Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Literature and the Arts in Ireland

In Ireland, the magic of language has from the earliest times conferred a special and exalted status on those who command it. The poets of ancient Ireland had a reputation for supernatural powers and may have belonged to a caste that practiced sorcery. Even in the modern era, men of letters have been accorded high political honours unheard of in other countries.

Douglas Hyde (1860-1949), one of those responsible for the revival of the Irish language and literature through the founding of the Gaelic League in 1893, became president of the Republic in 1938, and the poet and Nobel laureate W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) served as a senator from 1922 to 1928. In addition, the Irish language has imparted to the English speech of the country a haunting music and a distinctive, cantering rhythm.

Irish poets

The filidhe (masterpoets of the Celts) earned their prestige by subjecting themselves to a rigorous course of training at bardic academies where the curriculum demanded memorization of lengthy sagas and learning composition in complex meters.

Many graduates of the academies were attracted by monastic life, and their manuscripts and magnificent calligraphy and illumination made them Europe's pre-eminent students of literature. Between the 8th and 16th centuries these monks transcribed the oral traditions of which they were the living archives and, by keeping them in circulation, preserved them for posterity.

From various manuscript sources scholars can reconstruct the two great saga cycles, that of the Red Branch warriors of Ulster province and that of Finn MacCool and his Fenian band (the Fianna).

The Ulster cycle constitutes a portion of the tribal history of the Uliad, who gave their name to the northernmost of Ireland's four provinces, and seems to have become current during the 1st century BC, though a quantity of older lore had been incorporated in the cycle. The king of the Ulidians in the cycle is Concho bar (pronounced Con achoor), whose castle stood at Emain Macha near modern Keady, County Armagh. But the protagonist is Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, offspring of the sun god and hero of the tribe.

The cycle centers around the Tain Bo Cualinge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), an epic narrative in which the semi-legendary Queen Maeye of Connaught leads an expeditionary force toward Cooley (near Dundalk) to steal Conchobar's prized Brown Bull. Cu Chulainn single-handedly holds the invading army at bay while the Ulstermen recover from a 9-day illness.

Cu Chulainn adds to the conventional virtues of courage and honour an impulsive disdain for any check to his appetites. He is the arch individualist, a larger than life figure who postpones his first encounter with the Connaughtmen to keep a date with a woman, and who slays in single combat his best friend and his only son despite the promptings of human tenderness. His daring and determination together with a roguish impetuosity established a comic tradition in Irish literature. Cu Chulainn was specifically a hero of the men of Ulster.

But between the commencement of the O'Neill dynasty and the height of the Norse invasions, Irish society was challenged to transcend the old clan loyalties for the sake of military unity. This was achieved politically in the person of Bnan Boru and in literature through the Fenian cycle, which was the first truly national, rather than tribal, epic.

Finn MacCool, his son Ossian, his grandson Oscar, and his comrades Diarmaid and Cailte commanded the Fianna, the standing army of professional warriors said to have been mustered to the service of Cormac Mac Art, son of the founder of the Tara monarchy, in the 3rd century AD. The Fenians were from the outset, national rather than tribal heroes. Unlike the Ulster cycle, composed mostly in prose and incorporating myths in a highly learned manner, the Fenian cycle springs directly from popular folklore and employs a ballad meter to which the music of the common people was easily adapted. It is more immediate and dramatic.

The history of prose in Ireland

Its characteristic form is the monologue or dialogue and its setting is the Christian era into which some Fenian hero has survived to speak, often to St. Patrick, of bygone days of glory. Not originally a product of the bardic academies, the Fenian ycle. did not enter the courtly repertoire until the 12th century, by which time It had already displaced the Ulster sagas in popular favour.

In contrast to Cu Chulainn, champion of a clvlltzed nobility, the Fenians choose to live outside the pale of settlements and courts, preferring the woods and wilds. They are hunters rather than soldiers, akin to the gods of nature and place worshiped in the vernacular religion. It is from the Felllan traditIOn that Irish poetry receives its extraordinary sensitivity to nature: Arran of the many stags,The sea strikes against its shoulder , Skittish deer are on her peaks, Delicious berries on her manes roam a 15th-century manuscript, translated by Myles Dillon.

