This book works against the orthodoxy that the Irish Revival was a purely mystical affair of high culture characterised by a preoccupation with a backward-looking Celtic spirituality, nostalgia for Gaelic Ireland and an obsessive anti-modern traditionalism.
The central argument advanced is that the Irish Revival can be understood as a progressive period that witnessed the co-operation of various self-help movements — the Abbey Theatre, the Gaelic League and the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society — to encourage local modes of material and cultural development.
What bound these disparate groups together was their readiness to use traditional cultural forms as the basis for an alternative modernisation project. So successful were these self-help initiatives that they very quickly opened. In his autobiography, W. B. Yeats treated the period from the fall of Parnell in 1891 to the founding of the Gaelic League in 1893 as one in which the leaders of Irish opinion turned away from politics in disillusionment and instead sought to express their aspirations by means of culture. For many decades, this remained the authorised version, even among political historians. In particular, the failure of the government at Westminster to deliver a promised form of Home Rule in 1893 was seen as a signal that all the political excitements of the previous decade had come to nothing. Into the ensuing vacuum, so the story went, came, in swift succession, the Gaelic League, the Irish Agricultural Co-Operative Movement, the National Theatre Society (known as 'the Abbey') and a modernist literary renaissance. In an influential essay of 1987, Roy Foster warned against this Yeatsian analysis, pointing out that, even after 1893, politics continued to interest many, showing new kinds of vitality, with the establishment towards the end of the decade of modern forms of local government. However, Professor Foster was less inclined to question the 'revisionist' orthodoxy established in the bomb-scarred 1970s by F.S.L. Lyons and Conor Cruise O'Brien. These two historians had found in the clashes over drama between the clerks of the Gaelic League and the aristocratic directors of the Abbey Theatre, or in the many rows between local nationalists and Horace Plunkett's Co-Operative Creameries, the source of a deep cultural division which had troubled modern Ireland to their own day. Revival is a brief, elegant but powerful intervention in this developing debate. While in no way denying the varieties of political activity in the 1890s, P.J. Mathews takes his tone from Augusta Gregory's comment that 'we don't hear much of Parliament now since Parnell died'. And he sternly questions the notion of a deep split in the revival between the mere Irish and the Anglo-Irish (a notion propounded by D.P. Moran at the time and broadcast widely through recent decades by some of Moran's harshest critics).
P.J. Mathews has traced the roots of modern Ireland to the years between 1899 and 1905 and it is to be hoped that he might in time produce a similarly rich book on the revolutionary period of 1912–23, when so much that had been imagined came to fruition. They set up a rival sphere of influence to parliamentary politics. Much of this activity laid the groundwork for the emergence of Sinn Féin in 1905.
With particular reference to important theatre productions of the period, this study traces the connections and overlaps between these radical movements, both at executive and grass roots level, and argues that the self-help idea was crucial to the decolonisation and modernisation of Irish society during the early years of the twentieth century.