The question of an author's nationality might seem unproblematic, but
identity — whether of an individual, nation, or other group — is far from simple.
This Topic gives students an opportunity to explore what determines national
identity. Is it birth? Ancestry? Passport? Language? Culture? What is an Irish
author? What is Irish? Why would an author writing in English deem themselves
to be Irish?
For that matter, what is Ireland? The Irish mainland is a large island in
the Atlantic Ocean with some smaller islands and rocks off each coastline. To
the east, on the other side of the Channel, are Scotland, Wales, and England.
To the west is America. So far, so simple. But Ireland is divided. Eire,
the name once given to the country as a whole, has a piece missing: six
counties known as Northern Ireland, or Ulster. Northern Ireland is British. To
understand this unusual configuration and its meaning for Irish literature, it
is necessary to understand something of Irish history.
If we look at the history of Ireland before its colonizations by Vikings,
Normans, and English, we might expect to find a nation: people united by a
shared language, nationality, culture, race. Ancient Ireland, however, was far
from united in the modern sense of a country ruled by one figure or dynasty or
government; and those people whom we do consider Irish are not indigenous.
Oscar Wilde said that the truth is rarely pure and never simple, and he could
have said the same thing about race. Dominic Kiberd answers the question, "Who
invented Ireland?" this way:
The obvious answer might be the Irish, a truth suggested by those words Sinn
Féin (ourselves) which became synonymous with the movement for national
independence. That movement imagined the Irish people as an historic community,
whose self-image was constructed long before the era of modern nationalism and
the nation-state. There are many texts in the Irish language to bear this
thesis out . . . but what they also register is the extraordinary capacity of
Irish society to assimilate new elements through all its major phases. Far from
providing a basis for doctrines of racial purity, they seem to take pleasure in
the fact that identity is seldom straightforward and given, more often a matter
of negotiation and exchange. (Inventing Ireland, London: Jonathan Cape,
1995, p. xiii)
Given that Ireland was once under British sovereignty and is no longer, is
it a postcolonial nation and should we consider authors such as Brian
Friel and Seamus Heaney postcolonial
writers? As long ago as 1914, Vladimir Illych Lenin wrote that a blow against
the British empire in Ireland was of "a hundred times more significance than a
blow of equal weight in Asia or in Africa" (On Ireland, London, 1949,
pp. 32–3), but, as Elleke Boehmer points out in Colonial and Postcolonial
Literature: "Ireland . . . is believed to represent a different case
because its history has been so closely and so long linked to that of Britain"
and yet "its resistance struggle was in certain other colonies taken as
talismanic by nationalist movements" (Oxford: OPUS, 1995, p. 4). In particular,
Indian moves for independence from the British Empire took Ireland as a model:
"The inspiration and guidance which India found in the example of Ireland went
particularly deep. The basis for the contact lay in the contiguity of the
national movements, as Lord Salisbury well saw when in 1883 he spoke of the
threat which 'any species of [Irish] independence' posed to the security of the
Empire at large" (Boehmer, 114). Edward Said remarks:
It is an amazing thing that the problem of Irish liberation not only has
continued longer than other comparable struggles, but is so often not regarded
as being an imperial or nationalist issue; instead it is comprehended as an
aberration within the British dominions. Yet the facts conclusively reveal
otherwise. Since Spenser's 1596 tract on Ireland, a whole
tradition of British and European thought has considered the Irish to be a
separate and inferior race, usually unregenerately barbarian, often delinquent
and primitive. For at least the last two hundred years Irish nationalism is
marked by internecine struggles involving the land question, the Church, the
nature of parties and leaders. But dominating the movement is the attempt to
regain control of the land where, in the words of the 1916 proclamation that
founded the Irish Republic, 'the right of the people of Ireland to the
ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, [is] to
be sovereign and indefeasible.'" (Culture and Imperialism, London:
Chatto and Windus, 1993, pp. 284–5)
In their various incarnations throughout history, the struggles for Irish
sovereignty has been the subject of much Irish writing, and the artistic
responses to and representations of these struggles have been as diverse as the
authors who write about them. The writers included in this Topic, and in the
Norton Anthology of English Literature, represent not the unity and
distinctiveness of the "Irish experience," but rather its complexity,
hybridity, and differences. While there may be no such thing as an Irish
national psyche, or a national conscience whose forge is the soul of James
Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, the shared experience of leaving Ireland pervades
twentieth-century Irish literature. For some writers, notably Joyce, exile from
Ireland is necessary for a clear and critical perspective of Ireland, while for
others the exile's perspective is one of nostalgia and longing.
