Representative Irish Tales, ed. Mary Helen Thuente [1891; rep. edn] (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979) - Yeats’s Introduction [pp.25-32]

'Chance and Destiny have between them woven two-thirds of all history, and of the history of Ireland well-nigh the whole. The literature of a nation, on the other hand, is spun out of its heart. If you would know Ireland - body and soul - you must read its poems and stories. They came into existence to please nobody but the people of Ireland. Government did not make them on the one hand, nor bad seasons on the other. They are Ireland talking to herself. In these two little volumes I give specimens of a small part of this literature - the prose tales of modern Irish life. I have made the selection in such a way as to illustrate as far as possible the kind of witness they bear to Irish character. In this introduction I intend to explain the fashion I read them in, the class limitations I allow for, the personal bias that seems to me to have directed this novelist or that other. These limitations themselves, this bias even, will show themselves to be moods characteristic of the country.

I notice very distinctly in all Irish literature two different accents - the accent of the gentry, and the less polished accent of the peasantry and those near them; a division roughly into the voice of those who lived lightly and gayly, and those who took man and his fortunes with much seriousness and even at times mournfully. The one has found its most typical embodiment in the tales and novels of Croker, Lover, and Lever, and the other in the ruder but deeper work of Carleton, Kickham, and the two Banims.

There is perhaps no other country in the world the style and nature of whose writers have been so completely governed by their birth and social standing. Lever and Lover, and those like them, show constantly the ideals of a class that held its acres once at the sword’s point, and a little later were pleased by the tinsel villainy of the Hell Fire Club - a class whose existence has, on the whole, been a pleasant thing enough for the world. It introduced a new wit - a humour whose essence was dare-devilry and good comradeship, half real, half assumed. For Ireland, on the other hand, it has been almost entirely an evil, and not the least of its sins against her has been the creation in the narrow circle of its [25] dependants of the pattern used later on for that strange being called sometimes “the stage Irishman”. They had found the serious passions and convictions of the true peasant troublesome, and longed for a servant who would make them laugh, a tenant who would always appear merry in his checkered rags. The result was that there grew up round about the big houses a queer mixture of buffoonery and chicanery tempered by plentiful gleams of better things - hearts, grown crooked, where laughter was no less mercenary than the knavery. The true peasant remained always in disfavour as “plotter”, “rebel”, or man in some way unfaithful to his landlord. The knave type flourished till the decay of the gentry themselves, and is now extant in the boatmen, guides, and mendicant hordes that gather round tourists, while they are careful to trouble at no time any one belonging to the neighbourhood with their century-old jokes. The tourist has read of the Irish peasant in the only novels of Irish life he knows, those written by and for an alien gentry. He has expectations to be fulfilled. The mendicants follow him for fear he might be disappointed. He thinks they are types of Irish poor people. He does not know that they are merely a portion of the velvet of aristocracy now fallen in the dust.

Samuel Lover, confined by the traditions of his class, and having its dependants about him, took pleasure in celebrating the only peasant-life he knew. His stories, with seldom more than the allowable exaggerations of the humorist, describe the buffoon Irishman with the greatest vigour and humour. “Barry O’Reirdon” is an incomparable chronicle. The error is with those who have taken from his novels their notion of all Irishmen. Handy Andy has been the cause of much misconception, and yet, like all he wrote, is full of truthful pages and poetic feeling. Samuel Lover had a deal more poetry in him than Lever. It gives repose and atmosphere to his stories and crops up charmingly in his songs. “The Whistling Thief”’, for instance, is no less pretty than humorous. But at all times it is the kind of poetry that shines round ways of life other than our own. It is the glamour of distance, and is the same feeling that in a previous age crowded the boards of theatres with peasant girls in high-heeled shoes, and shepherds carrying crooks fluttering with ribbons. At the same time it has a real and quite lawful charm.

