RELIGION & NATION IN MODERN IRISH LITERATURE
Dr. James M. Wilson
M/W/F 11:30 am–12:20 pm
Attributes: IRISH STUDIES
Near the end of his life, the Anglo-Irish poet W.B. Yeats enjoined his successors thus:
"Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
. . . . .
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry."
In linking the artist’s trade with a vision of national identity and a conception of goodness and beauty (the “well made”), Yeats was not alone. In the first decades of the Twentieth Century, Irish nationalist movements sought to make a case that Ireland was a distinct culture and nationality from Great Britain and therefore deserved political independence. They sought to define and in some sense create what it meant to be Irish as an individual person and member of a community so that they could make an argument for how one ought to live in the world and how one ought to exist as a member of an ancient Irish nation and as a potential citizen of a modern Irish state. At stake was not merely who could be included asIrish, but whether the Irish nation as a coherent entity had any distinct role to play in the history of civilization and in the modern world. But more than this, such efforts raise the question of how the people of a historical nation relates to that which transcends history, namely the truth and the divine. How do our commitments to a people stand in relation to our ordination to God? This became an especially potent matter in Ireland precisely because the population was divided between a Catholic majority and an Anglo-Irish Protestant minority. Questions of nation, therefore, lead to others: What role does religious confession play in the life of the nation? and what role can a love of nation play in the life of the spirit?
We will explore five of the major answers to these questions in the works of a handful of modern Ireland’s most accomplished and influential writers, taking specific account of how their religious and political beliefs give form and substance to a particular definition of the Irish nation. We shall read the poetry, plays, and prose of W.B. Yeats, the cultural criticism and short stories of Daniel Corkery, the stories and novels of James Joyce, a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, and conclude with a study of the “European Catholic modernists,” Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, and Thomas MacGreevy.