General Introduction to Dana: An Irish Magazine of Independent Thought

By Sean Latham

General Introduction to Dana: An Irish Magazine of Independent Thought

Like many of the little magazines of the early twentieth century, Dana has been all but lost to memory, surviving largely in the occasional footnote which duly cites it as the journal in which one of James Joyce’s earliest published poems appeared. This piece, here titled only “Song,” is an unremarkable verse describing a young girl who—though she may presage the famous “bird-girl” who occasions Stephen Dedalus’s epiphany in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—bears a more striking resemblance to similar figures in the work of Oliver Gogarty, AE, and other Dana poets. Though the poem is signed, Joyce’s name does not appear in the table of contents on the journal’s deep green cover—this despite the fact that alone among the contributors to the magazine he had been paid the considerable sum of one guinea for a mere twelve lines of verse. One of Dana‘s editors would later commission the essay “A Portrait of the Artist” and then refuse to publish it claiming that it was incomprehensible. Joyce, ever distrustful of editors and publishers, told his brother Stanislaus that the piece was simply too autobiographical for the magazine’s tastes and “these gentlemen consider that he has no right yet to write about himself” (Ellmann 48). As we will see, this is an unlikely description of Dana‘s editorial policy, for in the scant twelve issues published in Dublin between May 1904 and April 1905 the magazine provided a remarkable forum for cultural and literary debates. Refusing to adhere any strict sectarian divide and deeply suspicious of a growing nativism, it played a vital role in what F. S. L. Lyons calls “a phase of fusion and co-operation” in Irish cultural life “when everything seemed possible” (55).

The magazine was edited by two important intellectuals both of whom struggled against a narrow definition of Irish nationalism, insisting throughout their careers on a vital cosmopolitanism that was at once critical of British imperialism yet open to the English and European world. The first of these men was the economist, journalist, and playwright Frederick Ryan (1876-1913) who moved widely in the cultural circles and institutions that would later come to play a central role in Irish national life. In 1902, he became secretary of the Irish National Theatre Company, the collaborative enterprise guided by W.B. Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, George Moore and Edward Martyn that would later go on to create the famed Abbey Theater. During this period one of his plays was performed, a satirical piece entitled The Laying of the Foundations. He was politically active, working first as part of the Irish Socialist Republican Party before becoming secretary in 1909 of the Socialist Part of Ireland. His political journalism was keen-witted and incisive, his natural bent toward satire and willingness to court controversy often sparking tempestuous debate. Using the pseudonym Irial, which he also employed on occasion in the pages of Dana, he contributed a number of pieces to Arthur Griffith’s nationalist paper, Sinn Féin, though, as Luke Gibbon notes, his relationship to the increasingly ardent nationalism of the paper remained deeply ambivalent. He spent the final years of life in Cairo working as the editor of the Egyptian Standard.

His collaborator on Dana was the artful essayist W.K. Magee, who was more generally known by his pseudonym, John Eglinton. Like the journal he helped to edit, he too is perhaps best remembered now for his portrait in Ulysses, where he appears realistically in his role as librarian at the National Library of Ireland-a post he would hold until deciding to leave the newly formed Irish Republic in 1922 for a frustrated exile in England. Before helping to found Dana he had already made a name for himself as a kind of literary journalist who was deeply committed to a romantic individualism inspired by the work of William Wordsworth. His first two collections of essays, Two Essays on the Remnant (1892) and Pebbles from a Brook (1901) mounted an eloquent defense of radical aesthetic autonomy preserved now only in the small group of lonely thinkers and writers he calls “the remnant.” Throughout his career he remained deeply skeptical of any attempt to appropriate art for political ends, earning him the ire of Irish nationalists and making him a useful target for W.B. Yeats as the poet set out to articulate his vision of a mystical Irish drama. In sharp contrast to the literary movement which would loosely come to be identified as the Celtic Twilight, Eglinton, as Ernest Boyd writes, regarded “as signs of the absence of poetic inspiration in modern life, the revival of the heroic literature of Ireland” (59). Though Joyce would lightly satirize him in Ulysses, Eglinton actually proved far more sympathetic to the younger writer’s aims as well as his sense of alienation, telling Oliver Gogarty that there is something sublime in Joyce standing alone. Indeed, George Moore would say much of the same thing of the editor of Dana, evoking his prickly individualism by comparing him heroically to “a sort of lonely thorn-tree” (Boyd 51).

