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From Rebel to Revolutionary: The Evolution of the Irish Outlaw and the Reluctant Irish Revival Author

About the Author: Matt Hoyt
Matt Hoyt is a junior English and Government double major at Georgetown University. Matt's critical interests include Oscar Wilde, dystopia, and the colonial novel.
By Matt Hoyt | General Essays

“The lyricism of marginality may find inspiration in the image of the 'outlaw,' the great social nomad, who prowls on the confines of a docile, frightened order.” – Michel Foucault

A pirate, roaming the open seas, plundering the weary English vessel, and murdering any resistant occupants, became the symbolic hero of the Irish Revival. As she traversed the fringe world between peasantry and nobility, Grace O’Malley (or Gráinne Ní Mháille) was the recalcitrant leader of the sixteenth-century Irish outlaw culture. Almost three hundred years later, lore of her exploits still permeated popular culture, surviving through centuries of oral myth and legend. At the turn of the twentieth century, the peripheral world of unknowns, faded between the antinomies of natural and social order, remained the terrain of Irish outlaws. This Irish world, filled with writers trying to envision Celtic heritage as a source of pride, was fulfilled by the outlaw.

Irish poets and dramatists alike absorbed the folklore of these fugitive heroes, embracing their role as cultural and social legislators for the invigorated Irish Revival movement. While Ireland struggled to regain its identity and physical freedom from England, these authors identified the outlaw as the Irish superlative. The outlaw, as the embodiment of imagination and freedom, inspired artists like W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, and Lady Gregory to envision a collective future for an independent Ireland. The turn of the twentieth century, however, also brought about the brutality of revolution, characterized by the passion and impetuousness of the Irish nationalist cause. Over time, Ireland’s initial hesitance to criminal violence budded into distaste and then literary rejection, illustrated by Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, and the later work of Yeats. The evolution of Ireland’s literal occupation and literary preoccupation with the Irish outlaw reveals the changing contemplation of morality and justice, as well as revisions to the concept of an Irish ideal.

The literary Irish “outlaw,” who lived “without regard for the law,” often as “an exile” or “fugitive” (“Outlaw,” Oxford English Dictionary), naturally occupied the ‘Wild West’ – the lands of West Ireland. The vast expanses of Connacht and West-Munster, often sparsely inhabited and loosely ruled, offered terrain for their free reign. In these outskirts of Ireland, outlaws represented the romantic heroes of defiance. Even before the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century drive for independence, outlaws straddled the threshold of English rule and Irish freedom. The outlaw, often embodied by ancient Celtic lore, represented the purity of natural autonomy.

For revival authors like W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, their understanding of the Irish outlaw stemmed from their occupation with West Ireland. The poorly-educated Irish peasantry who occupied these depopulated lands symbolized the limits of English influence and the purity of Irish heritage. As Yeats and Lady Gregory broke away from garrison ways of exploring Irish culture, they physically immersed themselves in this pure landscape. In West Ireland, Yeats and Gregory experienced Irish folklore, myth, and legend firsthand. 

As a peasant myth and a prototype of independence in the Irish oral tradition, Fergus represented one instance of alternative order. Fergus, an Irish King who relinquished his rule for an unabridged nature, attained the purity of restless freedom and sovereignty in Yeats’s poem, “Who Goes with Fergus?” In place of law and kingship, Fergus found new freedom in the spirit of the ‘outside’ realm. This defiance of expectations and rebellion from order marks Yeats’s earliest conception of the Irish outlaw ideal. The poem starts with the trochee “Who will” (1), immediately notifying the reader of its intention as a call to action. The advancing work, which follows a consistent meter and rhythm, hammers out the fundamental message of rebellion.

The precision of the poem, formed through rapidly advancing three line segments, reflects the same constant motion as the “brazen cars” (9). As a motion to the sun, these cars bring about the mythological outside realm over which Fergus rules. In the transitory and unordered realm of “shadows,” “sea,” and “stars” (10-12), Fergus oversees a celestial universe beyond the confines of mortal problems. This romantic liberation follows the subject’s ability to “pierce” the threshold between order and freedom, and then “dance” (2-3), or celebrate, the relinquishment of order. The nature and simplicity of “Who Goes with Fergus?” implicitly forms a cultural message extolling Irish folklore of the independent outlaw.

