Postnationalist Ireland: Politics, Culture, Philosophy

By Richard Kearney | Go to book overview
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Myth and nation in modern Irish poetry

Yeats and the Celtic Revival looked to myth for a story of continuity which history denied them. They invoked narratives whose prehistoric integrity might compensate for the ruptures of Irish history and resolve its endless quarrels. Here—as noted in the preceding chapter—were timeless creatures from an antique world, healing memories older than the scars of conflict, a heritage of ‘national sovereignty’ for all the tribes of Erin. In this manner, myth was often deployed as emblem for a new Ireland proudly restored to pristine wholeness. As has been argued at some length in Chapter 7, Yeats and other revivalists believed that myths were prime movers of history. And this belief was confirmed, first, by leaders of the 1916 rebellion who identified with the mythological heroes of blood sacrifice, and, second, by the patrons of the new Irish state who erected a statue of Cuchulain in the GPO in Dublin at the very place where Pearse had proclaimed a free Ireland. 1

The revivalists, as we saw, saw myth as a means of overcoming divisions in Ireland. A revived mythology of ‘national sovereignty’ would provide a Unity of Culture which might in turn galvanize a Politics of Unity. But many modern Irish poets invoked myth in a quite different manner. Instead of interpreting it as a token of unbroken heritage, they treated it as an agency of critique. Instead of seeing it as a means of restoring the nation to its proper place—thereby fulfilling its ancestral destiny—they took their cue from Joyce, redrafting myth as a subversion of fixed identities, a catalyst of disruption and difference, a joker in the pack inviting us to free variations of meaning. Hence we find many of the stock legendary characters being recast in modern Irish poetry as actors of liberty and fun, iconoclasts of sacrosanct origins transmitted uncompromised from the ancient past.

This latter approach to myth I call utopian. In contrast to the ideological use of myth to reinstate a people, nation or race in its predestined ‘place’, utopian myth opens up a ‘no-place’ (u-topos). It


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