J.M. Synge, ‘The Old and New in Ireland’ (1902)

‘Ten years ago, in the summer of 1892, an article on Literary Dublin, by Miss Barlow, author of Bogland Studies and some other charming work, appeared in a leading English weekly. After dealing with Professor Mahaffy, some other Irish writers, and the periodicals of Dublin, she summed up in these words: ‘This bird’s eye view has revealed no brilliant prospect, and the causes of dimness considered, it is difficult to point out any quarter of the horizon as a probable source of rising light.’

No one who knows Ireland and Irish life will be likely to charge Miss Barlow with lack of insight, although when she wrote the literary movement which is now so apparent was beginning everywhere through the country. Ten years ago all, or nearly all, the writers who have since done well, W. B. Yeats, George Russell, Standish O’Grady, Edward Martyn, Lady Gregory, and Douglas Hyde were at work, but so obscurely that they were quite away from the eye of the general public. It is not easy to realise the change these years have made. In those days if an odd undergraduate of Trinity felt a vague longing to know more of Ireland and her past than he could learn from his teachers or companions, he had to wander on Aston’s Quay and Bachelor’s Walk, picking up ugly pamphlets with Grattan’s Speeches in them, or Davis’s Poems, or the [T]rue History of Ireland from before the Flood. If he wished to learn a little of the Irish language and went to the professor appointed to teach it in Trinity College, he found an amiable old clergyman who made him read a crabbed version of the New Testament, and seemed to know nothing, or at least to care nothing, about the old literature of Ireland, or the fine folk-tales and folk-poetry of Munster and Connaught. In the libraries he could find a few books on the antiquities of Ireland that had interest and scholarship, and with a few other volumes, such as W. Stokes’ Life of Petrie, the antiquarian, he could make the beginning of an intellectual atmosphere for himself that gave life to Dublin. Most of the figures he called up were respectable students and scribes, but there were one or two men, like Clarence Mangan, who had the peculiar restlessness that goes everywhere with artistic life.

Those days had the incitement of the early spring in Ireland when there are wild evenings that are filled with uneasiness and hope, because they promise everything and give nothing but their promise. Now everything is changed. We have fine editions of books by W. B. Yeats and other Irish writers in all our bookshop windows. One evening we can read the Shadowy Waters and catch a tenuous sadness, such as we find in Aglavaine et Selysette, and the next evening we can go on to some new writer in the Irish language, and read some little work like Faith and Famine, by Father Dineen, where we have vigour and talent, using a form and psychology that recall the predecessors of Titus Andronicus or Tamburlaine.

This double way in which the new Irish spirit is showing itself has many points of interest. With the present generation the linguistic atmosphere of Ireland has become definitely English enough, for the first time, to allow work to be done in English that is perfectly Irish in its essence, yet has sureness and purity of form. A generation or two ago a few writers like Aubrey de Vere, who penetrated themselves with English thought and English traditions of literature, wrote of Ireland with a certain easiness and grace, but writers who lived close to the soul of their country were kept back by the uncertainty of her linguistic sense, and nearly always failed to reach the finer cadences of English.

Perhaps English critics when dealing with Irish men of talent have not always remembered this matter of language. The faults of early Anglo-Irish work are not due to this cause alone, yet it is accountable for many things, and no criticism can take us very far that does not make allowance for the phases of material. In this special case Ireland is not alone. The number of foreigners in America for whom English is a language they have either learned for themselves or picked up from parents who had learned it tends more than anything else to cause the uncertainty of literary taste in that country. American artists and musicians are to be met with everywhere who have fine taste in their own art; yet who speak a crude jargon, and have comparatively little feeling for the intimate qualities of literature. Again, roughness of the spoken language - when it is not a primitive roughness - leads, or tends to lead, to burlesque writing, and with this in one’s mind it is interesting to compare the school of Mark Twain with the crudely humorous ‘typical Irishman’, who was present everywhere in Irish writing till quite recently.

To return to Ireland. While the new blossom due, if these views are correct, to the final decay of Irish among the national classes of Leinster was beginning to open, the old roots in Munster and the West began to put out a new growth. Some of this new Irish work has very considerable value, but what one cannot but ask, will be its influence on the culture of Ireland? Will the Gaelic stifle the English once more, or will the English stifle the English new hope of the Gaels?

