The memoir Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt, an American writer of Irish descent, described—with irony, but little bitterness—a childhood of extreme poverty in Limerick in the 1930s. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for autobiography. Seamus Deane’s autobiographical novel, Reading in the Dark (1996), told of a boyhood in a working-class Catholic family in Derry, Northern Ireland, in the 1940s. Emma Donoghue, an Irish-born writer living in England, chronicled a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality in Stir-Fry (1994). As the many members of the current generation who live and work outside Ireland demonstrate, the contemporary Irish writer is defined by a voice and by a habit of mind, not by geography
Irish Literature, the oral and written literature of the people of Ireland, an island that today comprises the independent Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is politically part of the United Kingdom. In recent years the definition of Irish literature has been broadened to encompass literature produced by Irish writers living outside Ireland and writers of Irish descent whose work reflects the Irish or Irish emigrant experience.
Irish literature is composed in the Irish and the English languages. Irish, also known as Gaelic, is the traditional tongue of Ireland. The oldest Irish literature consists of stories and poems about ancient kings and heroes, which were transmitted orally in Irish. Written literature in Ireland begins after Christian missionaries arrived in the 5th century ad and introduced the Roman alphabet, which was then adapted to the Irish language. Christianity coexisted with traditional Irish ways, rather than supplanting them, and has continued to do so to the present day. Both traditions figure strongly in Irish literature.
The second major influence on Irish literature, after Christianity, was colonization from England, which began in the 12th century. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the English had consolidated their power in Ireland, and Anglo-Irish writers—Irish-born writers of English descent—dominated Ireland’s literary culture. English was the language of the rulers; literature in Irish survived largely in oral tradition. Anglo-Irish literary movements of the 19th century sought to revive Gaelic culture and the Irish language. These movements linked literature with the cause of Irish political and cultural independence from Britain. The revival gained strength when Irish became an official language in 1922. At that time the island was divided politically into the Irish Free State, which became Ireland in 1949, and Northern Ireland. Today writers in Irish and English continue to find themes in the Irish landscape and in Irish history.
Irish literature reflects the bravado of Celtic heroes as well as the suffering and hardships the Irish people have experienced over the course of their history. Despite these hardships, wit and humor—often in the form of satire or irony—have characterized much of Irish literature. Another defining feature has been an exploration of the riches of language and an enjoyment of wordplay. A love of language is evident in Irish literature, from the early sagas to the 20th-century experiments of James Joyce.
Early Irish Literature: Before 1200
Irish is a Celtic language, brought to Ireland from the European mainland by Celtic peoples who arrived in the late 6th century bc. The Celts lived in some 150 small agricultural communities called tuatha, each with its own king. Cattle were the measure of a tuatha’s wealth. In this society, poets called filidh had responsibility for preserving and transmitting the tuatha’s heritage, its history, and the genealogy of its rulers. Filidh underwent long training, during which they mastered the complicated meters of Celtic verse, composed poems in praise of kings, and memorized long genealogies, histories, and other lore. Filidh had great status in their tuatha and they exerted their power, often in the form of satire, to keep members of the tuatha in line. The people feared their satire, which shamed or humiliated its target. A poet’s harsh words were said to be so powerful they could drive rats away.
Our knowledge of these ancient narratives comes from fragments written down long after their composition. Modern scholars have organized this early literature into four groups of stories called cycles, which are related by theme. These cycles are the Mythological, the Ulster, the Fenian, and the Historical (or Kings). The Ulster and Fenian cycles narrate the deeds of ancient heroes, and the Historical Cycle tells the lives of kings. Like important early works in other literary traditions—for example, the Iliad and Odyssey of ancient Greece and the Nibelungenlied of medieval Germany—the major early Irish narratives are the foundation upon which later Irish literature is built. They are narratives of a national identity, expressing history, values, and culture.
The Mythological Cycle tells of the beginnings of the Irish people and their culture. Many of the stories concern the Tuatha Dé Danaan, a people believed to descend from the Irish mother-goddess, Danu (also spelled Dana). The Tuatha Dé Danaan constitute a pre-Celtic pantheon, comparable to the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The Ulster Cycle
The Ulster Cycle consists of some 100 tales about the heroes of the kingdom of Ulster, which occupied the northern half of the island, from the 2nd century bc to the 4th century ad. Its central narrative is the Táin Bo Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley, translated into English as The Táin, 1969). The Ulster Cycle is sometimes called the Red Branch Cycle after the warriors who form a key part of its tales.
