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100 years of Irish culture: a talk delivered at the Wigmore Hall on 21 April 2016

Centenaries are useful signposts in the landscape of our collective memory. They encourage us to take our bearings as individuals, communities and nations.

This past two years Europeans have been remembering the catastrophic effects of World War 1, the immense loss of life incurred and the legacy of suspicion and bitterness that paved the way for an even graver and more costly conflict a generation later.

2016 is a big year of remembrance for Ireland as we reflect on events in Dublin at Easter and on the Somme later in 1916 that had profound effects on Ireland, North and South, and on our ties with Britain.

But a centenary would be a lost opportunity if it merely shone the light of knowledge on an event or a series of events. The passage of 100 years encourages us also to reflect upon a significant slice of past time and to draw up balance sheets of achievements, missed opportunities and failings. And this year has seen a vigorous debate in Ireland along those lines.

Our contemporary condition has been repeatedly analysed with reference to the ideals enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation and a range of judgements have been passed.

Ireland in 2016 is incomparably more prosperous, more inclusive and more at ease with itself than it was 100 years ago. That is not, of course, to claim that Ireland's record has been without blemish. There are no grounds for complacency. For all European countries, the challenges of today, stemming from contemporary developments in the wider world, are very different, but no less daunting than those that faced our predecessors in the early 20th century.

While there is much debate about the social, political and economic fruits of independence, there is, I think, general consensus that independent Ireland can lay valid claim to significant cultural achievement and that is what I am here to talk about. Much of what I have to say will focus on literature, but my general argument applies also to music and the visual arts.

1916 is actually a good place to start a discussion of a century of Irish culture for part of the backdrop to the Easter Rising was the new style of nationalism that emerged in late 19th and early 20th century Ireland which placed a new emphasis on identity.

19th century Ireland had undergone a process of anglicisation with a steady decline of the Irish language and the unstoppable spread of English, but things started to change in the closing decades of the century.

In 1884, Michael Cusack, who was brilliantly if unfairly parodied by James Joyce as 'the Citizen' in Ulysses, wrote about 'the tyranny of imported and enforced customs and manners'. He argued that the neglect of national pastimes 'is a sure sign of national decay and of approaching dissolution.' His remedy was the creation in November 1884 of the Gaelic Athletic Association, with the objective of promoting native Irish games. The GAA remains Ireland's most important sporting body to this day. Its continued success is one of the legacies of the tempestuous decades prior to the attainment of independence in 1922.

In 1892, Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, delivered probably the most influential speech in the intellectual history of modern Ireland. 'The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland' pointed to what Hyde saw as 'the folly of neglecting what is Irish and hastening to adopt pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English.'

Hyde's clarion call led to the founding in 1893 of the Gaelic League, which sought to bring about the revival of the Irish language and whose membership grew rapidly in the following two decades.

There were also developments in literature driven mainly by W.B. Yeats - the establishment of an Irish National Literary Society in 1892 and the founding of the Abbey Theatre in 1904. Yeats later wondered if his nationalist play, Kathleen Ní Houlihan, had sent out 'certain men the English shot.'

It is sometimes said that the Easter Rising was a poets' rebellion, but that would be a simplification of an event to which many factors contributed. It is noteworthy, however, that four of the signatories of the Proclamation entered nationalist politics through their membership of the Gaelic League, that three were published poets and that many of those who took part in the events of Easter 1916 were active in the Gaelic Athletic Association. As I see it, cultural nationalism provided one important part of the backdrop to the Rising.

The drama of 1916 also proved to be inspirational to a range of writers, most notably Yeats and Sean O'Casey.

The more I read it, the more convinced I am that Easter 1916 is one of the finest public poems of the 20th century. Yeats realised in the immediate aftermath of the Rising that Ireland had been 'changed utterly' by the events of Easter 1916. He was no great admirer of the Rising’s leaders - and indeed was privately quite critical of them - but he was moved by the valour of their sacrifice even as he wondered if there's was 'needless death after all'.

Yeats engaged in an early exercise in historical revisionism, writing that 'England may keep faith/For all that is done and said.' This refers to the fact that Irish Home Rule was finally granted in 1914, but then deferred until after the end of the war.

To this day, there are those in Ireland who argue that it would have been better had the Rising never taken place and Ireland achieved Home Rule in a peaceful manner. In truth, we can never know what might have happened in 1918 had there been no Easter Rising. This year's commemoration has focused on remembering what happened - in all its diversity and complexity - as opposed to what might have happened!

Yeats's essential ambivalence is perfectly crystallised in his description of the Rising as 'a terrible beauty'. This year's commemorations have paid attention to both Yeats's adjective and his noun - 'terrible' and 'beauty'. Our commemorations have focused on the progressive idealism of the Proclamation and sad fact that more than half of the casualties of Easter week 1916 were Irish civilians.

