The Celtic Revival and the Abbey Theatre

The Celtic Revival and The Abbey Theatre

Auditorium of the old Abbey Theatre c. 1904

Auditorium of the old Abbey Theatre c. 1904

Table of Contents


Celtic Revival

Abbey Theatre


Irish Writers and Works


The Celtic Revival covers a variety of movements and trends, mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries, but beginning in the 1880’s. This modern era drew on the traditions of Celtic literature and Celtic art. It began as a conscious effort by the Modern Celts as a form of separation and nationalism. During the Celtic era there was revived interest in both art and literature that had been in Irish History.

The Celtic Revival

The Celtic Revival movement increased because of Irish nationalism, which is how the existence of Irish dramas came into play. The Celtic Revival aimed at saving the oldest Irish folklore, legends, and traditions into the new literary works during this time. This movement (also known as the Celtic Twilight), was a reaction to modernism. It was complex and sort of a political movement that involved itself with self-government for Ireland and finding about its literary past, in which many will about independence.

The Celtic Revival came on the heels of the Irish Antiquarian movement, led by George Petrie. Petrie was educated with a focus on art at Dublin’s Society Schools, won silver medal in 1805 at age of 14. As one of the best artists of the era, most of his work was done in watercolor. Some his best works remain in the National Gallery of Ireland today.

Celtic Art is difficult to define as in covers a large amount of time and also the geography of where it. It’s thought that it occurred mostly during the European Bronze Age, 1000 BC. Characteristics of Celtic Art include circles, triangles and spirals. The 19th century included revival of monumental Celtic tombstones which were argued to be the most important part of Celtic history. Archaeologist Cathrine Jones says that it is “common to Celtic art over a wide chronological and geographical span is an exquisite sense of balance in the layout and development of patterns. Curvilinear forms are set out so that positive and negative, filled areas and spaces form a harmonious whole. Control and restraint were exercised in the use of the use of surface texture and relief. Very complex curvilinear patterns were designed to cover precisely the most awkward and irregularly shaped surfaces.” (Citation?)

Young Ireland founds The Nation in 1842, publishing Irish literature and creating pride in the Irish Literary Movement. The Dublin University Magazinze, by James Clarence Mangan. Translated Gaelic poems into English, which were original poems in the Gaelic style. The Gaelic League (1893), was formed to revive the Irish language and culture.

Irish Dramas

No Citations here
The Celtic Revival and The Abbey Theatre

The Abbey Theatre, located in Dublin Ireland, stands as the National Theatre of the nation. The theatre received financial support for its creation from middle class, Annie Elizabeth Fredricka Horniman. The Abbey started as a circus in the early 1880s. It is also important to note that it did not go under the name “The Abbey Theatre” until late December 1093. This new name for the building was created by the well known Irish poet, W.B Yeats.


Opening Night Poster for the Abbey Theater
On the first night held three one act plays; “On Bailes Strand”, “Cathleen Ni Houlihan”, both by Yeats, and “Spreading the News” by Lady Gregory. The newly formed Abbey Theatre was extremely popular with the masses unlike in the previous years when it, under different names, posed as both a circus and a concert hall. The famous writer William Butler Yeats, was responsible for creating much of the literature that was produced during this time period in particular. Many of the plays presented at the theatre were produced by the writers from The Irish Literary Revival which brought back old literature that was no longer in print.

The fairly new Abbey theatre lost much of its previous popularity in 1907. This was caused by the civil disturbances of the national party, which believed that a theatre of this magnitude was much to political. Additionally this thought was most likely initiated by the play, “The Playboy of the Western World”. Nationalist Party members thought that this particular play had a voice against a woman’s virtue caused by an actress make believe affair. These continuous riots occured up until 1909 due to the political messages which appeared in other plays.The political action that rose up due to these continuous riots further angered the nationalists. These protests and riots but they did succeed in causing those who were in charge of the theatre’s management worry.

With this anxiety loss of the main founders, Horniman, Synge, and the Fays. This failure caused a loss of the public’s interest in the theatre. However, in 1925 the Abbey Theatre was given to the government of Ireland as a gift to the Irish people. With this change in ownership the Abbey theatre regained its popularity with the people. F. Lost building in 1951 due to a fire. The theatre moved its location to the Queen’s Theatre, which had been occupied by a gang of comics previously. The Abbey Theatre stayed at Queen’s until 1956.

