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How are classical models linked with Irish land wars? 

Perhaps unexpectedly for a nation that identifies more commonly with Greece, the Roman poet Virgil emerges as the most important classical author for addressing Irish land politics, underlining the significance of agrarian land within national consciousness.

Ireland’s long history of land wars has remained conspicuous, in a sense, because of the partition of the island and renewed tensions around the Northern Irish border. Looking back to the 17th and 18th centuries, the theme of dispossession could be addressed through classical tropes. In the poem of Aogán Ó Rathaille (1690?-1728/9) to his patron Vailintín Brún, for instance, Pan (god of wild nature) stares into the uplands where Mars (god of war) has vanished and left the Irish to die. A landmark in 20th century poetry, on the other hand, is Patrick Kavanagh’s 1951 ‘Epic’ which connects local disputes over farmland to the fully-fledged warfare of Homer’s Iliad, while the examples below illustrate the importance of Virgil to this discourse.

Selected examples

  • Irish language scholar and cleric Patrick Dinneen (1860-1934) wrote extensively on Virgil in the years after Irish independence, producing an edition of Aeneid I along with some sixteen essays on the poet’s work. Dineen, whose parents had been evicted from their land, underlines Virgil’s own dispossession of his lands and (on one theory) his Celtic origins, identifying strongly with Virgil as a literary scholar who placed his learning at the service of his nation.
  • Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) frequently alluded to classical literature in his poetry, but Virgil is the most recurrent classical author in Heaney’s work. He looked to Virgil’s Eclogues in reflecting on displacement and the brutality of land confiscations, as well as the potential of land to generate renewal, in poems such as ‘Bann Valley Eclogue’, ‘Virgil: Eclogue IX’, and ‘Glanmore Eclogue’ from his 2001 collection Electric Light.
  • For poet and farmer Peter Fallon (1951- ), whose translation of Virgil’s Georgics has been adopted by Oxford World’s Classics, the hard work and peace to be found in farming during a period of civil war, advocated in Virgil’s Georgics, echoed strongly with the Irish experience and offered a way to move forward through the aftermath of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’.