English Imperialism and the Irish Cultural Revolution

Many of the stories in Dubliners register the weight of English imperialism on twentieth-century Irish life. Perhaps the most potent example of this appears in “Two Gallants,” where Lenehan comes upon a street harpist whose instrument the narrator describes as being in a state of undress, vulnerable to the eyes of onlookers. This moment combines two popular ways of symbolizing Ireland. The nineteenth-century Irish poet Thomas Moore famously used the harp to represent Ireland’s heroic past. It has also long been common in Irish songs and poems to portray Ireland as a wronged or abused woman, molested by a devious foreign power. That foreign power is England, which spent five centuries attempting to subjugate its northern neighbor, threatening Irish identity in the process.

The history of English imperialism in Ireland is long and complex, though many of the issues that continue to affect Irish politics and culture to this day began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when the Tudors ruled England. For example, King Henry VIII planted the seeds of religious conflict in Ireland. After rejecting Catholicism and establishing the Anglican Church, Henry dissolved many of Ireland’s renowned monasteries. This act upset many Irish, the majority of whom were Catholic. The resulting religious division deepened under Elizabeth I, a staunch Protestant who considered Catholicism a threat to her rule. Concerned that Catholic rivals in Europe might use Ireland as a base from which to invade England, Elizabeth launched increasingly violent campaigns to pacify the Irish and secure their territory. However, her forces met with ever-greater resistance and resulted in the bloody Desmond Rebellions (1569–1573) and the Nine Years’ War in Ireland (1593–1603). These conflicts inspired centuries of Irish resistance and set the stage for Irish nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The dominance of the English language in Ireland is another fraught legacy that dates back to the Tudors. The year 1600 marked a turning point for English in Ireland. In response to the Nine Years’ War, Elizabeth outlawed Ireland’s Brehon laws and forced the Irish to adopt English Common Law. This moment represented a sea change for those in the Irish aristocracy and middle class who dealt with contracts, land grants, and title deeds. After 1600, all of these documents would be in English. This meant that the Irish elite needed to master English, and Trinity College, which Elizabeth established in Dublin in 1592, would serve this purpose. Over time, as English became dominant among the elite classes, the need to learn the language became increasingly important for individuals from less privileged backgrounds. In order to secure good jobs or interact with government institutions, a command of English became mandatory, thereby sealing the fate of Irish Gaelic.

As Irish nationalism increasingly took hold in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, two significant cultural resistance movements emerged. The first movement, known as the Gaelic Revival, focused on reclaiming the Irish language in the face of English linguistic imperialism. By the nineteenth century, Irish (then known as Gaelic) had declined as a result of the dominance of English. Concern about this fact gathered energy in the middle of the century, and in the last quarter of the century numerous societies and associations came into being, most notably the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language in 1877, the Gaelic Union in 1880, and the Gaelic League in 1893. All of these organizations shared the same goal: restore the status of Irish in Ireland. As a movement that worked against the anglicization of Ireland, the Gaelic Revival was undoubtedly political. Indeed, the growing preference for “Irish” over “Gaelic” as the name for the national language signaled a rejection of English cultural imperialism. Just as English is for the English, Irish should be for the Irish.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, another parallel cultural movement developed. This movement, termed the Irish Literary Revival, emphasized the restoration of Irish myths, legends, and folklore. It also sought to inflect written English with the unique cadences of the Irish language. The foremost writer who lent his name to this movement was William Butler Yeats, who published a collection of Irish lore in 1893. The title of this collection, The Celtic Twilight, became a popular nickname for the entire movement. Other major writers associated with the Irish Literary Revival included Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge, and Seán O’Casey. In addition to spawning a new Irish poetry, members of the Irish Literary Revival also founded a new Irish drama, which would eventually result in the founding in 1904 of Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre. Just as the Gaelic Revival was bound up with cultural nationalism, so too was the Irish Literary Revival, which sought to establish a homegrown literary tradition that would rival that of England.

With respect to these cultural movements, Joyce was characteristically ambivalent. For instance, Joyce suggests his ambivalence toward the Gaelic Revival in “The Dead” when Gabriel and Miss Ivors argue about Irish revivalism. Whereas Miss Ivors insists on the importance on keeping in touch with Irish, Gabriel resists: “Irish is not my language” (189). Simply by acknowledging that English, not Irish, is his true native language, Gabriel draws attention to the difficulty of undoing centuries of linguistic imperialism. Joyce likewise shows his ambivalence toward the Irish Literary Revival in “A Little Cloud.” Little Chandler’s poetic musings resonate strongly with the melancholy tone that characterized the poets of the Celtic Twilight. However, Little Chandler’s powerlessness to escape his parochial life—both his menial work life and his cloying domestic life—suggests that his desire to write poetry is just as pointless as Miss Ivors replacing “Goodbye” with “Beannacht libh.” Joyce’s ambivalence in both regards indicates the strange way in which he is both an “insider” and an “outsider” in matters concerning Ireland. Although he wrote with the intimate knowledge of a native Irishman, Joyce also left Ireland, choosing to live and work in exile for the rest of his days.