TO THE EDITOR OF “AN CLAIDHEAMH SOLUIS”
27 GREAT BRUNSWICK STREET, Dublin, May 13th, 1899.
Ireland is notoriously a land of contradictions and of shams, and of Irish contradictions and shams Dublin is assuredly the hot-bed. We have in the capital of Ireland “Irish” national newspapers whose only claim to nationality is that they run down – whilst they imitate – everything English; we have “Irish” nationalist politicians who in heart and soul are as un-Irish as Professor Mahaffy; we have a “national” literary society, which is as anti-national, without being so outspoken, as Trinity College. Apparently, the only thing necessary to make a man or an institution Irish is a little dab of green displayed now and again to relieve the monotony, a little eloquent twaddle about the “children of the Gael,” or a little meaningless vapouring about some unknown quantity termed “Celtic glamour.” Take away the dab of green, strip off the “leafy luxury” of words, and what have you? The man or the institution is as English as Lord Salisbury. Newspapers, politicians, literary societies, all are but forms of one gigantic heresy, a heresy of the deadliest and most insidious kind, a heresy that, like a poison, has eaten its way into the vitals of Irish nationality, that has paralysed the nation’s energy and its intellect. That heresy is the idea that there can be an Ireland, that there can be an Irish literature, an Irish social life, whilst the language of Ireland is English.
And lo! Just as the country is beginning to see through the newspapers and the literary societies, here we have the Anglo-Irish heresy springing up in a new form, the “Irish” Literary Theatre. Save the mark! Much ink has been spilled in our newspaper offices over this same “Irish” Literary Theatre, but I note that not a single “national” daily impeaches it on the only ground on which, details apart, it is impeachable – namely, that literature written in English cannot be Irish. Why waste time in criticising stray expressions when the whole thing is an imposture, a fraud, a heresy? Had Mr. Yeats and his friends called their venture the “English literary Theatre,” or simply “The Literary Theatre,” I should have been the last in the world to object to it. But, in the name of common sense, why dub it “Irish?”
Why not select Hindoo, Chinese, Hottentot, or Eskimo? None of these, of course, would be true, for a play in English, if it is literature at all, must be English literature; but any one of them would be quite as appropriate as “Irish.” What claim have these two English plays to be called Irish literature? None in the world, save that the scene of each is laid in Ireland. Is, then, “Timon of Athens” Greek literature? Is “Romeo and Juliet” Italian literature? Is “Quentin Durward” French literature? Is the “Vision of Don Roderick” Spanish literature? When Greece, Italy, France and Spain claim these works as their respective properties, then may Ireland claim “The Countess Cathleen” and “The Heather Field” as her own.
The “Irish” Literary Theatre is, in my opinion, more dangerous, because less glaringly anti-national than Trinity College. If we once admit the Irish literature in English idea, then the language movement is a mistake. Mr Yeats’ precious “Irish” Literary Theatre may, if it develops, give the Gaelic League more trouble than the Atkinson-Mahaffy combination. Let us strangle it at its birth. Against Mr. Yeats personally we have nothing to object. He is a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank, and as such he is harmless. But when he attempts to run an “Irish” Literary Theatre it is time for him to be crushed.
Very sincerely yours,