Literary and Artistic Aspects of the Celtic Revival

From The Lecture Series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

The literary heritage of Ireland was one of the main focuses of Gaelic revival. It entailed focusing not only on speaking the Irish language but on also focusing on the entire literary tradition. The language in which the Irish literary heritage was studied did not matter to this broader approach to Gaelic revival. The proponents of this literary revival were the Protestant Anglo-Irish people, who looked for inspiration in the mythology and folklore of ancient Ireland. 

A gravestone with Celtic inscription.
The greatest impact of the revival in Celtic art was in applied arts. (Image: Joanna Zaleska/Shutterstock)

Famous Names in Irish Literary Revival

The most prominent literary figure devoted to Gaelic revival was the poet William Butler Yeats. Irish settings, myths, and tales were frequently used in his poems. He also wrote a poem about Ossian in which he returns from the Otherworld and realizes what was just a blink of an eye had been 300 years. While he was in the Otherworld, Saint Patrick had arrived in Ireland. Ossian tells him the story of his journey and his fairy love.

A photo of poet William Butler Yeats.
Irish settings, myths, and tales were frequently used in the poems of William Butler Yeats. (Image: Alice Boughton/Public domain)

Another famous name in this movement was Augusta Lady Gregory, an Anglo-Irish who had learned the Irish language. She is renowned for translating famous Irish epic, The Táin. Published in 1902, Cuchulain of Muirthemne was not the exact story, as Lady Gregory had changed some parts of the plot. The hero had been tweaked to be more acceptable by a 19th-century bourgeois audience. He was well-received, and even a statue of him was made in 1911.

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The Irish Literary Theatre

The most significant literary works created during the Gaelic revival were plays. In 1899, Lady Gregory and Yeats established the Irish Literary Theater, which later changed to the Abbey Theater. Their aim was to create Irish-themed plays. Their manifesto stated:

“We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism. We are confident of the support of the Irish people, who are weary of misrepresentation, in carrying out a work that is outside all the political questions that divide us.”

Abbey Theater Manifesto: What It Meant

There are some paradoxes with the manifesto mentioned above. They wanted to change the way people regarded Ireland through their plays. Therefore, their audience could not be merely Irish. They needed an English audience to change their mind about the Irish.

The idea was that literature could unite people rather than divide them, but just like with the Gaelic League, which was supposed to bridge the gap between nationalists of all stripes and even Unionists but ultimately was co-opted by the radical wing of nationalism, the literary movement ended up going in a very politically nationalist direction.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Politics and Irish Literature

The convergence of politics and ancient Irish literature is best manifested in Yeats’s play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, produced in 1902. It was just four years after the 100th anniversary of the 1798 Rising, and the nationalists in Dublin admired it. Set in County Mayo in August of 1798, when the French forces landed, it depicts the story of the Gillane family, which is getting ready for the marriage of their son, Michael.

A mysterious old woman enters who is looking for the return of her four fields, symbolizing the four provinces of Ireland. She wants Michael to fight with the French to free Ireland, which he does, although his family and fiancée try to stop him. As soon as he leaves, the old woman turns into a beautiful lady, looking like a queen. It is obvious that the old woman was the symbol of the goddess of sovereignty from ancient Irish tales. It was exactly what nationalists wanted.

Not all of the plays produced at the Abbey Theatre drew so explicitly on mythological and historical themes, but they did confront the question of Irishness and Irish identity. A playwright to mention here is John Millington Synge, a Protestant from County Dublin. His most famous play is The Playboy of the Western World, first produced in 1907, which became infamous because one line in the play mentioned the word “shift”, a kind of woman’s undergarment. When the crowd in the theater heard this word, which had become a kind of coded reference to the Parnell divorce scandal, they rioted. (Protestant Charles Stewart Parnell was an ardent Irish patriot who toward achieving Home Rule for Ireland.)

The relationship between politics and culture in Ireland was always a close one.

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The Revival of Celtic Arts

Inspired by the 19th-century progress in literary scholarship and archaeology, antiquarian scholars started translating ancient Irish manuscripts into English. The Book of Kells, which is a manuscript of gospels in Latin, symbolized the greatness of Irish culture. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert signed the Book of Kells on their trip to Ireland in 1849.

The Tara Brooch
The Tara Brooch Inspired contemporary jewelry and artwork. (Image: Johnbod/CC BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

The discoveries of the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice in 1850 and 1868, respectively, inspired jewelry and metalwork. The Tara Brooch was Queen Victoria’s favorite to the point that she gave copies of it as gifts. At the same time, archaeologists were devising their theory about the origins of the Celts at Hallstatt and La Tène. Therefore, this art linked Ireland to the artistic tradition in Europe.

The Celtic revival most influenced the applied arts. Ancient Celtic motifs like knots, interlaced animals, and geometric designs were reintroduced into areas like book illustrations and home furnishings. The Gaelic League, GAA, and the Abbey Theater used these motifs extensively in their programs and posters to give Irish nationalism a Celtic appearance.   

Common Questions about the Literary and Artistic Aspects of the Celtic Revival

Q: Which poet is related to the Celtic movement?

The most significant literary figure associated with the Celtic revival is William Butler Yeats. Yeats used many Irish settings for his poems, and he often drew on specific Irish myths and tales. He also co-founded the Irish Literary Theater in 1899 with the purpose of reviving Irish literature.

Q: What is Cathleen Ni Houlihan?

Cathleen Ni Houlihan is a play written by William Butler Yeats. It shows the link between Irish literature and politics and was widely popular among nationalists.

Q: What is the Tara Brooch?

The Tara Brooch has a great significance in Irish culture. When it was discovered, it inspired contemporary metalwork and jewelry. Queen Victoria loved it so much that she had copies of it made to give as presents.

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