The Celtic Revival

Why the Celtic Revival?

The English thought of the Irish as uncouth barbarians, but a new generation of the Irish looked into their island's past and worked at the English wrong. 

Intellectuals like
William Butler Yeats, Douglas Hyde, and Lady Augusta Gregory called for the preservation and appreciation of Irish storytelling, Celtic art, and the fast-fading Irish language. Hyde founded the Gaelic League to promote the Irish language. By 1906 there were more than 900 branches, with more than 100,000 members. In 1903 Yeats and Gregory founded the Irish National Theatre at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and promoted the production of distinctively Irish plays. 

In these expressions of Irish culture, many Irish people realized for the first time that their people had a history and culture all their own and every bit as worthy as the English. These movements provided Irish people with an identity and a rallying point for their nationalist feelings.

What was the Celtic Revival?
    The Celtic Revival covers a variety of movements and trends, mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries, which reflected on the traditions of Celtic literature and art. Although the revival was complex, occurring across many fields and in various countries in North-West Europe. Also known as the Irish Literary Revival or the Celtic Twilight, Irish writers including YeatsLady Gregory"AE" RussellEdward Martyn and Edward Plunkett stimulated a new appreciation of traditional Irish literature and Irish poetry in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Celtic Revival movement encouraged works written in the spirit of Irish culture as starkly distinct from English culture. This was due to the political need for an individual Irish identity during the Irish Independence movement at the turn of the 20th century. This difference was kept alive by invoking Ireland's historic past, its myths, legends and folklore.There was an attempt to revitalize the native rhythm and music of Irish Gaelic. Figures such as Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats, George RussellJ.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey wrote plays, novels, poems and articles that reflected the political state of Ireland at the time. Gaelic revival and Irish nationalism frequently overlapped in public gathering places as well as in writing and art.  

Art in the Celtic Revival:

    Art historians maintain that, as a whole, there has never been a coherent, continuous tradition of Irish visual art. The visual arts need leisure, stability, and most importantly money to survive, and centuries of invasions, foreign occupation, and economic difficulties robbed the Irish people of these necessities. Their great traditions of achievement have been in music and literature, both of which can be passed on orally even in times of change. Within the realm of visual art, their greater accomplishments are in the popular and applied arts. However, part of the aim of the Celtic Revival was to help change this. 


any different Irish cultural organizations that were founded in this time period, had members who were painters, sculptors, or craftsmen and they drew upon traditionally Celtic subject matter for their art. In the fine arts specifically the most significant gain from the Celtic Revival was not a single work of painting or sculpture, but an entire gallery of art. Founded by Hugh Lane, the Gallery of Modern Art displayed not only Irish art but also works by the best contemporary European artists from all over the continent. It holds an important place in the Revival as a whole because of the fact that the Gaelic League praised it highly, important Irish literary figures (including Yeats and  Synge) wrote about it, and Lady Gregory connected the gallery specifically with the independence movement. Lane himself said that such an art gallery was essential in creating a well-defined school of Irish painting. It opened in 1908 on Harcourt Street and subsequently, after a significant amount of controversy, moved to Charlemont House, Parnell Square, in 1933. In the late 19th century there was a brief Celtic revival in architecture. A typical example is the Honan Chapel, Cork, by James F. McMullen, 1915. However, though the Celtic revival promised much and had a strong influence in other areas of Irish arts and culture, it had only a limited influence on Irish architecture.
The Honan Chapel, Cork, Ireland

Music in the Celtic Revival:
    Although the Celtic Revival was not as largely recognized as a musical revolution, it involved figures such as Mendelssohn (whose Fingal's Cave caught the mood as early as the 1830s) and Arnold Bax (an Englishman who wrote tone poems on Cornish and Irish themes), as well as such real Celts as Charles Villiers Stanford and Hamish McCunn. In the 20th century, anthropological research has tended to sweep away the mists, and the whimsy has lingered on chiefly in such works as the musicals Brigadoon and Finian's Rainbow, and the acerbic comedies of Compton Mackenzie, especially Whisky Galore, and Eric Linklater. The Celtic Revival in the world of music is still happening today in a sense with such sensations as Celtic Woman, Riverdance and Celtic Thunder. 

The Celtic Revival Crosses

    The cross with a circle has been popularly known as a "Celtic Cross" since around 1850. The cross itself evolved between the 4th and 9th century. Also known as "The Irish Cross" or "The Irish High Cross" this type of cross is now associated with Celtic heritage. Use of the phrase "Celtic Cross" is an acknowledgement that the form is not only Irish, but was and is shared by Scotland, Wales, Cornwall  and other regions that were influenced by early Celtic Christianity. 

In the 1840s reproductions of historical Celtic jewelry began to be produced and sold in Ireland. This new interest in native antiquities was the beginning of a renewed interest in past Irish cultural achievements and grew into a literary and artistic movement known as 'The Celtic Revival".

Celtic Cross Tombstone, The Falls Road Area, Belfast, N. Ireland