The History of Ireland
The Arrival of Christianity
The Tudors and Stuarts
The First World War
Home Rule, the Free State, and the Republic
We do not know much about the Stone Age and Bronze Age peoples of Ireland,
but we do have remnants of their cultures in sites such as Tara, which for thousands of years has been associated
with the high kingship of Ireland, as well as others: stone circles, ring
forts, and burial mounds across the country, near which beautiful and
intricately worked jewelery, horse trappings, armor, and other artifacts have
The Celts (Greek Keltoi) arrived in Ireland in a series of waves from
about 700 b.c. to 300 b.c, one of which, the Goidels (Gaels), called
Galli by the Romans, ultimately gave Ireland its language, Goidelic, or
Gaelic. The name Eire may come from Eriu, the name of a goddess
of the Celts. The Celts came from Central Europe and crossed Italy and Spain,
France and Britain. Their society was pastoral, the peasantry supporting a
warrior aristocracy who defended them, and the warriors keeping their own herds
as well as hunting and raiding. The land was thickly wooded and well watered,
stony but fertile. The Celts established small states or chiefdoms in which
families owned their lands and herds but gave allegiance to a local king or
chief who increased his land by war. The kingdoms or Tuathas (tribes)
comprised five provinces or "fifths": Ulster, Meath, Leinster, Munster, and
Connaught (Ulaid, Midhe, Laigin, Muma, and Connacht). There was no
single ruler of the country, though chieftains such as Brian Boru sometimes
claimed the position of High King (Ard Ri).
The Romans never occupied Ireland, though Tacitus tells us that
Agricola considered invading from his bases in Scotland. It is likely that the
Irish traded with Roman Britain, and probably raided its coasts as the empire
and its defenses decayed. Irish settlers also colonized portions of Wales and
The Arrival of Christianity
Christianity came to Ireland in the late fourth century. When England was
still pagan and illiterate, Ireland's monasteries and monastic learning were
renowned throughout Europe. Though Ogham was used for inscriptions, pagan
Ireland had largely oral traditions. The spread of writing (in Latin) in
Ireland coincided with the spread of Christianity. The Book of Kells was
produced by one of the scriptoria of an Irish monastery.
There were a number of Danish raids on Ireland during the Viking period,
culminating in a major raid in 795. The Vikings founded a number of cities,
including Dublin, which was ruled by Eric Bloodaxe. The defeat of the Vikings
by Brian Boru in 1014 halted the colonization for some time, but because Brian
died soon after, and no other powerful figure emerged to unite the Irish
chieftains, the Vikings were never driven out.
In 1169 the Normans invaded Ireland under Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, who
came at the invitation of Dermot MacMurrough, a deposed king of Munster.
Fearing that FitzGilbert would become too powerful a neighbor, Henry II
followed him to Ireland and made himself overlord. The Normans quickly took
Wexford, Dublin and most of Leinster. Their influence spread, many Irish
chieftains swore allegiance to Henry II, and land was parceled out to Norman
Barons. They built roads, abbeys, towns, and stone keeps from which to maintain
order. They also established the first Irish parliament, which met in 1297.
Much of the land beyond the "Pale" (around Dublin) remained impossible for the
invaders to subdue or hold in any practical sense, however.
Some of the Norman colonizers became proverbially more Irish
than the Irish, and the English throne sought to prevent an integration that
could produce a substantial power motivated by mutual (anti-English) interest.
Thus the Statutes of Kilkenny of 1366 prohibited the colonizers from marriage
with the natives, from adopting Irish names, dress, customs, or Irish speech,
and forbade the Irish to enter the walled strongholds of the Normans.
The Tudors and Stuarts
The first Tudor monarchs found it more economical to allow Ireland to be
ruled by the dominant Anglo-Norman families, such as the FitzGeralds, than to
enforce rule from England. Fear of losing power led to a rebellion in 1534 that
was effectively crushed, and Henry VIII enforced an Act of Supremacy that made
him nominal head of the Church of Ireland as well as England.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, a number of landless scions of the
aristocratic houses went to Ireland to plunder and take lands, in the name of
pacification and religion. Elizabethan Plantation policy dispossessed more
Irish landowners and supplanted them with English Protestants, a process that
continued under Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, Cromwell, and William and
Mary. The Treaty of Mellifont in 1603 took 500,000 acres of land from Irish
hands and led to the "Flight of the Earls," the departure of disempowered
Northern Irish chieftains, such as O'Neill, in 1607, and the arrival of English
and Scottish "planters." These colonists became the Anglo-Irish, or Ascendancy,
the dominant land-owning group in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
James I, Elizabeth's successor (and James VI of Scotland), encouraged Scotsmen
to emigrate to Ulster, geographically the closest part of Ireland, and thus
build a large Protestant community there.
