W.B Yeats: Irish Protestantism, Catholicism and the aesthetics of Irish architecture!

by Anna Blanch on August 2, 2009

Yeats is an important figure in establishing Irish independence and nationalism, a founding father as it were. Roy Foster srgues that examining big house architecture is one way of understanding “the ethos of the Protestant Ascendancy” (215). Foster specifically links Yeats’s interest in the occult to his desire to revive and celebrate the Protestant Ascendancy. Yeats came from “an insecure middle class, with a race memory of elitism and a predisposition towards seeking refuge in the occult” (232).

Yeats made history, and history, in some ways, has made Yeats. Roy Foster focuses on Yeats’s Irish Protestant background and its inherent tensions and contradictions and argues that he created his own reputation and crafted a revisionist view of his own history (212-213). Indeed Foster argues that understanding Yeats’s Irish Protestantism clarifies his politics and social attitudes along with his “lifelong commitment to occultism” (212).

Yeats both upheld the class structure, and particularly the ideal of the aristocracy, while subverting it for his own ends. Yeats was idealistic about the integral role of the aristocracy in supporting the creation of Art along with identifying and supporting the preservation of the eternal images of Irish culture: “To a wealthy Man who promised a second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if it were proved the People wanted Pictures”. Indeed, he believed it to be their duty and responsibility. However, even though Yeats desperately wanted to be identified as aristocratic, the fabric and authenticity of the aristocracy depended on its self-identity as elite and limited by blood and by appropriate marriages. Ironically, it was the marriages of Yeats’s forebears that diluted any claim to the aristocracy he may have had (redundant of course, because had things been any way other than as they were Yeats would not have been born).

Examining the aesthetics of ascendency architecture is fascinating. However, Foster limits his examination, except for one specific example, to generalisations, limiting the full implications (and thus value) of the study. Foster is correct is recognising the relationship between the reinforcement of the big house image in Irish literature – poetry and novels – and the manifestation of the Ascendancy within the bones of the image – the reality of the symbol – the houses themselves.

Foster quotes Yeats’s comments about his fellow Senators in the Irish Free State Parliament, where he described them as:

hot an vague, always disturbed, always hating something or other … [they] had
destroyed a system of election and established another, made terrible decisions
… signed the death-warrant[s] of [their] dearest friend[s] …(217).

This is exactly the kind of passionate obsession, of irrational emotions clouding any feeling of compassion, that Yeats came to distrust. Yeats also distrusted the “pedantry” of Irish Catholic education because it destroyed “all direct knowledge.” Foster argues that this is because, for Yeats, “we do not reason ourselves into [direct knowledge]” (221). Direct knowledge is essential for the realisation of passion. Indeed, it is a corruption, a lack of true and direct knowledge that turns passion into the wildness that maddens the mind – that puts one “out of their mind”. If “magical insight” is the direct opposite, and can only be defined in opposition to “unthinking Catholicism” then there are at least two natural extensions to the argument. 1) magical insight is compatible with thinking Catholicism; or 2) all Catholicism is to be considered unthinking and thus, despite acknowledgement of the magical arts, is automatically incompatible with magical insight.

All quotes are from Foster, Roy. “Protestant Magic: W.B Yeats and the Spell of Irish History.” Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. New York: Penguin, 1993. 212-32.

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