The characteristic desire to separate self from order, identified in the lore of Fergus, also occupies the legend of Cuchulain. Both Yeats and Gregory composed variations of Cuchulain outlaw lore, including Gregory’s “The Only Son of Aoife” and Yeats’s “On Baile’s Strand.” While Gregory composed her short story in the representative kiltartenese of the Irish peasant, Yeats opted for a more standard one-act play. Though simple in nature, Yeats’s work delves into the Cuchulain’s character with an eye for the complexities of Irish liberty.

When Cuchulain, the Irish warrior outlaw, and Conchubar, Ireland’s presiding king, first enter the story, their initial interaction reveals the roles they occupy in society. Cuchulain begins speaking with the explicatory statement, “Because I have killed men without your bidding and have rewarded others at my own pleasure” (“On Baile’s Strand” 167), illustrating his placement beyond the realm of Conchubar’s law. Conchubar, on the other hand, provides order through the occupation of “a strong and settled country” (“On Baile’s Strand” 182). The difference between Cuchulain, who challenges authority, and Conchubar, who emphasizes government and hierarchy, diverges even further immediately before Cuchulain swears allegiance. Conchubar argues that inactivity “might bring ruin on this land” (297), representing the rhetoric of political provocation. Cuchulain’s response, in contrast, relays the symbolic antimonies of politics – “oil and water, candles and dark night, hillside and hollow” (301-302). Instead of participating on one side, Cuchulain claims “a brief forgiveness between opposites” (304), marking him as an outlaw in the transitory sphere between order and disorder.

The figurative segments, conjoined by brief comma clauses, of Cuchulain’s subsequent speech endow a natural flow. Conchubar’s dialogue, on the other hand, follows the repetitive, literal beat of ‘and’ compounds, used eleven times in just one statement. The symbolically free ‘hawk’ and ‘harp-players’ illustrate the final thrust of nature in Cuchulain’s last resistance. The failure of his defiance, following the King’s short, emphatic statements extracting change, marks the debilitating effect of politics on the outlaw. The crisis of action, as influenced by Conchubar’s forceful politicking, pushes Cuchulain to confront and kill his son.

These popular conceptions of Conchubar and Fergus, recorded by Yeats and Gregory, represent the Celtic heritage of outlaw lore. At the same time, however, Yeats and Gregory also recognized the presence of a modern outlaw. Both Yeats and Gregory composed accounts of the “Cathleen ni Houlihan” myth and, likewise, Lady Gregory’s “The Rising of the Moon” conceived the outlaw’s ideal function in Ireland. In this later play’s seaport setting – a crossroads between town and water – the outlaw character, disguised as a ragged man, evades the police.

The search for the dangerous subject – the disguised outlaw in the play – introduces a notable distinction between perception and action. Instead of planning to harm the police, as expected by the police themselves, the disguised outlaw “thought to [escape] with my tongue” (Gregory 9). The power of the outlaw as a poetic figure, instead of a violent one, becomes clear through the play’s emphasis on language and identity. Whereas the Ragged Man identified the names of independent outlaws, including “Granuaile,” “Shan Von Vocht,” and the “Green on the Cape” (Gregory 7), each “Policeman” character draws from a similar collected identity. The difference between these anonymous functionaries of the system and the outlaw – a ballad singer – begins to blur when the outlaw forces the Sergeant to summon the intimacy of family. The noticeable change occurs through the syntactical expansion of the Sergeant’s lines, shifting from short responses into musing statements.

The looming question of how one should go about the Irish revolution, at hand when Gregory composed this piece, stems from the distinction of cultural and criminal rebellion. By wearing a mask, the outlaw separates himself from the reality of criminal laws. In contrast to perceived criminality, the powerful poetics of the outlaw’s identity allow him to dramatically unmask and identify himself, stating “you needn’t ask who I am” (Gregory 9). In this fashion, Gregory makes the performer more acceptable than the activist outlaw.

In the same context, Yeats also offers a poetic manifesto for the Irish Revival and its outlaw. In the poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times,” the first stanza alludes to the wide scope of Ireland’s outlaw lore. From the “brother” (2) and brethren of Ireland, Yeats points back to the West-Irish lore. He directs attention towards those who “sang” – a free expression of language – regarding “Ireland’s wrong” (3). These figures, including “Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,” (18), all lead the early nineteenth century response against English occupation and toward its Celtic heritage. Through “ballad and story, ran and song” (14), the narrator idealizes the company of men moving against the confines of English occupation.

