection between language and identity: ‘There is no stronger rampart behind which nationality can entrench itself than a native language. Erect, then, the defence around your nationality which your foreign enemy has so long striven to destroy’ (Kavanagh cited in O’Brien 1998, 104).

In this respect, the Gaelic League could also make reference to other countries which had succeeded in developing their own national languages after years of oppression, for example Norway, which gained independence from Denmark in 1814. However, not until the middle of the nineteenth century was there a national cultural movement in Norway which focused on the language question. It was successful in so far as there existed a standardised version of Norwegian by the 1880s. But most importantly, from then on, this language shared the status of Norway’s official language with Danish and was thus treated equally. The development of the Norwegian language was an important model for the Gaelic League and helped it to follow its aim of cultural independence via the Irish national language.

To re-establish Irish as the common vernacular, the Gaelic League conducted language classes in Gaelic, published stories, plays and even a newspaper called Claidheamh Soluis, the Sword of Light (cf. Killeen 2003, 70). Apart from that, it campaigned for bilingual street names and signposts and often succeeded in establishing them as can still be seen in Ireland today. Other successes of the League were the introduction of Irish as a regular subject at school in 1901, and establishing it at least partly as a medium of communication at school in 1904. Further “its most striking practical achievement was the decision of the newly founded National University (1908) to make Irish a compulsory matriculation subject” (Townshend 1998, 42).

As the increasing success might suggest, the Gaelic League expanded gradually throughout the 1890s, although it had far fewer members than the Gaelic Athletic Association (cf. Hopkinson 2002, 11). There was a boom in membership, which can partly be explained by the effect of the Boer War (1899-1902), which, according to Foster, was "in this area as in others nearly as crucial an event for Irish nationalism as the death of Parnell“ (Foster 1989, 448). Being sympathetic to the small Boer nation in South Africa, which lost the war against England, the Irish developed a corresponding identification with native Ireland. This attitude distanced themselves even more from the English. It is not surprising that in 1900 “[...] the League reached out beyond the narrow educated group [...] to a wider public” (Townshend 1998, 41). By 1908, it could claim six hundred branches throughout the country as its own.

In contrast to the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League was a mere cultural organisation. It argued that language revival would come before politics (cf. Foster 1988, 450), which turned out to be at least true of the first twenty-two years of the League’s existence (cf. Killeen 2003, 71). Then, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the Irish Republican Brotherhood eventually took over the Gaelic League and as a consequence, Hyde resigned as president (cf. Foster 1989, 450).

3.3 ‘Inghinidhe na hÉireann’ ─ An Irish feminist movement

At that time, there was also an Irish feminist movement in Ireland. It was founded in the ferment of the anti-Boer War movement by Maud Gonne (1866-1953) in 1900 under the name ‘Inghinidhe na hÉireann’ (Daughters of Ireland) (cf. Foster 1989, 449). Like similar movements the Daughters of Ireland did not hide their anti-Englishness either and promoted the Gaelic language. While wanting to achieve cultural as well as political independence they remained a cultural movement, as most of these nationalist movements did. Membership was only possible for people of Irish birth or descent and aimed at

discourag[ing] the reading and circulation of low English literature, the singing of English songs, the attending of vulgar English entertainments at the theatre and music-hall, and [at] combat[ing] in every way English influence, which is doing so much injury to the artistic taste and refinement of the Irish people.

(Foster 1989, 450)

As this quotation illustrates, the Daughters of Ireland shared their aversion to any British cultural influence with all other nationalistic movements mentioned so far, even if each organisation had different aims and philosophies. What they had in common, too, was the fact that each of them participated in the Irish Revival in their own way in order to give Irish nationality a new shape. As Foster rightly states: “The cultural revival of the 1890s answered the need of the Irish intelligentsia for self-definition and provided a rationale for cultural Anglophobia […]” (Foster 1989, 456). In fact, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League and the Irish Literary Revival became known as the ‘New Nationalism’(cf. Hopkinson 2002, 12). According to the Dublin Castle police report of 1901, they even represented the most active organisations in Dublin at that time (cf. Foster 1989, 446); in retrospect they can be seen as representing a cultural revolution.

