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Irish Literary Revival

The Irish Literary Revival, also sometimes known as the Irish Literary Renaissance or the Celtic Twilight, was a literary period in the late 19th and early 20th century in Ireland.

The work created during this time included poetry, novels, art, and more. The movement was concerned with work created in both Dublin and London and primarily with William Butler Yeats’s contributions. The Irish Literary Revival was inspired by Irish nationalist pride and a resurgence in interest in Irish heritage and folklore

Irish Literary Revival pronunciation: eye-risk lit-er-ahr-ee ree-vi-vuhl
Irish Literary Revival

Definition of the Irish Literary Revival 

The Irish Literary Revival, or Irish Literary Renaissance, occurred during the late 19th century and early 20th century. A new interest in Gaelic history, inspired by the Gaelic League (formed in 1893), was at the center of the movement. William Butler Yeats’ works are commonly cited as the best examples of this period of literature. Some of his best-known poems include ‘The Second Coming,’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ and ‘Easter, 1916.’ 

Examples of Literature from the Irish Literary Revival 

The Shadow of a Gunman Sean O’Casey 

O’Casey was a playwright who, like Lady Gregory (Yeats’ famous patron) and T.C. Murray, wrote plays for the Abbey Theatre. Established by Yeats as the first Irish National Theatre, the Abbey was host to numerous well-received plays during the Irish literary renaissance. The Shadow of a Gunman was one of these plays. It is a tragicomedy written by O’Casey in 1923, centering on the mistaken identity of someone who is identified as an IRA assassin. Here is a quote from the play: 

That’s the Irish People all over – they treat a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing.

This play is categorized as one of O’Casey’s “Dublin Trilogy.” It’s accompanied by Juno and the Haycock and The Plough and the Stars. 

The Coat by W.B. Yeats 

‘A Coat’ is a clever well-loved Yeats poem that describes the poet’s own writing practice through the metaphor of an embroidered coat. It begins with the speaker describing how everything he has completed as a writer has come together as a coat. It’s covered in “old mythologies” and allusions to how his works have been misunderstood and misappropriated. Here are a few lines: 

I made my song a coat

Covered with embroideries

Out of old mythologies

From heel to throat;

But the fools caught it,

Wore it in the world’s eyes

As though they’d wrought it.

In the final three lines, the speaker, the poet, passes his song off. He lets go of the anger he alluded to before and declares that there’s more “enterprise / In walking naked” than trying to wear an original coat. 

Aedh Wishes for Cloths of Heaven by W.B. Yeats 

‘Aedh Wishes for Cloths of Heaven’ is a beautiful poem that expresses one of Yeats’ most common themes—unrequited love. The poem is written as one single stanza, using a fairly simple rhyme scheme. It features “Aedh,” a typically weak, pale, and lovesick boy. Throughout, readers encounter symbols common to Yeats’ work. Here are the first few lines: 

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

The speaker describes himself and his desires. He wants to buy clothes worthy of heat light and lay them at the feet of the person he loves. The speaker knows he’s too poor to ever do such a thing, and the fantasy ends. 

Easter, 1916 by William Butler Yeats 

This well-known poem is a reflection on events surrounding the Easter Rising that began in Dublin on April 24th, 1916. A small number of labor leaders and political revolutionaries occupied government buildings and factories, proclaiming a new independent Irish Republic. After the Rising, the leaders were executed by firing squad. William Butler Yeats wrote about their deaths, along with other elements of the Rising, throughout his career. Here are a few lines from the poem: 

I have met them at close of day

Coming with vivid faces

From counter or desk among grey

Eighteenth-century houses.

I have passed with a nod of the head

Or polite meaningless words,

Or have lingered awhile and said

Polite meaningless words,

And thought before I had done

Of a mocking tale or a gibe

To please a companion

Around the fire at the club,

The piece opens with the speaker looking back on the rebels and considering who they were before the Rising. They were normal people who worked everyday jobs. For example, his childhood friend Constance Markievicz, who is “that woman,” and the Irish language teacher Padraic Pearse, who “kept a school” called St. Enda’s.

Explore more W.B. Yeats poems


Why is the Irish Literary Revival important?

The Revival was important because it produced some of the most important Irish literature of either century. It was notable for its resurgence in interest in Gaelic history and folklore. Irish Nationalism was incredibly important during this time period. 

Why was the Irish Literary Revival called the “Celtic Twilight?” 

The Irish Literary Revival was described as the Celtic Twilight because of a Yeats poem and poetry collection. The collection, The Celtic Twilight, was published in 1893 and included ‘Into the Twilight.

Who was the major writer of the Irish Literary Revival? 

The most important writer, by far, of this movement in Irish literature was W.B. Yeats. Some of his best-known poems include ‘The Second Coming,’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ and ‘Easter, 1916.’ He also wrote plays for the Abbey Theatre, which he helped found. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Graveyard Poets: also known as the Churchyard Poets were a group of writers in England during the 18th century.
  • Lake Poets: a group of English poets who lived and wrote in the Lake District during the nineteenth century.
  • Metaphysical Poetry: marked by the use of elaborate figurative languages, original conceits, paradoxes, and philosophical topics. 
  • Augustan Age: a period during the first half of the 18th century in England. Poets during this period created verse inspired by authors like Virgil and Ovid.
  • Cavalier Poets: a group of writers from the 17th century in England.
  • Georgian Poetry: a poetic movement in England that lasted from 1910 to 1936 during the reign of George V. 

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