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The Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism

Joe Cleary (ed)
Cambridge University Press


Introduction, by Joe Cleary

The story of Irish modernism constitutes one of the more remarkable chapters in the eventful history of European modernism. The names of William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett are now so familiar that it is difficult for us to recapture any sense of how unlikely it would have seemed in 1900 that a small island more famed for its economic backwardness and calamitous history than for anything that might be considered "modern" should have produced three figures as significant to the development of modernism as any of the major writers to emerge in England, France, Germany, Russia, or the United States in the same era. Nineteenth-century Ireland had produced outstanding political leaders in Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell and charismatic political writers such as Thomas Davis, James Fintan Lalor, John Mitchel, and Michael Davitt. It had also won a reputation in Europe and beyond for its "Celtic" spirituality and imagination, a reputation burnished in the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder, Matthew Arnold, and Ernest Renan. Nevertheless, nineteenth-century Irish artists had generally languished on the outer edges of the great traditions of English and French romanticism and realism or on those of German or Italian classical music, and even those who won metropolitan recognition in the period exerted little of the transformative effect on English and European high culture that Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett were to do after World War I. Modernism today is part of a receding history, but works such as Ulysses (192.2.), A Vision (1925, revised edition 1937), The Tower (1928), Finnegans Wake (1939), The Unnameable (1953), or Endgame (1957) retain a capacity to compel that time seems to increase rather than diminish.

However, it is arguable that precisely because they were so remarkable, the achievements of Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett have ultimately contributed to an attenuated conception of the history and achievements of Irish modernism more broadly. Such is the distinction of these luminaries that they have


not only been separated from the mainstream of modern Irish literature more generally to be treated as honorific British, European, or "world" figures, but they are also often detached from any more extensive consideration of Irish modernism as such. Thus, there are now great stacks of books and a constant round of scholarly events devoted to the appreciation of Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, and there is a smaller but steadily growing body of work on some of their other compatriots such as Jack B. Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O'Brien, or Francis Bacon. Nevertheless, despite the attention these individuals command, there are scarcely any broad-ranging studies of Irish modernism and it has always been easier for scholars to accept that twentieth-century Ireland produced a small handful of emigre modernists than that it generated a more extended modernism in its own right, one that flowered most spectacularly in literature and drama, but that also saw notable developments in the visual arts, architecture, music, cinema, and design.

Were it not so dominated by the iconic figures of Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, how might we reconfigure our sense of Irish modernism? The achievements of these outstanding writers are deservedly admired and will remain at the centre of this volume, but, as the chapters by Laura O'Connor, Emer Nolan, Ben Levitas, and Luke Gibbons variously remind us, they are also part of a tapestry of modernist artistic achievement that encompasses several media, and that was created in several locations in the period roughly between 1890 and i960. To consider Irish modernism in this expanded frame even in the literary field is to push out the customary boundaries and to acknowledge the importance of figures such as George Moore, George Egerton, Oscar Wilde, or George Bernard Shaw, all more conventionally treated as minor precursors to Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett rather than as serious contributors to modernism in their own right. Nevertheless, these earlier figures - who, like Yeats, came of age professionally in fin de siecle England and made their reputations there before World War I - had all been notable enthusiasts of the earliest continental European avant gardes: Moore championed in turn French impressionism, naturalism, and aestheticism; Egerton was the first writer in English to reference Friedrich Nietzsche and to translate Knut Hamsun; Wilde was the most flamboyant English-language practitioner of European decadence; Shaw was a committed advocate of Henrik Ibsen at a time when the Norwegian's work provoked scandal or incomprehension in British theatrical circles. After Yeats and Joyce were widely feted as major writers in the high modernist decade of the 19x0s, Ireland went on to produce not only another major late modernist in Beckett but also a considerable company of experimental dramatists, poets, and novelists - such as Sean O'Casey, Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O'Brien, Mairtin Cadhain, Thomas MacGreevy, Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Sean 0 Riordain - who made their own estimable contributions to modernism in Ireland. Beckett's accomplishments normally dominate any discussion of this later period, but if his work is viewed in terms of some of his other Irish contemporaries in various disciplines the lineaments of a remarkable but still scarcely conceptualized late Irish modernism begin to appear.

Beyond the literary field there was also from the outset a considerable body of Irish visual artists, many of them women, attentive to new developments in European painting, sculpture, and design and finding in the continental avant gardes the inspiration and resources to get beyond the academicist conventions that regulated the production of painting and the plastic arts in Britain and Ireland. Like their literary contemporaries, many of these artists plied their careers between Dublin, London, and Paris; like the writers, some sidestepped the Irish Revival in favour of more abstract European avant-garde currents, whereas others attempted (as Yeats or Joyce in their respective ways were to do) to tap both revivalist and modernist energies. Scholarship on the Irish visual arts has advanced significantly in recent decades, but even now treatments of Irish modernism that deal with May Guinness, Mary Swanzy, Mainie Jellett, Eileen Gray, Jack B. Yeats, Sean Keating, Francis Bacon, Louis le Brocquy, Patrick Scott, or Sean Scully (to mention only some of the figures involved) are relatively few, and, given the disciplinary specialisms involved, the capacity of cultural historians to make compelling connections between Irish literary and visual media modernisms remains limited. Though there have been significant advances in recent times in these fields too, scholarship on Irish musical, architectural, and cinematic modernisms is only in its pioneering phase; thus, in many ways the history of Irish modernism in the wider sense is still, for all the attention devoted to Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, in its early stage and tentative.'

The object of this Companion is to consolidate contemporary scholarship on Irish modernism with a view also to expanding its scope and ambition. This volume aims to (i) present accessible but wide-ranging and critically challenging overviews of the sociohistorical, intellectual, and aesthetic forces that contributed to the emergence of an Irish modernism; and (2) chart some of the contours of that modernism as it evolved in a variety of media such as poetry, the novel, theatre, and the visual arts. The Companion surveys these subjects over a period of more than half a century and tracks them across an international terrain that includes not only Ireland but also England, France, and the United States. It attends to the particular ambitions and constraints that shaped the modernist literatures produced by Irish women, Irish-language writers, and Irish American modernists. These pages dwell primarily on literature and the visual arts, but because this Companion focuses on a spectrum of modernist achievement in several media, it aims to make a significant contribution to a larger revaluation of modernism in Ireland more generally.