Understanding Irish History:  The following web-text introduces the student of Irish literature and culture to the general history of Ireland, from pre-historic times up to the establishment of the Irish state in 1923, and then to the current day.  Through the use of text, images, slide shows, audio files, and interactive quizzes, this work provides a dynamic and active study of Irish history.  As you read through the pages that follow, engage each section in an active, participatory manner.  In particular, work to interpret the images that are provided, to bring the realities of Irish life before you.  The quizzes at the end of each of the first four chapters will test the extent of your knowledge and understanding of what you have just studied. (Quizzes available through the course SAKAI site, restricted access.) 

Introduction:  In 1933, William Butler Yeats published “Blood and the Moon,” an astonishing poem from the world’s most prominent poet. In the poem, Yeats asks, “Is every modern nation like the tower, / Half dead at the top?” He fills the poem with allusions to crucial periods, events, figures, and legends from Irish history:

I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare

This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;

That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have traveled there.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Seven centuries have passed and it is pure;The blood of innocence has left no stain.

A reader of this poem may well ask, who are these people to whom Yeats refers? What power do these references give the poem? Why would he choose these figures to call upon, during this particular historical moment?  What figures does Yeats consciously exclude?  What are the “seven centuries,” and what happened during them? Why a tower? What sort of tower? Who built it, why, for what purpose? What does the tower look like? Where is it? Why would Yeats choose this as his central symbol for his greatest poems?

Yeats Tower

Yeats’s Tower, Thoor Ballylee


Yeats’s poetry—like Joyce’s novels, or Synge’s plays, or Gregory’s folk tales—demands an immersion in Irish history, geography, language, tradition, legend, and much more. No literary tradition is more powerfully tied to the history of its country than Irish Literature. One could say that the great obsession of every Irish writer is Irish history itself, or, put differently, that the theme of every Irish poem is somehow Ireland itself. The past becomes a question of interpretation for the Irish writer: not merely what happened, but who told the story, why it was told the way it was, and what effect the story had on those who heard it.

Irish literature is filled with references to the great figures and great events of the Irish past, and if a reader is not at least acquainted with the broad outlines and major figures of Irish history, that reader may be quite, quite lost, and certainly one’s appreciation of the writing will be powerfully diminished. The aim of the following web presentation is, through the use of text, image, sound, and interactive response, to provide readers with an understanding of the cultural horizon from which Irish literature emerges.