From the sentimental songs of Thomas Moore in the 19th century to the prison poetry of the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, Irish nationalists have long deployed the arts to sharp effect in their political struggles.

At times this has involved straightforward war by other means. The Donegal-born IRA novelist Peadar O’Donnell in 1933 informed his (London) publisher that: “My pen is just a weapon and I use it now and again to gather into words scenes that surround certain conflicts.” Some such cultural warmongering has been mawkish enough, as with the many ballads written to celebrate Irish republican martyrs such as Kevin Barry, James Connolly and Michael Collins.

But there has also, at times, been a great seriousness of argument and of artistic achievement, as the struggle to advance nationalist interests and to define a preferred Ireland have been developed. For the notion of a culturally distinctive, united and self-reliant Ireland of the imagination has underpinned successive campaigns to attain Irish political independence, and it has unquestionably done so in important ways. Over the centuries, alongside elections and political violence, nationalists in Ireland have strikingly also made their case through poems, plays, paintings, ballads, novels, murals and other artistic forms.

This could involve ferocious competition between the rival wings of nationalist Ireland, over how best to pursue and define Irish freedom. Pre-eminent among Irish cultural warriors was the Protestant nationalist W.B. Yeats, whose Abbey Theatre project had nationalist idealism and imagination as its twin foundation stones. Predictably, perhaps, not every Irish nationalist welcomed the products of this distinctive Yeatsian vision. Among those plays that were first performed at the Abbey was J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World – its 1907 debut provoking harsh reaction from some in the audience, who considered the play to mock western Irish peasants and to involve morally inappropriate behaviour. As Yeats himself noted of The Playboy: “It is never played before any Irish audience for the first time without something or other being flung at the players. In New York a currant cake and a watch were flung, the owner of the watch claiming it at the stage door afterwards.”

For Yeats, it was vital that the talent and distinctiveness of Protestant Ireland should be written into the definition of Irish nationalism. Yet the late 19th century had in fact witnessed the growing political marginality of Irish Protestants and this process was to be re-inforced as the early decades of the 20th century saw Catholic Ireland come into its political inheritance and claim nationalism decisively for itself.

So a talented yet myopic cultural nationalist such as the Waterford-born D.P. Moran (1869-1936) asked how the Abbey Theatre’s plays could possibly be truly national and Irish if they were performed in the English language. It was not that the influential Moran shared nothing with Yeats: both men espoused a nationalism that was passionate and anti-materialistic (Yeats having put forward at the end of the 19th century the dubious view that “Ireland is leading the way in a war on materialism” – an opinion that might perplex any 21st-century visitor to the land of the great poet’s birth).

But for Moran, and unlike Yeats, anti-materialism, anti-
Englishness and pro-Catholicism were unavoidably interwoven within the nationalist ideal, and it was Gaelic Ireland that must dominate and define Ireland in the new century. So in his cultural writings Moran argued that the Irish language was the key to true Irishness and, again unlike Yeats, he held a rather propagandist view of art, judging it by its value to the national cause rather than by any intrinsic or independent artistic merit.

Pre-echoes of this approach had been heard long before, in the mid-19th-century artistic and cultural effusions of the Young Ireland movement, and especially in the ideas of its inspirational leader Thomas Davis (1814-45). “National art is conversant with national subjects. We have Irish artists,” Davis lamented, “but no Irish, no national art.” Art, he thought, should be explicitly national, and shared culture would provide the basis for the elusive unity between Irish Protestants (like Davis himself) and the Catholic majority.

In Davis’s naive yet contagious view, cultural enthusiasm would produce emotional attachment to the Irish nation, and would distinguish it from the neighbouring island of Britain. Language, music and art would all allow for the creation of a non-sectarian, inclusive definition of Irish nationality. Davis the romantic nationalist was convinced of the necessity to combat the Anglicisation of Ireland; he was appalled by the contemporary erosion of distinctively Irish culture.

As with other emerging nationalist movements, language formed an important part of Young Ireland’s cultural struggle, with Davis emphasising the importance of a separate national language for a separate nation: “A people without a language of its own is only half a nation.” Music, too, played its part. The idea that the character and spirit of a people were bound up closely with their poetry and music had been evident in the first significant nationalist movement in Ireland, the United Irishmen of the 1790s. But in the Young Irelanders of the 1840s it achieved a notable peak. “No enemy speaks slightingly of Irish music,” Davis proudly proclaimed, “and no friend need fear to boast of it. It is without a rival.”

As so often with revivalist cultural nationalisms, Davis’s arguments here were more prescriptive than accurately descriptive of lived reality. He did not celebrate Irish composers as such, but rather those who produced what he considered to be deliberately Irish national music.

And Davis could indeed inspire. Yeats observed that his own friend, the influential Fenian John O’Leary (1830-1907), had been “converted to nationalism by the poems of Davis”. And something of this poetic nationalist spirit was to be handed on powerfully in other instances, generation after generation. The leader of the great 1916 republican rebellion, Patrick Pearse, exemplified the trend, drawing on Davis as one of those figures who had developed the conception of the Irish nation. Himself a poet and playwright, Pearse in 1916 led a highly literary band of revolutionaries. His rebel-
comrade Thomas MacDonagh – who, along with Pearse, would be executed after the unsuccessful Rising – typified the spirit, writing dreamy, sentimental poems such as “Of a Poet Patriot”: “His songs new souls shall thrill/The loud harps dumb/And his deed the echoes fill/When the dawn is come.”

Subsequent waves of Irish rebels have, likewise, been repeatedly and energetically literary. Generations of Ireland’s republicans have spent their prison days avidly reading, and their post-revolutionary careers producing shelf after shelf of memoirs. The latter have often shown their authors, rather like one of George Bernard Shaw’s characters, to have had hands more accustomed to the sword than to the pen. But they also include rebel classics such as Ernie O’Malley’s On Another Man’s Wound (1936) and Peadar O’Donnell’s prison autobiography The Gates Flew Open (1932), and they have helped to sustain and inspire nationalist Ireland in their own fashion.

Of course, no amount of auto-biography or poetry can simply solve the problems faced by nationalist communities in struggle. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ireland, where the paradoxes of national identity have been painfully demonstrated again and again. Yes, literary and other artistic output helped Irish nationalists to achieve independence from Britain in the 1920s, but once that independence had been won, the new Irish nationalist state soon banned much of the best of Irish writing.

As one of the IRA man Ernie O’Malley’s friends – the American academic John V. Kelleher – crisply described the situation in independent Ireland by the mid-20th century: “Every Irish author of any standing is represented on the list of banned books. Since the [1929 Censorship] Act went into effect, about 1,500 books have been proscribed, including just about every Irish novel worth reading.” The author and nationalist Sean O’Faolain pungently noted that in 1948, Ireland had been turned into “the worst country in the world for intellectuals”.

In truth, there had always been a strain of narrowness to Irish cultural and artistic nationalist vision. Irish romantic nationalism produced no Wagner, but Davis’s artistic argument did carry within it echoes of the Wagnerian desire to purify national culture of alien elements, and traces also of Wagnerian hostility towards perceivedly lesser nations and cultures.

Yet the artistic outpourings of nationalist Ireland remain deeply impressive in many ways. They have sustained centuries of enthusiasm and identity, and have at times offered comparatively benign means of struggle. The many books now penned by ex-Provisional IRA volunteers may not attract or persuade all readers, but they do possibly constitute the most welcome contribution made by such figures to the cause of Irish nationalist freedom.

The writer’s most recent book, ‘Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland’, published by Macmillan, last month won the Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize

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