Sean O'Casey's Plough and the Stars, which caused disturbances when it was first produced in the Abbey Theatre in 1926, takes a more irreverent look at the Rising as seen through the lives of Dublin's struggling tenement dwellers, especially Nora Clitheroe, who pleads unsuccessfully with her husband not to join the fighting in which he is eventually killed.

As with Joxer in Juno and the Paycock, some of O'Casey's most memorable lines are given to the comic figure, Fluther Good. Hearing the passionate rhetoric of Patrick Pearse through the window of a pub where he is drinking, Fluther responds in a mock heroic manner, believing that he can die now:

for you've seen th' shadow-dhreams of th' past leppin' to life in the bodies of livin' men that show, if we were without a titther o' courage for centuries, we're vice versa now.'

Another character, Rosie Redmond, refuses to countenance fighting for 'freedom that wouldn't be worth winnin' in a raffle!' By the time he wrote his 1916 play, O'Casey had come to believe that the members of the Irish Citizen Army, who had fought in the Rising, had been duped into fighting for a bourgeois cause inimical to their own working class interests.

O'Casey's dissident views set a trend for 20th century literature as Irish writers became a critical voice, challenging mainstream views and values. Disenchantment and exile became a common fate for some of our writers, Joyce and Beckett being the premier examples, even if, in Joyce's case, virtually every word he wrote was set in the Ireland he left in 1904. Beckett even resorted to writing in French instead of English, thus further distancing himself symbolically from the country of his birth.

When he left Ireland, Joyce was determined to 'fly the nets' of religion, nationality and language and wanted Ireland to become more European. This was unlikely in a newly independent country in which many of its leading figures had been schooled by the pervasive Irish Ireland ethos of the early 20th century. They wanted Ireland to be more thoroughly Irish and viewed a distinctive Irish identity as the main rationale for political independence.

There was something of a culture war in the early decades of the 20th between those who wanted to cultivate a more exclusively Irish identity and those, who viewed Irish identity in more inclusive terms. Indeed, there were some who sought to deny the Irishness of Anglo-Irish literature because it was written in English.

To what can we attribute the extraordinary success of 20th century writing, from Yeats to Heaney and Joyce to John McGahern and William Trevor? It seems to me that it has something to do with the evolution of Ireland's national story – an expansive, romantic nationalism successfully challenging a great empire and then, when its aspirations had been accomplished, turning inwards and adopting a narrower form of nationalism which our major writers often raged against to the benefit of their creativity.

There is no doubt but that the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were difficult times for Ireland. Louis MacNeice summed it up in a 1941 poem about Dublin.

But she holds my mind
With her seedy elegance,
With her gentle veils of rain
And all that hide behind
Her Georgian facades -
The catcalls and the pain,
The glamour of her squalor,
The bravado of her talk.

Or listen to the disenchantment of the poet Austin Clarke, a trenchant critic of the mores of Catholic Ireland in the first decades of independence, who wrote

Think children, of institutions mured above
Your ignorance, where every look is veiled,
State-paid to snatch away the folly of poor lovers
For whom, it seems, the sacraments have failed.

A new poetic voice emerged in the late 1930s and 1940s, Patrick Kavanagh, who combined a fiercely critical portrait of the meagreness of life in rural Ireland in his long poem, ‘The Great Hunger’, with an equally fierce pride in his locality.

In ‘The Great Hunger’, he wrote:

Of life as it is broken-backed over the Book of Death?
Is there some light of imagination in these wet clods?

But in a poem called ‘Epic’ he struck a different note:

.. I inclined
To lose faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

Therein lies part of the story of Ireland's 20th century literary odyssey - an unprepossessing economic and social environment against whose strictures our writers laid down many verbal gauntlets. A pride in the local coupled with an aching awareness of its limitations.

Irish literature opened up in the 1960s and 1970s, in tandem with developments in Irish society. This led John Montague, in a conscious echo of Yeats's ‘September 1913’ to proclaim that:

Puritan Ireland's dead and gone,
A myth of O'Connor and O'Faoláin.

This refers to the short stories of Frank O'Connor and Seán O'Faoláin which delved into the life of provincial and rural Ireland in the decades after independence. O'Faoláin himself battled against what he saw as excessively narrow versions of Irish identity, especially in his magazine, The Bell, which he edited from 1940 to 1946 and in which he complained about the absence in Ireland of a 'native urban society' with intellectual energy. He opposed what he called 'Celtophiles', 'little Irelanders' 'pietists' and 'Anglophobes'. In his view, 'a parochial Ireland, bounded by its own shores, has no part in our ideal nation that will come out of this dull period.'