In 1641 a number of Catholic landowners in the north abandoned
diplomatic methods of dealing with the powerful Protestant minority and took up
arms. The dissent spread throughout the country and gained in ferocity. The
reports of atrocities against Protestants that circulated in England may have
incited Cromwell's troops to acts of retribution soon after. During the English
Civil War, some Irish supported the Royalist (and to an extent Pro-Catholic)
cause against Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. After the execution of
Charles I, Cromwell took a huge army to Ireland, stormed Drogheda, slaughtered
its populace, and in a bloody and ruthless campaign, took Wexford, Ross, Cork,
Youghal, Kinsale, and Waterford, leaving much of the south in ruins. The Act of
Settlement of 1652 gave the "transplantable" natives two years to move to the
west of the River Shannon (after which they would be put to death), confiscated
most of the land remaining in Irish hands, and settled on it the soldiers who
had taken part in the slaughter of its original inhabitants.
At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, hopes were raised for
better treatment of Catholics and Irish, and Charles's brother James set in
motion a repeal of the Act of Settlement, but James was exiled, and the
Protestant William and Mary were invited to take the throne. James fled to
Ireland where he raised an army, but was thwarted at the siege of Derry and
decisively defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Before the Civil War,
over half of Ireland was in Catholic hands; by 1688 nearly 80 percent was owned
by the Protestants who made up about 10 percent of the population, and by 1703
about 85 percent was Protestant owned.
The Protestant Ascendancy
In the early eighteenth century, oppressive penal laws precluded Irish
Catholics from many of the rights of citizenship. They could not buy or inherit
land except by distribution among all sons (so that the shares were small),
vote, join the army or navy, teach or run schools, educate their children in
the Catholic faith, or send them abroad to be educated. Measures were taken to
eradicate Irish culture, which went underground: Irish was taught and spoken,
Irish texts were circulated, and Masses were spoken in secret.
Legal moves to separate Ireland from England during this century
were aborted, and the fears aroused by the French Revolution led to ever more
draconian measures. On the model of the revolution, Wolfe Tone, a Protestant,
planned a rebellion that would bring liberty, fraternity, equality, and
independence from England to all Irishmen, whether Protestant or Catholic. He
brought a French fleet to Ireland in 1798, but the rebellion failed, and added
support to the move for the Act of Union passed in 1801, which made Ireland
part of Britain.
Wolfe Tone had been a barrister and it was another lawyer,
Daniel O'Connell, who in the next century led the campaign for the repeal of
the Act of Union. O'Connell advocated peaceful means, but when these failed,
the Young Ireland Movement demanded more forceful action. By that time,
however, there were few Irishman able to fight for the cause.
There were a number of Irish famines, but the most famous was caused by the
failure of the Irish potato crop from 1845 to 1848. By the end of this period the
country had lost at least two million of its people (some estimates put this at
four million) — one million to starvation and another million to emigration,
primarily to the United States, England, New Zealand, and Canada. The death or
emigration of peasant tenants was seen as an advantage by many English
landowners, a number of whom were absentee landlords, since it enabled them to
enclose the land or put it to other, more profitable, use. Many "small-holders"
(small land holders) and their families went to workhouses and died of
disease. Others were employed on work-schemes, such as the building of the
notorious Famine Roads and Famine Walls, which were set up by "benevolent"
organizations that offered backbreaking work for less-than-subsistence wages or
food rather than charity.
