The Context and Development of Irish Literature:
History, Poetry, Landscape

Chapter Two:  The Period of Conquest and Rebellion, page 5

With the political situation stabilized, the18th century became a relatively peaceful and prosperous time for Ireland. This period is termed the Protestant Ascendancy, for Ireland was ruled by Anglican (not radical Protestant) aristocrats who were determined to sustain their power over Ireland. These were the descendants of some of the oldest Anglo-Irish families who had switched their loyalties to the Protestant Church over the centuries, and now were firmly established as the great land-owning families throughout particularly the eastern half of Ireland. The achievements of this ruling class were in many respects magnificent, and they accomplished much that was good for Ireland: Trinity College was their seat of learning, and it became one of the great universities in western Europe; the Irish Parliament in Dublin--the only independent Parliament in any British colony in the entire empire--was renowned for its great orators and leaders; and Dublin, the center of the Protestant power, became a magnificent city.

View Georgian Dublin

In literary achievement, this group produced the brilliant work of Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, and most important of all, the great Jonathan Swift. Swift, a clergyman in the Anglican Church, became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the heart of Dublin, and his sympathy with the plight of the Dublin poor and his anger at the injustice of English rule led to his writing some of the greatest satire in world literature, including "Tale of a Tub," "A Modest Proposal" (in which he suggests that the logical solution to the overcrowding of Dublin is for the Irish poor to begin eating their own young), and of course his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels

View Jonathan Swift and St. Patrick's Cathedral

In his famous speech before the Irish Senate in 1925, Yeats claims kinship with this class and its heritage:  "We are no petty people.  We are one of the great stocks of Europe.  We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell.  We have created the most of the modern literature of this country.  We have created the best of its political intelligence."  Thus in "Blood and the Moon," his poem with which this History text opens, Yeats aligns himself with the cultural achievements of this era--at least as he poetically imagines those achievements--the poetic work of "Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke."  The achievements of the Protestant Ascendancy certainly stand as one of the great moments in Irish culture.  However, as the 19th century would demonstrate, this Ascendancy was built upon injustice, an injustice that would require great suffering and tragedy before it would be replaced by a more equitable system.

End of Chapter Two

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