The Celt and the Oriental: The narratives of Irish Orientalism

Date of Completion

January 2000


Literature, English




During Ireland's Celtic Revival (roughly 1890–1916) cultural nationalists accentuated Ireland's Celtic history and mythology, positing an “authentic” Irish identity that predated English colonial influence. Many of the “revived” representations, however, were not from an ancient Celtic tradition in Ireland; indeed many had come from constructions of the Orient. Irish writers and cultural nationalists such as W. B. Yeats, James Stephens, and James Cousins, borrowed extensively from West Asian and Asian cultures—or European approximations of them—to augment their neo-Celtic narratives. In order to understand the works of these Celtic Orientalists, this study traces Irish representations of the Orient from the eighteenth century to the first half of the twentieth, particularly examining the development of a narrative and semiotic connection between the Celt and the Oriental. Many Irish Orientalist representations offered allegorical commentary on Irish affairs, having what Thomas Moore called a “doubleness of application.” Moreover, because representing the Orient often meant representing Empire, Irish strategies and narratives often exhibit both imperial and anti-colonial impulses, and often at the same time. This doubleness has not been recognized critics and literary scholars, who rarely recognize Irish Orientalism as a distinct force in Irish culture and literature. ^ This dissertation is interdisciplinary in its execution, borrowing sources and ideas from several schools and disciplines, namely: Irish and English literary studies, Irish history, postcolonial theory, cultural studies, and Orientalism. Many of the primary texts and writers included in this study have prominent places in the Irish literary canon, but a larger percentage are relatively unknown. Attempting to understand Irish Orientalism broadly, I have examined texts across a variety of genres: poetry, novels, romances., dramas, essays, histories, biographies, letters, false memoirs, pseudotranslations, sectarian pamphlets, political tracts, cultural criticism, academic studies, popular stories, newspaper articles, book reviews, pseudo-Oriental letters, and speeches to parliament. In short, I have examined Irish texts that offered a significant representation of either the Orient or of a specific Asian or West Asian culture, attempting to provide the context for understanding the doubleness of Irish Orientalism, particularly those representations by canonical Irish writers, from Thomas Moore to W. B. Yeats. ^