The Irish became fully literate with the arrival of Christianity in the fifth century. Before that time a simple writing system known as "ogham" was used for inscriptions. The introduction of Latin led to the adaption of the Latin alphabet to the Irish language and the rise of a small literate class, both clerical and lay.23
The earliest Irish literature consisted of original lyric poetry and versions of ancient prose tales. The earliest poetry, composed in the 6th century, illustrates a vivid religious faith or describe the world of nature, and was sometimes written in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. Unusually among European epic cycles, the Irish sagas (such as Táin Bó Cúailnge) were written in prose, with verse interpolations expressing heightened emotion. Although usually found in recensions of the later mediaeval period, these works are linguistically archaic, and thus throw light on pre-Christian Ireland.4
After the Old Irish period, there is a vast range of poetry from mediaeval and Renaissance times. By degrees the Irish created a classical tradition in their own language, though they continued to use Latin. Verse remained the main vehicle of literary expression, and by the 12th century questions of form and style had been essentially settled, with little change until the 17th century.5
The literary language (known in English as Classical Irish), was a sophisticated medium with elaborate verse forms, and was taught in bardic schools (i.e. academies of higher learning) both in Ireland and Scotland.6 These produced historians, lawyers and a professional literary class which depended on the aristocracy for patronage. Much of the writing produced in this period was conventional in character, in praise of patrons and their families, but the best of it was of exceptionally high quality and included poetry of a personal nature. Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh (14th century), Tadhg Óg Ó hUiginn (15th century) and Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa (16th century) were among the most distinguished of these poets. Every noble family possessed a body of manuscripts containing genealogical and other material, and the work of the best poets was used for teaching purposes in the bardic schools.7 In this hierarchical society, fully trained poets belonged to the highest stratum; they were court officials but were thought to still possess ancient magical powers.8
Women were largely excluded from the official literature, though female aristocrats could be formidable patrons in their own right. An example is the 15th century noblewoman Mairgréag Ní Cearbhaill, praised by the learned for her extraordinary hospitality.9 At that level a certain number of women were literate, and some were contributors to an unofficial corpus of courtly love poetry known as dánta grádha.10
Prose continued to be cultivated in the mediaeval period in the form of tales. The Norman invasion of the 12th century introduced a new body of stories which influenced the Irish tradition, and in time translations were made from English.11
The 17th century saw the tightening of English control over Ireland and the suppression of the traditional aristocracy. This meant that the literary class lost its patrons, since the new nobility were English speakers with little sympathy for the older culture. The elaborate classical metres lost their dominance and were largely replaced by more popular forms.12 This was an age of social and political tension, expressed with power and anguish by Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, an outstanding poet, and by the anonymous authors of Pairliment Chloinne Tomáis, a corrosive prose satire on the aspirations of the lower classes.13 Prose of another sort was represented by the elegant historical works of Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Céitinn) and the great compilation known as the Annals of the Four Masters.
The consequences of these changes were seen in the 18th century, when the sophistication of the old high tradition reappeared at a popular level. Poetry was still the dominant literary medium and its practitioners were poor scholars, often educated in the classics at obscure local schools and themselves often schoolmasters by trade. Such writers produced work of great refinement in popular metres for a local audience. This was particularly the case in Munster, in the south-west of Ireland, and notable names included Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin and Aogán Ó Rathaille. A certain number of local patrons were still to be found, even in the early 19th century, and especially among the few surviving families of the Gaelic aristocracy.14
Irish was still an urban language, and continued to be so well into the 19th century. In the first half of the 18th century Dublin was the home of an Irish-language literary circle connected to the Ó Neachtain (Naughton) family, a group with wide-ranging Continental connections.15
There is little evidence of female literacy for this period, but women were of great importance in the oral tradition. They were the dominant composers of traditional laments, which contain some of the most intense poetry in the language. The most famous of these laments is Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, composed in the late 18th century by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, one of the last of the Gaelic gentry of West Kerry.16 Compositions of this sort were not committed to writing until collected in the 19th century.