Today the Abbey Theatre is still producing plays and is a large tourist attraction. A revival of the theatre started in 1957 with its participation in the Dublin Theatre Festival. In 2004, even though the theatre was at its centenary long existence, it was close to bankruptcy and there was much public dismissal. In 2005 the Abbey Theatre Advisory Council ended the ownership of the National Theatre Society and started the Abbey Theatre Limited. Due to this new plan laid out for the theatre the Arts Council of Ireland gave the the theatre a loan spread out over 3 years. This loan gave a 43% increase to the Abbey’s revenue.

Irish Dramas

Important writers

William Butler Yeats: (1865-1939)

A Portrait of W.B. Yeats
A Portrait of W.B. Yeats

“Out of Ireland have we come, great hatred, little room, maimed us at the start. I carry from my mother’s womb a fanatic heart.”
Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865. He lived with his mother, Susan Mary Pollefexen, and his father, John Butler Yeats, a supporter of the Irish Nationalist movement. He also had two sisters, Susan Mary and Elizabeth Corbet, and one brother, Jack Butler Yeats (Merriman, “William”).

Yeats spent a portion of his young childhood living in London, England where his father studied art. The family moved back to Dublin where Yeats attended Erasmus Smith High School. He spent much of his free time in his father’s art studio, and ultimately ended up attending the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin for two years. During his time there, some of his early poems were published in the Dublin University Review.

After graduating, the Yeats family returned to London. Here, William met many poets and writers such as George Bernard Shaw and William Ernest Henley. In 1890, he founded the Rhymer’s Club with Ernest Rhys. In 1894, Yeats met Lady Augusta Gregory and became involved in the Irish Literary Theater founded in 1899 in Dublin. Yeats served as Chief Playwright and authored many of the theater’s most famous productions including The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), and The King’s Threshold (1904).

Yeats met his wife, Georgie Hyde Lees in 1911. They married on October 20, 1917. Together they had two children, Anne (born in 1919) and Michael (born in 1921).

Despite the fact that Yeats continued to travel throughout his career, he never lost sight of his Irish roots. Many of his most famous works were influenced by the tumultuous Irish history unfolding including the poem “Easter, 1916” written after the Easter Rising. In 1922, Yeats received an honorary degree from Trinity College in Dublin and was also elected to the Irish Senate. He was also awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923.

After a long and successful career, Yeats died on January 28, 1939 in France. He was eventually buried in the Drumclif Churchyard in Ireland.

Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory: (1852-1932)

A Portrait of Isabella Augusta
A Portrait of Isabella Augusta

Isabella Augusta was born in Galway in the 1852 (Hennessy). Growing up, she became fascinated with the local legends and stories. She married Sir William Gregory, a member of the Irish Parliament, in 1880. She had one son, William Robert. Sadly, her husband died in 1892 after just 12 years of marriage.

After her husband’s passing, she took a much grater interest in theatre. She founded the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theater with William Butler Yeats (“Isabella Augusta (Persse) Gregory”). The idea for the theatre originated as a way to prepare for Home Rule in Ireland. She slowly became more and more involved in the project until she was writing her own plays as well as translating famous European plays into the Kiltaran dialect.

She also used her love of folklore to write plays of her own. Her work incorporated Irish mythology into the country’s struggle under British control (“Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory”). Some of her most famous pieces include The Irish Literary Revival and Hyancinth Halvey.

Sadly, Lady Augusta died in 1932 at the age of 80.

John Millington Synge (1871-1909)

A Portrait of John Millington Synge
A Portrait of John Millington Synge

John Millington Synge was born near Dublin, Ireland on April 16, 1871 (Merriman, “J.M.”). Even as a young boy, Synge made a point of observing nature and kept detailed diaries of his outings. His father died of smallpox when Synge was only one year old. This tragedy is believed to be the trigger for many of his spiritual struggles that would later cause a rift between him and his family.

He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1892 where he studied Gaelic and Irish antiquities. After completing his studies, he traveled to Germany to continue his study of literature, as well as music. It was here that he began writing. He traveled extensively before starting the Irish Literary Society. The organization was aimed at making art available to common people.

In 1896, he met W.B. Yeats in Paris. Yeats encouraged him to live with peasant sailors on the Aran Islands. His time there inspired him to write about the history and local folklore. He wrote In the Shadows of the Glen in 1903. The story was based on a local Aran story. Many of his other works from the time featured the basic way of life of the Irish as well as his own travel stories.

In 1905, he became a director of the Irish National Theatre Society. His play The Playboy of the Western World was performed in 1907. The show sparked riots throughout Dublin. Viewers found it slanderous against women, and took issue with his claim that murdering one’s father can be heroic.

