The strange death of Romantic Ireland
They are among his most famous lines, but when WB Yeats declared that ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone’, what was he referring to, who killed it – and did it really exist in the first place, asks DAN MULHALL
I FIRST CAME across WB Yeats’s poem September 1913 and its refrain, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave” during my schooldays and have returned to it many times since. A century after the poem’s composition, it may be time to conduct an inquest into the strange death of Romantic Ireland.
George Dangerfield’s book, The Strange Death of Liberal England, describes the decline of the British Liberal Party, brought on by a combination of the Irish Home Rule crisis, the first World War and the rise of the labour movement. In Ireland, another great political party suffered a calamitous decline. The Irish Party, which had been a major political force at Westminster since the 1880s, effectively ceased to exist after 1918.
That decade, whose centenary we are now marking, was a tragic and violent one in European history. It was scarred by war and revolution. In Ireland, it was a time of conflict and upheaval that culminated in the achievement of independence in 1922.
Those years were also rich in Irish literary achievement. WB Yeats produced three important collections: Responsibilities (1914), The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) and Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921). James Joyce published Dubliners (1915), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922). Sean O’Casey’s three great plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, although written a few years later, are all set during Ireland’s revolutionary decade. This was a time during Ireland was evidently seething with both political and creative activity.
I expect that any inquest would need to establish whether there was a fatality. Who died? How did it happen? Who was responsible? And what were the implications of those events?
The poem in which Yeats reported the demise of Romantic Ireland appeared in The Irish Times on September 8th, 1913 – which, coincidentally, was the date James Joyce chose as Molly Bloom’s birthday. In 1913, Yeats was 48 years of age. He had been a leading figure in Irish literary life since the early 1890s, when he had led the charge for the creation of a national literature, insisting that “there is no literature without nationality and no nationality without literature”.
Was there a death? Yeats strongly believed that something precious about Ireland had been lost during the years before 1913. A decade earlier, he had founded the Abbey Theatre and had written an inspirational nationalist play, Cathleen ní Houlihan. During the years that followed, he became increasingly frustrated with the course of events in Ireland, with what he called “the seeming needs of my fool-driven land”. Those he sees as guilty in the demise of Romantic Ireland are savagely derided. They “fumble in a greasy till” and “add prayer to shivering prayer” until they have “dried the marrow from the bone”.
Many of his contemporaries would certainly have contested Yeats’s image of national decline. After all, Ireland’s Home Rule movement appeared in 1913 to be on the verge of accomplishing its elusive goal. The Third Home Rule Bill had been introduced in 1912 and seemed destined, despite dogged opposition from Ulster Unionists and British Conservatives, to pass through the Westminster Parliament in 1914. This was designed to give Ireland its own parliament, albeit with limited powers, for the first time since 1800.
In 1913, members of the Gaelic League would have felt part of an exciting national movement aimed at reviving the Irish language. Founded in 1893, the League rapidly became something of a consuming passion for an emerging generation of Irish nationalists. Many of those who participated in Ireland’s struggle for independence were drawn into political activity by their enthusiasm for the revival of Irish.
Advocates of what was called an Irish Ireland – people such DP Moran, who edited the Leader – sought to promote the idea of a self-reliant, self-sufficient Ireland, thoroughly Gaelic and Catholic in character. Moran, who cajoled his readers to eschew what he called “West Britonism” had little time for Yeats, whom he subjected to frequent, biting criticism.
Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin, founded in the early years of the century, brought a new dynamism to nationalist politics, although before 1916, it posed no threat to the ascendancy of the Irish Party. Griffith would hardly have recognised the Romantic Ireland that Yeats mourned. Griffith was a pragmatist who urged Irish parliamentarians to withdraw from Westminster and establish a breakaway assembly in Ireland. The Irish labour movement was beginning to come into its own in the second decade of the 20th century, and it was the Dublin Lockout that inspired Yeats to put pen to paper in September 1913. Finally, those who read the poem in the then staunchly unionist Irish Times probably revelled in this report of Romantic Ireland’s decline and fall.
While the claim that a death had occurred would have met resistance at any inquest held in 1913, Yeats was absolutely convinced and, as an invariably perceptive witness to the events of his time, his testimony deserves to be taken seriously.
What died in 1913? The plaintiff’s evidence suggests that the heroic tradition of Irish nationalism had been killed off, those “for whom the hangman’s rope was spun”. Those named by Yeats were Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, romantic revolutionary figures from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. More generally, Yeats pays tribute to those who had been exiled from Ireland on account of their political beliefs. Most of all, it was the Fenian, John O’Leary, who epitomised the loss for which Yeats grieved.
Yeats fell under O’Leary’s spell when they met in Dublin in 1885. O’Leary had returned to Ireland after five years in prison for Fenian activities and then 16 years in exile, mainly in France. He encouraged the young Yeats to take an interest in Irish writing. In his memoirs, Yeats credited O’Leary with changing his life: “ . . . from O’Leary’s conversation, and from the Irish books he lent or gave me has come all I have set my hand to since”.
Yeats took O’Leary’s counsel to heart and spent much of the 1890s arguing the case for a distinctive tradition of Irish writing in the English language. He aspired to found “a school of Irish poetry – founded on Irish myth and history – a neo-romantic movement” and had a lofty assessment of Ireland’s heritage and future potential. He saw Ireland as “one of the seven great fountains in the garden of the world’s imagination” and felt that Ireland could be the source of a new “great utterance” for which the world had been waiting.