Any nationalistic organisation in the 1880s was an important contribution to the growth of a new national identity in Ireland. However, the Irish Literary Revival was the most effective in this respect. That is the reason why, in the following chapters, I am going to focus on the development of a national theatre in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century in order to examine the theatre’s influences on the aforementioned aspects of establishing and strengthening the development of a national identity in Ireland.

4. Yeats and the literary movement in Dublin

William Butler Yeats was the dominant figure of the Irish Literary Revival, for his “[...] creative talents and high ambitions for his country marked him out as the champion of a new sense of Irishness and a new and respected place for Ireland in the world” (Boyce 1990, 217). Since the literary movement started with Yeats, it is necessary to give some autobiographical information about the dramatist.

William Butler Yeats came from a Protestant middle-class background. He was born in Dublin on 13 June 1865. (cf. Larrissy in Yeats 2001, introduction). His family, Yeats’s parents, two sisters and one brother, moved to London in 1867 and stayed there until 1880. Accordingly, Yeats spent his childhood and young adulthood in England. During this time he had the opportunity of observing the English and of developing his own opinion about them. Apparently, he perceived them as “particularly narrow-minded, even xenophobic” (Suess 2003, 138). His parents gave him further support in this negative assessment through their anti-English bias.

This early influence and the holidays Yeats spent in Ireland emphasised his consciousness of being Irish. Though living in London, Yeats regularly visited his home country with his siblings during their school holidays (cf. Fitz-Simon 1983, 135). The children visited their grandparents, Protestant millers and ship owners, in Sligo. The time spent at this place was an important experience for them. It gave them confirmation of “the superiority of the Irish ethos not only in scenery and climate but in manners, conversation, artistic sensibility and gentlemanly behaviour” (Foster 1998, 19). In addition, Sligo represented a place of magical quality distant from London’s bohemia and from the Dublin bourgeois world. It was a romantic world, which had a decisive impact on the future artists Jack Butler and William Butler Yeats by giving them inspiration. Jack illustrated the magical world of Sligo in his famous paintings whereas William Butler used the West of Ireland with its beauty, its magic, and its fairytales as the main source of his creative writings.

William Butler Yeats went to Dublin High School and subsequently to the Metropolitan School of Art. He was about twenty years old when his first poems were published in the Dublin University Review. In 1889, he published his first book of poems, The Wanderings of Oisin and other Poems. Yeats was to write additional poems and various plays. In 1896, he met two important personalities, who were to accompany his future career. First of all, he became acquainted with Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) and developed a close friendship with her, which “would provide an Irish base to replace Sligo, and a mentor who would in many ways replace his family” (Foster 1998, 170). The other important person Yeats met in the same year was John Millington Synge. He had played an important role as an Irish playwright since the formation of the Abbey Theatre and also became a close friend of Yeats.

In 1917, Yeats, whose love for the Irish actress and nationalist Maud Gonne remained unrequited, eventually married Georgie Hyde-Lees (cf. Larrissy in Yeats 2001, chronology) with whom he had two children. In 1923, William Butler Yeats received the Nobel Prize for literature in Stockholm. He died in France, on 28 January, 1939, after several years of heart problems and nephritis. In 1948, Yeats’s body was reinterred at Drumcliff churchyard, Sligo.

Although the Irish Literary Revival was first and foremost Yeats’s own achievement, the dramatist was inspired by the important Irish nationalist John O’Leary (1830-1907) before he could realise his own national ideas.

O’Leary was a nationalist, Fenian writer and editor of The Irish People, a revolutionary newspaper (cf. Fallis 1977, 3). As a result of his political activities, he was imprisoned for twenty years but released after only five years. However, he had to live in exile until 1885. As a nationalist he dedicated his life to Irish Home Rule, as Thomas Davis had done before him. Actually, O’Leary had also been influenced by Davis’s nationalist writings. Therefore, he was particularly interested in Irish literature. After his return to Ireland, O’Leary gathered around him a group of young Irish writers who were looking for literary inspiration, among them William Butler Yeats.