From the stories themselves flow the lyrical richness of Irish poetry, the sweetness and nostalgia of popular folk song, and the whole romantic spirit, dash, and panache of Irish history. The Fenian cycle inaugurates a dramatic and intensely personal literary style, which became the expressive mode ofhe Irish nation and provided the archetype of the outlaw brotherhood In which the 19th-century revolutionaries cast themselves.

Social upheaval and poetry in Ireland

The filidhe and its elite tradition were destroyed by the social upheavals caused by the Plantation policy, which replaced Irish landowners with English and later Scottish colonists prepared to offer allegiance to the crown. It was not until the 18th century, however, that It was finally extinguished.

As late as 1781, a young schoolteacher from Clondagach, County Clare, named Merriman, who had educated himself in the complexities of bardic composition, published an epic satire in the Irish language called The Midnight Court, in which the women of Ireland indict the men for contempt of matrimony and obtain a conviction in the court of the Fairy Queen. The poem is elegant, racy, and dreamlike, but its ribaldry proved too strong for a public taste narrowed by oppressive works that were pious and patriotic.

The poem was suppressed, though portions of it can be heard recited from memory in some modern Irish speaking households. Merriman, last of the filidhe, wrote nothing more and died in 1805.

Irish Literature in English

Literature in English has been written in Ireland since the 14th century, but many of the Anglo-Irish literati owe little to the national traditions. Irish was the native tongue, and the native populace, denied and excluded from educational institutions by the Penal Laws, produced a glorious but impermanent body of unwritten poetry. The chief educational institution in Ireland was Trinity College, Dublin, founded in 1592 as a university for the Protestant gentry. Trinity was the intellectual nursery of an extraordinary series of writers whose work places them more properly in a history of English rather than Irish literature.

Airport car hire in Dublin

If you are looking to tour the homes and cities of the famous Irish poets, you can pre-book airport car hire from Dublin and take your time to discover the homes and landscapes which inspired the great poets of Ireland.

Jonathan Swift and famous Irish authors

Yet their remarkable singularity of expression was one that could only have been nurtured in an environment where talk, conversation, and language provided the main indoor entertainment.
Chronologically, the first of these writers was Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), author of Gulliver's Travels, who is buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, of which he was dean. Next was William Congreve (1670-1729), author of one of the greatest comedies in the English language, The Way of the World. Then came Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74), the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, most famous for his play She Stoops to Conquer and for his friendship with Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Finally there was Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the flamboyant author of the play The Importance of Being Earnest and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.Two Dubliners who did not attend Trinity need to be mentioned: One is Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), the descendant of a famous Anglo-Irish family, whose masterpieces include The Rivals and The School for Scandal; the other is George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), widely considered to be the greatest dramatist in the English language after Shakespeare. Shaw spent his first 20 years living in seedy gentility in Dublin.

Even after he left to take up residence (and literary sovereignty) in London he never failed to involve himself in Irish affairs, whether they concerned Parnell's divorce or the Irish revolutionary Sir Roger David Casement's homosexuality. Indeed he is one of the few writers in history who is as famous for his political curmudgeonry as for his great works (St. Joan; Pygmalion; Heartbreak House). A statue of him by Prince Paul Troubetzkoy stands outside the National Gallery of Ireland, to which he left a substantial part of his fortune.

Thomas Moore

Occasionally the Protestant Ascendancy did produce a writer who was truly Irish in sympathy. One of these was Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Moore was a friend and the eulogizer of Robert Emmet (executed in 1803), the prototype of the Irishman who is both Protestant and nationalist. Emmet himself deserves a place in Irish literature for his speech from the dock which contains the immortal words Let no man write my epitaph.

Moore was a literary, though not a militant, patriot who wrote in the plaintive style of Irish folk song, often to popular airs. Songs like The Minstrel Boy and The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls were ambassadors from romantic Ireland to the English gentry and helped revise their image of the Irish as crude and barbarous.

In 1842, The Nation magazine began publishing the poems and translations of James Clarence Mangan and Samuel Ferguson. Their work, infused with the energy and misty grandeur of the Irish language, excited interest in ancient literature, particularly the Fenian cycle. Its vibrant tapestry of hunts and fatal love, journeys to the underworld, battles between mortals and ghosts, sojourns in fairyland, and tone of wistful longing for the lost ardour of youth appealed to the romantic temperament of the times.

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