Popular participation in Irish politics increased dramatically in the 1870s
and 1880s. The introduction of the secret ballot and the removal of the ban on
party processions in 1872 were followed by the "Mud Cabin Reform Act" of 1884,
which increased the Irish electorate more than threefold. Charles Stewart
Parnell became the leader of the major Populist Party. He won four-fifths of
the representation and, though he was a Protestant and a landowner, managed to
integrate the disparate nationalist factions. He was a moderate, seeking to
bring about Home Rule by political rather than violent means. By allying with
the Conservatives in 1886, Parnell's party briefly effected a change in the
balance of power in Parliament by overthrowing the majority of the Liberal
Party (under Gladstone). In 1890 Gladstone threatened to resign unless the
Irish Party replaced Parnell as leader, and this, coupled with his citation of
correspondent in an infamous divorce case (Parnell was having an affair with
Kitty O'Shea, wife of Captain William O'Shea), led to his downfall. As Joyce's
Dubliners short story, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," shows, Parnell remained a semimythic figure in Irish politics long after his
The First World War
Many Irishman fought in the British Army during the First World War, and
Ireland produced a number of war poets, many of whom are now forgotten. Seamus
Heaney, among others, has championed the poet Francis Ledwidge, who fought the British in the cause of Irish independence,
and for the British against the threat to European liberty.
Home Rule, the Free State, and the Republic
The Home Rule Bill was passed in 1912 but the outbreak of the First World
War led to postponement of its implementation. Taking advantage of the army's
occupation in Europe, members of the Irish Republican Brigade and Gaelic League
planned a rising that they knew would end in almost certain defeat, but which
would stand as a symbol and rallying cry of Irish independence. The main
instigators who became the Supreme Council were Thomas Clarke, Pádraig
>> note 1
Sean MacDiarma, Eamonn Ceant, and Sean T.
Ceallaigh, and, later, Thomas McDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett, and James
>> note 2
Monday, 1916 they occupied six strategic sites in Dublin. From their
headquarters at the General Post Office in O'Connell Street, Pádraig Pearse
came out to read the now famous "Proclamation from the Provisional
Government of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland." It was signed Thomas J.
Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, P. H.
Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt, James Connolly,
and Joseph Mary Plunkett.
British army reinforcements arrived quickly. The rebels held out for six
days, then they were captured, imprisoned, and their leaders executed,
including all seven of the signatories to the Proclamation. Joseph Mary
Plunkett was allowed to marry his fiancée before he was shot. General Sir John
Maxwell was given absolute authority under martial law. Thousands were arrested
and tried in secret, many of whom had had no part in the rising or the
activities of the rebels. Most were imprisoned, but some had life sentences
commuted and others were released in an amnesty the following year.
The Rising met with mixed reactions. There had been a call for Irishmen to
join the war against Germany, which was seen as an oppressor of small
countries, and in distracting the troops the rebellion was seen as striking a
blow for the Germans. After the executions, the arrest of innocent people, and
the spell of martial law (however brief), however, public opinion changed, and
the executed men became martyrs in the cause of independence.
In 1917 Sinn Féin won a national election and instead of taking
their seats at the British parliament in the Palace of Westminster, founded the
Dáil Éireann (Irish Assembly) in Dublin. The leader was Eamonn de Valera.
>> note 3
This was a period of
internecine war between the Republicans and British troops stationed in
Ireland, who were known as "Black and Tans"
>> note 4
During the 1920s religious and political conflicts were sometimes
inseparable from class conflict. Unemployment was high and the turning off of
Catholic workers from the steelyards and shipyards of Ulster led to riots. The
Government of Ireland Act of 1920 created two Home Rule administrations: one
for the twenty-six counties of Southern Ireland, and one for the six counties
of Northern Ireland (Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone).
The Troubles initially consisted largely of sporadic acts of
arson and arms raiding, but following the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act
of August 1920, and the subsequent internments, the guerrilla warfare extended
to ambushes, snipings, and executions. The reprisals carried out by Black and
Tans, the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the "B Specials" (Ulster Protestant
part-time constables) led to an escalation of violence that has continued
sporadically ever since.
After the 1921 elections, a unionist ministry was installed in Northern
Ireland, but the Members of Parliament elected for Southern Ireland declared
themselves to be the Dáil Éireann under President de Valera. In
negotiations with the British Prime Minister Lloyd George, they were led to
believe that the Act was temporary, and an Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in
1921. The Free State, of the twenty-six counties without Ulster, was formed in
1922, but de Valera's emissaries had acted without his consent, and he
resigned. The occupation of the Four Courts by the forces of Michael Collins is
said to have initiated the civil war between "Free Staters" who supported the
treaty, and Republicans who opposed it. De Valera's Fianna Fáil
(Soldiers of Destiny) party, formed in 1926, won the election of 1932 and the
new constitution declared Ireland independent of British sovereignty. The new
state, Eire, was to have an Uachtarán (President), Prime Minister
(Taoiseach), and a two-house parliament: the Dáil and the