The crossbones of Galway, modernist vortex

By Adrian Paterson, NUI Galway

In the second of MSI’s 2021 series of writing about place in Modernism, NUI Galway’s Adrian Paterson explores modernism’s connections to Galway – a place not immediately obvious as one for modernist pilgrimage.

Time and space in the modernist period always collided and colluded, even before Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity suggested that at the macro level this contained a wider truth, and Wyndham Lewis denounced the ‘predatory time philosophy’ infecting modernist art which ought, he argued, to be pure space. Modernists tried to replace what they saw as Victorian nostalgia (naturally from Greek nostos, home-return, and now tending to mean fond memories of earlier times) with a more rigorous, future-driven look at the past.

This would have intriguing effects on conceptions of place. For Yeats in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, to reflect on ‘What is past, or passing, or to come’ seemed to require in all senses a Byzantine journey, even if its destination, impossibly, was sited long in the past and after the author’s anticipated death. In other words, even if after all the philosophy and science a real place could still be said to exist in real time, in this time-travelling era it was rarely experienced or represented this simply in imagination, memory, and art.

The uncertain destinations and indeterminate spaces of the COVID pandemic demand a new era of time travelling. Following Modernist Studies Ireland’s 2021 virtual Telling the Time: Modernism and Time Symposium, it seems worthwhile therefore reflecting on a specific place in time. At this point in the pandemic it seems almost nostalgic to imagine people arriving somewhere, but back in a distant past when travel was allowed and conferences gathered real people together at the same time in an actual place (and no-one could have conceived precisely this future), MSI’s inaugural conference on Modernist Futures gathered modernist pilgrims at the Moore Institute at NUI Galway.

And in coming to Galway you come to a modernist place. As recent scholarship attests, it is, as Ezra Pound might say, a vortex, a hub, even a shrine, which, as folk here quietly understand, is in its own way as significant as such places in time as Proust’s Paris, Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury, T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, or Yeats’s mythical Byzantium.

This not being immediately obvious, it can come as a surprise to some. The poet Louis MacNeice, arriving in 1939, found a city whose medieval foundation and sixteenth-century heyday seemed long past, suffocated by the dregs of economic and social decline:

O the crossbones of Galway
The hollow grey houses
The rubbish and sewage
The grass-grown pier,
And the dredger grumbling
All night in the harbour:
The war came down on us here.

In this stanza from ‘Galway’ the main impression is neglect. Notwithstanding the notoriously fast-flowing river Corrib, the poem as a whole fastens on the slowmoving water of the ‘weir’, canal, and harbour, to suggest a sleepy, stagnant place well outside the mainstream of Europe.

By then Galway was a place people had acquired the habit of leaving. The famine-ships of the nineteenth-century had taken many, part of a continuing mass exodus driven by callous politics and brutal economics, with little return in transatlantic trade. By the time MacNeice arrived, even the railway line to Clifden that took tourists and supposed prosperity to Connemara (its tracks passing through university grounds within a few feet of where the Moore Institute now stands) was shuttered, leaving little but a few station platforms and an abandoned railway bridge across the water.

Galway’s plight was even memorialized in James Joyce’s modernist classic Ulysses (1922). There we overhear Stephen Dedalus digesting the headmaster Mr Deasy’s bristling letter to the papers about the dangers of laissez-faire economics, footrot, and

Our cattle trade. The way of all our old industries. Liverpool ring which jockeyed the Galway harbour scheme.[1]

Despite modest improvements Galway’s harbour and canal system was long out of date, built for an earlier time. Though a staunch Ulster Unionist Deasy is the more aggrieved at this neglect: Galway (for which read Ireland) according to this account was deliberately jilted, perennially passed over, subject to an unmanaged decline.