Crofton Croker, the historian of the fairies and an accomplished master of this kind of poetry, was much more palpably injured than was Lover by his narrow conception of Irish life. He had to deal with materials dug out of the very soul of the [26] populace. You feel the falsity at once. The people take the fairies and spirits much more seriously. Under his hands the great kingdom of the sidhe lost its nobility and splendour. “The gods of the earth” dwindled to dancing mannikins - buffoons of the darkness. The slighter matters of other-world life - the humour, the pathos - fared better. “The Priest’s Supper” and “Daniel O’Rourke” deserve to be immortal. I was unfortunately prevented by the plan of these volumes - a plan that does not allow me to stray from Irish human nature to Irish fairy nature - from including either, but I have substituted a fine conversation with an Irish “fairy doctor”, or village seer.

Charles Lever, unlike Lover and Croker, wrote mainly for his own class. His books are quite sufficiently truthful, but more than any other Irish writer has he caught the ear of the world and come to stand for the entire nation. The vices and virtues of his characters are alike those of the gentry - a gentry such as Ireland has had, with no more sense of responsibility, as a class, than have the dullahans, thivishes, sowlths, bowas, and water sheries of the spirit-ridden peasantry. His characters, however, are in no way lacking in the qualities of their defects - having at most times a hospitable, genial, good soldier-like disposition.

Croker and Lover and Lever were as humorists go, great fellows. They must always leave some kind of recollection; but, to my mind, there is one thing lacking among them. I miss the deep earth song of the peasant’s laughter. Maginn went nearer to attain it than they did. In “Father Tom and the Pope” he put himself into the shoes of an old peasant hedge school-master, and added to the wild humour of the people one crowning perfection - irresponsibility. In matters where irresponsibleness is a hindrance the Irish gentry have done little. They have never had a poet. Poetry needs a God, a cause, or a country. But witty have they been beyond question. If one excepts “The Traits and Stories”, all the most laughable Irish books have been by them.

The one serious novelist coming from the upper classes in Ireland, and the most finished and famous produced by any class there, is undoubtedly Miss Edgeworth. Her first novel, Castle Rackrent, is one of the most inspired chronicles written in English. One finds no undue love for the buffoon, rich or poor, no trace of class feeling, unless, indeed, it be that the old peasant who tells the story is a little decorative, like a peasant figure in the background of an old-fashioned autumn landscape painting. An unreal light of poetry shines round him, a too tender lustre of faithfulness and innocence. The virtues, also, that she gives him [27] are those a poor man may show his superior, not those of poor man dealing with poor man. She has made him supremely poetical, however, because in her love for him there was nothing of the half contemptuous affection that Croker and Lover felt for their personages. On the other hand, he has not the reality of Carleton’s men and women. He stands in the charming twilight of illusion and half-knowledge. When writing of people of her own class she saw everything about them as it really was. She constantly satirised their recklessness, their love for all things English, their oppression of and contempt for their own country. The Irish ladies in The Absentee who seek laboriously after an English accent, might have lived today. Her novels give, indeed, systematically the mean and vulgar side of all that gay life celebrated by Lever.

About 1820, twenty years after the publication of Castle Rackrent, a new power began in literary Ireland. Carleton commenced writing for the Christian Examiner. He had gone to Dublin from his father’s farm in Tyrone, turned Protestant, and begun vehemently asserting his new notion of things in controversial tales and sketches. The Dublin dilettanti, and there were quite a number in those days, were delighted. Here was a passion, a violence, new to their polite existence. They could not foresee that some day this stormy satire would be turned against themselves, their church, and, above all, this proselytising it now sought to spread. The true peasant was at last speaking, stammeringly, illogically, bitterly, but nonetheless with the deep and mournful accent of the people. Ireland had produced her second great novelist. Beside Miss Edgeworth’s well-finished four-square house of the intelligence, Carleton raised his rough clay “rath” of humour and passion. Miss Edgeworth has outdone writers like Lover and Lever because of her fine judgment, her serene culture, her well-balanced mind. Carleton, on the other hand, with no conscious art at all, and living a half-blind, groping sort of life, drinking and borrowing, has, I believe, outdone not only them but her also by the sheer force of his powerful nature. It was not for nothing that his ancestors had dug the ground. His great body, that could leap twenty-one feet on a level, was full of violent emotions and brooding melancholy.