Back in 1897, Synge discovered a growth on his neck. It was operated on at the time, but by 1908 it was causing him problems again. He continued to work for a brief period of time before passing away in 1909 of Hodgkin’s disease.

W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta published Synge’s remaining manuscripts posthumously.

Important works

The Playboy of the Western WorldJohn M. Synge

A Poster for "The Playboy of the Western World
A Poster for “The Playboy of the Western World

This play debuted at the Abbey Theater on January 26, 1907 (Cummings). The play was written as a comedy with many satiric elements. Synge hoped that the play would influence the way that the theatergoers would see their own lives.

The play tells the story of a group of Irish people who frequent Flaherty’s country tavern. The characters do little, if anything, to improve their mundane lives with the exception of Christy Mahon who kills his father and tells a far-fetched tale about it.

The first performance of the play sparked a series of riots and protests. Theatergoers believed that the play encouraged negative stereotypes of the Irish people, promoted a negative image of the Catholic Church, and included offensive language and behavior. It is unclear whether Synge actually believed and supported these things, but critics agree that the play is one of the greatest Irish dramas of the 20th century.

“Easter, 1916″W.B. Yeats

One of William Butler Yeats’s most famous poems is “Easter, 1916” (Merriman, “William”). The poem was a reaction to the brutal Easter Rising the occurred in the spring of 1916. Several of his friends participated in the event, which killed hundreds of Irish citizens. In a letter to Lady Augusta, Yeats described his own inner struggle with the events that occurred (“The Life”).

“I am trying to write a poem on the men executed – ‘terrible beauty has been born again.’ If the English Conservative Party had made a declaration that they did not intend to rescind the Home Rule Bill there would have been no Rebellion. I am very despondent about the future. At the moment I feel that all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of the classes, all the freeing of Irish literature and culture from politics.”


Above all, the Celtic Revival was started because of the separation and nationalism, which was occurring in Ireland during the 19th and 20th centuries. During this time there was a renewal of interest in the history of the nation; this included both the art and literature of the past. The movement was quiet political that was aimed at self-government, encouraged by the country’s past independence.
A large part of this revival was the growth of the Abbey Theatre, which still remains active today. The main writers that had been a large part of the Celtic Revival included W.B Yeats. The most renowned Irish playwright of this time period was thought to be Yeats who was responsible for writing the very famous “Easter 1916”, a play which portrayed an important uprising of Irish history.
Lady Gregory was an additional play writes who contributed much to the Abbey Theatre. The main focus of her plays was the country’s constant revolution against British rule.
Another influential contributor of the Irish literature that was written during the revival was John Millington Synge. He is well known for his writing that was focused on Irish history and folklore. He was responsible for writing the play The Playboy of the Western World, which caused multiple riots because of its portrayal of Irish women.
All in all the Celtic Revival was both focused on the history of Ireland and adding much to the Irish literature through the study of its history and folklore. The production of plays with this focus was a crucial part of this movement. Most of all the Revival contributed much to an appreciation of Irish history and culture.


Cummings, Michael J. “The Playboy of the Western World.” Cummings Study Guides. Michael J. Cummings, 2005. Web. <>.

Hennessy, Caroline. “Lady Gregory: An Irish Life by Judith Hill.” RTE Ten: The Entertainment Network. N.p., n. d. Web. <Hennessy>.

“Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory.” bio. True Story. A E Television Network, 2012. Web. <>.

“Isabella Augusta (Persse) Gregory.” BookRags. BookRags, Inc., 2006. Web. <>.

Merriman, C.D. “J.M. Synge.” The Literature Network. Jalic Inc., 2005. Web. <>.

Merriman, C.D. “William Butler Yeats.” The Literature Network. Jalic Inc., 2006. Web. <>.

“The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats.” National Library of Ireland. National Library of Ireland, 2012. Web. <>.

Image Sources

A Portrait of W.B. Yeats:
A Portrait of Isabell Augusta:
A Portrait of John Millington Synge:
A Poster for “The Playboy of the Western World”:

Sources Used in Video

Easter Rising 1916 (Aftermath footage). BlackMountainScar. Youtube, 2011. Film. <>.
Ireland 1916-1922 – Easter uprising – Independence. doadim44. Youtube, 2008. Film. <>.
Easter Rising Prisoners. DoutorMartins. Youtube, 2006. Film. <>.
easter rising prisoners 1916 no. 2. Dir. uptheira99. Youtube, 2008. Film. <>.


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