And yet, as Galway emerged blinking into the twentieth century light, it became a talismanic place to experience that collision of old and new that was the keynote of modernism. Here the friction of modernity and tradition was ignited by contested nationalities, changing rural and urban cultures, locals and new arrivals, and the slippages and fissures of (at least) two languages. There are plenty of contradictions and anachronisms in this story, partly emblematized by the peat fuel and donkey tracks employed to assemble and manage the huge electric apparatus that sparked and received the first ever transatlantic wireless telegraph service in acres of bog just outside Clifden. Yet precisely because modernism was not modernity, such juxtapositions might be fruitful: its contested languages and technologies, from telegraph to telepathy and mythos to modern plumbing, strangely energizing.

Marconi Station, Clifden, Connemara

Institutionally the university, courthouse, and the great gaol (featuring in Augusta Gregory’s stark play Gaol Gate) dominated the city; just as industrially (and contributing to her family wealth) the Persse Distillery had done. As the distillery declined and closed, in 1908 Galway would host the Irish industrial exhibition while depending on surrounding farming and fishing communities. However, some coastal areas under the control of the Congested Districts Board were still relatively densely populated, and briefly hosted Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic aerocraft as well as telegraphs. If you were a visitor here one hundred and twenty years ago, you were potentially one of many: travel being never before so easy, with trains from Dublin and Clifden and a horse-drawn tram running down to the coastal resort of Salthill. (More details and much more can be found in John Cunningham and Ciaran MacDonogh’s Galway: Hardiman and Beyond [2021]).[2]

In fact what became loosely known as the Irish Revival was in a sense powered by the railway. It allowed the promise of an overnight train from London to rehearse your play next day in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – to spend the morning collecting folklore in Barna, say, or in the woods at Lady Gregory’s County Galway house at Coole Park, and end the evening at Hugh Lane’s modern and Irish art exhibitions in Dublin. George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, and Sean O’Casey would come to Coole for spells of splendid isolation that were highly connected, as evidenced by their frequent comings and goings, and avalanches of correspondence and telegraphs. Yeats was not the only poet to count Galway swans, but instead of tracking these writers’ migrations in their movement, more damningly MacNeice has them at rest, asleep, cut adrift:

Salmon in the Corrib
Gently swaying,
And the water combed out
Over the weir,
And a hundred swans
Dreaming on the harbour:
The war came down on us here.

And yet, as J.M. Synge recounts in The Aran Islands, letters, newspapers, and postal orders arrived in Galway frequently if circuitously from new and old worlds, sometimes via the occasional steam or packet boat nosing past the swans between Nimmo’s sturdy harbour walls, while from 1907 Marconi’s lightning-quick radio telegraph used Galway and Nova Scotia to connect London and New York. The shock when communication lines were cut at various moments during the Troubles of Easter 1916, the War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War potentially suggests a technologized hub, its interconnections deemed worth severing by various guerrilla forces.

These writers’ names should anyway be a reminder for Dublin folk that what became the Abbey, the Irish National Theatre, can be traced to Galway’s interconnections: a meeting between Gregory and Yeats by the sea in Kinvara, Co. Galway at the house of Comte de Basterot. Yeats had arrived with symbolist poet Arthur Symons and the Mayo novelist George Moore to meet Moore’s artistic cousin Edward Martyn who lived nearby at Tulira Castle. Naturally, they took a boat out to the Aran Islands, and shortly afterwards Yeats met Synge in Paris with his ‘head full of Aran’ and, according to his own account, urged him to come west. It is true Synge had family connections there – just as MacNeice had once in Omey Island – but it was then he chose to come. James Pethica’s new edition of Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings shows how much she was already mining local traditions in story and song, beginning her work on Irish in earnest and starting to frame culture in national terms.[3] But undoubtedly some of the energy came from Irish outsiders starting to realize what the west had to offer.

Thus Galway became an early if unheralded modernist vortex. Here Jack B Yeats and JM Synge might be encountered out walking about Connemara gathering material for articles in the Manchester Guardian; WB Yeats might be observed arguing over plot or salmon fishing with George Moore on the Corrib bridge, or with Gregory and Douglas Hyde (author and translator of the Love Songs of Connacht (1893]) on Taylor’s Hill, discussing their collaborative Irish-language plays.

