Reader's Encyclopedia

Irish Renaissance

A term used to describe the outburst of creative activity at the turn of the last century, which grew out of the attempt to awaken the Irish people to the wealth and value of their native culture. The movement, which had been developing very slowly in the latter half of the 19th century, achieved its major impetus from the political martyrdom of the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell, an event which caused many thoughtful Irishmen to abandon the attempt to achieve a national identity within an English framework. The Gaelic culture with which the movement identified itself had been, prior to the English invasion in the 12th century, among the richest and most advanced in Europe, particularly distinguished by the enormous prestige with which it invested the tribal bard or storyteller.

The movement itself had two major developments: the activities of the Gaelic League, an organization founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde to restore Gaelic as the official language of Ireland; and the formation of the Irish National Theatre Society in 1901, out of which grew the famous Abbey Theatre Company. The leading figures of this latter movement were William Butler Yeats, Edward Martyn (1859 - 1927), George Moore, Lady Gregory, and the actors William (1872 - 1947) and Frank (1870 - 1931) Fay. The Abbey Theatre soon became (and remained for the next thirty years) a storm center, the result of the brilliant but, at the time, controversial plays of Yeats, John M. Synge, and Sean O'Casey. Riots and vigorous protestations greeted the productions of Synge 's Playboy of the Western World, Yeats's Countess Cathleen (1892) and O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars (1926) and Juno and the Paycock. Despite the protests at home, the Abbey soon developed an international reputation, and the players, featuring such performers as Sara Allgood (1883 - 1950) and Barry Fitzgerald (1888 - 1961), enjoyed their greatest success, ironically enough, on tour in England. Other significant Abbey dramatists were Padraic Colum, Lennox Robinson, and Paul Vincent Carroll. Although the Abbey's greatest days are now past, its impact on the modern theatre is still felt and its legacy may be seen in the work of two recent Irish dramatists of note, Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett.

In nondramatic literature, the revival was sparked by the poetry of Yeats and A.E. (q.v.), the fanciful and charming re - creations of Irish legends in the novels and poems of James Stephens, the more realistic treatment of contemporary life in the novels and short stories of Liam O'Flaherty, Sean O'Faolain, and Frank O'Connor. The irony that marks so much of the Irish Renaissance -- its great achievement lies, not in the restoration of Irish culture, but in the immeasurable enrichment of English literature -- is nowhere so pronounced as in one of its greatest products: James Joyce, who so steadfastly refused to be associated with the revival and yet whose work is saturated with Irish life.