Happy, Vigorous, Spiritual; De Valera’s Fantasy in the Abbey Theatre

Ireland has, through the arts and its cultural heritage, often been perceived as a fantasy country; fantasy in the sense that it is often depicted in a simplified, romanticized fashion. This can be seen in William Butler Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s rendition of Ireland as the romantic heroine Cathleen Ni Houlihan, or in the prevalence of Celtic culture, exemplified by organisations such as the Gaelic League. Eamon de Valera’s 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech, ‘On Language & the Irish Nation’, is yet another example of a romanticized, simplified, and idyllic Ireland, this time used for political, rather than artistic or cultural, purposes. It is clear to see through a large bulk of Irish literature, specifically the drama of the Abbey Theatre, however, that the Ireland de Valera depicted in this speech, a “happy, vigorous, spiritual” Ireland, never truly existed in the past or present; de Valera exploited Ireland’s romantic imagination to create political propaganda.

De Valera’s speech created an image of Ireland that was inconsistent with realistic literary portrayals of the country. In the speech, de Valera stated that his idyllic Ireland “would be home to people who valued material wealth only as a basis for the right of living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit”. De Valera here tries to portray Ireland as populated by economically sound people, people who recognize the importance of the immaterial over the material, and are thus content with living on the basic necessities of life. What he is actually doing, however, is disguising Ireland’s poverty behind a romantic image. In a multitude of texts written before the 1943 speech, Ireland is portrayed as existing in poor economic circumstances.

During the early 20th Century, the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre founded by Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904, produced several plays that were set within an impoverished environment. The setting of Juno and the Paycock, by Sean O’Casey, is an example of the poverty that the working class in Dublin lived in during the 1920s. The opening of Act 1 is set in the “living room of a two-room tenancy occupied by the Boyle family in a tenement house in Dublin”.[1] The tenancy buildings in Dublin were known for being poor living conditions, designed to house as many workers as possible in as little space possible. These urban slums are clearly in contrast to de Valera’s ideal of “a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads”, and thus suggests that de Valera actively aspired to a new form for Ireland; not one that necessarily has the majority of the population living in rural areas, but one that captures a nostalgic aesthetic of the past. This image of Ireland envisioned by de Valera can also be seen not to be necessarily rural due to other dramatic depictions of Ireland’s poor, such as J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. The entire play is set within a “Country public-house or shebeen, very rough and untidy” on a “wild coast of Mayo”.[2] County Mayo, known for its difficult terrain, would have been recognized by Synge’s audience as a difficult place to live, therefore already presenting the environment in a negative light. Furthermore, due to the inclusion of a “shebeen”, an illegal pub, it is clear to see that there is none of the wholesome imagery brought forth by de Valera’s speech. In these two plays there is clearly a lack of validity in the existence of what de Valera envisioned. The realistic settings and environments presented by O’Casey and Synge are in direct contrast to the idealizations of de Valera. De Valera is clearly attempting to disguise Ireland’s rampant poverty, to present an Ireland, shiny and plentiful, that does not exist.

Was the population, then, content with these conditions as de Valera suggests through saying that the Irish were “satisfied with frugal comfort”? Juno and the Paycock paints a difficult picture of the frugality of the Irish working class. Captain Jack Boyle, the plays anti-hero protagonist, is portrayed as lazy and unwilling to work. Whenever Boyle receives a job offer he is suddenly overcome by a fit of leg cramp, his wife, Mrs Boyle, saying that “It’s miraculous that whenever he scents a job in front of him, his legs begin to fail him!” (O’Casey, pp. 205) It is heavily implied by O’Casey that these leg cramps are less of a product of any genuine physical disability, and more of idleness, Boyle being entirely reluctant to get a job. Mrs. Boyle goes on to say that “you [Mr. Boyle] can’t climb a ladder, but you can skip like a goat into a snug!” (O’Casey, pp. 206) A snug, being a private room in a public house, implies that Boyle is far more eager to drink than he is to work, and thus is faking the leg cramps to avoid employment and go to the pub. This presents a problem when de Valera states that the Irish are “satisfied with frugal comfort”. In one sense, yes, Boyle is satisfied by his family’s frugality, his wife being the main earner, and any earnings she brings home he spends on drinking, and thus he is satisfied. However, it is doubtful that this is the type of satisfaction that de Valera envisioned. Perhaps, then, O’Casey is presenting a selfish satisfaction, where the family suffer due to the selfishness of the father, hardly the ideal de Valera presents in his speech.

