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Writing from the Margins of Europe

The Application of Postcolonial Theories to Selected Works by William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge and James Joyce


Rachael Sumner

The application of postcolonial theories to Irish literature remains a contentious issue. Unlike other colonised nations, Ireland shared a long history of political, economic and artistic ties with its empire-building neighbour, Britain. Yet the Irish response to the project of British imperialism bears comparison with postcolonial models of the relationship between colonisers and the colonised. Writing from the Margins of Europe assesses the potential for postcolonial analysis of works by W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge and James Joyce. In this exploration of postcolonial parallels between these writers, the author focuses on four core issues: historiography, nationalism, language and displacement.
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Chapter Four: “I’ll give them back their language. I’m not destroying it for good.” ‒ Language and Literary Style

← 164 | 165 → Chapter Four


As observed in Chapter One, language has proved to be amongst the thorniest of issues with regard to postcolonial writing. The appropriation of the language of the coloniser as a medium of literary expression is fraught with concerns over artistic and political integrity. On the one hand, the English language cannot carry the liberatory expectations of the colonised as it has been so clearly identified with imperialist values and strategies of cultural subjugation. On the other hand, referral to a pre-colonial language may be perceived as a refusal to acknowledge the full legacy of imperialism. Moreover, as Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin have suggested: “By appropriating the imperial language, its discursive forms and its modes of representation, postcolonial societies are able, as things stand, to intervene more readily in the dominant discourse, to interpolate their own cultural realities, or use that dominant language to describe those realities to a wide audience of readers” (2000: 16).

It is therefore interesting to note that one of the first territories to actively engage with the issue of language in literary work as a matter of cultural urgency was Ireland. The activities of the Gaelic League were focussed on the resuscitation of Irish Gaelic as key to national identity, an aim which found moderate expression in the activities of the League’s founder, Douglas Hyde and was advocated in far less compromising terms by nationalist activists such as the future instigator of the 1916 uprising, Patrick Pearse1. Hyde’s seminal lecture, “The Necessity for De-Anglicising...

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