Well after the introduction of printing to Ireland, works in Irish continued to be disseminated in manuscript form.
Access to the printing press was hindered in the 1500s and the 1600s by official caution, although an Irish version of the Bible (known as Bedell's Bible after the Anglican clergyman who commissioned it) was published in the 17th century. A number of popular works in Irish, both devotional and secular, were available in print by the early 19th century, but the manuscript remained the most affordable means of transmission almost until the end of the century.17
Manuscripts were collected by literate individuals (schoolmasters, farmers and others) and were copied and recopied. They might include material several centuries old. Access to them was not confined to the literate: the contents were read aloud at local gatherings, thus exposing even the illiterate to the riches of the literature. This was still the case in the late 19th century in Irish-speaking districts.18
In the 19th century English was well the way to becoming the dominant vernacular. Down until the Great Famine of the 1840s, however, and even later, Irish was still used over large areas of the south-west, the west and the north-west.
A famous long poem from the beginning of the century is Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court), a vigorous and inventive satire by Brian Merriman from County Clare. The copying of manuscripts continued unabated, and one such collection was in the possession of Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, a teacher and linen draper of County Kilkenny who kept a unique diary in vernacular Irish from 1827 to 1835 covering local and international events, with a wealth of information about daily life.
The Great Famine of the 1840s hastened the retreat of the Irish language. Many of its speakers died of hunger or fever, and many more emigrated. The hedge schools of earlier decades which had helped maintain the native culture were now supplanted by a system of National Schools where only English was permitted. Literacy in Irish was restricted to a very few.
A vigorous English-speaking middle class was now the dominant cultural force; a number of its members were influenced by political or cultural nationalism, and some took an interest in the literature of the Irish language. One such was a young Protestant scholar called Samuel Ferguson who studied the language privately and discovered its poetry, which he began to translate.20 He was preceded by James Hardiman, who in 1831 had published the first comprehensive attempt to collect popular poetry in Irish.21 These and other attempts supplied a bridge between the literature of the two languages.
Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), a powerful and versatile satirist, was Ireland's first earliest notable writer in English. Though born in Ireland, he spent much of his life in England. Oliver Goldsmith (1730–1774), born in County Longford, moved to London, where he became part of the literary establishment, though his poetry reflects his youth in Ireland. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was born in Dublin and came to serve in the House of Commons of Great Britain on behalf of the Whig Party, and establish a reputation in his oratory and published works for great philosophical clarity as well as a lucid literary style.
Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849) furnished a less ambiguous foundation for an Anglo-Irish literary tradition. Though not of Irish birth, she came to live there when young and closely identified with Ireland. She was a pioneer in the realist novel.
Other Irish novelists to emerge during the 19th century include John Banim, Gerald Griffin, Charles Kickham and William Carleton. Their works tended to reflect the views of the middle class or gentry and they wrote what came to be termed "novels of the big house". Carleton was an exception, and his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry showed life on the other side of the social divide. Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, was outside both traditions, as was the early work of Lord Dunsany. One of the premier ghost story writers of the nineteenth century was Sheridan Le Fanu, whose works include Uncle Silas and Carmilla.
The novels and stories, mostly humorous, of Edith Somerville and Violet Florence Martin (who wrote together as Martin Ross), are among the most accomplished products of Anglo-Irish literature, though written exclusively from the viewpoint of the "big house". In 1894 they published The Real Charlotte.
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), though born and raised in Ireland, spent the greater part of his life in England. Despite this, he is usually claimed to be an Irish writer. His plays are distinguished for their wit, and he was also a poet.
The growth of Irish cultural nationalism towards the end of the 19th century, culminating in the Gaelic Revival, had a marked influence on Irish writing in English, and contributed to the Irish Literary Revival. This can be clearly seen in the plays of J.M. Synge (1871–1909), who spent some time in the Irish-speaking Aran Islands, and in the early poetry of William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), where Irish mythology is used in a personal and idiosyncratic way.
