In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Irish Modernism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Poetry
  • Prose
  • Theories of Modernity and Modernization
  • The City
  • History
  • Drama and Performance
  • The Visual Arts
  • Little Magazines
  • Postmodernism

British and Irish Literature Irish Modernism
Lauren Arrington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0069


Irish modernism is an emerging field in literary studies. Historically, scholars have had a critical reticence to consider Irish writers as modernists due to the widespread emphasis on the internationalism of modernism, which has been interpreted as precluding a reading of these writers in a national context. For example, the canonical position of W. B. Yeats as Ireland’s national poet was a central obstacle to considerations of stylistic developments in his middle and late poetry, especially from criticism rooted in nationalist perspectives. Inversely, Samuel Beckett’s deliberate distancing of his work from canonically national literature facilitated a critical understanding of its position in relation to modernism, whereas—until very recently—it impeded the study of the national contexts out of which Beckett’s work arose. A wave of literary criticism and historiography has begun to challenge this understanding of the way in which modernism works. The major development in this regard is the proposition that the international and national contexts are no longer viewed as necessarily mutually exclusive. Furthermore, some critics are now interrogating the ways in which aspects of the Irish Revival (conventionally viewed as a conservative, antimodernist project) were in dialogue with early modernism. Some literary critics have turned their attention to theories of modernity and modernization in 20th-century Ireland in an effort to suggest the historical causes that precipitated the rise of modernist literature. Reevaluations of the Revival period are leading to a more complex evaluation of writers of the 1920s and beyond. In the history of criticism on modernism and Ireland, James Joyce stands as the exception because, as the entries below reflect, studies of his fiction in relation to the major modernist themes of myth, the city, history, and the importance of little magazines in the development of his work have provided the framework on which to build larger theories of the relationship between a national Irish literature and the modernist enterprise. The entries here reflect individuals who are considered major authors in 20th-century literature as well as lesser-known figures, i.e., individuals whose work has been considered with regard to many modernist themes but who are not described explicitly as modernists in criticism to date. It is anticipated that with the development of Irish modernism as an area of study these writers will be subject to reappraisal, and a greater body of criticism, informed but not constrained by the idea of the nation, will emerge.

General Overviews

Booth and Rigby 2000 is an excellent starting point for understanding early criticism on the subject of Irish modernism. It takes an explicitly postcolonial framework, which also underpins Kearney 1987. Kearney uses the term “revivalist modernism” to describe the relationship between the Irish Revival and the modernist aesthetic. This theme is discussed in Foster 1991, which makes a strong case for aspects of the Revival (apocalypse, primitivism, and narrative form) as indicative of Irish modernism. This is also the focus of Brown 2010, in which the approach is informed by recent developments in historiography, which define modern Ireland as a postimperial rather than a postcolonial state. Nolan 2004 suggests that the Irish Revival was not radical in form but radical in context and looks to modernization (see Theories of Modernity and Modernization) to explain the reception of modernist literature. Many essays in Keown and Taaffe 2009 reflect a postcolonial perspective, which is the most divisive question in the study of Irish literature.

  • Booth, Howard J., and Nigel Rigby, eds. Modernism and Empire. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

    Discusses modernism in relation to the British Empire. Relevant chapters include Elleke Boehmer’s “‘Immeasurable Strangeness’ in Imperial Times: Leonard Woolf and W. B. Yeats,” C. L. Innes’s “Modernism, Ireland and Empire: Yeats, Joyce and Their Implied Audiences,” John Nash’s “‘Hanging over the Bloody Paper’: Newspapers and Imperialism in Ulysses,” and Máire ní Fhlathúin’s “The Anti-Colonial Modernism of Patrick Pearse.”

  • Brown, Terence. “Ireland, Modernism and the 1930s.” In The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. By Terence Brown, 88–103. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511760662.008

    Discusses marginality of, and hostility to, modernism in Ireland after the formation of the postimperial state in 1922. Considers the position of literary periodicals, such as Motley and The Dublin Magazine, in relation to the modernist movement. Suggests the Irish Revival has a complex, contiguous relationship to modernism. Articulates areas of shared interests of nationalism and modernism, drawing on provocative comparisons with English culture.

  • Foster, John Wilson. “Irish Modernism.” In Colonial Consequences: Essays in Irish Literature and Culture. By John Wilson Foster, 44–59. Dublin: Lilliput, 1991.

    Suggests that the Irish Revival has more in common with modernism than romanticism, particularly its primitivist and apocalyptic strains. Emphasizes the backward look of modernism generally and draws the greatest parallel with the Revival. Particular emphasis on occultism/mysticism and folklore. Argues that folktales present narrative self-reflexivity characteristic of modernism.

  • Kearney, Richard. Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish Culture. Dublin: Wolfhound, 1987.

    Suggests that Irish modernists exploit the moment of transition, the “crisis of culture”(p. 9), in their opposition to a continuous view of past and present. Considers the tension between revivalism and modernism and posits these new terms: “revivalist modernism” to describe authors’ use of tradition and “radical modernism” (p. 14) to describe the antitradition stance. Discusses W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, and Francis Stuart, among others.

  • Keown, Edwina, and Carol Taaffe, eds. Irish Modernism: Origins, Contexts, Publics. Oxford and New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

    Asserts Ireland was significant in the development of literary modernism. This interdisciplinary volume considers art, literature, and architecture. Similarly to Longley 2003 (cited under Poetry), suggests the relationship between nation and internationalism/cosmopolitanism was best conceived as interdependence rather than conflict. “Colonial” context emphasized by several contributors. Posits category of “late (or “deferred”) modernism” (p. 5) in the 1940s and 1950s in which Elizabeth Bowen is included. Thomas MacGreevy, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce are prominent throughout.

  • Nolan, Emer. “Modernism and the Irish Revival.” In The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture. Edited by Joe Cleary and Claire Connolly, 157–172. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Builds on the analysis of W. B. Yeats in relation to romanticism and modernism and James Joyce’s innovations. Argues that the literary output of the Revival period was not radical in form but was nonetheless radical in the context of its predecessors (nationalist ballad poetry and stage melodramas). Argues that modernism in Ireland is confined to literature. Concludes by suggesting that the desire for modernization led to the rejection of modernist expression.

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