The Táin relates stories about the time of King Conchobar mac Nessa, his Red Branch warriors, and especially Conchobar’s heroic warrior Cú Chulainn. The action centers on Conchobar’s fort Emain Macha, a hill near the present city of Armagh. The Táin begins with Medhbh (Maeve), a Connacht queen, reckoning her own wealth against the wealth of her husband, Ailill. In order to best Ailill, Maeve needs the famous Brown Bull of Cooley, which is owned by an Ulsterman. Determined to have the bull, Maeve leads her army against Ulster to get her prize. A series of one-on-one duels follows between Cú Chulainn and various Connacht champions, including Cú Chulainn’s beloved foster brother Fer Diad. Cú Chulainn single-handedly defeats Maeve’s army. The Ulstermen ultimately recover from their loss to defeat the Connachtmen, who retreat in disarray across Ireland. Later, Cú Chulainn is forced into a battle that violates his own taboos. Mortally wounded, he dies standing, lashed to a pillar.
Within the Ulster Cycle is a collection of stories thought to be preliminary or introductory stories to the Táin. The most significant of these is the story of Deirdre from “Longes mac nUisnigh” (The Exile of the Children of Usnach). The young Deirdre is betrothed to the elderly king Conchobar but falls in love with one of Conchobar’s knights, Naoise (also spelled Noíse). Naoise must then choose between his love of Deirdre and his loyalty to Conchobar. This theme is one of Celtic literature’s most significant contributions to the literature of western Europe. Other Celtic renditions of this story include the Welsh story of King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.
The Fenian Cycle
The Fenian Cycle takes its name from the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (also spelled Finn MacCool) and his band of warriors, the Fianna. The stories of the Fenian Cycle are set in southern Ireland and belong to the traditions of the Leinster and Munster provinces. The narratives depict Fionn and his band as living outside of society and roaming the border between the real and supernatural worlds. The best-known tale of the Fenian Cycle is “Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne” (The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne), which is a later version of the Conchobar-Deirdre theme.
Through the ages in ballads and stories, Fionn has emerged as one the most popular Irish folk heroes. Fionn, who is sometimes called Fingal, was introduced to the English-speaking world in Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1760), a work composed by 18th-century Scottish poet James Macpherson and falsely attributed to Ossian (also known as Oisin). Ossian, a legendary warrior-poet of the 3rd century, was thought to be the son of Fionn. Fionn later appears in The Wanderings of Oisin, (1889) a poem by William Butler Yeats; At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), a novel by Flann O’Brien; and Finnegans Wake (1939), a novel by James Joyce that adapts the story of the Fenian hero.
The Historical Cycle
The Historical Cycle, or Cycle of the Kings, consists of narratives—part fact and part fiction—that chronicle the lives of kings of Ireland. They begin with the 3rd-century-bc king Labraid Loingsech, one of the earliest known kings of Ireland. They continue through Brian Bórú, a prince who united the province of Munster and was declared king of all Ireland about ad 1000. The most famous tale in the Historical Cycle is Buile Shuibne (The Madness of Suibne [Sweeney]). In this tale a minor king, Suibne, attacks the 7th-century saint Rónán. Rónán curses Suibne, who subsequently loses his wits during the Battle of Mag Roth in 637. Suibne takes to the forest, where he lives in the company of fellow madmen. After many adventures, Suibne is befriended by another saint, Moling, and dies reconciled with the church. Suibne’s travels and transformations make this tale a model for Irish stories of exile, mental and physical journeying, and personal growth—similar in function to the Odyssey. Buile Shuibne was first translated into English by J. G. O’Keeffe in 1913; a modern translation, Sweeney Astray, by Irish poet Seamus Heaney appeared in 1983.
Few Irish manuscripts remain from before the year 1000. The scarcity of early manuscripts is the result of Viking raids against Ireland that began at the end of the 8th century and destroyed most of the monasteries and their contents. Some manuscripts were preserved on the European continent by Irish missionary scholars who fled the invaders. But most knowledge of early Irish texts comes from fragments of works that were passed along orally and written down later. The stories of the Ulster and Fenian cycles are preserved in manuscripts dating from 1100 to the late 1300s, but their language and their references to earlier events demonstrate that the stories are remnants of a much older oral tradition.
