Published posthumously in The United Irishman, August 10, 1901
This article was written several years ago by Wm. Rooney in the Seanachuidhe, the MS. Journal of the Celtic Literary Society.
It may almost sound like a heresy to propound such a question as this in these columns, for has not this journal, to a great extent, as its aim the cultivation of a market for such productions? Like most other matters which have been boomed, a name has been created which may mean much or little, and which is so vague in its real meaning that it can cover quite a large programme. What, first of all, is Anglo-Irishism? Is it a germ of the West-British stock? What are its tendencies, whence its origin, what its strength? By Anglo-Irishism the present writer interprets that sentiment of our people which finds expression in English. The fundamental thought may be Irish, but since it grows and blossoms into actuality in a foreign language it loses half its strength and practically all its individuality. That it is to a certain extent representative of the country may or may not be true, but the contention of this present writing is that an artificial situation and expression such as this, though they may influence politics, cannot produce literature, that is literature representative of the people, their opinions, their habits or their hopes.
What is a representative literature may appear an unnecessary question. Most of us would answer “A literature mirroring certain phases of life and character.” Now to appreciate the position and prospects of Anglo-Irish literature we have got to consider, first, the people and peculiarities it should represent, and secondly its possibility of understanding them. Let us briefly glance at the Irish people. Their enemies admit that their character is one of the most complex amongst nations. Even tainted, as many of them have been, or perhaps some would prefer saying, influenced, by modern developments of thought and civilisation, they preserve practically untouched all the characteristics of their fathers. They, no doubt, have lost much of the simplicity, most of the superstition, and a great measure of the optimism of old times, but in the main they are the same individuals who have been contesting the supremacy of this island for centuries. This is true of the Irishman who has come within the influence of British ideas; it is a million times truer of the men beyond the Shannon and the Galtees, the clansmen of Erris and Innisowen. For them, looking westward over the tumbling waves of the Atlantic, Hy Brazil still comes up upon the sunset, for them still the raths and duns are musicful, the banshee wails, and the phooka sweeps through the lonely leafy valleys. For them still the Sluagh-sidhe come in eddying circles up the dusty roads in the cool summer evenings, and fairy hands still shake the reeds beside the rivers. Amongst these people, and in their thoughts, is the real heart of Ireland, the Ireland untouched by time, still virgin and verdant. Therein is the soul that swayed the forms which faced the first invaders, therein is the truest form of Irish thought and idea; the metal from which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been moulded the Irish nation. It is this nature, with all its primeval belies, its strong passions, its fierce hates and fond affections that our literature must fashion into words if it is to be at all representative. Can this be done in the English language? The present writer thinks not, because the source of all is one entirely antagonistic to the genius of that tongue. One does not expect the characteristics of Italy to be capable of fit representation in German, nor the hot blood of Spain to find expression in French. How then imagine that the thought of Kerry, of Connaught, or Tirconnaill, can be moulded with satisfaction into English?
This is, doubtless, altogether opposed to the fond theories we have been harbouring that Young Ireland laid the foundation of a really Irish literature. That it did wonders towards the building of a Nationalist literature representative of certain phases of opinion is indisputable. That it did as much towards the portrayal of Irish mind or fancy is not equally certain. Take Mangan, Walsh, Ferguson, and perhaps John Keegan away, and what writer of that time is left whose work can be labelled representative; that it is Irish in tendency we have already admitted. Let us examine a few of them: Denis Florence McCarthy has left us some most musical poems, but what is there in them reminiscent of Ireland? O’Hagan’s splendid idyll, “The Old Story,” would be a credit to any country, but it is too arcadic to be mistaken for Irish. Williams’ fire and fervour make the pulses tingle, but one never feels himself drawn back to the things they speak of, they do not impress one any more than if they limned the feats of Gaul or Teuton. Even Davis seldom strikes a note other than academic. One certainly gets a glimpse of real Ireland in such pieces as “The Girl of Dunbwy,” “Oh! The Marriage,” “The Boatman of Kinsale” and “Mo Mhaire Ban Astoir;” but there is little in common with peasant thought in such poems as “Oh! For a Steed,” “A Ballad of Freedom,” or kindred verses, apart from the general sympathy with every phase of patriotism. The writers of ’67 had few amongst them thoroughly Irish in style and manner. Casey occasionally approached the heart of Ireland, and Kickham undoubtedly knew every fibre of it; but O’Donnell, or Halpine, Scanlan or Mrs. O’Donovan, while essentially Nationalist, were, in no sense, National writers. John Walsh and Ellen O’Leary were far truer in their work, but their work is infinitely less artistic, viewing it from the merely mechanical standpoint, than that of their contemporaries. Amongst the writers of our own times, saving of course Dr. Hyde’s, which being of the people is essentially true to them, the work produced of an Irish character is small compared with the output nominally known as such. A few poems by Yeats, Todhunter’s “Banshee,” half-a-dozen of Norah Hopper’s lyrics, a couple of Katherine Tynan’s ballads, such as “Shameen Dhu,” Iris Olkyrn’s “Valiant-Hearted Girl,” Jane Barlow’s “Ould Masther,” and a few songs by Fahy and McCall. In fiction, Standish O’Grady’s “Mona Reulta,” “Coming of Cuchullain” and “Captivity of Red Hugh,” and in general prose Mr. Taylor’s “Life of Owen Roe O’Neill,” constitute about all the really native literature of today. These pieces are Irish in so far as they adequately represent the spirit of the times they depict, the sincerity of the idea they enshrine. They are a few flashes of inspiration in a grey sky of monotony and oftentimes mediocrity. This inspiration cannot be extracted from the mummified labours of translators, it must be caught from the people themselves. Its local colouring must come from experience, not from imagination. It must listen to the voices of the past speaking through the beliefs of the present, and understand the accents that they may not be misrepresented. This can only be done by making the Irish language the medium of expression; for the thought that is most truly Irish can form its idea in no other channel. If even the merest strain of real Irish feeling is to filter into an Irish literature written in English, it cannot come except through a knowledge of Gaelic, and, being Gaelic, will tend more towards the perpetuation of an old than the creation of a new literature.
It may be asked why if holding such opinions, we lend any assistance towards the promotion of Anglo-Irish literature. The answer is easy. While not essentially Irish this literature is still, as we have said, perfectly National, and consequently directs thought towards Ireland, that is to say, exactly fits our policy, for ours is missionary work. Our province is the cultivation and spread of thought, for in thought lies the salvation of Ireland. The bane of our position is that we have merely followed a certain vein of feeling without knowing or caring why. We have allowed our children to be educated, or rather stultified, in National schools for over sixty years without ever thinking that every year brought them farther away from the central force of a National individuality, that is, a language peculiar to themselves. We have submitted to have them taught the exact opposite of their beliefs, to have the whole past of their country shut off from their knowledge. The remedy for all these mistakes is not an indiscriminate rush to the study of Gaelic, but the eventual crushing of all this tendency towards de-nationalisation must come from a greater knowledge of it. Towards the creation of an appetite for that knowledge, towards the awakening of our people, to a sense of their situation, towards the growth of a healthy thoroughly Irish tone, this Irish or pseudo-Irish literature in English can effectually aid, but it cannot, except in rare instances, claim to represent, because it cannot understand or adequately express anything but the hour and the immediate surroundings.