In 1893 the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) was founded. It insisted that the identity of Ireland was intimately bound up with the Irish language, which should be modernised and used as a vehicle of contemporary culture. This found a ready response and led to the publication of thousands of books and pamphlets in Irish, providing the foundation of a new literature in the coming decades.22
Patrick Pearse (1879–1916), teacher, barrister and revolutionary, was a pioneer of modernist literature in Irish. He was followed by, among others, Pádraic Ó Conaire (1881–1928), an individualist with a strongly European bent. One of the finest writers to emerge in Irish at the time was Seosamh Mac Grianna (1900–1990), writer of a powerful autobiography and accomplished novels, though his creative period was cut short by illness. His brother Séamus Ó Grianna (1889–1969) was more prolific.
This period also saw remarkable autobiographies from the remote Irish-speaking areas of the south-west - those of Tomás Ó Criomhthain (1858–1937), Peig Sayers (1873–1958) and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (1904–1950).
Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906–1970), a language activist, is generally acknowledged as the doyen (and most difficult) of modern writers in Irish, and has been compared to James Joyce. He produced short stories, two novels and some journalism. Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910–1988), Máire Mhac an tSaoi (b. 1922) and Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916–1977) were three of the finest poets of that generation. Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (1919–1982), who wrote both in Irish and English, was noted for his readiness to experiment in both prose and verse.
Caitlín Maude (1941–1982) and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (b. 1952) may be seen as representatives of a new generation of poets, conscious of tradition but modernist in outlook. The best known of that generation was possibly Michael Hartnett (1941–1999), who wrote both in Irish and English, abandoning the latter altogether for a time.
Writing in Irish now encompasses a broad range of subjects and genres, with more attention being directed to younger readers. The traditional Irish-speaking areas (Gaeltacht) are now less important as a source of authors and themes. Urban Irish speakers are in the ascendancy, and it is likely that this will determine the nature of the literature.
Yeats was already prominent at the beginning of the 20th century, but his style changed under the influence of his contact with modernism. The generation of Irish poets who followed Yeats were, to simplify, divided between those who were influenced by his early Celtic style and those who followed such modernist figures as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, both of whom wrote poetry as well as their better known fiction and drama. This period also saw the emergence of such significant figures as Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney and Brian Coffey.
Joyce is often regarded as the father of the literary genre "stream of consciousness", best exemplified in his famous work, Ulysses, considered to be one of the 20th century's greatest literary achievements. It has been described as "a demonstration and summation of the entire [Modernist] movement".23 Joyce also wrote Finnegans Wake, Dubliners, and the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce's high modernist style had its influence on coming generations of Irish novelists, most notably Samuel Beckett, Brian O'Nolan, who published as Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, and Aidan Higgins. O'Nolan was bilingual and his fiction clearly shows the mark of the native tradition, particularly in the imaginative quality of his storytelling and the biting edge of his satire in works such as An Béal Bocht.
The big house novel prospered into the 20th century, and Aidan Higgins' first novel Langrishe, Go Down is an experimental example of the genre. More conventional exponents include Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane (writing as M.J. Farrell).
With the rise of the Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland, more novelists from the lower social classes began to emerge. Frequently, these authors wrote of the narrow, circumscribed lives of the lower-middle classes and small farmers. Exponents of this style range from Brinsley MacNamara to John McGahern.
Although the documented history of Irish theatre began at least as early as 1601, the earliest Irish dramatists of note were William Congreve, one of the most interesting writers of Restoration comedies, and Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who were two of the most successful playwrights on the London stage in the 18th century.
In the 19th century, Dion Boucicault was an extremely popular writer of comedies. However, it was in the last decade of the century that the Irish theatre finally came of age with the emergence of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and the establishment in Dublin in 1899 of the Irish Literary Theatre.
