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Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922

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Article by Berni Dwan ©.
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As a student of his, over the years I have always made it my business to buy anything written, complied or edited by Declan Kiberd. Most recently it was Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922 published by Abbey Theatre Press and co-edited by Kiberd and P. J. Matthews. It’s a handsome tome stylishly clad in orange hardback – looking, for all the world, like a DIY manual at first glance – a class of a brainiacs breezeblock, if you will – and what a fine idea for an anthology. Every home should have one; indeed, can I suggest to the Irish Tourist Board that every Irish hotel room should have one. Open any page in this handbook and you will understand and appreciate, just a little bit more, the intellectual energy and ‘heated debate’ that proliferated across Ireland between 1891 and 1922, before sadly returning to the doldrums for several decades.

I was reared beside St Enda’s school in Rathfarnham; it was my childhood playground and prime location for the re-enactment of Enid Blyton inspired adventures. The school was abandoned, the unkempt grounds were closed to the public and we children were trespassing. I turn immediately to page ninety eight to read an excerpt from Patrick Pearse’s Letter to Eoin Macneill on the Founding of St Enda’s School. You can only shake your head and lament the wasted efforts of this young man eschewing learning Gradgrind style in favour of discovering Montessori style. It was a grand scheme in which he wanted the pupils involved in ‘shaping of the curriculum, cultivation of observation and reasoning’. Disappointingly, over one hundred years later Pearse’s educational ideas would still be regarded as radical. This letter to Macneill displays the breathless fervour of youth transfixed with an idea.

In Irish Women’s Education written in 1899, Mary E. L. Butler argues for a college of higher education for women. Furthermore, she regrets the lack of ‘national knowledge’ being taught in the affluent schools of that time. I wonder what her impressions would be of some of the private secondary schools around South Dublin today. Would she still see them as aping their British equivalents? Indeed, Butler goes so far as to equate this ‘national knowledge’ with being ‘self-respecting, self-relying, self-advancing’. Nowadays she’d be pushing for philosophy to be put on the curriculum. She herself went to Alexandra College in the late nineteenth century and it was only after reading John Mitchell’s Jail Journal that she became a nationalist and even changed her name to Máire de Buitléir. She appeals directly to the mammies and daddies of Ireland who are selecting schools for their children, “Let them insist that patriotic principles and information on national subjects are inculcated at the educational establishments to which they send them.” Today she might be laughed off the stage as a nationalist nutter.

Douglas Hyde in The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland is puzzled by Irish men who “drop their own language to speak English” who “translate their euphonious Irish names into English monosyllables” who “read English books, and know nothing about Gaelic literature, nevertheless protesting as a matter of sentiment that they hate the country which at every hand’s turn they rush to imitate.” Irish supporters of the ‘beautiful game’ immediately spring to mind. Might Douglas Hyde despair at the hundreds of thousands of Irish viewers who faithfully follow Coronation Street, East Enders and Emmerdale and who get their news from British tabloids? Isn’t it fascinating to think that in 1892 Hyde was appealing to everyone on the island of Ireland, unionist or nationalist, to stop their constant running to England for “books, literature, music, games, fashions and ideas”? In truth though, what exercises Hyde is not the taking on board of what is best in the English, but neglecting what is Irish in favour of something that is English simply because it is English. He is not suggesting abandoning Chaucer and Shakespeare – now that would be irresponsible; wouldn’t it? He is simply suggesting making room for Irish novelists, playwrights and poets also.

So why is this anthology important? It gives us a snapshot of that crucial embryonic phase in the history of Ireland’s intellectual and cultural revival as witnessed, interpreted and observed by commentators, reactionaries and scholars. It is immaterial whether you agree or disagree with the sentiments of the writers in this anthology; what is important is that Ireland, belatedly, was having her own renaissance and enlightenment rolled into one. After years of stagnation there were now enough contemporaneous thinkers, scholars and commentators to make a noise. With so much to choose from it must have been a struggle for Kiberd and Mathews to compile this collection and perhaps they might consider putting more material up on a dedicated Irish revival web site.

The Handbook of the Irish Revival is also important because it demonstrates that literature does not sit alone; literature is written in a context – social, political, cultural, religious but most importantly, historical. History and literature exist symbiotically. If the Irish government does not rescind its ludicrous decision to make history a non-compulsory subject at Junior Certificate cycle in Irish secondary schools, books like this will be appreciated by fewer and fewer readers. To put it starkly; future generations won’t get it.

This handbook also reminds us of the wealth of considered commentary that was available during this time – not just from the heavies like Yeats, Maud Gonne, Synge, O’Casey, Countess Markiewicz and Connolly, but more tellingly, from lesser known entities like Susanne R. Day expressing righteous concern about The Workhouse Child in 1912, Emily Lawless trying to quantify the devastation of the Great Famine in Famine Roads and Famine Memories in 1898 or Peig Sayers vividly describing a standoff between the Land League and the ‘foreign army’ over a local eviction. One review cannot possibly do justice to such a comprehensive and wide-ranging anthology with contextualised introductions to each section and scholarly annotations for each text. I do hope though that I have succeeded in piquing your curiosity.

Thirty-four years later I get to meet Declan Kiberd again. He and Matthews are discussing the anthology in the quirky and independent Books Upstairs on Dublin’s D’Olier St, on a Sunday afternoon. I walk back to the car in Fitzwilliam Square with my signed book. I pass Trinity College, Grattan’s Parliament, Burke, Goldsmith, Davis, blue plaques denoting the former residences of so many contributors to this handbook, the steps of Leopold Bloom, echoes of the 1913 Lockout, 1916 Rising and War of Independence. What might the compilers of a handbook in one hundred years’ time select to reflect the concerns or capture the zeitgeist of Ireland between 1990 and 2015? The answers seem terribly obvious now but for our grandchildren and greatgrandchildren it will be a revelation.
©Berni Dwan