Carleton soon tired of controversy, and wrote his famous “Traits and Stories”. Peasant though he was, he could not wholly escape the convention of his time. There was as yet no national cultivated public, and he was forced to write for a class who wished to laugh a great deal, and who did not mind weeping a [28] little, provided he allowed them always to keep thelr sense of superiority. In the more early tales, peasant life is used mainly as material for the easier kinds of mirth and pathos. He put himself sometimes in the position of his readers and looked at the life of the people from without. The true peasant had been admitted into the drawing-room of the big house and asked to tell a story, but the lights and the strange faces bewildered him, and he could not quite talk as he would by his own fireside. He at first exaggerated, in deference to his audience, the fighting, and the dancing, and the merriment, and made the life of his class seem more exuberant and buoyant than it was. What did these ladies and gentlemen, he thought, with their foreign tastes, care for the tragic life of the fields?

As time went on, his work grew deeper in nature, and in the second series he gave all his heart to “The Poor Scholar”, “Tubber Derg”, and “Wildgoose Lodge”. The humorist found his conscience, and, without throwing away laughter, became the historian of his class. It was not, however, until a true national public had arisen with Ferguson and Thomas Davis and the “Young Ireland” people, that Carleton ventured the creation of a great single character and wrote Fardorougha the Miser. In Fardorougha and the two or three novels that followed he was at his finest. Then came decadence - ruinous, complete.

It seems to be a pretty absolute law that the rich like reading about the poor, the poor about the rich. In Ireland, at any rate, they have liked doing so. Each places its Teer-nan-oge, where “you will get happiness for a penny”, its land of unknown adventure, in the kind of life that is just near enough to interest, Just far enough to leave the imagination at liberty. Either because he had said all he had to say about the peasantry, or because the cultivated public that read Fardorougha and The Black Prophet was gone - the best among them in the convict ship, - or because of a growing wish to please the more numerous and less intelligent of the class he had sprung from, or from a combination of all these reasons, Carleton started a series of novels dealing with the life of the gentry. They are almost worthless, except when he touches incidentally on peasant life, as in the jury-room scene in Willy Reilly. One or two of them have, for all that, turned out very popular with the Irish uneducated classes. People who love tales of beautiful ladies, supremely brave outlaws, and villains wicked beyond belief, have read fifty editions of Willy Reilly. In these novels landlords, agents, and their class are described as falsely as peasants are in the books of Lover and Croker. In [29] Valentine McClutchy, the first novel of his decadence, there is no lack of misdirected power. The land-agent Orangeman, the hypocrite-solicitor, and the old blaspheming landlord who dies in the arms of his drunken mistress, are figures of unforgettable horror. They are the peasant’s notion of that splendid laughing world of Lever’s. The peasant stands at the roadside, cap in hand, his mouth full of 'your honours’ and 'my ladies’, his whole voice softened by the courtesy of the powerless, but men like Carleton show the thing that is in his heart. He is not appeased because the foot that passes over him is shod with laughter.

John Banim and his brother Michael, who both have the true peasant accent, are much more unequal writers than Carleton. Unlike him, they covered the peasant life they knew with a melodramatic horde of pirates and wealthy libertines whom they did not know. John Banim, who seems to have invented the manner of The O’Hara Tales, lived mostly in London, surrounded by English taste, and had just enough culture to admire and learn and imitate the literary fashion of his age. At times he would write pages, terrible and frank, like all the first half of The Nolans, and then suddenly seem to remind himself that the public expected certain conventional incidents and sentiments, and what he did his brother Michael copied. Neither had culture enough to tell them to leave the conventionalities alone and follow their own honest natures. For this reason it is mainly the minor characters personages like The Mayor of Windgap - that show the Banim genius. They seemed to indulge themselves in these fine creations as though they said “the public will forgive our queer countrybred taste for very truth if we keep it in holes and corners”. Carleton, on the other hand, when he began writing, knew nothing about the public and its tastes. He had little more education than may be picked up at fair greens and chapel greens, and wrote, as a man naturally wants to write, of the things he understood. The Banims’ father was a small shopkeeper; Carleton’s a peasant, who perforce brought up his son well out of the reach of fashions from oversea. With less education John Banim might have written stories no less complete than those of Carleton, and with more have turned out a great realist - more like those of France and Russia than of England. The first third of The Nolans is as fine as almost any novel anywhere, and here and there melodrama and realism melt into one and make an artistic unity, like 'John Doe’, but much that both he and his brother wrote was of little account.