The elusive “red-rose-bordered hem” (6, 30, 48) – the spiritual unity of Ireland’s folk tradition – measures man’s aspiration against his contemptuous backdrop. In the exterior world of the rose, figures like the Irish outlaw make up the “angelic clan” (8). The poem, as a whole, illustrates the capability of Ireland to access purer spirits as it rebels against England. The marshaled beat of the eight syllable lines, paced as a fighting beat, generates the atmosphere of overcoming. The spiritual beauty of tradition, through the poem, becomes the noble idea, and the outlaw finds a means of bypassing sectarian Irish conflict.

While Yeats and Gregory offered the initial vision of the free Irish ideal, J.M. Synge followed suit with his dramatic theater. As a historical figure, Synge resisted his evangelical family. His occupation with the imaginative reality of Ireland, coupled with an ongoing theme of rebelliousness, naturally led him to the Irish outlaw. For his three-part play, “Playboy of the Western World,” Synge placed the main character Christy, an outlaw, in the remote Erris Peninsula. In the untamed landscape around him, Christy achieves singularity and self-awareness through his interactions with the peasants. 

Christy’s emergence blossoms most fully in the final crescendo of action, found in Act Three of the play. Even as Christy “is pulled down on the floor” under restraint, his “voice rising and growing stronger” (Synge 107-108) erupts in a final expression of outlaw sovereignty. In contrast to the nonverbal outsider introduced in Act One, Christy grows into the ostentatious power of the idealized outlaw. It’s at this point that Christy overcomes the limitations of the peasant’s “shaky and uncertain” (Synge 108) status, and accepts his status as a subject of folklore. He exalts the virtue of “rhyming songs and ballads on the terror of my fate” (Synge 109), alluding to the rich custom of outlaw lore.

The violence of his threats, instead of insinuating criminal rebellion, reflects the poetic becoming of his character. His excessive and spontaneous temperament, like that of the aforementioned outlaws, coincides with the intensity of dramatic language. As Christy imagines “ladies in their silks and satins sniveling in their lacy kerchiefs” (Synge 109), he breaks free from the syntactical moulds of austere, peasant-employed language. The expressiveness of Synge’s hyperbolenglish – an expressive form of exaggerated English – manifests the supreme world beyond peasant conventions. The power of language takes physical form when Christy’s mouth literally harms his capturers; he “bites Shawn’s leg” (Synge 109). Free from the bondage of peasantry, Christy articulates freedom, commanding the role of “gallant captain” over the peasant, “heathen slave” (Synge 110). Once he’s a “master of all fights” (Synge 110), Christy returns to the outlaw life of ‘romancing.’

Synge constructs, in this liberation of Christy, the independence of a physical, embodied outlaw spirit. Christy’s emergence from the barriers of both peasant and noble order places him in the singular void between worlds. When popular audiences harshly reviewed Synge’s work, Yeats – a producer and sponsor – lashed back in his critique, “On Taking ‘The Playboy’ to London.” In his commentary, Yeats intrinsically values Synge’s outlaw. Yeats, who saw the “Playboy” as a “powerful and strange work,” criticized “members of parties and societies whose main interest are political” (113). As “ancient custom” (Yeats) allows, Christy represents the “new truth” (114) of loose order, in which the nature of freedom overwhelms contradictory revolutionary politics. Though written in simple prose, criticism of the oppressive, political outlaw stands disparate from the outlaw’s suffused moral life.

Yeats’ initial criticisms and reactions against the revolutionary order took further prescience in his following works. Instead of illustrating the outlaw, however, Yeats grew concerned with the revolutionary figure who failed to attain outlaw status. In contrast to the freedom of the natural outlaw, the revolutionary fighter assumed a criminal role in the politics of legal order. One of Yeats’s first instances of doubt and disillusionment occurred in the poem, “On a Political Prisoner.” In place of outlaw status, the political prisoner, Countess Markievicz, allows the law to engulf her. The poem, alluding to this figure, begins with the cell in which the modern rebel resides. While the faded “grey gull” of nature still descends to reach the confined prisoner, the sensuality of the “fingers’ touch” become an “endured” (3-5) experience. 

