A two-way process

The Waterford-born Professor of Irish History Roy Foster, who also has written a two-part biography of WB Yeats, had an interesting article in Saturday’s Guardian Review – Indomitable Irishry. Using a forthcoming exhibition at the National Potrait Gallery in London Conquering England – Ireland in Victorian London, from a phrase by George Bernard Shaw, as a springboard, he leaps into a discussion on the history of artistic, literary, dramatic and political influence exercised in London by Irish incomers – a subject area often neglected in the standard lively debate.

At the end of Victoria’s reign, the novelist George Moore announced that the “sceptre of intelligence” was now being handed from London to Dublin; several notable figures returned to the Irish capital (including Moore himself), to take part in the various cultural experiments developing against a background of political radicalisation. One of the most celebrated was Yeats’s Abbey Theatre, and the programmes from their first tours to London are displayed at the end of the NPG exhibition: symbolically austere and avant garde, they mark the distance travelled from the florid presentations of the Boucicault era. Max Beerbohm, providing a rave review, referred to the modern style and “exotic” charm of the Irish players. The Guildhall Show of Irish painters in 1904 similarly suggested that an indigenous, Ireland-based culture was now being exported from a country in the throes of cultural renaissance.

But many of those most influential in the process had learned their trade in London and (like Yeats, Shaw, Lavery and many others) continued to base their operations there. In this, they were following in the footsteps of a long-established tradition whereby Irish writers, painters, actors, politicians, lawyers and others played a notable part in the cultural and political history of the metropolis, often by using Irish contact-systems and presenting Irish material. These traditions can be traced down to our own day, too. Conquering, then as now, can be a two-way process.