Ireland and the Renaissance

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Thomas MacGreevy

Original Source: Father Mathew Record. June 1945. p. 3.

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Ireland and the Renaissance

By Thomas MacGreevy

The theory that Ireland, owing to the troubled circumstances of her history between the 15th century and the 18th, missed the Renaissance, has become a commonplace of Irish thought. We have all seen it put forward so frequently that we tend to take its truth for granted. But is it true? Certain it is that the art which the world tends to regard as, in a special sense, the art of the Renaissance, that is to say the art of painting in oils—which as a technique was discovered in Flanders a generation or so before the Renaissance—had no such marvellous efflorescence here as it had in other Catholic lands, even small ones, notably Belgium. (One has to say Catholic, for it was only in Catholic countries that the Renaissance was so freely accepted as to develop normally.) Ireland was a Catholic country, but Catholicism in Ireland was outlawed. There were neither Catholic churches nor Catholic pictures during the Renaissance period, and consequently no such efflorescence as had happened in Belgium could happen here. Nor, owing to the very different political and social circumstances obtaining in the two countries, could such a school of secular painting as arose in Holland develop here — though that is less important in relation to the classical revival, for 17th century Dutch painting was neither religious nor classical and had little to do with the exalted intellectual temper of the Renaissance. It was but a development of the naturalism in the treatment of both landscape and the figure which had already appeared in Gothic painting as early as the 14th century (meaning more particularly the miniature pictures of life round Paris executed by Pol de Limbourg, who died about the year 1400).

But though the Ireland that really was Ireland was in hiding from officialdom through most of the 16th 17th and 18th centuries, it was only from officialdom that it was in hiding. Communications with Europe were somehow, in spite of all the difficulties, maintained, and there is plenty of evidence to show that, just as surely as some direct trading continued, so there was a continuous religious and cultural interchange. Thus, however secretly it had to be done, students always went away and priests always came back. And every priest who came back was inevitably an apostle not only of Council of Trent Catholicism but of the profane culture, which is to say the Renaissance culture, that was its secular accompaniment. The Church made full use of the newly rediscovered philosophic methods of classical antiquity in the training of its priests. And naturally many priests learned to know classical antiquity in its imaginative, its poetic and artistic, aspects, as well as in its philosophic methods. It is mainly through such men that knowledge of the classics became accessible to writers like O'Bruadair and O'Rahilly—though we may also allow for a certain trickle of knowledge reaching the people through such few members of the ascendency as were at once educated and ready to be friendly.

That was the situation in the 17th century, the century which, in politics, began with Kinsale and the Flight of the Earls, proceeded with Cromwell and his massacres and ended with Dutch William and the Violated Treaty, but which in literature, began with Geoffrey Keating and Michael O'Clery and ended with O'Bruadair and O'Rahilly —one of the most disastrous of all our centuries and yet, precisely because of Keating and O'Clery, O'Bruadair and O'Rahilly and because of what they represent in the history of the human spirit, one of our most glorious centuries too; perhaps to quote the Most Reverend Dr. MacNeely, Bishop of Raphoe, "the greatest in our history after that early period which has been termed the golden age of Irish missionary effort in Europe." What it amounts to in terms of literature is that as mediævalism died with O'Clery, so classicism, the classicism of the Renaissance, flowered with O'Rahilly. In his introduction to O'Rahilly's poems, Father Dineen animadverts on the way the great poet, in works that are essentially Christian, seriously invokes the pagan gods and muses. But O'Rahilly was only doing what, as a Renaissance poet, he had to do. In the arts as in philosophy, the classical approach was integrated into a comprehensive Christian attitude. One finds this happening in an embryonic way as early as Dante, but from the Renaissance onwards it became a recognised convention. And thus for all O'Rahilly's Gaelic formalism, his frequent classical allusions indubitably mark him as a Renaissance poet. They are the evidence that the spirit of the Renaissance had, by the devious routes inevitable in the Penal Days, reached even the wild mountain valleys of Kerry.