Whodunit? In his earlier years, Yeats had engaged in various nationalist campaigns, for example commemorating the centenary of the rising of 1798, opposing the visit to Ireland of Queen Victoria in 1900 and, at some point it seems, being sworn in as a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was never a conventional figure but his commitment to his version of Ireland’s cause was genuine.
Yet, by the time he published The Green Helmet and Other Poems in 1910, Yeats’s perception of Ireland had changed. His poetry reflects this change. In No Second Troy, Maud Gonne, a lifelong target of the poet’s romantic yearnings, is described as having
“taught to ignorant men most violent ways/
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.”
Yeats’s disenchantment had personal as well as political roots. Maud Gonne’s marriage to John McBride, a nationalist icon on account of his participation in the Boer War, had shaken Yeats. When Gonne’s marriage broke up, many nationalists turned against her, while Yeats took her part.
Opposition to the building of a gallery in Dublin to house works of art donated by Hugh Lane became a further source of disenchantment for Yeats, who vented his spleen in verse.
You gave, but will not give again
Until enough of Paudeen’s pence
By Biddy’s halfpennies have lain
To be “some sort of evidence”
Before you’ll put your guineas down,
That things it were a pride to give
Are what the blind and ignorant town
Imagines best will make it thrive.
His problem was that early 20th-century Ireland did not match, indeed could not have matched, his lofty expectations. The survival of Romantic Ireland was, as Yeats saw it, threatened by the values of Paudeen and Biddy, symbolic of Catholic Ireland.
Yeats’s disenchantment reached its depths in 1907 when Synge’s Playboy of the Western World led to disturbances in the theatre. Yeats was in his element defending Synge against his detractors. As he put it, in typically uncompromising terms: “The quarrel of our Theatre today is the quarrel of the Theatre in many lands; for the old Puritanism, the old bourgeois dislike of power and reality have not changed, even when they are called by some Gaelic name.”
These events drew from Yeats a series of argumentative poems. He began to articulate his own brand of nationalism, founded on the values of the nobleman and the peasant, which he imagined to be mutually compatible. Yeats developed an aversion to the values of the rising Catholic middle class, which found its own literary chronicler in James Joyce, who viewed Yeats’s romanticism as backward-looking. It was, therefore, the Ireland depicted in Dubliners, the Catholic/nationalist ethos, that Stephen Dedalus confronts in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the society described in forensic detail in Ulysses, that Yeats blamed for putting paid to the Romantic Ireland he had treasured since the days of his youth. “Was it needless death after all?”
Three years after he reported the death of Romantic Ireland, Yeats would write that “a terrible beauty” had been born. His focus was the Easter Rising of 1916, which kicked off a new and ultimately decisive phase in the struggle for Irish independence.
The poem Easter 1916 sees Ireland transformed by the sacrifice of those who participated in the Rising. A reading of the poem makes it plain that Yeats saw these events as something of a rebirth for Romantic Ireland. In 1913, he writes about the “delirium of the brave”, whereas in 1916 he observes that excess of love for Ireland may have “bewildered” the Rising’s leaders. The romantic spirit he proclaimed dead in 1913 had evidently come back to life.
Although Yeats was energised, by the aspirations that inspired the Rising, he wondered whether the sacrifices involved had really been necessary:
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
These words, written in the immediate aftermath of the Rising, anticipate the revisionist debates that have been a leading theme for Irish historians from the 1960s onwards.
This dramatic resurgence of nationalist Ireland, as manifested by the Rising, surprised almost everyone. The struggle for Home Rule from 1912 to 1914 sharpened political divisions in Ireland and resulted in a militarisation of Irish life with the formation of the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers. The Home Rule Bill was finally passed in 1914, but deferred until the end of the first World War. Most nationalists supported the British war effort, but it was the minority who opposed the war that eventually won the day in the wake of the Rising.
Did 1916 represent a genuine second coming for the Romantic Ireland of Yeats’s dreams? Yes and no. Three of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence, Patrick Pearse, Thomas McDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, were published poets. Their names and the ideals they espoused ran through the Ireland of my childhood, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
Insurrections, of course, can never be driven solely by poets. In this case, the conspiratorial steel was provided by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which saw its opportunity to strike while Britain was distracted by war in Europe.
The years that followed the Rising were turbulent ones, and it required a sustained War of Independence to break Ireland free from British rule.
WB Yeats moved to Ireland in 1917 and thereafter Dublin became his principal place of residence. He became a senator and many of his mature works took inspiration from his experiences in Ireland. Yeats suffered renewed disenchantments during the 1920s and 1930s, as independent Ireland developed in ways that displeased him. Yeats continued, however, to the end of his days to believe that “Ancient Ireland knew it all”.
The decade after September 1913 witnessed a transformation of Ireland. The dream of a Romantic Ireland was not to be realised in its purest form, but nor would Ireland ever return to what Yeats called the “casual comedy” of the pre-war period. What emerged from this decade of strife was a new and different Ireland, composed of various strands, romantic and otherwise. Yeats’s Cuchulain moved in with the Blooms of Eccles Street! Everything had indeed “changed utterly”.
Daniel Mulhall is Irish Ambassador to Germany. This essay is an edited version of a lecture he gave at the University of Münster.