Killineen Feis programme with doodles by Jack B. Yeats

Perhaps the best single image of this can be found in Jack B. Yeats’s doodles on a programme for the 1902 Killineen feis in honour of the Irish language poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí. Held to promote local culture and crafts as well as the language (‘Irish Singing, Dancing, Storytelling, Flute-playing &c.’ are enumerated, and a dancer depicted), it was attended by a host of writers, as his sketches attest. Present are a comfortably seated Augusta Gregory, a heron-thin WB Yeats, the behatted artist himself, and, before a crowd, the magnificently moustachioed Douglas Hyde, probably in one of his own Irish-language plays. ‘J.Q.’ was the New York lawyer, John Quinn, who had just lent WB Yeats his copy of Nietzsche, thus changing his poetry forever – and the fortunes of quite a few modernist artists. Through this connection, Quinn acquired the manuscripts of WB Yeats, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, TS Eliot, artwork from of Jack B Yeats and Wyndham Lewis, an intimate friendship with Gregory, and the questionable pleasure of looking after Yeats’ father John Butler Yeats in New York (connections traced in Pethica and Colm Toibin’s  New York exhibition about Lady Gregory).[4]

They came, as would close contemporaries Patrick Pearse, James Joyce, and many others, for a rich native tradition of story, craft, song, and many centuries of poetic tradition. At the fin-de-siecle the apparent attraction was a survival of older ways, cultures, and traditions supposedly untouched by modernity (though as Helene Lecossais’ new book suggests, Synge was increasingly aware of the contradictions, for instance, of sourcing local textiles that looked just right under electric theatre lights).[5] But precisely such collisions of old and new, whether Pound’s troubadour poets and modern French vers libre, or Eliot’s idiosyncratic juxtapositions of Dante, Wagner, and the First World War tended to be fertile ground for modernism.

Galway thus became the destination for that talismanic ‘going west’ both satirized and glorified by Joyce in his short story ‘The Dead’. Joyce himself was supposed to visit, but nearly didn’t: in Dublin to set up a cinema, in a fit of jealousy he wrote to his wife in Italy: ‘Nora I am not going to Galway and nor is Georgie’, going as far as to question his son’s parentage. Blithely, a few days later (26 August 1909) he wrote again, ‘I am writing this to you sitting at the kitchen table in your mother’s house!’ – that is from the small cottage in Bowling Green where Nora Barnacle was brought up. He went on:

I have been here all day talking with her and I see that she is my darling’s mother and I like her very much. She sang for me The Lass of Aughrim […]. I shall stay in Galway overnight. […]

How strange life is, my dear love? To think of my being here! I went around to the house in Augustine Street where you lived with your grandmother and in the morning I am going to visit it pretending I want to buy it in order to see the room you slept in. […] Who knows, darling, but next year you and I may come here. You will take me from place to place and the image of your girlhood will purify again my life.[6]

Joyce and Nora never did return together, though despite the exigencies of the Second World War Joyce took time to make sure her dying mother received a copy of his biography. Her song, as sung in the ‘old Irish tonality’, features centrally in ‘The Dead’. The real life inspiration for the story, Nora’s young sweetheart Michael Bodkin, was born in Eyre Square, and buried in Rahoon cemetery. Hence Joyce’s poem ‘She weeps over Rahoon’, commemorating a posthumous three-cornered love affair of the kind that animates Finnegans Wake, and later illustrated with ‘lettrines’ by his daughter Lucia Joyce in a ludic medieval-modern style.

The Tower by WB Yeats

But forget for a moment railways, cinema, modern warfare: instead there’s an argument such medieval survivals made modernism. Think of the fourteenth-century tower, originally built by the Burke or de Burgo family, that features in Yeats’s fittingly violent poetry of the 1920s. Ruined and restored as Thoor Ballylee, it presides over Thomas Sturge Moore’s cover of Yeats’s monumental book of poems, The Tower (1928), and remains a modernist icon, attracting thousands of visitors – although you’d better not steal apples from the garden, as did Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, shocking the poet Richard Murphy, well-remembered for his retrospective Galway poems like ‘The Cleggan Disaster’ and ‘The Last Galway Hooker’. It is sometimes forgotten that Yeats’s next book A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929), provocatively addressing the author of The Cantos (written in Italy and published in Dublin at his sister Elizabeth Corbett Yeats’s Cuala Press) directly recalls the jetsam and paraphernalia of those old steam packet or mail boats calling into Ireland’s west coast.