The second stanza follows suit with an additional critique of the prisoner’s sacrifice, contrasting her past beauty with the present “bitter… abstract thing” (9). From Yeats’s perspective, “popular enmity” (10) – a collective climate – remove her from her idealized role in “youth’s lonely wildness” (16). Parallel to the first two stanzas, Yeats illustrates the beauty of freedom in West-Ireland as located by a reference to the County Sligo rock formation “Ben Bulben” (14). The final image of the sovereign figure overlooking the collected ocean serves as a dramatic difference between the free reign of youth and the ensnared political participant. The physical, realistic language of the prisoner is in contrast to the free diction and imagery of nature.

Yeats’ initial doubts and concerns with the popular embodiment of the outlaw continued to grow as the Irish Revival shifted into the Irish Revolution. The tense, hostile years of World War I led to the violence of the 1916 Easter Rising, followed by the Anglo-Irish War from 1919 to 1921. Throughout these conflicts, the grotesque nature of war staggered and then soiled the Revivalist conception of rebel. Instead of the idealized outlaw, authors like Yeats and Sean O’Casey noted the bastardized rebel soldier. As the impetus of revolutionary thinking invoked new concepts of political order and rule, the lore of an outlaw’s heroic resistance fell on deaf ears. Instead, political society conceived resistance as a blind commitment to a cause espousing sacrifice.

O’Casey, born into a poor family, captured his vivid experiences of poor outlaws in his plays, “Juno and the Paycock” and “The Shadow of the Gunman.” In the latter play, O’Casey’s work served as a vessel conveying the overstated and unaccountable revolutionary period citizen. Set in the midst of the Anglo-Irish War in 1920, O’Casey exposedthebreakdown between presentation and participation. Much like Lady Gregory’s “The Rising of Moon,” “The Shadow of a Gunman” explores the difference between perception and action. In O’Casey’s work, however, the failure to fulfill the expectation of action represents incompleteness and false pretense. The two primary characters, Seumas Shield and Donal Davoren, epitomize the imperfect participants of the revolution. When the tenants, Mr. Gallogher and Mrs. Henderson, perceive Davoren to be a Republican gunman, Davoren’s vanity and self-interest influence his decision to assume the façade of an outlaw.

The lack of substance to Davoren’s false identity, however, emerges at the point of unmasking. Unlike Gregory’s ragged man – who willingly and poetically expresses his character – Davoren and Shield stumble over their respective identities. When Davoren and Seumas first hear knocking, they jump in agitated fear, stating “my God!” and “we’re goin’ to have a terrible time” (O’Casey 122). Once an Auxiliary officer enters the house and confronts both men, they each respond to the Auxiliary’s questions with false names: “Davoren, Dan Davoren, sir” and “Seuma…Oh no; Jimmie Shields, sir” (O’Casey 123). Opposite of Lady Gregory’s outlaw, Davoren’s and Shield’s pretense of Irish rebellion falls apart at the point of confrontation. Their responses to the Auxiliary’s questions are syntactically abbreviated and stunted, illustrating fear and subservience. When Seumas states, “I never had a gun in me hand in me life” (O’Casey 123), it’s an expression of a shaking cowardice.

Revelation of these characters’ true nature contradicts the heroic outlaw ideal they pretend to fulfill. For Davoren in particular, his falsified romantic image collapses once the Auxiliary enters his home. Instead of poetic musing about revolution, Davoren falls silent in the face of danger. Though O’Casey embeds Davoren with the poetic language necessary to take subjective authority, he lacks the objective power to fill the role. The superficial outlaw figure, as conceived by O’Casey, exists firmly in the submissive realm of law and political order. As result, O’Casey’s digressive outlaw is in contrast to Yeats’s and Gregory’s poet brigand.

The aggrandized outlaw, who exists as a poetic illusion rather than a poetic figure, coincides with the revolutionary fighter who fails to attain active force. In the midst of the Anglo-Irish War, Yeats composed the poem, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” in response to the same violence and passion of a changing society. As a poem of transition, “The Shadow of a Gunman” marks the end of “ingenious lovely things,” replaced by the impending “multitude” (1-2) of collected society. The changing attitudes towards law, shifts in public opinion, and evolution of the dissident fighter all find substance in the first section.