Irish Traditions and Christianity
From the 5th century onward, native Celtic society existed alongside Irish Christianity, presenting a model for the coexistence of paganism and Christianity, the establishment of written as well as oral traditions, and the development of literacy in both English and Irish. Christianity in Ireland dates to the arrival of Saint Patrick in ad 432. Monasteries, where members of religious communities lived, served as centers for learning and the arts at a time when the general population could neither read nor write. Irish monasteries produced illuminated manuscripts, elaborately carved crosses, and fine metalwork. The earliest Christian writings survive in a few manuscripts from the 7th through the 10th centuries.
Monks copying manuscripts sometimes wrote short poems in the margins. One such poem, titled by modern scholars as “The Viking Terror,” was found in the margins of a 9th-century Christian manuscript. It describes a stormy night bringing the writer relief from worry because the stormy sea prevents Viking raiders from landing on shore. A 9th-century poem entitled “Pangur Ban” likens a cat chasing mice to the monk chasing words. Many of these personal poems seem modern as a result of vivid imagery: the season’s changing light, the cry of a bird, the winter chill.
Ireland made no unified response to the Viking raids until Brian Bórú led Irish forces at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Bórú’s forces routed the Vikings, but he was killed and various small kingships ruled Ireland until the island fell under the control of Normans from England. The Normans began to arrive in 1169.
Anglo-Irish Literature: 1200 To 1800
Irish life and literature changed dramatically after the Norman invasion. The invasion began when a deposed king of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough, sought help from England in reclaiming his land. Forces led by a Norman noble, Richard de Clare Pembroke (known as Strongbow), helped MacMurrough recover his territory. Pembroke married MacMurrough’s daughter and, after his father-in-law’s death, claimed the throne of Leinster and recognized England’s King Henry II as his overlord. Later English kings continued to consider the country part of their domain.
The Normans introduced a central government and a feudal system, whereby nobles owned land and peasants worked it, but their conquest of Ireland was slow and incomplete. Many Normans adopted the Irish language and Irish ways, and Gaelic culture flourished alongside its Norman counterpart. Satiric literature appeared in both the Irish and English languages, although English increasingly became the language of literature. A satire of monastic life, which depicts monks as alternately inhospitable and violent, and finally exploitative, appears in Aislinge Mac Conglinne (translated as The Vision of MacConglinne, 1892), written in the 11th or 12th century.
English Settlement and its Consequences
In the 16th century, England’s monarchs broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established the protestant Church of England. Although their efforts to introduce Protestantism throughout Ireland failed, they sought to ensure loyalty by settling parts of Ireland with English Protestants. These settlers and their descendants were known as Anglo-Irish. During the 17th century English rulers consolidated their control of Ireland, confiscating lands held by Catholics and giving them to English Protestant planters. Rebellions by Irish Catholics were brutally crushed. By the late 17th century repressive laws prohibited Catholics from owning property or working in many professions. English increasingly became the language of literature and everyday speech, and the Gaelic language and Gaelic culture were suppressed.
The suppression of Gaelic culture destroyed Ireland’s tradition of filidh, or bards, and its centers for training them. Poets turned from praising their patrons to writing of loss and exile, thus becoming the voice of the Irish people’s dispossession. Various works bitterly protested the condition of Ireland after the confiscation of Catholic lands. A notable work of this kind is “D’Aithle na Bhfileadh” (The High Poets are Gone) by 17th-century poet Dáibhí O’Bruadair, who learned his craft at a bardic center. Others include “Is Fada Liom Oiche Fhírfhliuch” (The Long Night of Soaking Rain) and “Vailintín Brún” (Valentine Browne, 1720-1726?) by poet Aogán O’Rathaille. Several poems by O’Rathaille personified Ireland as a beautiful maiden waiting for her male rescuer.
Although he seems far removed in time and in tone, Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift was a contemporary of O’Rathaille. Although ambivalent about his Irish identity, Swift was forthright in his attacks on English policies that beggared the Irish nation. Swift became a hero in Ireland for championing the Irish cause in such works as the Drapier’s Letters, a series of pamphlets published anonymously in 1724 and 1725. When English policies prohibited most Irish exports, Swift wrote the bitter satire A Modest Proposal (1729). In it he suggested that in order to solve the problems of food shortages, unemployment, and overpopulation in Ireland, Irish children of poor parents “be offered in Sale to Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom; … I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords; who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children.” Much of Swift’s poetry, like his prose, addressed the unfair treatment of the Irish by the English.