That Ryan and Eglinton should come into contact is not at all surprising given the still quite narrow intellectual circle which moved around the poles of Trinity College and the Abby Theater in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Both were active participants in the city’s cultural life and shared a deep suspicion of the growing interest in a narrowly conceived vision of Irish culture that looked toward a mythic past of obscure warriors and heroes whose deeds were recorded in a language now spoken only by a small, rural minority. In their opening editorial, in fact, they explicitly reject the idea that Ireland can subsist on its anarchic past and instead employ a remarkably primitivist metaphor. “We are in the position of a marooned civilian,” they write, “who has struck his last lucifer match in a desolate isle, and who, with the intention of broiling the fish which he has snared, or the beast which he has slain, is making his first pathetic efforts with flints or with dry sticks” (2). This is a far cry from the ardent claims of those such as Yeats and Gregory who were avidly collecting and publishing the ancient folklore and mythologies of Ireland precisely as a defense against the assertion that the island had no culture of its own. To open the first issue of Dana in this way, therefore, was immediately to court controversy by suggesting that Irish culture must be born in the crucible of the present—and, significantly in the medium of English—rather than in a utopian Gaelic past. Like The New Age in England, which would shortly attempt to steer an equally perilous course between contending cultural and political forces, Dana sought to bring forth a fundamentally new and regenerative Irish culture.

The Ireland of 1904 had for over two centuries been an occupied land, its own parliament dissolved with the Act of Union and its affairs administered by a Viceroy appointed by the English monarch. The country’s Catholic majority had only recently obtained full civil rights and the countryside was still deeply scarred by the Great Famine—a catastrophe which had decimated the population and initiated waves of immigration. Civil society was still firmly in the grip of the narrow class of landowners associated with the Protestant Ascendancy, the often distant ancestors of settlers who had long ago confiscated vast tracts of land and whose often abusive landlordism had been the cause of frequent armed rebellions. Joyce’s Ulysses, which is set on 16 June 1904, provides perhaps one of the most varied portraits of “dear, dirty Dublin” in this period, its action encompassing the pubs, houses, streets, and brothels of the city. It remained an essentially colonial capital, dominated by monuments of its own conquest from the Customs House on the banks of the Liffey to Dublin Castle, headquarters of the secret police. Political life was still haunted by the recent and scandalous collapse of the parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, an Anglo-Irishman who had effectively forged the Irish members of the British Parliament into a powerful voting block that had all but secured the long-sought goal of home rule. Having been named as a co-respondent in a divorce suit, however, he lost the support of the Catholic church, creating a rift in his coalition. The Irish home rule movement was thus destroyed effectively from within its own ranks, a deeply formative event following which, Yeats writes, “a disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned from parliamentary politics” to create instead “the modern literature” of a still emergent nation (Autobiographies 559).

While Yeats may attribute too much importance to the fall of Parnell, he does identify the period roughly from this scandal in 1891 to the violent Easter rebellion in 1916 as a period of remarkable cultural and aesthetic innovation that we now call the Irish Renaissance. The range of activity loosely grouped under this term is broad and diverse but nevertheless directed, as Declan Kiberd argues, to a now widely recognized stage of colonial and post-colonial discourse in which a national consciousness is forged by insisting on the exceptional qualities of native culture. In Ireland this took the shape of a particularly romantic idealization of ancient Ireland as the land of “saints and sages.” Typically figured as a bulwark against modernity, writers like Yeats and Synge attempted to revive this ancient past to construct a new image of Irish culture. This process had begun earlier in the nineteenth century, born initially out of the work of antiquarian scholars who first revived the ancient Irish myths of Cuhulainn and the Ulster or Red Branch cycle. From the 1840s to the 1890s, there was a growing emphasis not only on the importance of these materials but on a revival of the Irish language as well. Such figures as Thomas Davis, Standish O’Grady, and Douglas Hyde sustained a growing campaign to reclaim a tongue that had been driven to an isolated band on the west coast of the island under British rule. The leaders of this movement were generally drawn from the ranks of the Anglo-Irish, suggesting that the political alliances Parnell was forming were matched with a kind of non-sectarian cultural nationalism as well. Thus, it was Douglas Hyde, the son of a Protestant rector, who would write “A Plea for the Irish Language” in 1886 in defense of “our national honour” and out of fear of “losing our best and highest characteristics” (cited in Lyons 36-7). This growing interest in the island’s nearly extinct tongue would eventually produce a wide network of schools and institutes that helped generate and sustain the resurgence of ancient Irish myths and stories.