There was, as I have said, no ecclesiastical building or rebuilding to speak of in the Ireland of that time. The old churches were destroyed or taken over by the Church of England ascendency. The Catholic people were not allowed to have churches. They have to worship on hillside and in cave. But it was a different matter when it came to profane building. Here, about the time of O'Rahilly or very soon after, we find the Renaissance temper and Renaissance forms being mastered, beautifully mastered, by Gael as well as Gall. The Royal Hospital at Kilmainham is a purely Renaissance building. It dates from about 1680 when, 200 miles away in Kerry, O'Rahilly's first poems were being written. O'Rahilly died somewhere about 1725 or 1730 and a few years after that John Ahern's Treatise on Architecture — which, like all Renaissance architectural treaties, derived from Vitruvius — was published. If the Gall had its Bindonthe architect of Russborough — the Gael had its Ahern. Gael and Gall could meet on profane if not on religious ground and, in spite of all the difficulties, work together in beautifying their land and more particularly its capital city. For, in architecture and the arts subsidiary to it, particularly wall and ceiling stucco decorations in the classical style, Dublin is one of the most beautiful of European cities; and this is due not only to the accomplishment of the German-Frenchman Cassels and the genius of the London-Frenchman Gandon, but also to the mastery of both the theory and the practice of Renaissance classicism that is evident in the work of such distinguished native builders as Ahern, West (the architect of 86 St. Stephen's Green), and Stapleton (the architect of Belvedere House as later of Maynooth College), and such charming decorators as David Sheehan and Jacob Ennis. In sculpture, Edward Smyth — who, it seems, was in reality a Catholic MacGowan of Meath and the author of the Crucifixion in the church at Navan, as well as of the great Moses of the Four Courts and the beautiful classical works there and at the Bank of Ireland and the Custom House — was but the most outstanding of a whole group of Dublin Renaissance sculptors.

At Cork, where the Gaelic classical poetry of hidden Kerry could meet the blended Gaelic and Gallic classical architecture of the ascendency régime, James Barry was born in 1741. And he became the most distinguished classical painter, the nearest thing temperamentally to such great and truly Renaissance painters as Mantegna and Poussin — and he was very near to them — that Ireland (or, for that matter, Great Britain), ever saw.

Meantime the literature of the Gael continued from O'Rahilly, through O'Sullivan, down to O'Twomey, Merriman and Raftery, always Irish and always Christian, yet always classical in its references, rurally classical at times, as some of the Italian schools of painting were more provincially classical than others, but always with something of the self-conscious beauty that the revived Graeco-Roman tradition had brought in.

It is with Thomas Moore, born in 1779, a Dublin man but the son of a Kerry father, that the whole movement in Ireland comes to a head. Writing in English, he used Gaelic rhythms and classical rhythms, Gaelic lore and classical lore, with equal ease and with incomparable grace. Translating Anacreon he discovered the artistic detachment of the Renaissance, but as with so many of the poets and artists of the Renaissance, the artistic detachment, the felicitous ease and grace of the technique, are ennobled by a grave temper of mind — as witness the exquisite Through Grief and Through Danger — that in such a connotation links the Ireland of the early 19th century with the earlier Europe of the Council of Trent, the Counter-Reformation and the Renaissance.

With Moore, the Renaissance reached the intellectual consciousness of all Ireland. And not only with Moore but with other less famous of his contemporaries, and in architecture and the other arts as well as in literature. It is worth noting that it was in Moore's time that the churches in which the people might at last worship freely once more began to be built. And that at first they were all classical edifices — in Dublin the Pro-Cathedral, St. Francis Xavier's, St. Andrew's, St. Paul's, and St. Nicholas of Myra. The architects of these churches, Sweetman, Esmond, Boulger, Byrne and the rest, were as much children of the Renaissance as any architects in the Europe of the preceding three centuries. Through their 18th century predecessors, and through them, the Renaissance fulfilled itself beautifully everywhere else before making way for the Gothic Revival that was one of the unexpected fruits of the French Revolution. But the Gothic Revival is another story that in Ireland brings us to James Clarence Mangan and William Carleton as well as to Auguste Pugin and J.J. MacCarthy.