Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Journey Into Ireland's Literary Revival (book review)

In honor of St. Patrick's Day I thought I'd take a look at an armchair travel book this week. With its beautiful pictures and history of Ireland's literary and theater movement in the early twentieth century, A Journey Into Ireland's Literary Revival was the perfect fit.

Twenty-five years before the civil war that separated most of Ireland from the United Kingdom, three friends got together over coffee one day and had a chat about the state of their homeland. William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and Edward Martyn decided that Irish culture had been given a bad rep and something should be done about it.

Here's the wacky idea they had: what if there was an Irish theater in Dublin, that produced plays by Irish writers, about Irish people? Not just stereotyped characters who made an appearance for laughs, but real people who also happened to be Irish?
We propose to have performed in Dublin, in the spring of every year certain Celtic and Irish plays, which whatever be their degree of excellence will be written with a high ambition, and so to build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature.
Believe it or not, at the time it was a radical idea. James Joyce thought it was a waste of Yeats' talent, and when the plays were performed, some of them were so controversial that they caused rioting in the theater.

With its county-by-county tour of the areas that inspired the writers of this period, this book could serve as either an introduction to the literature, or a way to connect favorite works to their specific settings. Felton takes us from County Galway, where the seeds of the Revival germinated, to County Mayo, where John Millington Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World was set, to the streets of Dublin where playwright Sean O'Casey was raised. Annotated maps guide the way for anyone close enough to visit the sites in person; full color pictures allow the rest of us to sit back and dream of the Ireland that goes beyond the shamrocks and leprachauns we're inundated with at this time of year.

The soundtrack: Gaelic culture is alive and well, in large part due to the vision of the founders of the Irish Literary Revival. Cuach Mo Lon Dubh Bui, like many of the songs performed by modern Irish folk group Altan, is sung in Gaelic. Listen to it by clicking on the playlist in my sidebar.


  1. This sounds like a great read for Saint Patrick's Day. Galway Bay stirred up interest in Ireland for me.

  2. Kathy, It's funny, because Galway Bay is one of the places talked about in this book, which had the reverse effect for me--I wasn't especially intrigued by the title of Galway Bay until I read about the location in Ireland's Literary Revival! (It helped to read some reviews of it, too, of course).

  3. I happen to have that book sitting right here beside me...unread.

    I also have been to Galway Bay...and if you remember the song, I've seen the sun go down on Galway Bay. In fact, I have some very nice pictures of that exact thing....here...somewhere...

    And lastly, I LOVE Altan. I have been lucky enough to see them perform several times, always in smallish venues (summer festivals) and as good as they are on their recording, in person they are even better. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh has a lovely voice...

  4. Caite, I agree, Altan is amazing! You're so lucky to have seen them in person.