By 1904 this cultural renaissance was in full swing and was beginning to play an increasingly important role in political and social life as well. Its emphasis on Irish exceptionalism had, in turn, begun to stoke nationalist sentiments that had been deflected from parliamentary politics in 1891. Looking to the immediate present rather than to the cultural past, Horace Plunkett began to advocate the creation of a wide-spread co-operative movement in the countryside designed to help free struggling Irish farmers from their oppressive dependence on landlords and the fluctuations of British commodity markets. The co-operatives, which were initially focused on creating creameries and improving Irish milk and butter production, were themselves linked to the cultural revival then underway, both promising to generate an increased sense of national independence that did not devolve from London. The poet George Russell (who signed himself AE), edited the Irish Homestead, a rural paper that was dedicated both to spreading the gospel of the co-operative movement and to offering a forum where the work of Irish writers would appear. Thus, although by the end of the nineteenth century the hope for immediate home rule remained as distant as it first appeared immediately after Parnell’s fall from power, a new cultural, political, and economic energy had been diffused throughout Ireland, one which promised to create a distinctly nationalist and independent identity.

Anglo-Irish intellectuals had long been at the forefront of this movement, with figures such as Yeats, Gregory, Hyde, and Plunkett providing a good deal of the vital impetus. They remained, however, in a somewhat contradictory position as themselves the distant heirs of a British settler class still closely associated in many minds with the brutality and dispossession of colonial rule. The nationalist energies the revivalists had released began to grow in ways they did not anticipate, generating a pronounced emphasis on an increasingly narrow nativism. The Gaelic Athletic Association, for example, under the leadership of Michael Cusack, banned members who watched or participated in “English” sports such as cricket or polo. Cusack himself was the model for Joyce’s notoriously bigoted “Citizen” in Ulysses and the organization came to be associated with a nationalism deeply rooted in a pre-colonial past. Hyde’s own Gaelic League too would experience similar pressures and its insistence on the importance of the Irish language as the foundation of a national identity strengthened sectarian pressures and consequently threatened what remained of the Parnellite coalition. Even Yeats found himself struggling to reconcile this new mode of nativist nationalism with his own desire to create poetry in English, and his own politics would become increasingly radicalized in this period as he produced the overtly revolutionary play, Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) . Though he would later ask poetically

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?

It was symptomatic of the growing nationalist pressures at the turn of the century and the consequent collapse of an earlier, non-sectarian nationalism. By 1905, in fact, D.P. Moran began to envision the emergence not of a fully modern and tolerant state, but a brewing “battle of two civilizations,” pitting a narrowly conceived Irish culture against an English one now hopelessly tainted by the oppressive history of colonization.

