Context and Development of Irish Literature:
History, Poetry, Landscape
Chapter 1: Introduction
Welcome! Welcome to the Introduction to
Irish History Web-Text. This work, of roughly 60 web pages,
attempts to introduce the student of Irish literature and culture to the
general history of Ireland, from pre-historic times up to the
establishment of the Irish state in 1923. Through the use of text,
images, slide shows, audio files, and interactive quizzes, this work
provides a dynamic and active study of Irish history. As you read
through the pages that follow, engage each section in as active and
participatory a manner as possible. In particular, work to
interpret the images that are provided, in the effort to bring the
realities of Irish life before you. The quizzes at the end of each
of the four chapters will test the extent of your knowledge and
understanding of what you have just studied. (Students of
Professor Conner's courses in Irish Literature must answer all questions
correctly on the quizzes in order to move on to the next quiz.)
Introduction: In 1933, William Butler Yeats published “Blood and the Moon,” an astonishing poem from the world’s most prominent poet. In the poem, Yeats asks, “Is every modern nation like the tower, / Half dead at the top?” He fills the poem with allusions to crucial periods, events, figures, and legends from Irish history:
I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral
That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have traveled there.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . .
Seven centuries have passed and it is pure;
The blood of innocence has left no stain.
A reader of this poem may well ask, who are these people to whom Yeats
refers? What power do these references give the poem? Why would he
choose these figures to call upon, during this particular historical
moment? What figures does Yeats consciously exclude? What are the “seven
centuries,” and what happened during them? Why a tower? What sort
of tower? Who built it, why, for what purpose? What does the tower look
like? Where is it? Why would Yeats choose this as his central symbol for
his greatest poems?
Yeats’s poetry—like Joyce’s novels, or Synge’s
plays, or Gregory’s folk tales—demands an immersion in Irish history,
geography, language, tradition, legend, and much more. No literary
tradition is more powerfully tied to the history of its country than Irish
Literature. One could say that the great obsession of every Irish writer
is Irish history itself, or, put differently, that the theme of every
Irish poem is somehow Ireland itself. The past becomes a question of
interpretation for the Irish writer: not merely what happened, but who
told the story, why it was told the way it was, and what effect the story
had on those who heard it.
Irish literature is filled with references to the great
figures and great events of the Irish past, and if a reader is not at
least acquainted with the broad outlines and major figures of Irish
history, that reader may be quite, quite lost, and certainly one's
appreciation of the writing will be powerfully diminished. The aim of the
following web presentation is, through the use of text, image, sound, and
interactive response, to provide readers with an understanding of the
cultural horizon from which Irish literature emerges.