Swift also encouraged the work of a number of women writers. Mary Delany, an English woman married to Irish writer and clergyman Patrick Delany, corresponded with Swift and with friends and relatives in England. Her letters, which provide a detailed account of Anglo-Irish life, were compiled in six volumes in 1861 and 1862 and were republished in one volume as Letters from Georgian Ireland in 1991. Others who received his encouragement include memoirist Laetitia Pilkington and poets Mary Barber, Constantia Grierson, and Swift’s longtime friend and student, Esther Johnson.
Ethnic viewpoints had begun to characterize the writing of history in the 17th century. English poet Edmund Spenser, who settled in Ireland, described the Irish as savages and supported England’s political position in his Veue of the Present State of Ireland (1633). On the other side, native Irish priest and poet Geoffrey Keating captured Irish legend and history in Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (1618-1634; Basic Knowledge of Ireland, 1723).
In the 18th century, English caricatures of the Irish were brought onto the stage. Anglo-Irish dramatist Thomas Sheridan incorporated the figure of the so-called stage Irishman in his farce The Brave Irishman or Captain O’Blunder (1743). This stereotypical Irishman was talkative and fond of exaggeration and of drinking, yet able to outwit his English enemies. Richard Brinsley Sheridan developed this figure in his portrayal of Sir Lucius O’Trigger, a man who enters a duel to defend his country, in the farce The Rivals (1775).
Other Anglo-Irish writers were more sympathetic. Oliver Goldsmith praises the qualities of rural Irish and English life in the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and comments on the effects of privilege in the Anglo-Irish world in She Stoops to Conquer (1773), a comedy of mistaken identity. Writer and clergyman Laurence Sterne produced an inventive work of fiction, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), that ridiculed 18th-century literary conventions even as it employed them. Calling the work his autobiography, Sterne starts by having the narrator question his parent’s judgment at the moment of his conception. The work, which proceeds in a nonlinear fashion with lapses and interruptions, would influence the narrative technique of James Joyce in the 20th century.
Patriotism and Irish Nationalism
Lyric poetry of the 18th century continued to include elegies in the Irish language, many of them striking a patriotic note. Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (1773; The Lament for Art O’Leary, 1940) by Eileen O’Connell was a eulogy for her husband, who had been killed by the sheriff of Cork. Some critics consider it the most passionate love poem in the Irish language. In another mood altogether is Brian Merriman’s bawdy, irreverent indictment of the men of Ireland who are reluctant to give up their bachelorhood and take on the responsibilities of marriage, in Cúirt an Mheadhon Oidhche (about 1780; The Midnight Court, 1945).
In 1780 Britain granted Ireland’s parliament legislative independence, and it ruled until 1800. Although the Irish parliament was entirely Protestant, it repealed some repressive laws against Catholics—permitting them to own land and to practice their religion, for example—but it did not grant Catholics the right to vote. In the British Parliament, Irish-born statesman Edmund Burke spoke out against Britain’s harsh colonial policies, favoring a relaxation of restrictions on Irish trade and increased tolerance of Catholics. Inspired by Burke as well as by the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799), Irish Catholics rebelled in 1798, demanding political reforms and the same rights that Protestants enjoyed. But the rebellion was put down.
Ireland’s English-language literature from the late 18th century reflected a growing sense of national identity under Ireland’s independent parliament. Two important collections of Gaelic poetry and Gaelic music contributed to this rising nationalism: Charlotte Brooke’s anthology in English translation, Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789), and Edward Bunting’s A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music (1796). In the preface to her anthology Brooke wrote, “The productions of our Irish bards exhibit a glow of cultivated genius. The British muse is not yet informed that she has an elder sister in this isle.”
IRISH REVIVAL: 1800 TO 1949
Following the unsuccessful Irish Catholic rebellion of 1798, the Irish Parliament was dissolved, and the Act of Union, which took effect in 1801, made Ireland part of the United Kingdom. Nationalist movements and conflicts with Britain dominated Irish history thereafter. In 1829 Catholics gained full political rights, but campaigns to repeal the Act of Union failed. From 1845 to 1849, a blight destroyed Ireland’s potato crop, the principal food source of the people. As a result of starvation and emigration during this period, Ireland’s population fell by 20 percent. Agitation for land reform became widespread in Ireland after the potato famine, as did agitation for Irish rule.