By then the wider county was hosting artists and writers of all kinds, some drawn by Robert Flaherty’s 1934 astonishingly manufactured documentary Man of Aran. London-born Micheál Mac Liammóir, founder of the Gate Theatre, set up in Roundstone, as did painter Gerard Dillon, while the Aran diaries of Ernie O’Malley feature the artists Charles Lamb, Elizabeth Rivers, and jazz-era novelist Ethel Mannin, whose book on Connemara attempted to revive (again) the rural getaway genre.[7]

So when the inventor of the ‘theatre of the absurd’, Antonin Artaud, arrived in Ireland in 1937 seeking the ‘sources of a very ancient tradition’ it was natural he should go to Galway. However, addled by drugs and Tarot cards, his pilgrimage was abortive: the playwright was arrested and gently repatriated. But not before he had discovered (so he announced), ‘an Advanced Calculation, of a type the current Era is too stupid to understand […] A prophecy written down 14 centuries ago, and which has been published, and which I’ve VERIFIED point by point, in  all of its F A C T S over the last months, [which] announces a horrendous future for the World’. In its millennial fervour it recalls the eccentric esotericism of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’, later spelled out in A Vision – and what could be more modernist than that?

Notwithstanding such dramatic exits and entrances a different story might be told about locally-grown culture and artists. Galway’s vortex not only sucked people in, it nurtured them and (sometimes) spat them out, harnessing not only the centripetal energy of visitors but the centrifugal energy of those that were born hereabouts, and left, often to very different lives.

One of these was Frank Harris, hailed by Shaw as both genius and a charlatan on the model of Oscar Wilde, born in Galway to a Welsh naval officer before emigrating to America and self-fashioning himself as editor of the London Saturday Review, and becoming the transgressive author of the explosive novel The Bomb and the notoriously frank My Life and Loves.

Responsible for another kind of frankness was Liam O’Flaherty, an author bilingual in both Irish and English who had the honour of writing the first book to be banned by the new censor of the Irish Free State. The House of Gold is set in a fictional town of Barra, a coastal town remarkably like Galway. Grounded in pitiless reality, the novel tells a strange folkloric fantasy that at times anticipates magic realism, with a bitterness about money and morals that recalls Conrad or O’Casey (its antihero Ramón is based on local magnate Máirtín Mór McDonagh, dominating subject of Jackie Uí Chionna’s He Was Galway[8]). It also features recognisable touches of Yeats and Joyce: this is a novel that takes place in a single day and night, featuring a much-desired woman called Nora, ‘terrible in her beauty’ and associated with the mournful cry of curlews.

Yet Yeats is by no means the only modern poet associated with Galway. Máirtín Ó Direáin, born on Inis Mór in Aran to an Irish speaking family, became one of the most prominent Irish-language poets of the century. Like Flann O’Brien, he found employment in the machinery of the new Irish Free State, working at the Post Office in Galway city (those lines of communication again) before publishing numerous books of poetry unpicking the disjunctions between modernity and tradition.[9] Highly influenced by modernist writing, Ó Direáin included in ‘Homage to John Millington Synge’ a sincere but pointed tribute to an earlier visitor: as translated by Deirdre Ní Chongaile, the last lines read ‘the words you once gathered / Will live on in an alien tongue’.[10] The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who lived in Connemara in the 1950s, might have added something about the limits of language. 

But these limits could be stretched. Inspired by Hyde’s example, the foundation on the ruins of the Augustinian Friary of the Irish language theatre An Taibhdhearc with Mac Liammóir and Ó Direáin as early central players would give the city a new impetus, creating opportunities for Galway actor, playwright, and novelist Walter Macken, the actress and writer Siobhán MacKenna and many others.