The content the first stanza, in which Yeats constructs the artifice of ancient, collapses into the longing of the past tense “there stood” (4). In the transition toward revolution, society sacrifices the lore of its uniqueness, as signified by the symbolic, spiritual riches of the ancient world. In the second stanza, Yeats brings about his concern with the political climate, recording the influence of “a law indifferent” (10) to its heritage. The influx of public opinion, once thought to be a subject of “future days,” assumes the immediacy of “worst rogues and rascals” (14-16). Instead of idealizing the language of outlaws, they’ve become the idols of malevolence. Rather than constructing a new ideal in its place, the “great army but a showy thing” (18) occupies Yeats’s thoughts. The culmination of the revolutionaries’ efforts – to “bring the world under a rule” (31) – retains a familiar aura of political order.

The poem, as a whole, illustrates Yeats attempt to salvage ideals from changing circumstances. Nevertheless, the “dragon-ridden” (25) society of the first section illustrates an impulsive and violent collected order. This flaw of ordered society provides the foundation for James Joyce, the last author of the early twentieth-century revival. In place of the uninhabited expanse of the outlaw, the overpopulated limits of the city-dweller engaged Joyce. The shift from West-Ireland to Dublin coincided with a move away from the poetic outlaw of the early revival authors.

Though using a distinct scope, Joyce reflects remnants of the outlaw in his “Two Gallants” account of the vagabond characters, Corley and Lenehan. Rather than active, independent outlaws, these figures become creatures of the city’s confines. Their passivity occurs most poignantly during Lenehan’s experience in the Refreshment Bar. Even as he enters the restaurant, it’s the “dark quiet street” (Joyce 252) that passively delivers him. Once inside, the passivity of Lenehan’s nature forces him to fake even the most simple expressions, including a feigned attempt to “appear natural” (Joyce 271). In the subsequent lines, Lenehan passively imagines “Corley’s adventure” (Joyce 279) while failing to act on his own desires. Lenehan’s “vision” (Joyce 282) – a source of perspective but not action – correlates with the impossibility of individual self.

Corley, in the same vein as Lenehan, passively survives through others, including a young woman he manipulates at the end. Much like the city structure, Joyce’s deadpan form facilitates human interaction within limits – confining them to impersonal and indistinguishable actions. The colorless landscape, lacking the suffused nature of early Irish Revival settings, places these tramps in a bitter world of grey. The debased consciousness of the modern outlaw occurs in a system restrained from the independence of preceding rebel forms.

For the early revival authors, outlaws embodied the purity of Irish folklore, kinship, and independent resistance to political authority. In the subsequent years, however, changes to the political sovereignty of the rebel figure pitted the popular demand for revolution against the purity of the outlaw. As political figures galvanized Ireland’s action against England, the revival authors soured against the tarnished outlaw image. Instead of celebrating the virtues of Irish custom, the outlaws portrayed by O’Casey, Joyce, and Yeats violently act on collective sentiment. While the folklore of the Irish outlaw struck a harped chord, the war cries of revolution drowned out the envisioned ideals of Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Synge.

Works Cited

Gregory, Lady. "The Rising of the Moon." Bucknell University. Web. 1 Apr. 2011. <>.

Joyce, James. "Two Gallants." Dubliners. Ed. Margot Norris. New York: Norton, 2006. 38-49. Print.

O'Casey, Sean. "The Shadow of a Gunman." Three Plays. New York: St Martin's, 1968. 75-131. Print.

“Outlaw.” Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed. 1 Apr. 2011.


Synge, J. M. The Playboy of the Western World. Boston: John W. Luce and, 1911. Google Books. Web. 1 Apr. 2011.

Yeats, W. B. “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” The Poems. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan, 1989. 206-210. Print.

----------“On a Political Prisoner.” The Poems. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan, 1989. 183-184. Print.

----------“On Baile’s Strand." The Plays. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. Ed. David R. Clark and Rosalind E. Clark. 1st ed. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1989. 151-174. Print.

----------"On Taking the ‘Playboy’ to London." The Irish Dramatic Movement. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran and Mary Fitzgerald. 1st Vol. 8. New York: Macmillan, 1989. 113-114. Print.

----------“To Ireland in Coming Times.” The Poems. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan, 1989. 50-5. Print.

----------"Who Goes With Fergus?" The Poems. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan, 1989. 43. Print.