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Significance Of Cultural Nationalism In Irish Literary English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1575 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This essay aims to examine the significance of cultural nationalism and its role in the Irish literary and language revivals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, paying cognizance to Anglo-Irish concerns of the time regarding the necessity for a national, cultural and literary identity. It will begin by identifying areas of cultural nationalism that Irish writers – notably Joyce – found repulsive, such as the romantic Celtic image of the Gaelic speaking rural class exemplified by Yeats and Synge in addition to acknowledging areas where cultural nationalism supported native Irish literature and promoted the Gaelic Language. Ironically however, it will demonstrate that overall cultural nationalism was intrinsically linked to the political and social interests of the influential sector of the Protestant Ascendancy as well as the Catholic masses. It concludes by suggesting that the simultaneous emergence of cultural nationalism and national independence were mutually reinforcing movements owing much of their characteristics to clever political maneuvering by the Protestant Ascendancy.

Joyce, Yeats and Synge

James Joyce felt that freedoms available to Yeats and Synge in literary Ireland were not available to him; we can draw this conclusion by what he stated in a lecture in Trieste in 1907;

“Intellectual conditions that prevail in [Ireland] do not permit the development of individuality […] No one who has any self-respect stays in Ireland”.

(Watson p.152)

His repudiation of the Irish literary identity which he saw as a fractured culture arising from the dispossession of the English language is conveyed in the thought of Stephen Deladus in his discussion with the English dean of studies in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man;

“His language so familiar and so foreign will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.” (p.204 A Portrait) (Watson)

Despite Joyce’s views on the restrictiveness of Irelands literary elite Ulysses was never banned in Ireland as it was in the United Kingdom and later in the USA. Cultural nationalism had its benefits then for Irish writers too it seemed – ‘converting the old accusations of crudeness of speech and turbulence into symptoms of spontaneity and valor.’ (Watson) (Deane) However, Joyce struggled against his ‘native’ sense of cultural inferiority due in large part to the degenerating English stereotype view. But he also struggled against false Irish virtues embodied by artists such as Yeats and Synge – who rejected their Englishness and embraced Irish peasantry life. The fact was that Joyce suffered from a sense of cultural inferiority which the Irish peasantry literally suffered from in day to day experience. This was an especially bitter lemon for the rural Gaelic class considering natives did not like being reminded that Ireland was an overwhelmingly rural or peasant society, especially when this virtuous Celtic image was being proposed by an Anglo-Irish artist. (Watson p.25)

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The language revival

The Gaelic League which was formed in the latter part of the eighteenth century had two main agendas – to revive the Irish language and to create a modern Irish literature. The formative elements of this new literature – translations, historical theories, poetic primitivism, antiquarianism and pragmatism – sought to find in culture their respective representatives. Cultural nationalism offered to fill this role claiming to represent the Irish identity which integrated both distinct modes of Irishness. It did this by drawing from sources of cultural tradition, racial spirituality as well as from Ireland’s unique socio-paradoxical relationship to England. (Deane) It would be imprudent for a negotiator of Irish identities to assume the result of this representation was a shift in literary perspective toward a new all-encompassing distinct Irish literature which embodied and authenticated literary traits attributed solely to the Irish – as literature still varied greatly and without a recognized national dialect the different modes of ‘Irishness’ could not be fairly represented. In resolution to this challenge Gaelic literature was to be translated and [in some cases] modified to form part of the new literary criterion which would include styles of both Anglo-Irish writers and native writers. The Gaelic League’s language revival resulted, and was successfully getting ‘Irishness’ back into the Irish for the good of the Irish, or so indeed it would have appeared. Deane makes an interesting observation on this so I will quote it here at length;

“The language of the Irish masses [..] became a point of entry for an influential sector of the Ascendancy [..] many came to accept it as a sort of Romantic ruin all the more attractive in the political landscape which emerged after the Act of Union because it was clothed in nostalgic associations having become the symbol of a lost culture rather than the reminder of a rebellious one.”

Speaking Gaelic and being in circles that spoke Gaelic no doubt had an attraction for the Anglo-Irish and the Ascendancy at large. Foremost it gave them direct involvement and influence within nationalist movement groups whom previously they suppressed but now supported because as noted by Brian;

“A knowledge of Irish does not necessarily connote adherence to the social, cultural or political philosophies of any other Irish speaker.” (Cronin p.135)

The implication here being that members of the controlling Ascendancy could masquerade if they so wished as a convicted nationalist whilst simultaneously serving their own political agendas within Anglo groups.


Politically, Anglo-Irish refers to the New English Propertied class who controlled Ireland from 1690 to the middle of the nineteenth century. However in literary terms it is a little more ambiguous and refers to literature written in English produced by people of Irish birth. This makes a polarized view of Anglo-Irish literature difficult to define. This lack of distinction is noted by Norman Vance;

“There is no single Irish literary tradition unless it is the tradition of abrasive yet often mutually parasitic interaction of different traditions.”

What Vance is suggesting here is that Anglo-Irish literary tradition is heavily associated with and incorporated into other literary traditions and is not necessarily distinct as a literary style. It became in the interests of intellectuals of the era to incorporate new literary styles – Gaelic literature, mythology, and a new vogue for the primitive and the Celtic – in order to authenticate Irish literature as a distinct characteristic of an Irish national culture on the European stage. (Deane)

As Deane notes;

“[Anglo-Irish] literature and their philosophy achieved a remarkable prominence because of the high tension generated by the paradoxes of their position..”

He goes on to say;

“Even before the achievement of legislative independence in 1782 antiquitarian research had begun to make its contribution to the notion of a specifically Irish cultural identity, attractive to the Anglo- Irish as much as to the native Irish in that era. It was a politically powerful notion for it brought together on the cultural plane (..) groups who were hopelessly divided from one another.”

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The fact that cultural nationalism proposed to merge Irish literary styles by means of creating a national consciousness created challenges – much was at risk of being deemed un-Irish and exclusion gaps did inherently develop for some Irish writers as criteria for a national literary style became established. It has been shown here that this exclusion was felt by Joyce and demonstrates therefore that cultural nationalism as well as benefiting the Irish Literary revival also inhibited it in at least two forms – by the sense of exclusion felt by Joyce and by the false modes of Irishness embodied in the works of Yeats and Synge which were believed to misrepresent the predominantly catholic masses to which they referred. We can see from what has been examined here that there was considerable motivation for Anglo-Irish intellectual elite groups to take a leading hand in the direction of cultural nationalism. It is suggested that even the revival of the Irish language was assisted in part by the Ascendancy because promotion/speaking of the language could be used as a point of entry into Irish nationalist groups and ensure that Anglo- Irish Ascendancy groups would retain their influential and propertied positions in the re-modeled nation.


Cronin A. No laughing matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien London: Paladin, 2003

Deane S. A Short History of Irish Literature London: Hutchinson and Co., 1986

Watson G.J. Irish Identity and the Literary Revival The Catholic University of America Press, 1996

Vance N. Irish Literature A Social History Dublin: Four Courts Press LTD, 1999


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