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The attempts to revive the Irish political nationalism have seen considerable Irish literary achievement. The country’s long history as a British colony and the effects of that colonization shapes the struggle for Irish nationhood and identity even today, both politically and imaginatively.
The country’s struggle for independence intensified towards the turn of the 20th century culminating in partial independence in 1921 from British colonization (Abrams 2304). The long history of colonization has had profound effects on the cultural, political, economic and social aspects of the Irish; a situation Ireland is struggling with even today, in its efforts to establish a distinct Irish culture and an Irish nation state.
The nationalist struggle for Irish identity and nationhood began in the turn of the 19th century culminating in partial independence from British colonization in 1921 (Abrams 2305). This struggle is integral to Irish recent history and is a central focus for the many political activists, poets, artists and writers who attempt to give the Irish national spirit a voice.
The three literary works: Yeats’s “September 1913”, “Easter 1916”, and Joyce’s “The Dead” revolve around the period preceding and after the Irish independence and subsequent creation of an Irish State. The three literary works touch on the problems and the issues associated with the Irish nationalist struggle in the early 20th century and its aftermath.
The Themes: Yeat’s “September 1913” and “Easter 1916”
Yeats’s Poetry comprises of poems written by an Irish poet, William Butler Yeats in the twentieth century (Yeats 1). In the two poems, “September 1913”and “Easter 1916”, Yeats used the themes of national unity, nationalism, social division and the freedom of expression in the context of his country, Ireland.
Through themes and figurative language, the poems reveal Yeats’s feeling regarding the Irish struggle for independence. In particular, the theme of nationalism dominates in the “Easter 1916” poem, where he mentioned the national heroes who died during the rebellion such as MacDonagh (Abrams 2308).
He said, “Now and in time to be, /whenever green is worn,” (Finneran 182). Green in this context referred to the national color of his country and a color of the Irish solders’ uniforms. In this case, he alluded that the struggle for independence was still on in Ireland.
In “September 1913”, Yeats introduces the theme of freedom from oppression. Although Yeats was a patriot and advocated for independence of Ireland, he often criticized his country for the suppression of the right to free expression. In this poem he says, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / it’s with O’Leary in the grave” (Finneran 108), which shows that Ireland he had imagined no longer existed.
His mention of O’Leary implied that the heroes who fought for Ireland’s freedom died in vain. He also alluded that Ireland lacked patriots who were willing to continue fighting for its freedom: “Yet they were of a different kind, /the names that stilled your childish play, /they have gone about the world like wind”, (Finneran 108).
The middle classes comprising of the contemporary Roman Catholics had failed to fight for the same cause Yeats had fought for during that time; as such, Yeats felt betrayed by the contemporary Irish society (Abram 2303).
Another theme that Yeats uses in his poems is that of social division, which appears in “September 1913”. Yeats detests the contemporary middle classes in Ireland and their corrupt practices (Abrams 2303). In the first three lines of this poem, he detests the money grabbing practices: “What need you, being come to sense, /But fumble in a greasy till, / and add the halfpence to the pence” (Yeats 8).
In this case, Yeats viewed the middle classes as selfish as they cared less about their history and only cared about money. Neither, did they care about the Irish freedom fighters or their religion, Catholic. In contrast, in Joyce’s “The Dead”, Gabriel seems scornful of Irish language and Ireland as a whole; he claims that he is “sick of own country, sick of it” (164).
In this regard, Joyce laments the lack of real Irish nationalists as represented in the character Gabriel.
Similarly, in the “September 1913” poem, Yeats appears to favor “aristocracy and peasantry for their economic benefits but hates the middle classes because of their indifference to Irish freedom or nationalism” (Abrams 2303). As Yeats implies, “their selfishness destroyed the once romantic Ireland and made nationalism appear meaningless or less prominent” (Abrams 2307).
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In contrast, the premise of national unity stands out in Yeats’s masterwork of “Easter 1916”. This poem, written after the Easter rebellion in 1916, expressed the spirit of unity by the use of the word “our” to emphasize the importance of reconciliation of the middle classes who were behind the rebellion.
In contrast, Joyce’s “The Dead” criticizes the cultural imperialism that threatens the harmony of the Irish and the revival of the Irish language and culture (Abrams 2306). The mood in “Easter 1916” is harmonic and apologetic; he apologizes for his misjudgment of the middle classes in his earlier poem, “September 1913”.
He says, “Polite meaningless words, and thought before I had done, of a mocking tale or a gibe, to please a companion” (Finneran 180). In this regard, he recognizes their role in the rebellion and implies that the middle classes carried the Irish honor and as such, were part of the Irish history.
In the “September 1913” poem, Yeats had indicated that he resented the middle classes for their critical attitudes towards Ireland (Finneran 111). Nevertheless, their role in the Easter Rebellion saw him change his mood from resentful to reconciliatory to promote unity.
