In this lesson, we briefly explore the history of Ireland and delve into the English-language literature that the island has produced in the last 300 years.
Significant Irish Authors
The ‘Emerald Isle’ as Ireland is sometimes known has a unique and interesting history all its own. The experiences of those who were born, raised, or lived on the fascinating island are displayed in the country’s diverse writing.
In this lesson, we will roughly sketch Ireland’s history for context before delving into the major trends and authors of Ireland’s English-language literature.
History and Themes
English was first brought to the island with the Norman (i.e.
, English) conquest of Ireland in the late 12th century. Over the centuries that followed, England ruled Ireland despite intermittent periods of rebellion by the Irish people. After several years of guerrilla and open warfare, the Irish Free State was established in 1922. In the settlement that made Ireland its own country, six northern counties, where many British people had settled, remained part of the United Kingdom as the newly formed country of Northern Ireland.Because of this history, most Irish literature conveys Irish and/or British sentiment about Britain’s rule over Ireland and the tension and violence that occurred throughout 20th-century Ireland, in part, due to the partition of the island in 1922. Furthermore, because of the Church of England’s 16th-century separation from the Catholic Church, the bitter ideological and at times violent battle between Protestants (largely of British origin) and Catholics (largely native Irish) in Ireland also dominates the country’s literature.
English-language writing only became popular in Ireland in the post-reformation period, especially from the 17th century onward, when England began to tighten its grip on Irish affairs. Arguably the first great writer from Ireland in the English language was Jonathan Swift. Swift was born in Dublin in 1667 and his early 18th-century works often satirized early modern European and British culture, society, and politics. His most influential work, Gulliver’s Travels, is today viewed as a whimsical adventure story, but when it was first published in 1726, it was considered a biting critique of human nature, European-style governments, and religiously-driven hate and violence.Taking the mantle of English-language Irish writers in the second half of the 18th century was Oliver Goldsmith. Despite Goldsmith’s premature death in his 40s, he produced a voluminous amount of poetry, novels, and plays.
His work spans many subjects – he wrote of English politics using satire as well as societal critiques on the creep of English culture, language, and values upon traditional customs of the Irish.Another important writer in this period was Maria Edgeworth. Originally born in England in 1767, her family relocated to Ireland when she was only 15.
Encouraged by her father, Maria crafted several important novels and short stories through the course of her life. As the daughter of an English landlord, Maria learned the intricacies of late 18th- and early 19th-century Irish society where most of her novels were set. Her unique perspective and writing style caused her to become a symbol of the feminist movement in Ireland in the 20th century. Furthermore, she featured many children as characters in an era when children were not considered suitable material for the focus of serious writing.
1850 to Present
Irish writing became imbued with politics in the second half of the 19th century and in the 20th century, as Irish politics divided the populace over English rule and, after independence, over the partition of Ireland. For example, the early 20th-century works of arguably Ireland’s most famous writer, James Joyce, are set in Dublin and politics, if not always the focus, are always present in the characters and events of Joyce’s novels.
The only other Irish writer that could be Joyce’s equal in popularity was the poet, William Butler Yeats. Yeats’ turn-of-the-century work is imbued with Irish themes from his childhood and Yeats is often credited with reviving an interest among Irish writers in Ireland’s Gaelic past. For example, one of his more popular works of poetry, The Wanderings of Oisin draws heavily upon traditional Irish mythology. His virtuosity led him to become Ireland’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.More directly political, the 20th-century work of playwright Sean O’Casey attacked British imperialism and examined directly the mindset of the revolutionary Irishman. His plays were so critical and controversial that his fellow Irishman, Yeats, refused to allow one of O’Casey’s plays to be performed at the Abbey Theatre.More recently, as the rhetoric and violence has toned down for nearly a generation in Ireland, Irish authors have focused on Irish society and the experiences of the Irish throughout history.
For example, though the playwright Brian Friel‘s early plays were highly political, his later work brought the travails of his boyhood Ireland to various productions on Broadway. Others like Frank McCourt and Colm Toibin continue to bring the Irish experience to readers around the globe.
Works of the Irish Abroad
It’s also important to note several writers not included above that are included by some in the category of ‘Irish authors.’ For example, the academic and novelist C.
S. Lewis, the author of the famed Chronicles of Narnia series and noted Christian apologist was born in Belfast in 1898. However, he spent most of his life in England, and few of his works touch upon the Irish condition or even mention Ireland. The same can be said for other prolific authors like the late 18th- and early 19th-century author and parliamentarian Richard Sheridan and the playwright George Shaw, who, despite living in Dublin until he was 15, rarely featured Ireland or Irish issues in his work. Nonetheless, the inclusion (or exclusion) of these authors from the pantheon of Irish authors remains a hotly contested argument in literary circles.
For such a small island, the array of English-language literature produced in Ireland is vast. Early works, like those of Swift and Goldsmith, often satirized human nature and society in general.
However, as politics in Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations became more tempestuous, this was reflected in its literature. This is displayed in the setting of Joyce’s and Yeats’ work and overtly in the plays of O’Casey and the early plays of Friel. More recently, such as in Frank McCourt’s award-winning Angela’s Ashes, Irish writing displays to the world Irish society and the unique cultural life of the Emerald Isle.