In 1903 a number of playwrights, actors and staff from several companies went on to form the Irish National Theatre Society, later to become the Abbey Theatre. It performed plays by W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge, and Sean O'Casey. Equally importantly, through the introduction by Yeats, via Ezra Pound, of elements of the Noh theatre of Japan, a tendency to mythologise quotidian situations, and a particularly strong focus on writings in dialects of Hiberno-English, the Abbey was to create a style that held a strong fascination for future Irish dramatists.
The twentieth century saw a number of Irish playwrights come to prominence. These included Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Denis Johnston, Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness, Thomas Kilroy, Tom Murphy, Hugh Leonard, and John B. Keane. The Gate Theatre, founded in 1928 by Micheál MacLiammóir, introduced Irish audiences to many of the classics of the Irish and European stage.
Since the 1970s, a number of companies have emerged to challenge the Abbey's dominance and introduce different styles and approaches. These include Focus Theatre, The Children's T Company, the Project Theatre Company, Druid Theatre, Rough Magic, TEAM, Charabanc, and Field Day. These companies have nurtured a number of writers, actors, and directors who have since gone on to be successful in London, Broadway and Hollywood.
Conventional drama did not exist in Irish before the 20th century. The Gaelic Revival stimulated the writing of plays, aided by the founding in 1928 of An Taibhdhearc, a theatre dedicated to the Irish language. The Abbey Theatre itself was reconstituted as a bilingual national theatre in the 1940s under Ernest Blythe, but the Irish language element declined in importance.24
Drama in Irish has since encountered grave difficulties, despite the existence of interesting playwrights such as Máiréad Ní Ghráda. The Taidhbhearc has declined in importance and it is difficult to maintain professional standards in the absence of a strong and lively audience. The tradition persists, however, thanks to troupes like Aisling Ghéar25
- Irish poetry
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- List of Irish poets
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- The Indo-European Family of Languages
- Dillon and Chadwick (1973), pp. 241-250
- Caerwyn Williams and Ní Mhuiríosa (1979), pp. 54-72
- Dillon and Chadwick (1973), pp. 298-333.
- Caerwyn Williams and Ní Mhuiríosa (1979), pp. 147-156
- See the foreword in Knott (1981).
- Caerwyn Williams and Ní Mhuiríosa (1979), pp.150-194
- For a discussion of poets' supernatural powers, inseparable from their social and literary functions, see Ó hÓgáin (1982).
- Caerwyn Williams and Ní Mhuiríosa (1979), pp.165-6.
- Examples can be found in O'Rahilly (2000).
- Caerwyn Williams and Ní Mhuiríosa (1979), p. 149.
- TLG 201-223
- See the introduction to Williams (1981). The text is bilingual.
- Caerwyn Williams and Ní Mhuiríosa (1979), pp. 252-268, 282-290. See Corkery (1925) for a detailed discussion of the social context.
- Caerwyn Williams and Ní Mhuiríosa (1979), pp. 279-282.
- See the introduction to Ó Tuama, Seán (1961) (ed.), Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, An Clóchomhar Tta, Baile Átha Cliath.
- See Niall Ó Ciosáin in Books beyond the Pale: Aspects of the Provincial Book Trade in Ireland before 1850, Gerard Long (ed.). Dublin: Rare Books Group of the Library Association of Ireland. 1996. ISBN 978-0-946037-31-5
- Ó Madagáin (1980), pp.24-38.
- Mac Aonghusa (1979), p.23.
- O'Driscoll (1976), pp. 23-32.
- O'Driscoll (1976), pp. 43-44.
- Ó Conluain and Ó Céileachair (1976), pp. 133-135.
- Beebe, Maurice (Fall 1972). "Ulysses and the Age of Modernism". James Joyce Quarterly (University of Tulsa) 10 (1): p. 176.
