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  • Celtic Gaslight: Urban Material Culture in the Writings of Seumas O’Sullivan
  • Sean Mannion (bio)

It might seem fruitless at first glance to reconsider material culture in Ireland through that country’s Literary Revival of the early twentieth century. Key figures of this movement frequently defined themselves by opposing the very concept of materialism. In doing so they were recycling Matthew Arnold’s influential claim in On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867) that the Celtic temperament revealed itself in an utter incompetence “in the outer and visible world of material life” (15) and in a corresponding intimacy with beauty and spirit. As critics such as Seamus Deane have pointed out, the Revival mobilized Arnold’s charge of Irish ineptitude in material culture to confirm the country’s cultural particularity, and hence its need for political autonomy (30). Thus while industrialized countries such as England propagated materialism and secularism, Patrick Pearse augured that Ireland would enter the league of nations as “the saviour of idealism in modern intellectual and social life, . . . the preacher of the gospel of nature-worship, hero-worship, God-worship” (49). This belief led many Irish artists to focus on representations of the countryside instead of the city, as this latter space, cluttered as it was with English commodities and mores, embodied “soulless materialism” (qtd. in O’Leary 409) as a correspondent to An Claidheamh Soluis, the official organ of the Gaelic League, complained of Dublin in 1907. The countryside offered Revivalists an object-world unmediated by English colonialism, and therefore capable of bypassing objectivity itself and resurrecting a [End Page 43] truly Irish lifeworld, in which the sensible proved to be only the pale shadows of a truer, metaphysical reality described in the nation’s ancient folklore.

This narrative, while perfectly understandable as a strategy for cultural decolonization (Castle 71), has left the Revival open to attack by its later critics. John Wilson Foster, for one, sees this disdain for materiality as symptomatic of the entire Revivalist project, prompting its members to “turn . . . away through language from a more objective world into daydream” (Fictions 181). This flight, Foster further suggests, led to the complete neglect of material culture in Irish Free State society. He believes, for instance, that by emphasizing spirituality as the mark of national identity, Revivalists stunted the development of empiricist pursuits such as science (“Natural” 127). Their emphasis on mythology and the restoration of a lost ancient culture also impeded the growth of a hardheaded, urban realism that might deal adequately with the material world, practiced in Ireland only by exceptional artists such as James Joyce (Fictions xvi). Foster’s critique has been echoed by later critics, such as Eve Patten, who argue that the Revival denigrated Ireland’s rich Victorian scientific tradition as “in direct opposition to true Irish interest, the material counter to the ethereal Celt” (8). As such, the Revival should have little to contribute to that recent avenue of critical inquiry known as “thing theory.” The movement would seem only to address material culture negatively, as that which must be effaced for Irishness to flourish.

Much recent scholarship has complicated Foster’s totalizing description of the Revival by unearthing the movement’s complex engagements with the material world that they supposedly spurned. To cite just a few examples, Andrew Gibson has uncovered the robust interest amongst nationalists in scientific culture (235). In a similar vein, P.J. Mathews points out how the indiscriminate image of Revivalists as starry-eyed versifiers “misrepresents the significance of the period by underplaying the degree of co-operation among the self-help revivalists and the important material advances for which they were responsible” (2). Paige Reynolds has likewise highlighted the centrality of both material institutions and print culture to the Revival’s efforts to construct a national community (35). And Andrew Kincaid has compellingly discussed Irish nationalism through the lens [End Page 44] of urban studies, unearthing the undeniable importance of town planning and city construction for the movement. All of these studies, however, prove the Revival’s interest in the concrete world by pointing to activities external to its pastoral, idealist literature.

I hope to challenge any notion that Revivalism uniformly opposed material...


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