It was precisely into this breach between these “two civilizations” that Eglinton and Ryan stepped with the first number of Dana in 1904. That opening image they evoke, of a culture striking at flints to light the fire of knowledge, explicitly positions the magazine in opposition to a narrowly conceived revivalism attempting to found national identity upon a mythic past. Rather than coming into their ancient legacy, the Irish are instead imagined to be forming the most rudimentary elements of a new and distinctly modern culture. This is not to say that Dana is opposed to nationalism as such, and its pages are charged with often sharp exchanges about the value and definition of developing a distinctively Irish culture. Together, the editors contribute at least sixteen articles to the journal, most of them focused distinctly on the problem of defining a new cultural identity for Ireland that avoids a romanticized nativism. Ryan expresses his concern most directly in “Young Ireland and Liberal Idea,” which appears in the second issue. Written in response to a somewhat tepid review of Dana‘s first issue in the nationalist paper, United Irishman, the article despairs over an emerging sense of Irish identity that seems uncomfortably close the model of Britain. “Nationalism to the majority of people in Ireland,” he writes, “means merely the hoisting of the Green Flag in place of the Union Jack over a society resting on a basis of competitive capitalism differing in no vital or essential particular from any other such society or from our own condition now” (64). Ryan is not an apologist for empire, of course, and argues vehemently in “Political and Intellectual Freedom” that “the first and absolutely necessary step” in the creation of a new Ireland “is the winning of self-government” (29). Throughout the pages of Dana, however, both Eglinton and Ryan insist on the importance of argument and critique within the nationalist movement, precisely so that it avoids simply replicating the political, social, and cultural structures of the imperial metropole. In one of his most striking contributions, “The Weak Point in the Celtic Movement,” Eglinton takes on the problem of sectarianism directly, contending that “countries which have done anything in literature have never, after our fashion, “agreed to differ in the matter of religion”” (321). The Parnellite coalition which attempted to frame the question of national identity outside of religious practice is thus treated as an essentially retrograde attempt to avoid some of the most pressing truths of Irish life. “However odious they may be,” he continues, “theological questions count for nearly as much in Ireland now as in the seventeenth century, and the new literary movement, if it would make itself national, must not quite ignore this fact” (325). Eglinton here is not advocating sectarianism, but is instead critiquing revivalist writers for fleeing to the mythic past in order to avoid facing one of the most contentious aspects of a modern Irish life.

In their own writing for Dana, it should be clear, the editors sought to chart a path for the journal that courted controversy on all sides. They refused to become advocates for any particular party or position and instead relied on a kind of radical critique inspired, in part, by Eglinton’s own engagement with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. In “A Way of Understanding Nietzsche,” Eglinton draws an implicit connection between Ireland’s bloody past and the German philosopher’s ability to “rise to the height of [his] powers under the stimulus of pain and privation” (183). This article helped introduce Nietzsche’s work to an Irish audience for the first time and clearly invited Dana‘s readers to think of themselves as part of a larger philosophical tradition rather than the narrow one cultivated by the revivalists. Almost every issue of the magazine, in fact, devotes significant amounts of space to both British and continental art and philosophy. Among these articles and reviews are:

  • A multi-part serialization of George Moore’s Moods and Memories, an autobiographical work focusing on his own aesthetic maturation in London and Paris;
  • T. W. Lyster’s multi-part essay on the life and works of Jane Austen;
  • Reviews in the regular “Literary Causerie” section of works by Ernest Renan, Charles Swinburne, and A.E. Housman in addition to notices of work by the poets and dramatists of the revival;
  • An article on Bushido, the Japanese code of chivalry, which is linked implicitly to Ireland’s own nationalist aspirations (326).

While by no means an exhaustive list, these pieces clearly attempt to provide a counterpoint to revivalist nationalism by linking Ireland’s art and culture to a larger, more cosmopolitan modernity.

Dana‘s attempts to turn their readers’ attention to the world beyond the “Island of Saints and Sages,” did not mean that they excluded contemporary Irish writing. Its numbers regularly feature work by poets of the Celtic Twilight such as AE, major Anglo-Irish figures such as Edward Dowden, and emergent poets including Joyce and his sometime friend Oliver St. John Gogarty. The fourth issue, for example, begins with a long poem by Jane Barlow entitled “The Wayfarers” that drips with Celtic Romanticism in its description of

A sheeny mote, sunk deep in heaven’s domed roof,
Its phantom ray athwart the mist rose-dyed
Thrill, very faint, in proof
Of world from world immeasurably aloof. (98)

This is matched by another equally mystical poem by AE and an installment of George Moore’s serialized memoirs which are most remarkable for their dreamy impulsiveness. Joyce’s “Song” is immediately preceded by a lengthy prose version of the Irish myth of King Diarmuid, whose generosity and heroism prove to be his downfall. The tenor of the entire issue is struck by “Dubliniensis” in an article entitled “On Reasonable Nationalism” describing the Celtic Twilight as a “light blossoming of song and tales in the language of the Irish nation” that provides “the sure indication of a new national unity toward which Ireland has for a long time now been tending” (104). This kind of inclusiveness, particularly in the early issues, is indicative of the perilous course Eglinton and Ryan tried to chart: inclusive of the burgeoning revivalist movement and its tremendous creative energies, yet suspicious of its narrow focus on an a distant Irish past cut off from a wider, global culture.

