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Echoes of the Rebellion

The Year 1798 in Twentieth-Century Irish Fiction and Drama


Radvan Markus

The 1798 Rebellion, a watershed event in Irish history, has been a source of both inspiration and controversy over the last two centuries and continues to provoke debate up to the present day. The ongoing discussion about the meaning of the Rebellion has not been limited to history books, but has also found vivid expression in Irish fiction and theatre.
The product of extensive research, this study provides a comprehensive survey of historical novels and plays published on the topic throughout the twentieth century, comparing them with relevant historiography. It draws attention to a number of outstanding but often neglected literary works, bringing together materials written in both English and Irish. Employing important theoretical concepts such as Derrida’s ‘spectre’ and Hayden White’s tropological view of history, the book probes the relationship between historiography and fiction to shed light on their interplay in the Irish context, including the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. This investigation illuminates a number of broader questions, including the most pressing of all: in what way should we deal with the ‘spectres’ of the past and their complex legacies?
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The 1798 Rebellion, together with the political turmoil of the immediately preceding decade, is rightly regarded as a crucial period in Ireland’s modern history. This is not so much due to the direct political consequences of the event, but mainly because of its continuing status as a source of inspiration for subsequent political movements and its important role in forming Irish national identity. It was the first period when all the socioeconomic, religious and language groups who had lived in relative isolation from one another during the eighteenth century came into intensive contact … and conflict.

The results were admirable and disastrous at the same time. On the one hand, the political project of the United Irishmen, the principal instigators of the Rising, famously expressed in Wolfe Tone’s words – ‘to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter’1 – retains its inspiration to this day. On the other hand, the numerous bloody acts of sectarian violence committed not only by the government side, which exploited sectarianism to break up the fragile alliance of the rebels, but in many cases also by the insurgents themselves, show that the legacy of the Rebellion is far from being unambiguous. Also, the relevance of 1798 for the recent conflict in Northern Ireland cannot be disputed – as the 1790s saw the origins of both Irish Republicanism and the Orange Order, they have served as an ongoing source of inspiration for both sides of the...

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