ALL THE OLYMPIANS: A Biographical Portrait of the Irish Literary Renaissance by Ulick O'Connor
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ALL THE OLYMPIANS: A Biographical Portrait of the Irish Literary Renaissance

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With an anecdotal nonchalance rooted in mastery of the material, O'Connor Fills a longstanding vacuum: the basic overview, for nonspecialist readers, of the personalities who generated the ""energy and elation"" of the extraordinary Irish literary revival, 1890-1910. Though all may not agree that ""the energy released by Parnell's messianic influence"" ignited the renaissance, O'Connor deftly sketches the political scenery as a backdrop to the emergence, among an eccentric segment of the Anglo-Irish gentry, of an interest in Irish myth, language, and culture. They were a diverse and unusual group: Yeats, whose tolerant portrait-painter father said ""You've taken a great weight off my mind"" when Willie rejected a steady journalism position for theosophy and poetry; Douglas Hyde, a rector's son who actually learned the language of the local people and turned that interest into the powerful Gaelic League; Lady Gregory, a quick-witted fortyish widow with a gift for dialogue and an even greater gift for organization; George Russell (AE), a drapery-store clerk by day and mystic by night; Edward Martyn, a wealthy landowner, devout Catholic (the only one in the bunch), and ardent admirer of Ibsen; Synge, who set out to be a concert violinist and ended up a major playwright. Not to mention George Moore, the Mayo-born bon vivant and London literary lion who underwent a ""lightning conversion""--he'd earlier dismissed his countrymen as a ""degenerate race""--and returned to Ireland in time to provide crucial assistance to Yeats and Martyn in getting the Irish Literary Theatre off the ground; to write the finest (pre-Joyce) Irish short stories and novel; and to alienate his new friends with his ""incontinence of tongue."" Drama became thè cornerstone of the movement, and the wedge that split it: Yeats envisioned a theater ""where prince and ploughman might share a common thought, partaking in a collective unconscious aroused by the use of myth""; Martyn was an Ibsenite (as was the young Joyce, who dismissed the Irish Literary Theatre as ""dwarf drama""), and Moore ""simply had no gift for poetry whatsoever."" In the end, the Yeatsian wing of the movement proved stronger (Yeats, O'Connor notes, ""was a master at gaining control""), as the works of Synge and Lady Gregory began to build a ""prose bridge"" between the English and Irish languages, while Martyn sidetracked his dramatic ambitions to other interests and Moore took refuge and revenge in autobiographies. O'Connor, biographer of Oliver St. John Gogarty (The Times I've Seen) and Brendan Behan, has an ear for a good story and an eye for offbeat visual images--Yeats carrying Maud Gonne's birdcages through the Dublin streets when she changed flats, Moore painting his front door green to annoy his unionist neighbors, Martyn saying the rosary in the window of the staid Kildare Street Club. In all: an extraordinary era, chronicled here with great wit and critical intelligence.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1984
Publisher: Atheneum