The Gaelic League with the whole movement for language revival is so powerful that it is hard to think it will pass away without leaving a mark on Ireland, yet its more definite hope seems quite certain to end in disappointment. No small island placed between two countries which speak the same language, like England and America, can hope to keep up a different tongue. English is like to remain the language of Ireland, and no one, I think, need regret the likelihood. If Gaelic came back strongly from the West the feeling for English which the present generation has attained would be lost again, and in the best circumstances it is probable that Leinster and Ulster would take several centuries to assimilate Irish perfectly enough to make it a fit mode of expression for the finer emotions which now occupy literature. In the meantime, the opening culture of Ireland would be thrown back indefinitely, and there would, perhaps, be little gain to make up for this certain loss. Modern peasant Gaelic is full of rareness and beauty, but if it was sophisticated by journalists and translators - as it would certainly be sophisticated in the centuries I have spoken of - it would lose all its freshness, and then the limits, which now make its charm, would tend to prevent all further development. It is a different thing to defile a well and an inlet of the sea.

If, however, the Gaelic League can keep the cruder powers of the Irish mind occupied in a healthy and national way till the influence of Irish literature, written in English, is more definite in Irish life, the half-cultured classes may come over to the side of the others, and give an intellectual unity to the country of the highest value.

For the future of the Anglo-Irish writers everything is hopeful. The Irish reading public is still too limited to keep up an independent school of Irish men of letters, yet Irish writers are recognised, to some extent, as the best judges of Irish literary work, and it may be hoped that we have seen the last of careless writing addressed to an English public that was eager to be amused, and did not always take the trouble to distinguish in Irish books between what was futile and what had real originality and merit.

Religious questions, also, are beginning to put less restriction on Irish culture. Everywhere the Catholic population are becoming more alive to intellectual matters, and the harder forms of Protestantism are losing ground. There have been many fine scholars of this latter persuasion in Ireland, due to the influence of Trinity College, but as a class they have too often shown their kinship with the early reformers of whom Erasmus wrote: ‘Evangelicos istos, cum multis aliis, tum hoc nomine praecipue odi, quod per eos ubique languent, fugent, jacent, intereunt bonae literae sine quibus quid est hominum vita?’

[...] The theory due to Mr. George Moore that Ireland must learn Irish in order to write a literature because the English language is too threadbare to serve the imagination is not quite tenable.

[...] It is perhaps more difficult to write the English of [our] time than the English of Elizabethan writers, but their language in a sense could not express the things with which we are haunted.

[...] If a well is made foul no one can approach it, but the sea is indifferent to everything and in a certain [sense] the English language is like the sea which goes round the world as it does. [...] If Mr. Moore maintained that English literature had lost its vitality he could have made a much more plausible case, but it is absurd to say that in all the parts of the world where English is spoken, where people rage with it, and use it when they are filled with passion and love, that no body of men can ever rise up who will write the few score of plays or poems, or the few volumes on life and criticism that are all that is needed to make a chapter in literature.

[...] If anyone will compare the wistful and delicate gaiety of a great part of the finer Irish jigs or the dancing of the peasants in the few localities where they are still quite unsophisticated with the Irish humours we are given by the Anglo-Irish writers of the last century he will feel how much there is in their country that has been pitifully interpreted. At the last representations of the Irish Literary Theatre a little drama by Dr. Douglas Hyde was acted in Irish and in this little drama there was a trace - a first rather tentative trace of the real Irish humour.


Editor’s Ftn. remarks on drafts of this article in Notebook 30, and further quotes from unprinted sections: ‘Mr. W. B. Yeats is the first writer who has written in an Irish spirit with a full appreciation of English rhythms.... [he] has been attacked over and over by the Gaelic enthusiasts because he writes in English. The Gaelic enthusiasts when they write in Gaelic would certainly be attacked by Mr. Yeats, if he could read them. Most of us have a certain satisfaction when we read the productions of the Gaelic League that these writers use a language that is not intelligible outside their club-room doors.


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