The Gaelic language largely fell into disuse during the 19th century; Britain’s introduction in 1831 of schools that taught in English further eroded its use. With fewer and fewer people able to read and write in Irish, literature in the language was preserved primarily in oral tradition or in manuscript form. Not until a revival of Gaelic in the 20th century was publication of this literature undertaken. An example of poetry preserved in this way is Anthony Raftery’s folk history of Ireland.
Recovery of the Irish Past
Poetry continued to preserve the national spirit of Ireland. Irish poet Thomas Moore set his poems to traditional Irish airs in his Irish Melodies, which were published from 1808 to 1834. These poems, which include “The Last Rose of Summer,” helped transform the idiom of one culture into that of another, according to 20th-century novelist and critic Seamus Deane. Poet and essayist Thomas Davis, along with two other writers, founded The Nation in 1842. This weekly paper, which published both literary works and political commentary, is credited with creating a national consciousness. Other notable figures from before the famine included the poets and translators James Clarence Mangan and Samuel Ferguson, whose works made Irish literature available in English translation. The work of Moore, Mangan, Ferguson, and Davis planted the seeds for a new Irish poetry that sprang up in the middle of the 19th century to celebrate the glories of Ireland’s past.
Most 19th-century Irish fiction from before the famine was written to explain the Irish to the English or to amuse readers outside Ireland who were interested in regional literature. Castle Rackrent (1800) is an indictment of irresponsible Anglo-Irish landlords written by Maria Edgeworth, an English-born woman who lived in Ireland. This novel and others by Edgeworth offer a realistic portrayal of Irish peasant life at the time, tempered with understanding and humor. The Wild Irish Girl (1806), a novel of manners by Anglo-Irish Lady Morgan, was sympathetic to the Catholic political cause. William Carleton’s collection, Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830), captured Irish rural life shortly before the famine, while his novels The Black Prophet (1847), The Emigrants of Ahadarra (1848), and The Tithe Proctor (1849), depicted the suffering it produced.
After the famine, the most significant Irish fiction focused on land. The popular nationalist novel Knocknagow, or the Homes of Tipperary (1879) by Charles Kickham attacked landlords’ victimization of tenant farmers, who were barely able to feed themselves after satisfying their landlords and who wore out the soil in the process. Emily Lawless countered with Hurrish (1886), a novel that criticized the violence of Irish farmers directed against Protestant landowners. Edith Somerville and Violet Martin were cousins who wrote under the pen names of Somerville and Ross. They focused on the last days of the landlord system in County Cork in the novel The Real Charlotte (1894) and in two well-known collections of humorous stories, Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1900, 1908), in which an Englishman who is appointed resident magistrate reflects upon Irish country life.
By the late 19th century the Irish had lost faith in political solutions to Ireland’s problems and turned to cultural nationalism instead. In 1893 Eoin Mac Neill and Douglas Hyde founded the Gaelic League to restore Irish as the spoken language of the country; the organization eventually became the driving force for the assertion of Irish identity. The search for Ireland’s lost Gaelic heritage ushered in a period known as the Irish Renaissance in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. The Irish Renaissance was spearheaded by the energy of its major figures: writers William Butler Yeats, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, and John Millington Synge. Its intention was to find the sources for a new Irish literature in the Irish countryside and in Irish myth.
An Irish National Literary Society was founded in Dublin in 1892. It held lectures on the Celtic tradition in an effort to spark public interest in a revival. The first signs of the Irish and Anglo-Irish traditions coming together occurred in 1893. That year Douglas Hyde, who wrote in both Gaelic and English, brought out The Love Songs of Connacht (1893), English translations of Irish folk poetry whose beauty would have an enormous effect on Yeats, Gregory, and Synge. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight, also published in 1893, collected his articles on Irish legends, many of which discussed the sídh, or Celtic otherworld, inhabited by faeries and other magical beings.
Drama, however, was the literary form that best captured the ideals of the Irish Renaissance and established Ireland‘s literary reputation. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and playwright Edward Martyn published their Irish Literary Theatre manifesto in 1899, promising to create a national theatre for Ireland. The Irish Literary Theatre, which opened that year, was succeeded in 1902 by the Irish National Theatre Society. In 1904 the Society opened the Abbey Theatre, whose purpose was to present Irish plays about Irish subjects. The plays it produced dramatized Irish myth and history and portrayed Irish peasant life realistically.
