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The Rediscovery of Ireland's Past

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Charles Townshend reviews.

The Celtic Revival 1830-1930 by Jeanne Sheehy

The 1840s the Young Ireland movement, led by Thomas Davis, set itself 'to create and foster public opinion in Ireland, and to make it racy of the soil'. Davis's own efforts to recreate an Irish racial culture (innocent of the later connotations of that adjective) were later-attacked by W.B. Yeats, who in turn found his 'Celtic note' fiercely repudiated by Irish-lrelanders, advocates of an exclusively Gaelic culture. These shifts of view indicate the complex and sometimes contradictory character of the great upsurge of Irish cultural activity in the later nineteenth century, and help to explain why this movement has not yet been made the subject of a single historical account. Jeanne Sheehy's book certainly does not fill so large a gap, but it provides a useful and attractive complement to existing studies of the 'literary renaissance'. Her terms of reference are limited to the visual arts and, more interestingly, the applied arts. She speaks of 'revival' rather than 'renaissance' (which has more revolutionary overtones), and of 'Celtic' rather than 'Gaelic' revival. Thus, as her title indicates, she is mainly concerned with the use of historical or pseudo-historical style in Irish art. Very often, as she clearly shows, this was not so much a real assimilation of Celtic style as the use of a few popular symbols – the harp, the wolfhound, the round tower, and the shamrock – the latter being of particularly dubious historical provenance. She illuminates, with a well-chosen example (the reredos of McCarthy's Roman Catholic church at Kilrock, co Kildare), the unconscious, instinctive popular identification of nationality and Catholicism.

Although the author suggests, rather hesitantly (her historical grasp is at several points not altogether firm), that there seems to have been in nineteenth-century Ireland a growing sense of the connection between culture and an awareness of nationality', she concludes with evident disappointment that 'no distinctively Irish style' of art had emerged by the third decade of the twentieth century. The 'Irish Revival' – a phrase which unfortunately blurs the Celtic terminology used through most of her book – 'did not pass on a living tradition in art as it did in literature'; 'leading painters and sculptors were not much interested in the expression of nationality in art'. Here she misses an important point. Although she does not quote the Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffith's declaration that 'nationality is the breath of art', she appears to accept the idea Yet consciously 'national' art is too often contrived and second-rate, and historicist dredgings are certainly not necessary to the development of an authentic cultural tradition. The efforts to cultivate a 'Hiberno-Romanesque' architectural style are a case in point here. The lifeless recreations of the revivalists are scarcely to be compared with the sizzling masterpieces built in Dublin, and elsewhere, in the world-style of the eighteenth century. Gandon, however, was rejected as the architect of the Ascendancy.

National taste is unfortunately a poor indicator of artistic quality, as public indifference to Jack Yeats showed. The nationalist political leaders were often culturally illiterate. As Jeanne Sheehy observes, in the 1920s the new Irish state 'was too busy with matters of politics and economics to be much bothered with art'. It put the seal on the failure of the Irish art movement in 1926 by using an English artist's designs for its new coinage (from which the shamrock and the round tower were conspicuously absent). The real achievement of the Celtic revival lay in the field of applied art. The inspiration of the so-called 'Tara brooch' and of the Book of Kells led to some brilliant craftwork, culminating in the extraordinary unfinished Book of Resurrection begun by Art O'Murnaghan in 1922 and now in the National Museum of Ireland. Not to be despised, either, were a mass of vernacular creations expressive of Irish identity. This book might be valued alone for its evocative photograph of the now-demolished O'Meara's Irish House, with its delightful diadem of round towers. If it sometimes reads too much like a catalogue ('another artist who...'), it is full of information, and illustrated to a standard which pleasantly belies its price.

By Charles Townshend



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