It is more likely that de Valera envisioned something more akin to the Gillane family of Yeats’s and Gregory’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a family living in a small 18th Century cottage preparing for a wedding. The satisfaction with their frugality can be seen when Peter and Bridget, husband and wife, discuss their son’s wedding clothes:

“PETER. … Those are grand clothes, indeed.

BRIDGET. You hadn’t clothes like that when you married me, and no coat to put on of a Sunday more than any other day.

PETER. That is true, indeed. We never thought a son of our own would be wearing a suit of that sort to his wedding, or have so good a place to bring a wife to.”

The play is set in Killala, a village in County Mayo, and therefore it is insinuated that the Gillane family are rural peasants. It is clear to see from the above dialogue that they align with de Valera’s idyllic populous, people “satisfied with frugal comfort”, Peter and Bridget admiring their sons basic necessities: clothes for a wedding and a solid roof for him and his wife to live underneath. However, it is impossible to trust this as a realistic depiction of the working class as Yeats and Gregory wrote the play as a piece of cultural propaganda, hoping to embolden the men of Ireland into rising up against British colonial rule. It is unlikely that Yeats and Gregory attempted to make the Gillane family a realistic portrayal of the Irish peasantry, more likely romanticising them for artistic purposes. Therefore, it is clear to see that Irish drama negates the Irish frugality de Valera envisioned in his speech.

If the people of Ireland failed to live up to the noble frugality of de Valera, did they live up to his immaterial expectations; were they a people who “devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit”? In reference to Cathleen Ni Houlihan it can be said that there is devotion to the spirit as Michael, the Gillane son soon to be married, leaves at the end of the play to help fight the English, showing a devotion to the cause of Irish independence and nationalism. However, due to the play’s status as propaganda, we have to disregard this as an unrealistic representation of the Irish populous. If were to look at Juno and the Paycock, we once again see a mixed representation of what de Valera portrayed in his speech. On the one hand, Boyle shows a total lack of devotion to the spirit; he drinks, he is idle and refuses to provide for his family, and he is ultimately left penniless and alone by his family and friends. Boyle clearly does not embody a devotion to the spirit, but is rather a bleak portrayal of the Irish working class.

Boyle’s son, however, is a different case. Johnny Boyle has lost an arm due to involvement in the War of Independence, and regularly shows to have an intellectual interest in the fight for Irish independence: “Ireland only half free’ll never be at peace while she has a son left to pull a trigger.” (O’Casey, pp. 214) Furthermore, Johnny is shown as having devout Catholic beliefs, and often prays to the Virgin Mary: “Blessed Mother o; God, shelter me, shelter your son!” (O’Casey, pp. 222) These two traits added together may show Johnny as having “devoted [his] leisure to the things of the spirit”, placing much of his focus on the immaterial (politics and religion) than the material, thus acting more towards the idea that de Valera envisioned in his speech. Does the spiritual devotion of Johnny counteract the spiritual removal of Boyle? Possibly not, both Boyle and his son do not meet pleasing demise by the play’s conclusion, Boyle being abandoned by his family and Johnny being executed by the IRA. However, it could be said that the difference in generation between father and son suggests that de Valera’s idealized Irishman, “devoted … to the things of the spirit”, is something new for Ireland, that the idyllic “happy, vigorous, spiritual” Ireland is part of the nation’s future, an improvement upon its past. Perhaps also, then, O’Casey is suggesting that this improvement upon Ireland’s past is an unlikely outcome, Johnny, the strongest case for de Valera’s perfect Irishman, being executed at the hands of his countrymen before he can become representative of Ireland’s populous. Idealism, O’Casey suggests, is not impossible so much as it is improbable.

The drama of the Abbey Theatre can be seen as undermining the idealized Ireland of Eamon de Valera. De Valera offered through his speech an Ireland devoid of any realism, a fantasy designed to capture the imaginations of his subjects, and distance themselves from the harshness of their everyday lives. In fact, the drama of the Abbey Theatre proves that de Valera’s idyllic Ireland was far from just a fantasy, but had no precedent in history; only in allegorical propaganda such as Cathleen Ni Houlihan did any form of an idyllic Ireland exist, and that play is devoid of much realism. However, through plays such as Juno and the Paycock, there was a sense of hope for de Valera’s idyllic Ireland, that the future could possibly bring about an Ireland, “happy, vigorous, [and] spiritual”.

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