In its first year the Irish Literary Theatre produced Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen and Martyn’s realistic drama The Heather Field. The Countess Cathleen aroused controversy, especially among Catholics, because its heroine sells her soul to feed her starving tenants during a famine. One of the theatre’s biggest successes was Cathleen ní Houlihan (1902), produced in the theatre’s fourth season. Now accepted as written by both Lady Gregory and Yeats but originally attributed to Yeats alone, Cathleen ní Houlihan dramatized a myth of blood sacrifice that transforms a poor old woman, a symbol of Ireland, into a young girl. That same year Lady Gregory’s translation of the Ulster Cycle’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) provided writers of the Irish Renaissance with access to material from that saga. Lady Gregory’s other nationalist play, The Rising of the Moon (1907); her comedies Spreading the News (1904) and The Workhouse Ward (1908); and her tragedy The Gaol Gate (1906) also enjoyed success at the Abbey.
Synge had met Yeats in Paris in the late 1890s, and Yeats had urged him to go to the Gaelic-speaking Aran Islands off Ireland’s northwest coast, where he could study the Irish language and observe the ways of the people. The knowledge Synge gained by following this advice informed his later work. In 1903 the Irish National Theatre Society staged Synge’s comedy In the Shadow of the Glen (1903). In the play an Irishman fakes his own death in order to catch his young wife making marriage plans with a tramp who urges her to take to the roads with him. The play was construed as an attack on Irish women and was poorly received at the time.
Another Synge comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, opened at the Abbey in 1907 and also stirred controversy. It told of a young man who becomes a hero in a small Irish town when he claims to have killed his father. At a time when the Irish people were developing a national pride, audiences regarded the play as insulting to the Irish, and riots broke out in the theater. But The Playboy of the Western World, like In the Shadow of the Glen, eventually became a classic of the Irish Renaissance. Plays by Yeats to open at the Abbey included On Baile’s Strand (1904) and Deirdre (1907), both of which drew on the legend of Cú Chulainn. Other playwrights of the Irish Renaissance include George William Russell, William Boyle, and Padraic Colum.
Among the important prose writers of the Irish Renaissance was George Moore. His realistic stories were written in English but first published in Irish translation as An tÚr-Ghort (1902; The Untilled Field, 1903). Influenced by Moore, Pádraic O’Conaire began writing stories characterized by realism and simplicity of style. They were first published in an Irish-language newspaper and later collected in Nora Mharcuis Bhig agus Sgéalta Eile (Marcus Bhig’s Daughter Nora, 1909).
Rebellion and Disillusion
From 1916 to 1922 Ireland was in open rebellion against Britain. The rebellion began on Easter Monday in 1916 with an uprising that became known as the Easter Rebellion or Easter Rising. The leaders of the Easter Rebellion were executed afterward, an action that outraged the Irish people and won sympathy for the nationalist cause. In 1919 a group of Irish nationalists elected to the British parliament declared Ireland’s independence. Guerrilla warfare between Irish rebels and British occupying troops soon broke out. A truce was signed in 1921, and the following year Ireland was partitioned into the primarily Protestant Northern Ireland (with 6 counties) and the largely Roman Catholic Irish Free State (with 26 counties) in the south. During the war, Irish rebels formed the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to fight for Ireland’s independence. In Northern Ireland unionists wished to remain under British control.
One of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion was poet Patrick Pearse. From 1903 to 1909 he edited the Gaelic League newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light) and encouraged the development of a modern literature in Irish. Pearse also wrote stories, poetry, and essays himself in Irish and in English. His Collected Works (1917) were issued in five volumes after his execution for his part in the Easter Rebellion.
The uprisings of 1916 to 1922, a period sometimes referred to as the troubles, marked the end of the Irish Renaissance. Writings of the 1920s and 1930s reflect the disillusionment of the Irish people after the failure of the nationalist independence movements and the partition of Ireland. Playwright Sean O’Casey revived the Abbey Theatre, which had faltered as a result of a curfew during the troubles, with his trio of plays that take place in Dublin’s slums and revolve around Ireland’s struggle for independence. The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) and Juno and the Paycock (1924) have guerrilla warfare as their background. The third play, The Plough and the Stars (1926), focused on the Easter Rebellion. Dublin audiences rioted over O’Casey’s critical portrayal of the nationalist martyrs only ten years after the rebellion.