Neither brother had any trace of Carleton’s humour, and John [30] Banim had instead an abiding cold and dry-eyed sadness, produced by ill-health perhaps, wholly different from the tear-dashed melancholy of Carleton’s Black Prophet - a melancholy as of gray clouds slumbering on the rim of the sea.

In Gerald Griffin, the most finished storyteller among Irish novelists, and later on in Charles Kickham, I think I notice a new accent - not quite clear enough to be wholly distinct; the accent of people who have not the recklessness of the landowning class, nor the violent passions of the peasantry, nor the good frankness of either. The accent of those middle-class people who find Carleton rough and John Banim coarse, who when they write stories cloak all unpleasant matters, and moralise with ease, and have yet a sense of order and comeliness that may sometime give Ireland a new literature. Many things are at work to help them: the papers, read by the Irish at home and elsewhere, are in their hands. They are closer to the peasant than to the gentry, for they take all things Irish with conscience, with seriousness. Their main hindrances are a limited and diluted piety, a dread of nature and her abundance, a distrust of unsophisticated life. But for these, Griffin would never have turned aside from his art and left it for the monastery; nor would he have busied himself with anything so filmy and bloodless as the greater portion of his short stories. As it is, he has written a few perfect tales. The dozen pages or so I have selected seem to me charming, and there are many people who, repelled by the frieze-coated power of Carleton, think his really very fine Collegians the best Irish novel. Kickham also, with his idealising haze, pleases some who do not care for the great Tyrone peasant; not that Kickham was a man naturally given to idealise and cloak the unpleasant, and sophisticate life. His first novel Sally Kavanagh, is direct enough - but having come out of jail, he saw everything with the rose-spectacles of the returned exile. His great knowledge of Irish life kept him always an historian, though one who cared only to record the tender and humane elements of the life of the common people, and of the small farming and shopkeeping class he came from. When he wrote of the gentry, he fell like Carleton into caricature. The Orangemen, landlords, and agents of Sally Kavanagh and Knocnagow [sic] are seldom in any way human, nor are they even artistically true. The loss of accurate copying has always been more destructive to Irish national writers than to the better educated novelists of the gentry. Croker had art enough to give an ideal completeness to his shallowest inventions. Carleton and Banim and Kickham, when once they strayed from the life they [31] had knowledge of, had not art enough to evade the most manifest conventionality and caricature. No modern Irish writer has ever had anything of the high culture that makes it possible for an author to do as he will with life, to place the head of a beast upon a man, or the head of a man upon a beast, to give to the most grotesque creation the reality of a spiritual existence.

Meanwhile a true literary consciousness - national to the centre - seems gradually forming out of all this disguising and prettifying, this penumbra of half-culture. We are preparing likely enough for a new Irish literary movement - like that of ’48 - that will show itself at the first lull in this storm of politics. Carleton scarcely understood the true tendency of anything he did. His pages served now one cause, now another, according to some interest or passion of the moment. Things have changed since then. These new folk, limited though they be, are conscious. They have ideas. They understand the purpose of letters in the world. They may yet formulate the Irish culture of the future. To help them, is much obscure feeling for literature diffused throughout the country. The clerks, farmers’ sons, and the like, that make up the “Young Ireland” societies and kindred associations, show an alertness to honour the words “poet”, “writer”, “orator”, not commonly found among their class. Many a poor countryside has its peasant verse-maker. I have seen stories - true histories - by a village shoemaker that only needed a fine convention to take their place in fiction. The school of Davis and Carleton and Ferguson has gone. Most things are changed now - politics are different, life is different. Irish literature is and will be, however, the same in one thing for many a long day - in its nationality, its resolve to celebrate in verse and prose all within the four seas of Ireland. And why should it do otherwise? A man need not go further than his own hill-side or his own village to find every kind of passion and virtue. As Paracelsus wrote: “If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens”.’

W. B. YEATS.

 

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