- Hoch, John C. (2006). Celtic Culture: An Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 980-981 ISBN 978-1-85109-440-0
- Brady, Anne & Cleeve, Brian (1985). Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers. Lilliput. ISBN 978-0-946640-11-9
- Jeffares, A. Norman (1997). A Pocket History of Irish Literature. O'Brien Press. ISBN 978-0-86278-502-4
- Welsh, Robert (ed.) & Stewart, Bruce (ed.) (1996). The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-866158-0
- Wright, Julia M. (2008). Irish Literature, 1750-1900: An Anthology. Blackwell Press. ISBN 978-1-4051-4520-6
- Caerwyn Williams, J.E. agus Ní Mhuiríosa, Máirín (1979). Traidisiún Liteartha na nGael. An Clóchomhar Tta. Baile Átha Cliath. Revival 336-350
- Corkery, Daniel (1925). The Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century. M.H. Son, Ltd. Dublin.
- Céitinn, Seathrún (1982) (eag. De Barra, Pádraig). Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Athnua 1 & 2. Foilseacháin Náisiúnta Teoranta. Baile Átha Cliath. A two volume version of Keating’s history in modernised spelling.
- De Bhaldraithe, Tomás (ed.) (1976 – third printing). Cín Lae Amhlaoibh. An Clóchomhar Tta. Baile Átha Cliath. ISBN 978-0-7171-0512-0. A shortened version of the diaries of Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin. There is an English translation, edited by de Bhaldraithe: Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 - 1835. Mercier Press. ISBN 978-1-85635-042-6
- De Brún, Pádraig and Ó Buachalla, Breandán and Ó Concheanainn, Tomás (1975 – second printing) Nua-Dhuanaire: Cuid 1. Institiúid Ardléinn Bhaile Átha Cliath.
- Dillon, Myles and Chadwick, Nora (1973). The Celtic Realms. Cardinal. London. ISBN 978-0-351-15808-7 pp. 298–333
- Williams, .J.A. (ed.) (1981). Pairlement Chloinne Tomáis. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Dublin.
- Knott, Eleanor (1981 – second printing). An Introduction to Irish Syllabic Poetry of the Period 1200–1600. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Dublin.
- Merriman, Brian: Ó hUaithne, Dáithí (ed.) (1974 – fourth printing). Cúirt an Mheán Oíche. Preas Dolmen. Baile Átha Cliath. ISBN 978-0-85105-002-7
- Mac Aonghusa, Proinsias (1979). ‘An Ghaeilge i Meiriceá’ in Go Meiriceá Siar, Stiofán Ó hAnnracháin (ed.). An Clóchomhar Tta.
- Mac hÉil, Seán (1981). Íliad Hóiméar. Ficina Typofographica. Gaillimh. ISBN 978-0-907775-01-0
- Nicholls, Kenneth (1972). Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages. Gill and MacMillan. Dublin. ISBN 978-0-7171-0561-8
- Ó Conluain, Proinsias and Ó Céileachair, Donncha (1976 – second printing). An Duinníneach. Sáirséal agus Dill. ISBN 978-0-901374-22-6
- O’Driscoll, Robert (1976). An Ascendancy of the Heart: Ferguson and the Beginnings of Modern Irish Literature in English. The Dolmen Press. Dublin. ISBN 978-0-85105-317-2
- Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí (1982). An File. Oifig an tSoláthair. Baile Átha Cliath.
- Ó Madagáin, Breandán (1980 – second edition). An Ghaeilge i Luimneach 1700–1900. An Clóchomhar Tta. Baile Átha Cliath. ISBN 978-0-7171-0685-1
- O’Rahilly, Thomas F. (Ed.) (2000 – reprint). Dánta Grádha: An Anthology of Irish Love Poetry (1350–1750). Cork University Press. ISBN 978-0-902561-09-0.
- National Library of Ireland: Premier cultural institution holding Irish literary collections
- CELT: The online resource for Irish history, literature and politics
- The Irish Playography database
- The Irish Literary Times:up-to-date coverage of current Irish literature