Yeats was already a poet, albeit unknown at the time, when he met the famous Irish nationalist in 1885, an event that had a great impact on him. O’Leary gave Yeats further practical support by providing him with money and even with a job as a journalist (ibid, 5). But foremost, he wanted Yeats to become acquainted with Irish literature and therefore supplied him with books. He gave Yeats the poems of Davis and the Young Ireland movement. Apparently, due to John O’Leary’s tutoring Yeats had his first conscious contact with Irish literature which awakened his literary interest in the ancient times of his country. As a consequence, Yeats soon became an expert on Irish folklore after having studied ancient Irish myths and legends, or rather their translations into English, since Yeats’s knowledge of Gaelic was insufficient.

John O’Leary’s most important leitmotif was the interdependence of literature and nationality. His conviction that ‘[t]here is no great literature without nationality, no great nationality without literature’ (O’Leary cited in Marcus 1970, 1) is an important declaration. It led to the actual idea of a new national literature in Ireland. O’Leary gave his own definition of Irish writing, according to which it should include: a) Irish writers writing about Ireland, b) a recognisably Irish style and c) the English language, since Irish was almost dead (cf. Fallis 1977, 5). Even if O’Leary campaigned for Irish writing in the English language he made clear that it would still be national. Owing to the distinctive English language of the Irish people, a very different style and sound from the English spoken and written by the British would be developed. Besides, the choice of topics was equally important. Irish writing would succeed by focusing on a unique topic, namely ancient Ireland with its mythologies and legends as well as modern Ireland with its folklore and history (ibid, 6). Another concern of O’Leary was that Irish writing should be non-political though national in expression and style.

[It] had to further the cause of nationalism, but it should do so not by creating propaganda but by creating a literature so essentially Irish, so reflective of the national imagination, that it would prepare the country spiritually for the coming day of political liberation.

(Fallis 1977, 6)

Apparently, the idea of a national Irish literature can be seen as a result of the friendship between Yeats and O’Leary, the former functioning as writer, the latter as thinker (cf. Fallis 1977, 4 f.). Together they formed the basis of the relationship between literature and nationalism in Ireland. As Yeats himself noted: "From these debates, from O’Leary’s conversation, and from the Irish books he lent or gave me has come all I have set my hand to since“ (Yeats 2001, 455), and eventually “I found my theme” (ibid, 379). Yeats’s “theme” was the idea of a national literature in his country, which it had so far been lacking, a fact that needed to be changed in the future.

The first development in this direction was the foundation of the Irish Literary Society in London in December 1891, which was initiated by Yeats. The thousands of Irish immigrants living in London at that time, who had fled there after the Great Famine of the 1840s, were full of hope for a future of Irish writing. Therefore, the society’s purpose was “to foster an awareness of Irish culture and history among Irish people living in the ‘capital of the enemy’” (Fallis 1977, 10). In May 1892, a similar society was established in Ireland with John O’Leary as president: the National Literary Society in Dublin. Its aim was to publish Irish literature, folklore and legends. Like the Irish Literary Society in London, its programme consisted in giving public lectures in Dublin and London, Irish poetry readings and also the publication of various Irish writings. In addition, Yeats and other Irish writers intended to create an audience for their works not only in England but especially in their home country of Ireland. In doing so, “[t]he intention was to create as much impact as possible on national opinion and national taste by encouraging Irish readers to look on Ireland rather than England as the epicentre of cultural value” (Mathews 2003, 14). Both societies were in favour of awakening the national consciousness of the Irish. Still, Yeats wanted to go a step further to increase the cultural awareness even more. He had a certain plan in mind: the establishment of an Irish Theatre.


[1] The Easter Rising was an insurrection in Dublin on Easter Monday, 1916, against British rule. One of its leaders, Patrick Pearse, read out the proclamation of the Irish Republic. Yet, the rising was beaten down by British troops and fifteen leaders were executed in the aftermath (cf. Mac Annaidh 2001, 70f.).

[2] Fenian Brotherhood : an Irish revolutionary organisation which set out to establish an independent, non-sectarian Ireland by means of the armed struggle (cf. Mac Annaidh 2001, 75).

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National identity in the dramatic works of Yeats, Synge and O'Casey
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar/Abteilung für Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaften der Terchnischen Universität Braunschweig)
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Magistra Artium Inken Schulze (Author), 2006, National identity in the dramatic works of Yeats, Synge and O'Casey, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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