And that dull period did eventually come to an end with the revival of the Irish economy from the late 1950s onwards, membership of the European Union from 1973 and, sadly, the outbreak of conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. All of this meant that critiques of a conservative, introspective society could no longer be the mainstay of Irish writing. The writer John Banville produced novels on Kepler, Copernicus and Newton, while in more recent years writers like Colm Toibín and Colum McCann have a trans-Atlantic focus in their work, thus getting away from the narrower ground of exclusively Irish experience.

Moreover, many of the leading Irish poets of the final decades of the 20th century came from Northern Ireland and their work was shaped by the experience of that contested space. Seamus Heaney described himself growing up in Northern Ireland:
., cabin'd and confined ..
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse

and as a
.. land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap.

And his friend and contemporary, Michael Longley, made the case for reconciliation with reference to Homer's Iliad:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.

And away from the turbulence of Northern Ireland, the poet, Eavan Boland (daughter of one of predecessors as Ambassador in London), living in a Dublin suburb she described as ‘unmapped and unvisited in any literary sense’, came to see her poems as ‘a forceful engagement between a life and a language.’ She wrote of:

.. the claustrophobia
Of your back gardens varicose
With shrubs, make an ugly sister
Of you suburbia.

The debate about the authenticity of Anglo-Irish literature is now a thing of the past. Irish literature is now written in two languages, each with its own perspective and authentic voice. The publication of two recent English language translations of the 20th century Irish language classic, Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay) has brought home the unique qualities of writing in Irish. It begins:

I wonder am I buried in the Pound Plot or the Fifteen-Shilling Plot? Or did the devil possess them to dump me in the Half-Guinea Plot after all my warnings?

There is more than a touch of Flann O’Brien in this novel by Máirtín Ó Cadhain. The vision and vigour of contemporary writing in Irish is a match for anything, anywhere. Witness Biddy Jenkinson writing in 1991:

Don’t tell me that life is in hiding, that seeds will sprout, that your spring kisses will make flocks of birds. Let us stand without kissing, without hope, in the place of the dead under every bomb that drops, to testify that this is not done in our name.

While there is no time to delve into the work of contemporary Irish writers, it seems to me that we are more richly endowed with youthful promise than at any time in recent decades – Claire Keegan, Sara Baume, Mary Costello, Caitríona Lally, Lisa McInerney, Louise O’Neill, Rob Doyle, Kevin Barry and Colin Barrett to name but a few more recent talents to emerge in Ireland. And this list is truly gender-balanced! Will one of these writers scale the global heights of our 20th century masters – Yeats, Shaw, Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett and Heaney?

Another feature of our experience, which also stems from our late 19th century cultural revival is the survival and indeed a flowering of traditional Irish music over the past 100 years.

As with the language, traditional Irish musical forms had waned during the 19th century as cosmopolitan influences increased. It was towards the end of the century as part of the cultural revival that interest in Irish music began to increase. The first Feis Ceoil, an annual music competition, took place in 1897, just four years after the Gaelic League was founded. In the same year, the League established its own annual competition, the Oireachtas, dedicated to all things Gaelic including music. Traditional piping also underwent a revival and indeed one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, Eamonn Ceannt, was a talented piper.

With the emergence of an independent Ireland, in keeping with the prevailing Irish Ireland philosophy of the new State, there was, quite naturally it seems to me, a push to promote native art forms. People of conservative mind tended to worry about the supposed impact of dance-halls and jazz music on traditional values. In 1943, Irish radio, RTE, went as far as to introduce a ban on the broadcasting of dance music.

Renewed interest in Irish folk music traditions arose out of international developments in the 1950s and 1960s and the Fleadh Cheoil movement involving an annual gathering of traditional musicians began in 1950. It remains an annual highlight of the Irish traditional music scene. A Folk Music Society was established in 1971, but even then there was plenty of tension between traditionalists and those who wanted to popularise the genre.

The Irish music organisation, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, was established in 1950 and has been a considerable success including here in Britain where it has an active membership. It was not without its critics, however, and one trenchant traditionalist, Breandán Breathnach, condemned Comhaltas for encouraging ballad groups and for promoting the tourism industry! It was, he argued, 'an organisation with a great future behind it.'

The chapter on 20th century music in The New History of Ireland Vol. VII observed that 'the popularisation of traditional music since the mid-century has been achieved by adulterations that leave many people without a clear view of what traditional style and repertoire really are.' (p. 625).

My own inexpert view is that a recognisably Irish form of traditional music has managed successfully to navigate the shoals of the modern world. While Irish traditional music as it is today may not meet an antiquarian test of authenticity, it is nonetheless a living culture and has shown a capacity to adapt and to blend with other cultures to the advantage of Ireland's rich musical traditions.