Themes: Joyce’s “The Dead”
In ‘The Dead’, Joyce includes the Irish language to bring out the theme of national pride. During the last decade of the 19th century, the Irish underwent profound cultural revival; “they struggled to define their identity” (Abrams 2307).
A movement emerged to revive the national culture and language. As such, the Irish developed a renewed interest in the Irish language and literature including learning Gaelic that had been forgone as Irish adopted English language in public communication (Abrams 2307). Thus, this cultural revival gave the Irish a sense of identity and national pride.
Joyce’s “The Dead” was written during this cultural revival: a time when the search for Irish identity and nationalism was at its peak. In “The Dead”, Gabriel’s interaction with Miss Ivors shows the significance that the Irish attached to Irish language. Gabriel totally refuses to acknowledge Ms. Ivors’ Irish nationalism. “Was she sincere? Had she any life of her own behind her propagandism?” (Joyce166).
Similarly, Ms. Ivors disapproves of Gabriel’s regular travel abroad and challenges his assertion that the European languages contain more cultural elements compared to his Irish language: “why do you go to France and Belgium, said Ms.
Ivors, instead of visiting your native land”, Well, it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages, said Gabriel” (Joyce 164). In this regard, Joyce compares the cultural values and language of Ireland and those of Britain as represented in the character Gabriel Conroy.
In this story, West Ireland symbolizes Irish Nationalism, with Gabriel representing disloyalty to Irish culture and language, whereas Ms. Ivors appreciates her native culture. As Gabriel implies in his speech, the West of Ireland values and practices contravenes the Irish traditions on hospitality (Joyce146).
Further, following Ms. Ivors provocation, Gabriel develops a negative attitude towards anything Irish. Thus, Joyce uses the two characters to contrast two different attitudes developed towards Ireland during the Irish struggle and its aftermath.
Gabriel, though cultured in Irish culture, holds a low opinion of his nation; instead, he turns to British culture, which he perceives as sophisticated and better (Joyce 164). Ms. Ivors, on the other hand, is passionate about her native culture and leans towards the Irish traditions and culture. She spends her holidays in West Ireland where she can use her limited native language, Gaelic, freely (Joyce 157).
She even accuses Gabriel of betraying his own culture by calling him a ‘West Briton’, (Joyce 166) as he identified himself more with English culture than his own native culture. This turns out to be true as Gabriel, in his speech after dinner, quotes from Robert Browning, an English poet.
He even criticizes the true nationalists like Ms. Ivors: “the new generation growing up in our midst” (Joyce147). Here, Joyce alludes to cultural imperialism by the English culture that threatens to erode the revival of Irish culture, and by extension, the Irish nationalism.
Yeats in his “September 1913” directly criticizes the middle classes for their indifference towards Irish culture (Finneran 118). In contrast, Joyce, through two characters, Gabriel and Ms. Ivors, ridicules cultural imperialism warning that there are consequences for cultural traitors towards the end of the story. One can see Gabriel’s paralysis as due to his association with English culture rather than his own culture (Joyce 166).
Yeats in the “September 1913” also shows the element of cultural betrayal but, hints that the Irish struggle for independence would continue. He criticizes the middle classes of doing little to protect their country and rues the death of Irish nationalism. He laments the loss of the glory that once his romantic native land prided.
Yeats, unlike Joyce, used figurative stylistic devices to highlight the Irish situation during their struggle for independence. Yeats used symbolism in “September 1913” and “Easter 1916.” In the “September 1913” poem, the expression “wild geese spread” and “wing upon every tide” (Finneran 108) symbolizes the Irish nationalists in asylum, in countries such as Austria, France and Spain.
The inclusion of the names of the freedom fighters such as O’Leary symbolizes the Irish glory. In addition, the title “Easter” in “Easter 1916” poem symbolizes the rebirth of the Irish nation state. It is an illustration of the renaissance of Yeats’s view about the middle classes because of their position in the Irish Rebellion.
Irish literature is central to Irish nationalism and the modern Irish experience. Yeats, through the two poems, “September 1913” and “Easter 1916” captured the cultural reality of the Irish in this era.
He believed that the Irish culture had the power to revive and reflect the Irish identity: “Now and in time to be, /whenever green is worn,” (Finneran 182). Similarly, Joyce in “The Dead” alludes to cultural imperialism and its consequences on nationalism. Thus, the dominant theme explored by Irish literature regards nationalism and continuity of the Irish culture.
Abrams, Mayers et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1986. Print.
Finneran, Richard. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996. Print.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York: Signet Classics, 1967. Print.
Yeats, William. Selected Poems and Three Plays by William Butler Yeats. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1962. Print.