The Irish Literary Renaissance and the New Irish Theatre: Consciously Represented Irish National Aspirations

"Part of the problem with Ireland is that everything is named after someone. In Dublin, there is a railway station called Sydney Parade, and for many years, I thought Sydney Parade was one of the leaders in the 1916 Rising."

Joseph O'Connor (1963 - )

Though Ireland was a part of the British Isles, like Wales and Scotland, the Irish people considered themselves as different and were contemptuous of British Suzerainty. Eventually, by the late 19th century the Irish had lost faith in political solutions to Ireland’s problems and turned to cultural nationalism instead. They revolted against British exploitation and ruthless suppression of Irish national aspirations, in spite of Irish representation in British parliament. The British overlords, domineering over the Irish grew more ruthless when the Irish Republican Army went underground to organize the relentless struggle for Independence. Read More Drama Thus Irish nationalism was born and sought expression in Irish literature that consciously represented Irish national aspirations. Read More Drama The Catholic faith and pagan beliefs of the Irish people too had a pervasive influence that inspired rebellion against the protestant English rulers. 

In 1893 Eoin Mac Neill and Douglas Hyde founded the Gaelic League to restore Irish as the spoken language of the country; the organization eventually became the driving force for the assertion of Irish identity. The search for Ireland’s lost Gaelic heritage ushered in a period known as the Irish Renaissance in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. Towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century the patriotic Zeal of W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, George Moore, George Russel, Edward Martyn and Maude Gonne created a literary movement.   Its intention was to find the sources for a new Irish literature in the Irish countryside and in Irish myth. The new Irish   Theatre and the Irish plays of Synge and others helped this movement create a sort of awareness that led to Irish Renaissance. These new plays used the language spoken by the Irish peasant workers and fishermen whose life and experiences formed the nucleus of the plays.

The new Irish   Theatre and the new Irish drama did not aim to appeal to the senses; they meant toappeal to the intellect and the spirit, eventually furnishing a sort of vehicle for the expression of the nationalist thought and ideals. Read More Drama Its end was a revival of Irish cultural traditions and a renewal of national onsc1ousness that merged in the organized movement against the English. All the plays written and Staged with this aim did not quite succeed. Two dramatists, Synge and Sean O’Casey, fulfilled their roinmitment and made Irish literary Renaissance proud with their contributions.

Drama, however, was the literary form that best captured the ideals of the Irish Renaissance and established Ireland's literary reputation. Read More Drama  Yeats, Lady Gregory, and playwright Edward Martyn published their Irish Literary Theatre manifesto in 1899, promising to create a national theatre for Ireland. The Irish Literary Theatre, which opened that year, was succeeded in 1902 by the Irish National Theatre Society. In 1904 the Society opened the Abbey Theatre, whose purpose was to present Irish plays about Irish subjects. The plays it produced dramatized Irish myth and history and portrayed Irish peasant life realistically.

In its first year the Irish Literary Theatre produced Yeats's The Countess Cathleen and Martyn’s realistic drama The Heather Field. The Countess Cathleen aroused controversy, especially among Catholics, because its heroine sells her soul to feed her starving tenants during a famine. One of the theatre’s biggest successes was Cathleen ní Houlihan (1902), produced in the theatre’s fourth season. Read More Drama Now accepted as written by both Lady Gregory and Yeats but originally attributed to Yeats alone, Cathleen ní Houlihan dramatized a myth of blood sacrifice that transforms a poor old woman, a symbol of Ireland, into a young girl. That same year Lady Gregory’s translation of the Ulster Cycle’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) provided writers of the Irish Renaissance with access to material from that saga. Lady Gregory's other nationalist play, The Rising of the Moon (1907); her comedies Spreading the News (1904) and The Workhouse Ward (1908); and her tragedy The Gaol Gate (1906) also enjoyed success at the Abbey.