Personally, I became interested in traditional music in the late 1960s largely as a consequence of the emergence of groups like Planxty and the Bothy Band, who combined Irish traditional idioms with contemporary international folk music developments. These had an appeal to people of my generation and background that would have not have been possible for more purist forms to achieve.

And what of the fate of classical music in Ireland during the past 100 years. When I was Ambassador in Germany, I was invited to Dachau near Munich for a concert to mark the centenary of the birth there in 1910 of one of Ireland's leading 20th century composers, Aloys Fleischmann, whose father was a German-born church organist in Cork.

Aloys Felischmann was born in Germany because his Cork-born mother, Tilly, a concert pianist and daughter of his father's German predecessor in Cork, Hans Conrad Swertz, was on tour in Germany. Though German on both sides of his family and steeped in European musical heritage, Fleischmann grew up in Cork an enthusiast for all things Irish, including the language. According Fleischmann’s in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, 'he sought to write in a modern style that was intrinsically Irish' and 'frequently used Irish motifs and thematic elements'.

Fleischmann's colleague at UCC, Seán Ó Riada, 'explored virtually every medium of musical life in Ireland', but his distinctive contribution was in bringing orchestral resources into traditional music through Ceoltóirí Cualann, a folk ensemble out of which the Chieftains emerged. As his DIB entry puts it, his musical career is 'sharply expressive of that fundamental tension between colonial and ethnic ideologies of music in Ireland.' Tonight's concert will, I hope, illustrate how that tension may now have eased very considerably, in music as in other walks of life.

The early years of Irish independence were difficult ones economically and there was fairly meagre provision for the arts, even for those that resonated with the State's official Gaelic enthusiasms. The renewal of interest in opera and classical music has coincided with Ireland’s economic and social development since the late 1950s, the establishment of the National Concert Hall in 1981 being an important milestone, providing Dublin with a major concert venue. The emergence of classical music festivals in recent decades has also been a noteworthy development. The current series of events at the Wigmore Hall, including tonight's major concert highlights the wealth of Irish talent in this field.

Developments in the visual arts have followed this same general pattern with native and European influences mingling and interacting. Arguably the great period in Irish Art was the period between 1890 and 1940, coinciding with the literary revival, as William Orpen, Walter Osborne, Sean Keating, Paul Henry, William Leech, Jack B. Yeats, Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone and others flourished. Yeats is probably our most renowned 20th century painter, with a style all of his own. His life was deeply anchored in Ireland. He once observed that everything he ever painted had a bit of Sligo in it.

What impresses me about Yeats is the manner in which his work evolved during his lifetime. He started as an illustrator and painted in a Celtic twilight style before evolving into the modernist master now so widely admired. In this sense, he matched his older brother's evolution from the poet of the 'bee loud glade' in the 1890s to one who wrote of 'the foul rag and bone shop of the heart' in the 1930s. Like his poet brother, Jack B. Yeats evolved a truly modernist style while an essential flavour of Ireland.

One of the things that characterises Ireland, therefore, whether in literature, music or painting is the blending of different strands, traditional and contemporary, into a workable mix.

The poet and journalist, George Russell (AE), warned during the 1920s that Ireland, driven by a nationalist idealism, must avoid shutting itself off from the world in a Gaelic bastion. He favoured 'the wedding of Gaelic to world culture'. Otherwise, Ireland 'would not be a nation but a parish.'

It seems to me that Russell's aspirations have largely been fulfilled. Today's Ireland is a globally-connected society, but retains its distinctive cultural profile. But, I can understand why there were so many people in the early decades of independence who viewed the outside world with wariness and wanted to cultivate Ireland's distinctiveness. Devoid of that push to cultivate Irish traditions, I wonder if we would today possess the cultural mix we currently enjoy.

During the past 100 years, we have striven to make our independence work for us in a changing, challenging international environment. Part of what needed to be done was to reconcile our pride in what was distinctively Irish with the experience of our people, a global people who have been exposed more than most to the currents of contemporary culture, dominated as it has been for much of the past century by the Anglo-American world to which Ireland belongs – although there is more to us than that.

There are, of course, no guarantees for the future. It may be that continued globalisation will engender a homogenised saccharin popular culture in the years and decades ahead and that Ireland's distinctiveness will gradually be eroded. On the other hand, the networks that transmit information and ideas globally can also provide opportunities for a diversity of expression.

Almost a century ago, W.B. Yeats wrote that 'things fall apart; the centre cannot hold', but in fact things have tended to totter but to somehow stay together. It's still all to play for - politically, economically and culturally! Let's enjoy some first-class playing and singing - with Irish and broader European elements delightfully intertwined.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in London