[Access article in PDF]
The Great War in Irish Poetry: W. B. Yeats to Michael Longley
The Great War in Irish Poetry: W. B. Yeats to Michael Longley. Fran Brearton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. ix + 315. $74.00.
This book might have been more appropriately titled The Great War not in Irish Poetry, as it is only in the last chapter, when Brearton discusses the poetry of Michael Longley, that her argument begins to justify the title of her book.
There has never been a full-length study of Irish poetry and the Great War; indeed, there are painfully few articles on the Great War and Irish literature at all. The reasons for this are complex, as Brearton skillfully argues in her first chapter, "Ireland in the Great War: Literature, History, and Culture." The war occupies a peculiar place in Irish history, she contends, because Irish involvement in the war retrospectively fell victim to the dominant nationalist ideology. In [End Page 519] light of the 1916 Easter Rising, Irish independence from Great Britain in 1922, and particularly Eamonn de Valera's election as Taoiseach in 1932, any Irishman who had participated in the war was regarded as suspect. Irishmen who joined the British Expeditionary Force, particularly before Easter 1916, did so for a multitude of reasons: many joined for the adventure, many more for the steady income as unemployment was endemic, particularly amongst the Dublin poor. Others, like John Redmond and Thomas Kettle, joined for political reasons, "believing that a policy of imperial loyalty would best serve the ends of Irish independence" (8). And in the first years of the war many believed that this would have been the case, as the House of Commons had passed the Third Home Rule Bill in May 1914 and was waiting for royal assent when the British declared war on Germany on 4 August of that year. Thus the issue of Home Rule was suspended for the duration of the War.
All changed with the 1916 Rising and the execution of its leaders by the British, "changed utterly." Irishmen who left home to serve with the BEF to the sounds of bands marching and people cheering before 1916 were branded traitors to the Irish cause and British sympathizers when they returned home in 1918-9. Thus Brearton concludes that the "Easter Rising in Dublin captured the imagination of what was to become the Irish Free State in the same way that patriotism captured English and German imaginations in and before 1914" (15). And as she convincingly argues, by the end of the war "historians did supply 'two distinctive devotional literatures to the two Irish states (the Republic and the North), and helped to fashion two distinctive iconographical traditions'": the Northern Protestant that is framed by the Battle of the Boyne and the Battle of the Somme, and the Southern Catholic that centers on the 1916 Rising and the birth of the Irish Free State. Or as the critic Edna Longley has written, the two communities "not only tend to remember different things, but remember them in different ways" (14, 118). So wide is the gulf between these traditions that they are rarely addressed comparatively. "Irish memory of the Great War has been until recently a tale of two histories--not necessarily the two that might have been told from the perspective of 1914, but ones which prove equally reductive" (14-5). Only within the last decade have Irish historians begun to re-evaluate Irish participation in the Great War. Irish literary critics have been slower to engage in similar re-evaluations (an early exception to the rule is Terrence Brown's excellent article, "Who Dares to Speak? Ireland and the Great War"). Thus Brearton's study is a welcome addition to this critical period in the formation of contemporary Ireland.
Yet as promising as the study may be, in many ways it fails to deliver its promise. Brearton refuses to analyze Irish soldier-poets, as well as Irish soldier-authors, in the...