Irish Mythology: The Bastard Child of Colonialism – Part II

Following three centuries of colonization and much brutal cultural repression, in 1922, Ireland had finally obtained independence and thrown off the yoke of British imperialism. With independence, there was an enormous resurgence of enthusiasm to resurrect Gaelic culture and regain the glory days of Gaelic culture.

Unfortunately, it didn’t really happen as planned.

To understand why it didn’t happen, you first need to understand how colonization works.

Understanding colonization

Colonization is defined as:
“the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area”

Way back in the day, it was pretty much de rigeur for upstanding entrepreneurs with the necessary military backing, to invade neighbouring territories, subjugate the indigenous population and take control of the natural resources. The whole invasion/subjugation thing worked because, if those early entrepreneurs were successful, it not only ensured their wealth and influence (within their own culture) but the continuing survival of their line. That’s pretty much why the Egyptians did it, the Greeks did it, the Romans did it (they were probably the most effect colonization machine in the Ancient World), the Vikings did it and so on. In later times, the Spanish also did a bit of colonization in South America, the Portuguese in Africa and, of course, the English colonised Scotland, Wales, Ireland and, later, Australia, New Zealand etc.

The problem with invading a foreign civilization however is that you’re subsequently obliged to maintain a presence (to ensure your captured resources aren’t reclaimed) and to subjugate the indigenous culture to get them to accept the reality of the new power structures. A key part of achieving this (and reducing the likelihood of rebellion) was to suppress the indigenous knowledge systems and impose the invading culture’s way of thinking on the local population.

In Ireland therefore, under British rule, the use of the Penal Laws and military meant that many aspects of Gaelic culture were actively suppressed from the mid-1600s on. Gaelic poets and scholars were eradicated, religious expression was purged, and the Gaelic language was prohibited from the education system until 1871. Combined with the Great Famine, which forced a disproportionately high number of Gaelic speakers to emigrate (most Gaelic speakers lived in the poorer areas heavily hit by famine deaths), this sent the language into a spinning decline. Given that language is the key mechanism for the transmission of unique cultural concepts from one generation to the next, this was a serious blow.

The After-effects of Colonization

By the time the Irish Free State was founded therefore, much of the Gaelic cultural frameworks and ways of thinking had already been eroded and in some cases, completely lost. Luckily, there had been some attempts at revitalisation by visionaries such as Douglas Hyde (founder of the Gaelic League who was keen to “de-anglicize” the country as a cultural goal). The early work of Hyde and his contemporaries, helped to ensure the continuing survival of Gaelic music, sport and dance.

In 2017, there are estimated to be approximately 450 Gaelic Athletic Association Clubs around the world. Irish music is thriving in Ireland and internationally and continues to influence and inspire musicians from every country and culture to this day. Irish dancing, although less successful, is also strong on the home and international front.

So then – you might ask – what the hell happened with Irish art and literature?

The Impact of Colonization on Irish Literature

The rallying call for the revival of Gaelic culture was also taken up by artists and writers at the end of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, most of the artists doing the rallying at the time, tended to be associated with the British ascendency, privileged in upbringing and linked to the right social circles. There was a strange irony in that although these descendants of the invaders identified strongly as Irish and were rabid nationalists, they were also completely unfamiliar with the nature of the Gaelic culture they were trying to revive. Artistic “luminaries” of the time such as W. B Yeats, Lady Gregory J.M. Synge and so on, launched the Abbey Theatre to perform “Irish” plays yet, paradoxically, the majority of the plays about Ireland were performed in English. Despite the fervent rhetoric, it turned out that, few Abbey Theatre playwrights spoke more than a few words of Irish and some actively disliked the language.

When it came to using Gaelic cultural constructs for their creative works, the new, self-appointed literati scoured manuscripts surviving from medieval and pre-medieval times for content. Unfortunately, much of what they produced was watered down for the genteel audience of the time and given the writer/artist’s habit of selectively plucking cultural elements they liked (and pretty much ignoring what they didn’t) this meant that resulting cultural elements were often staged incorrectly and completely out of context. The works that were subsequently presented as the mythology of Ireland often had more to do with creative fantasy than genuine Gaelic culture.

At the time, W.B. Yeats (who actually disliked the Irish language) was reported as saying:
“Remember, it is the tales of Cú Chulainn and Deirdre of the Sorrows that are immortal and not the tongue that first told them”.

What Yeats never seemed to understand was that if there hadn’t been a separate tongue or a separate culture, those tales would never have been produced in the first place. Given that those stories were also based on cultural concepts that many non-Irish speakers (like him) wouldn’t have been familiar with (or understood), by reinterpreting them to suit his own interests, he’d already changed them to something different, something that suited the colonial mind.

So much for ‘immortal’.

To be concluded in Part III

Read Irish Mythology: The Bastard Child of Colonialism – Part I