There is a half decent argument in claiming that the Irish produced the three greatest writers of the twentieth century in the three key literary art forms: Yeats, Joyce and Beckett. Yeats was avowedly Irish, though often equivocally so. His most Irish of poems, Easter 1916, was in large part written in Ezra Pound’s Hampshire home, after a long period spent largely in England. Joyce, who famously joked that it would be possible to rebuild the Dublin of his youth from Ulysses, set everything he wrote in Dublin; yet, he spent almost all of his adult life in a self-imposed exile. His work was unequivocally European, he flew the nets of ‘the sow that eats her own farrow’ as he famously characterised Ireland. Beckett made his home in Paris, and wrote at least some of his most important works in French.
In terms of Irish politics, they were at the very least interesting. Yeats veered between an engaged nationalism and an often embittered public distancing of himself from that she nationalism. For sure, Yeats was no democrat, dallying even with Ireland’s would-be Fascist movement, O’Duffy’s Blueshirts. Joyce’s politics stayed ossified in the old world of Parnellite Home Rule (think of the great Christmas dinner scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Yeats’ To A Shade). Beckett, famously, was part of the resistance in wartime France.
Unlike all of these, Sean O’Casey was an active Republican in his time, a one time member of the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the socialist Irish Citizens’ Army; he was also from inner city working class Dublin. It was that background that informed the trilogy of plays that were premiered by the Abbey Theatre between 1923 and 1926, all of which were set in the Dublin of the years 1916-23: The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and a the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. The latter proved deeply controversial, and in part as a consequence O’Casey moved to London. In 1928, the Abbey rejected The Silver Tassie, his play about the Great War; it was performed in London (starring Charles Laughton, incidentally). In truth, O’Casey never reached the heights of his Dublin trilogy again. When, along with works by Joyce and Beckett, O’Casey’s play The Drums of Father Ned was due to be part of the 1958 Dublin Theatre Festival, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin effectively ensured that Joyce and O’Casey’s works would not be performed.
James Stephens came, like O’Casey, from a poor Protestant background (in Stephens’ case, the product of an orphanage). Like O’Casey, he was a Republican, writing an important book on the 1916 rising, Insurrection in Dublin. Like all the above, Stephens spent a lot of his time outside Ireland, becoming a popular radio personality on the BBC in 1937. He spent the rest of his life until his death on St Stephen’s day (Boxing Day), 1950.
Brian O’Nolan wrote novels under the name of Flann O’Brien and a brilliantly funny Irish Times column Cruiskeen Lawn under the nom de plume Myles na gCopaleen. He was, in fact, a civil servant, a rare safe professional position in post-independence Ireland. His great comic novels, At Swim Two Birds, The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive are among the funniest books at have read. The Third Policeman, the greatest of them, remained unpublished in his lifetime. O’Nolan was an alcoholic, and well known in the Dublin pubs that served as literature Ireland’s second home.
When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse is an also ran
When all you have is a heap of debt
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN
He was hugely influenced by Joyce, yet maintained a very public distance. Joyce features in The Dalkey Archive, pulling pints, making underwear for Jesuits and denying all knowledge of Finnegan’s Wake. An old friend of mine, a playwright and civil servant as it happens, remembered, as a young man, in Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street (a great Dublin pub) that he has been reading the banned Ulysses in the toilet: ‘a most appropriate place’, came the embittered voice of the habitually drunk O’Nolan (shown below, in characteristic pose, reading in Dublin’s Palace Bar)
‘She is both a bore and a bitch’, wrote Louis MacNeice of his native land. In one thing, O’Nolan was unique among all these Irish writers: he stayed. All were to some extent outsiders in the new Ireland (all bar Joyce and O’Nolan were Protestant). O’Nolan was from Strabane, in what became Northern Ireland). Perhaps the real outsider was MacNeice, who unlike all the above was educated at an English public school and then Oxford, who spent his life in England and who was part of what is sometimes known as the Auden circle. Yet, as the critic Edna Longley notes, MacNeice’s distance gives artistic power. He was long regarded with more than a little condescension, perhaps because of his failure to fit a comfortable narrative, whether the easy leftism of the Auden circle, or the comforting morality tale of Irish nationalism.
Autumn Journal is his masterpiece. Its sixteenth canto engages Ireland, and the Yeatsian tradition head on, opening with a flourish the man himself would be proud of: ‘Nightmare leaves fatigue’. He rails against one tradition which sees ‘Free speech nipped in the bud/The minority’s always guilty’ and the prison of a ‘half-dead language’ (one thing all these writers had in common was their embrace of the English language). He also fears the ‘voodoo of the Orange bands’. There is a plague on both houses. Most of all, he recognises the terrible harm done by over-simple historical imagination:
Send her no more fantasy, no more longings which
Are under a fatal tariff
Those simple verities, what he elsewhere called the ‘gallery of fake tapestries’, condemned Ireland he relive its past, and to live on in a grinding material, spiritual and moral poverty, shown in her impoverished children:
Who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue
And a faggot of useless memories