So when Louis MacNeice visited Galway in 1939, whether he knew it or not he found more than a sleepy backwater. In fact, his poem was as much a political comment on how unprepared Ireland (and Britain) was for the coming war, something his Autumn Journal (1938) had bitterly predicted.

The night was gay
With the moon’s music,
But Mars was angry
On the hills of Clare,
And September dawned
On willows and ruins:
The war came down on us here.

His repeated refrain ‘The war came down on us here’ thus also half-hints at Galway as garrison town, its encircled feeling stemming from the city’s original Norman occupation. In a way its ‘ruins’ and history of violence made it an oddly appropriate place for this dramatic intrusion of European history, as looking south to Clare the red planet Mars, God of War, hovers over Galway Bay. And while MacNeice returned to London to work for the BBC, as the rest of the poems in the Closing Album confirm, he had come to Galway from Sligo on the track of Yeats, on whom he was writing a book, one of the first and best critical studies of the poet. All these poems were printed in The Last Ditch by what remained of Elizabeth Corbett Yeats’s Cuala Press, intimating some kind of handcraft co-existence amidst the crashing intrusions of modernity.

As with the railway bridge stumps standing in the Corrib river now proposed as pillars for a bicycle track, and a quixotic small-scale revival of the Connemara steam railway in Maam Cross, such collisions, anachronisms, and replayings of new and old abound in Galway, blurring the borders between modernity and tradition, nostalgia and revival. It is ‘traditional’ around these parts to meet at what is locally known as the Big Yellow Thing, that unmissable clanking metal sculpture a few steps from the door of the Moore Institute. Called ‘Galway Yellow’, it is a stark declaration of late modernity. But, according to the artist Brian King, it is also a ‘derivation of the Celtic Knot’. As the modernists figured, making it new always seems to require the old. That periodic urge Chaucer described when ‘longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’ will come again: as Joyce wrote hopefully, ‘Who knows […] but next year you and I may come here’. When in real life visitors return to the west of Ireland, they might just find themselves, in Galway as much as in Harlem or Bloomsbury or Montparnasse, on the track of an intricately local, global modernism.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adrian Paterson is Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has published widely on eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century literature from pianos to poems, with a particular interest in the artistic interactions of modernism and Irish literature. Co-editor (with Tom Walker and Charles Armstrong) of the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to W.B. Yeats and the Arts, and with Christine Reynier two special editions of the E-rea journal on Modernist Non-Fiction, he is director of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society and currently President of Modernist Studies Ireland.


[1] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), Jeri Johnson (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 2008), 33.

[2] John Cunningham and Ciaran McDonough (eds), Galway: Hardiman & Beyond: Arts & Culture in Galway 1820-2020 (Arden, 2021).

[3] James Pethica (ed.) Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings (1883-1893) (Colin Smythe, 2018).

[4] ‘All This Mine Alone’, curated by James Pethica and Colm Toibin, New York Public Library and online

[5] Hélène Lecossais, Performance, Modernity, and the Plays of J.M.Synge (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[6] James Joyce, Letters of James Joyce, ed. Richard Ellmann, (Faber, 1966), II, 240.

[7] for more on The Gate’s Galway connections, see David Clare, Des Lally, Patrick Lonergan (eds.) The Gate Theatre, Dublin: Inspiration and Craft (Carysfort Press, 2018).

[8] Jackie Uí Chionna, He Was Galway (Four Courts Press, 2016).

[9] For more see Síobhra Aiken (ed.) An Chuid Eile Díom Féin: Aistí le Máirtín Ó Direáin (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2018) and exhibitions curated by Síobhra Aiken at NUI Galway and University of Limerick.

[10] Deirdre Ní Chongaile, ‘Urraim agus uafás ionchollaithe: Ómós do John Millington Synge le Máirtín Ó Direáin’ EAGRÁN 5, (2019) Ní Chongaile’s new book, Collecting Song in the Aran Islands (University of Wisconsin Press, 2021) considers wider poetic and musical collisions in Aran.