Celtic Revival (Celtic Renaissance, Irish Literary Renaissance, Irish Revival)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Celtic Revival (Celtic Renaissance, Irish Literary Renaissance, Irish Revival)

Celtic Revival (Celtic Renaissance, Irish Literary Renaissance, or Irish Revival): An Irish movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to revive and promote an indigenous Celtic cultural, literary, and artistic tradition to counter centuries of imperial English domination. Writers of the Celtic Revival sought to construct an independent, nationalistic literature based on Irish traditions, themes, and subject matter, such as those preserved in Celtic folklore and legend. In the fine arts, painters and sculptors of the Celtic Revival likewise pursued nationalistic aims, often depicting Irish subject matter.

William Butler Yeats; Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory; and Edward Martyn, all writers, are often credited with inaugurating the Celtic Revival. Other associated literary figures included critic and poet A. E. (George W. Russell), playwrights J. M. Synge and Sean O’Casey, and novelist George Moore. James Joyce, a novelist, short story writer, and poet, is also often classified as a Celtic Revival writer — despite having mocked and disparaged the movement, subverting the phrase “Celtic twilight” into “cultic twalette” — since his writing featured Irish subjects and themes. Artists associated with the Celtic Revival included painter Jack Yeats, the brother of William Butler Yeats, and Oliver Sheppard, a sculptor.

Substantial influences on the Celtic Revival aside from growing Irish nationalism and the corresponding push for independence included Standish O’Grady’s History of Ireland: Heroic Period (1878); Douglas Hyde’s A Literary History of Ireland (1899); the Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society; and the Conradh na Gaelige (Gaelic League), which Hyde, a Gaelic scholar who later became the first president of Ireland, founded in 1893.

The Celtic Revival paralleled another movement, called the Gaelic Movement or Gaelic Revival, to preserve and promote the use of Gaelic, the Irish language, and to encourage a national literature written in Gaelic. Notably, while many of those who participated in the Celtic Revival supported the Gaelic Movement, they chose to write in English rather than Gaelic.

One of the goals of the Celtic Revival was to establish Irish institutions to rival those of England. The Irish Literary Theatre, the Abbey Theatre (home of the Irish National Theatre Society), and literary societies such as the Irish National Literary Society were founded during this period, as was the Gallery of Modern Art, which showcased Irish art as well as contemporary art from other European countries.

The term Celtic Revival is sometimes also applied to an earlier literary movement dating back to the second half of the eighteenth century that focused on ancient Celtic literature, myths, and traditions. Key figures in this earlier Celtic Revival were the poets Thomas Gray and James Macpherson.

EXAMPLES: William Butler Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight (1893), for the most part a collection of narratives recounting encounters with fairies; Lady Gregory’s comic, one-act play Spreading the News (1904), performed on the Abbey Theatre’s opening night; Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907), a play about an Irish boy who gains respect when he boasts of killing his father and then loses it when his father turns up alive; James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912), a novel about the battle between the sexes that interweaves Irish mythology and folklore with philosophy. For an account of the Celtic Revival movement by one of its leaders, see Moore’s three-volume memoir Hail and Farewell (1914).