Ireland and the Classics

Arabella Currie

Productions of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus were outlawed by the British government until 1910. ‘It is impossible,’ proclaimed the censor, ‘to put on the stage in England a play dealing with incest’ (Letter to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, 11 November 1910, in Macintosh 1997: 295). This censorship did not stretch to the Irish stage, however, despite the country being under colonial rule since the twelfth century. In 1904, the poet W. B. Yeats planned to exploit this loophole. He meant to stage Oedipus in Dublin and send a resounding message about Ireland’s independence from the British Empire. He wanted to ‘hear Greek tragedy,’ he declared, ‘spoken in a Dublin accent’ (Yeats 1999: 331).

For centuries, Ireland’s relationship with Classics had been one of rebellion. In the Middle Ages, Irish monks travelled across Europe, collecting and translating manuscripts, and juxtaposing Irish and classical sources in unusual ways. One scribe’s notebook, seen above, and dating from the ninth century, contains notes on Greek grammar and commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid, alongside a poem, in Irish, about a monk and his white cat.

Such intertwining of Irish and classical narratives continued to great effect in the poetry of the Irish bards (filí). These highly-trained oral poets sang elaborate songs in praise of aristocratic chieftains, frequently equating Irish with classical figures: the Irish queen Maeve with Clytemnestra; the warrior Cuchulain with Achilles.

This supple, sophisticated classicism was disrupted from the 1600s by waves of Protestant colonisers and a series of Penal Laws against Catholics, which drove the native Irish culture underground. Rural ‘hedge schools’ – like the one depicted by Brian Friel in his play Translations (1980) –  fought to keep the old bardic traditions alive through a largely classical curriculum. This led to concern among the colonial powers: such an education, it was thought, might inspire rebellious, republican ideology in the poor. ‘It would be better,’ one land agent reported in 1773, ‘that our youth should be hammering at the anvil than at bog Latin.’

Nineteenth-century independence movements remembered this history of revolutionary Irish Classics. Poets, scholars and activists worked to recover the native literary tradition of Ireland, in search of a narrative backdrop to a new, independent country. Just as Homeric epic had given fifth-century Athenians their cultural foundation, the stories of Cuchulain and other heroes could provide a model for the Irish nation.

Such parallels grew in potency as the nineteenth century went on, bolstered by European comparative scholarship into the Indo-European past. Celtic scholars, classicists, mythologists and linguists were positing Irish and Greek myths as the oldest relics of a lost Indo-European civilisation, giving Irish and Greek traditions a substantial kinship. Cuchulain really was a near relation of Achilles; they were dual manifestations of the same Indo-European root.

In other words, when Yeats planned to stage Oedipus in Dublin, he had, indeed, centuries of Irish-classical crossovers lying behind him.

Throughout the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Classics has continued to have a vibrant role in Irish culture. Irish playwrights have led the way in the adaptation of Greek tragedy in anglophone theatre, particularly since the 1980s, when tragedy’s exploration of familial and civic strife provided a sharp lens through which to view the Northern Irish Troubles.

Virgil has also proved a particularly powerful catalyst for Irish poets, with Seamus Heaney drawing on the Aeneid, Eclogues and Georgics to explore ideas of excavation – the descent into personal and political memory figured through Aeneas’s descent into the underworld. With the linguistic agility that characterises much of Irish Classics, he weaves echoes of Greek and Latin language into his English verse: 

Here are my words you’ll have to find a place for:
Carmen, ordo, nascitur, saeculum, gens.
                                ‘Bann Valley Eclogue’

Along with other contemporary Irish writers, the poet Eavan Boland has turned to the classical tradition to explore the voices of women within Irish society and art (see also the playwright Marina Carr). She calls on the life and works of Ovid and Sappho, in particular, to write about issues of motherhood, exile and the place of women in mythology. ‘The best thing about the legend,’ she writes of the story of Demeter and Persephone, ‘is / I can enter it anywhere (‘The Pomegranate’).

Irish engagement with Classics has always looked outwards as well as in, forwards as well as back. The dynamic of movement across Europe between classical and Irish traditions, as embodied by the wandering medieval monks, continued in the sophisticated comparative technique of the Irish bards and, later, in the progressive, expansive appeals to the classical past made by nationalists looking to Ireland’s future. Communication between Ireland and Classics speaks not only of antiquity, but also of modernity, not only of Ireland but also of the world.       

 

References

Eavan Boland, ‘The Pomegranate’, in New Collected Poems (Manchester, 2005), 215.

Seamus Heaney, ‘Bann Valley Eclogue’, in Electric Light (London, 2001), 11.

Fiona Macintosh, ‘Tragedy in performance: nineteenth- and twentieth-century productions’, in P.E. Easterling ed., The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge, 1997).

W.B. Yeats, Autobiographies, eds. William H. O’Donnell and Douglas N. Archibald (Basingstoke and New York, 1999), 331.

 

Further resources

Declan Kiberd, Irish Classics (London, 2000).

Fiona Macintosh, Dying Acts: Death in Ancient Greek and Irish Tragic Drama (Cork, 1994).

—— ‘An Oedipus for Our Times? Yeats’s version of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos.’ In Martin Revermann and Peter Wilson eds., Performance, Iconography, Reception: Studies in Honour of Oliver Taplin (Oxford, 2008), 524-547.

Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton eds., Amid Our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedy (London, 2002).

Frank McGuinness in conversation with Fiona Macintosh

W.B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition (Dublin, 1976).