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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 Five: “I had no nation now but the imagination” ‒ Emigration, Diaspora and Displacement

← 208 | 209 → Chapter Five


In Chapter One, the experience of displacement was referred to as both a physical and psychological condition. The displaced subaltern may find themselves faced with personal danger should they choose to remain in their native land. Alternatively, an entire culture may become dislocated from its own practices and traditions, which are gradually devalued by the systematic and strategic policies of the coloniser. As Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o asserts, the expression of exile in African literature reflects “a larger state of alienation in the society as a whole … The people themselves have been in exile in relationship to their economic and political landscape” (1993: 125). Severed from their own forms of representation by an alien discourse, the colonised are deprived of the means of emotional or psychological engagement with the political and social environment they inhabit.

The policies which determined Britain’s control over its Hibernian neighbour were not dissimilar to those which induced feelings of cultural estrangement in other colonies. As discussed in Chapter Four, the loss of Irish Gaelic was the result of a combination of factors, which included both the deliberate suppression of local languages and a sense of estrangement on the part of the colonised themselves from their own linguistic inheritance. The strategies of cultural imperialism practised by a foreign government ensured that, via the 1831 Education Act, the use of Gaelic was forbidden in schools. As a result, the Irish people were accused of exchanging their native tongue in favour of the colonisers’, which appeared...

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