Novelist Elizabeth Bowen evoked the doomed world of the privileged Anglo-Irish in her second novel, The Last September (1929), set in the Cork countryside during the troubles. The novels Without My Cloak (1931) and The Land of Spices (1941) by Kate O’Brien and the stories of Mary Lavin offered yet another perspective by focusing on middle-class life in the socially conservative Irish Free State, often told from the point of view of a woman.
Disillusionment with Irish life also can be seen in the work of James Joyce, one of the most important writers of fiction in the 20th century. Joyce considered the Dublin of his youth a “center of paralysis,” dominated by the Catholic Church and British political authority. However, he did not join the nationalist movements and felt that he was insufficiently appreciated by the writers of the Irish Renaissance. From 1904 until his death in 1941 Joyce lived outside Ireland as an expatriate. Nevertheless, all his fiction takes place in Dublin.
In Joyce’s first major work, a collection of short stories called Dubliners (1914), he describes individuals trapped by family, work, Irish Catholic society, and a failure of nerve that prevents them from breaking away. In his first long work of fiction, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus—like Joyce himself—escapes the constraints of family, nation, and church. But the reader meets Dedalus again in the novel Ulysses (1922), in which he returns home in search of his father. In this work, Joyce experimented with a narrative technique known as stream of consciousness. He used this technique to reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings in a sequence of associations, rather than in logical order, without commentary by the author. The psychological perceptions and literary innovations of Ulysses had enormous influence on modern literature. Joyce’s final work, the comic masterpiece Finnegans Wake, moves beyond Ireland to take on all language in a richly layered text full of puns and allusions. The language used by Joyce in his works influenced the plays and prose of his protégé, poet, novelist, and playwright Samuel Beckett, who lived and worked most of his adult life as an expatriate in Paris.
Irish-language literature from the 1920s to the 1940s often attempted to capture and record the dying way of life of the rural Irish people. Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay, 1948), a novel by Máirtín O’Cadhain, is set in a graveyard where the dead talk among themselves, gossiping and nursing old grudges. The work comes close to those of Joyce in its mastery of language, the Cois Fharraige dialect of western Galway, and its narrative innovation. Three autobiographies produced on the Gaelic-speaking Blasket Islands, off Ireland’s western coast, reached wide audiences in English translations. Tomás O’Criomhthain wrote An tOileánach (1929; The Islandman, 1937); Muiris O’Súilleabháin brought out Fiche Bliain ag Fás (1933; Twenty Years A-growing, 1933); and brilliant storyteller Peig Sayers recorded her life in Peig (1936, translated in 1962). Myles na gCopaleen—the Irish name of Brian O’Nolan, who wrote under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien—satirized these island autobiographies, and those who sought to revive the Irish language, in An Béal Bocht (1941; The Poor Mouth, 1964).
Irish poetry in the first half of the 20th century was dominated by Yeats, whose early work drew inspiration from Irish mythology and folklore. His long narrative poem The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) was based on the Fenian Cycle, and The Wind among the Reeds (1899) on Irish folk legends. Yeats’s reputation rests on his later work, The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), in which he confronts enduring questions about the meaning of life, death, art, and history in modern Ireland and the world. Yeats encouraged younger poets, including Padraic Colum and F. R. Higgins.
Another important poet of early 20th-century Ireland was George William Russell, known as Æ. His early work, including Collected Poems (1913), addresses questions of Irish independence and forms part of the Irish Renaissance. Later works, such as The House of the Titans and Other Poems (1934), meditates on the world of nature as a link between humanity and God. Æ mentored several younger poets, including James Stephens.
Other notable poets, including Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh, chose their own paths. In such collections as Pilgrimage and Other Poems (1929), Clarke wrote in English using traditional Irish meter. He also composed verse drama, novels, and romances set in medieval Ireland. Although Kavanagh could write lyrically of his home in County Monaghan, his long poem The Great Hunger (1942) is a metaphor for emotional and sexual hunger in the lonely Irish countryside. Kavanagh was a major influence on Irish poets of the 1960s.
