Editorial: Reading Irish Poetry Cultures, 1930-1970
Collins, Lucy, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
The middle years of the twentieth century are often perceived as a fallow period for Irish poetry, with work produced between the Literary Revival and the mid-sixties attracting comparatively little critical attention. Though Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh are established figures in the literary chronology of post-partition Ireland, their achievements are often seen as singular ones, rather than as part of the larger cultural dynamic that gave rise to such poets as Denis Devlin and Brian Coffey and that also shaped poetic developments north of the border. This special issue of the Irish University Review seeks to reconsider poetry cultures in Ireland between 1930 and 1970, interrogating the patterns of journal and book publication, the development of critical cultures through poetry journalism and academic study, and to undertake new readings of established poets writing during these years.
The relationship between the aspirations of the Revivalist period and the experiences of Irish citizens in the decades of the mid-twentieth century is always difficult to reconcile. While artistic expression played an important role in the imaginative construction of independence, cultural concerns became subordinate to economic and social issues once the Free State was established. A rural identity remained pre-eminent, and without an industrial base Ireland's poetry never developed the urban focus that inflected Anglo-American poetics. A problematic relationship existed between rural experience and poetic representation, however, and this is highlighted in Catherine Kilcoyne's new reading of Patrick Kavanagh's The Great Hunger. She argues that this important poem oscillates between the treatment of Maguire's experience as an authentic counterbalance to Revivalist mythmaking, and as a self-conscious representation of a man colluding in his own repression. This complex relationship between realistic and self-reflexive modes has shaped the writing of both poetry and criticism in Ireland throughout the twentieth century, and has a particular bearing on the muted years that followed the Censorship of Publications Act in 1929. Though poetry suffered less scrutiny than other genres, it was affected by the larger climate of constraint that surrounded publishing in Ireland during this time-even before the censorship legislation, publishers, booksellers and librarians were cautious in the range of reading matter they produced and stocked. (1)
As a result of these conditions, the publishing of poetry both in English and in Irish was noticeably reduced in the early decades of the Free State. By 1940 it was clear that the Irish language revival would not be realized to any notable extent. Nonetheless, Irish language poetry evolved in important ways as it struggled to give expression to the forces of modernity. Three key figures--Mairtin O Direain, Sean O Riordain, and Maire Mhac an tSaoi--form the lynchpin of Alan Titley's assessment of Irish language poetry in these middle years. O Direain's poetic voice emerged from the familiar speech of his own people on Aran, and the happiness of these memories of his youth is placed in direct opposition to the troubling modernity of the city spaces in his work. By contrast O Riordain's struggles often took on a dark, religious dimension, while for Mhac an tSaoi the relationship between tradition and modernity is represented by an interweaving of elements--including the temporalities of youth and middle age--rather than a struggle between opposites.
Although there was a developed policy on the publication of Irish language writing in the newly established Free State, poetry benefitted little from this encouragement. Brun agus O Nuallain and Sairseal agus Dill showed a commitment to Irish language publishing, but book publication of poetry in both Irish and English suffered. In this environment, newspapers and periodicals came to be of vital importance in bringing poetry to the public and in fostering cultural debate. …