Through most of the nineteenth century, Ireland retained some regional vestiges of mumming, a traditional folk drama that ritually reenacted significant events in the memory of the community, but it was not until the early seventeenth century that literary drama set its first roots in Irish soil with the founding of a small theater on Werburgh Street in Dublin in 1637, followed later in the century by the Smock Alley Theatre. Thereafter, the city had a continuous theatrical presence, and many provincial centers had seasonal houses. From its beginnings to the end of the nineteenth century, however, Irish drama was primarily of colonial character, only in minor ways distinct from what could be seen on the stages of London or provincial England. With the collapse of the Gaelic social and political order at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the cultural traditions of Ireland were abandoned, and no Irish institutions remained to graft that inheritance to the life of the cities and the new institution of the stage. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the only contacts with the ancient civilization available to the serious artist were relatively inaccessible relics in the folklore of the countryside and in the manuscript rooms of the museums and academies. These repositories held a rich lode of heroic, romantic, and folk legends that bore witness to a sophisticated, indigenous Celtic civilization.
It is not surprising, therefore, that although many of the most distinguished dramatists writing in English between 1700 and 1900 were born in Ireland, their works were written according to the idiom and conventions of the English stage. Neither the spirit of the times nor the conditions in Ireland were conducive to reflections on what were considered accidents of birth. Scions of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy, these writers typically attended an Irish grammar school and Trinity College, Dublin, before emigrating to London to pursue professional or theatrical careers. Many of them were Grub Street hacks, writing...
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