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How do Irish adaptations of the Trojan War saga differ from those elsewhere in Europe?

The story can easily be cast in stark anti-colonialist terms, as in Sartre’s influential Les Troyennes (1965), but Irish adaptations, dating back to Europe’s first vernacular retelling, tend to emphasize more varied aspects of political identity.

The Trojan War has served as a powerful motif for exploring the politics of identity at different periods in Irish history. The Togail Troí ‘Destruction of Troy’, originating in the 11th century as Europe’s first vernacular adaptation of the Trojan War story, was unusual for its negative presentation of the Trojans from whom the Irish did not claim descent, unlike other European nations. More recent appropriations by Irish figures have stressed different aspects of identity as revolutionary, reconciliatory or disenfranchised.

Selected examples

  • In his 1916 poem ‘No second Troy’, W. B. Yeats cast the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne as a new Helen, but Gonne implicitly rejected that characterization by taking the role of Hecuba, devastated matriarch of Troy, in a 1920 production of Euripides’ Trojan Women. Poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi would later take issue with Yeats’ characterization of Helen as a Greek equivalent to the Irish Deirdre. In her 1987 poem ‘AthDeirdre’, which she translates as ‘No Second Deirdre’, Helen’s vanity is cast against Deirdre’s genuine grief.
  • Advocates of reconciliation across different Irish identities, expressed through adaptations of events from the Trojan War, include Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, both of whom evoke moments from the Trojan War to reflect on political violence in Northern Ireland in The Cure at Troy (1991) and ‘Ceasefire’ (1994), respectively.
  • The disenfranchisement of women surfaces as a major concern in Brendan Kennelly’s Trojan Women (1993) and in Marina Carr’s Hecuba (2015). Kennelly’s play highlights the damage that women can do by undermining each other, thus preventing a forward movement to gender equality, while Carr’s work underlines the vulnerability of women in times of war and in a global context.