As was the case throughout the revival, these tensions crystallized around debates about the Irish language and its relationship to an emergent national identity. Beginning with Alfred Webb’s article on “The Gaelic League and Politics” in the fifth number, Dana began a long-running debate about the value and limits of recuperating a nearly extinct language and about its utility in sustaining a modern Irish state. Webb is explicitly critical of the League, which he calls “a not unnatural recoil from the dominance which politics had so long maintained over every other interest in Ireland.” He contends, however, that such a movement is essentially retrograde and that “it is impossible that a language movement, an art movement, or a manufacture movement can ever take the place of a political movement” (142). This essay sparks a debate about the relationship between art, language, and politics that spans much of the rest of the Dana‘s short life. Among the most significant pieces published as part of this debate are:

  • Ryan’s even more polemical articles, “Is the Gaelic League a Progressive Force?” and “On Language and Political Ideal”;
  • A response to Ryan, “In Praise of the Gaelic League” by Stephen Gwynn;
  • Eglinton’s “The Weak Point in the Celtic Movement.”

These pieces are joined as well by articles debating the value of Plunkett’s co-operative movement, such as “Ireland in the New Century” by Maurice Moore and Padraic Colum’s “Concerning a Creamery.” There is, in effect, a roiling debate in these pages that just begins to indicate some of the increasingly jarring tensions between the “two civilizations” Moran described.

Without editorial explanation, Dana ceased publication in 1905 after its twelfth issue had appeared. This final number remains as contentious as the first and focused on precisely the same issues. Lionel Vane, in “Wanted—A Democratic Spirit,” argues for a distinctly modern concept of an evolving Irish state, one that certainly looks forward to the kind of socialist ideal that will appear in the early pages of The New Age. “We require,” he writes, “more of the spirit of democracy and humanity, and less of the racial passion and racial egotism. We need to curb the rapacity of wealth, whether it wear a Celtic or Saxon garb; and we need to help the poor and down-trodden, whether they be Catholics or Orangemen, or neither” (355). Struggling to preserve the Parnellite coalition that had collapsed in 1891, Vane imagines a fully independent Ireland capable of forming a fundamentally new concept of the state—one that does not simply replicate the cultural and economic models of the British. The difficulty of such a program and its inherent contradictions in colonial Ireland, however, are spelled out in painful detail near the end of this issue by R.W. Lynd in “The Nation and the Man of Letters.” Arguing that Ireland must craft its own national literature, he nevertheless attempts to preserve a space for art and culture in a space apart from politics, concluding that “art is even more an affair of individuality than of nationality” (376). The lonely course this essay envisions would be followed by many of the writers and intellectuals who were formed in this particular crucible. Joyce, of course, would soon seek a permanent exile in Europe while Yeats’s finest poetry would be crafted from precisely this agonistic contradiction between his nationalist aspirations and his belief in art’s fundamental autonomy. First Ryan and then Eglinton too would depart an Ireland in which it seemed—to borrow Yeats’s most famous phrase—“the centre cannot hold.” In its short existence, Dana attempted to occupy this vanishing middle ground, to open a space for the development of a distinctly modern national culture that depended upon neither the bigotry of race nor the myths of a moldering past. The sparks they hoped to strike with the flints of these issues may not have lighted the fire they hoped, but scattered on the winds of exile they ignited the aesthetic energy and critical vitality that would shape one of the most prolific generations of Irish writers and thinkers.

Works Cited and Additional Recommended Reading

  • Boyd, Earnest A. Appreciations and Depreciations. Freeport: Books for Libraries, n.d.
  • Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland, 1600-1972. London: Penguin, 1988.
  • Kyberd, Declan. “From Nationalism to Liberation.”Representing Ireland: Gender, Class, and Nationality. Ed. Susan Shaw Sailer. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. 17-28.
  • —. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  • Lyons, F.S.L. Culture and Anarchy in Ireland, 1890-1939. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
  • —. Ireland Since the Famine. London: Fontana, 1985.
  • Mathews, P.J. Revival: The Abby Theatre, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League and the Co-operative Movement. Cork: Cork University Press, 2003.
  • Yeats, William Butler. Autobiographies. London: Macmillan, 1955.
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