After Independence: 1949 To The Present
In 1949 the Irish Free State became the independent Ireland and Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. However, conflicts have continued between the two entities over British presence in Northern Ireland. The Irish Free State’s neutrality during World War II (1939-1945) left the new republic isolated after the war; this isolation, along with economic stagnation, brought a decade of high emigration. Membership in the European Economic Community (EEC, now called the European Union) from 1973 brought with it a more progressive social policy and economic growth that encouraged Irish people living abroad to return. But violence between nationalist Catholics and Protestant unionists continued to wrack the island and a number of peace initiatives failed.
Despite the ongoing troubles, Ireland continued to enjoy world prominence in literature. On both sides of the border, Irish people faced questions of identity, reread and reconsidered Irish history, and started to develop a pluralist society that valued the contributions of both the native and the settler traditions.
By the 1950s, new fiction writers had joined the company of Ireland’s internationally known authors. Brian Moore’s novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) portrayed a Belfast spinster who suffers a nervous breakdown precipitated by her alcoholic guilt and her fantasy about a fellow lodger. It continued a theme of individual identity overwhelmed by societal pressures. Elizabeth Reegan, the heroine of The Barracks (1963) by John McGahern, tries to find meaning from her suffering as she dies of cancer in a police barracks in rural Ireland.
Coming of age in the bleak Irish countryside of the 1950s and 1960s, a period marked by high emigration and church domination, is a theme of McGahern’s The Dark (1965), as it is of The Country Girls (1960) and The Lonely Girls (1962) by Edna O’Brien. The difficult choice of emigration to America lies at the center of Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964), a play by Brian Friel. An Giall (1958; The Hostage, 1958), a play by Brendan Behan, called political violence into question and was one of a number of plays produced in the Damer, Dublin‘s Irish-language theatre.
The publication of Nuabhéarsaíocht (New Verse, 1950), edited by Sean O’Tuama, introduced a new generation of lyric poets writing in the Irish language. This anthology contained works by the Aran poet Máirtín O’Direáin, the learned and elegant Máire Mhac an tSaoi, and the ironic, complex Seán O’Riordáin. Irish poets writing in English—John Hewitt, Thomas Kinsella, and John Montague—brought modernist sensibilities to Irish rural and urban landscapes.
Beginning in the 1970s another artistic and literary renaissance emerged from the crucible of religious and political violence in Northern Ireland. Novels dealing with the conflict proliferated. They included Shadows on Our Skin (1977) and The Railway Station Man (1984) by Jennifer Johnston; Proxopera (1977) by Benedict Kiely; Cal (1983) by Bernard MacLaverty; Fools of Fortune (1983) and The Silence of the Garden (1988) by William Trevor; Lies of Silence (1990) by Brian Moore; and Reading in the Dark (1996) by Seamus Deane.
A generation of new poets in the 1970s was led by Seamus Heaney, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995. Set in the rural Northern Ireland surroundings of his childhood, Heaney’s poems are often short and punctuated by the intensity of his language. His powerful words contrast sharply with the reticence of the people he describes. The literary journal Innti (Today), which began publication in 1970 at University College in Cork, served as a primary avenue for the publication of Irish-language poetry and introduced young poets such as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Ní Dhomhnaill brought a postmodern sensibility to Irish-language poetry, and her works include Féar Suaithinseach (Marvelous Grass, 1984). Other notable Irish poets from the 1970s to the 1990s include Eavan Boland, Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley, Medbh McGuckian, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Irish history and identity, matters of gender, and the relationship between poet and community are common themes of this generation of poets.
Contemporary Irish history has prompted Irish playwrights to revisit personal and community events. Friel’s Translations (1981) considers the 1830s remapping of Ireland when Irish place names were translated into English. His Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) discusses personal memory in the context of communal memory and myth. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985) by Frank McGuinness portrays the experience of Northern Irishmen fighting in World War I (1914-1918). The Steward of Christendom (1995) by Sebastian Barry depicts the mental anguish of Barry’s institutionalized and delusional great-grandfather, who was the former head of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. As the 20th century drew to a close the voices heard in Irish literature tended to be more urban and more inclusive than before, representing women, children, gays, the unemployed, and emigrants. Roddy Doyle set his Barrytown Trilogy of comic urban novels in a fictional north Dublin community of high unemployment, where witty, racy, and ironic language is often the only antidote to drabness and despair. Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993), which won Britain’s Booker Prize, explored the impressionable mind of a 10-year-old boy. Doyle’s novel A Star Called Henry (1999) marked the beginning of a promised new trilogy tracking Ireland‘s 20th-century history through the eyes of a dirt-poor character named Henry Smart.