Irish literatureFor a comparatively small country, Ireland has made a disproportionate contribution to world literature in all its branches. The works that are best known outside the country are in English, but Irish Gaelic also has the most significant body of written literature, both ancient and recent, in any Celtic language, in addition to a strong oral tradition of legends and poetry.
This Irish language tradition has contributed to making Irish literature in English something quite distinctive from English literature in other countries. From the older tradition, Irish writers in English have inherited a sense of wonder in the face of nature, a narrative style that tends towards the deliberately exaggerated or absurd, a keen sense of the power of satire. In addition, the interplay between the two languages has resulted in an English dialect, Hiberno-English, which lends a distinctive syntax and music to the literature written in it.
PoetryIrish poetry has a long and complex history. The Irish language has the oldest vernacular literature and poetry in that language represents a more or less unbroken tradition from the 6th century to the present day. However, since at least the 14th century, poetry in English has also been written in Ireland and by Irish writers abroad.
During the late middle ages, the breakdown of the old Gaelic order that had supported the old professional bards broke down, and Irish language poetry started to become marginalised and by the 19th century had entered the realms of folk art.
The 18th century witnessed both a late flowering of bardic poetry and song and the first major Irish poets in English, Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith.
In the 19th century, Irish poets writing in English set out to reinvent the Gaelic tradition in the new language, frequently translating bardic and other early Irish poets and retelling stories from Celtic mythology in Victorian verse. This trend resulted in the early work of W. B. Yeats.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Yeats' style changed under the influence of his contact with modernism. The generation of Irish poets that 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.
During the course of the 20th century, the influence of Yeats has tended to dominate, either as role model or as someone to rebel against. However, this period also saw the emergence of such significant figures as Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney and Brian Coffey. This period also saw a revival of poetry in Irish, at least partly as a result of government policy decisions in support of the language.
FictionAlthough the epics of Celtic Ireland were written in prose and not verse, most people would probably consider that Irish fiction proper begins in the 18th century with the works of Jonathan Swift (especially Gulliver's Travels) and Oliver Goldsmith (especially The Vicar of Wakefield).
A number of Irish novelists emerged during the 19th century, including Maria Edgeworth, John Banim, Gerald Griffin, Charles Kickham, William Carleton, George Moore and Somerville and Ross. Most of these writers came from the Anglo-Irish ruling classes 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, author of Dracula, was somewhat outside this tradition.
George Moore spent much of his early career in Paris and was one of the first writers to use the techniques of the French realist novelists in English. He can be seen as one of the precursors of the most famous Irish novelist of the 20th century, James Joyce. Joyce is often regarded as the father of the literary genre "stream of consciousness" which is best exemplified in his famous work, Ulysses. 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.
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 so-called 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 McNamara to John McGahern.
The short story has also proven popular with Irish fiction writers. Well known short story writers include Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain.
TheatreAlthough 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.
This last company, later to become the Abbey Theatre, 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, Thomas Kilroy, Tom Murphy, Hugh Leonard, and John B. Keane. There was also a rise in the writing of plays in Irish, especially after the formation, in 1928, of An Taibhdhearc, a theatre dedicated to the Irish language. The Gate Theatre, also founded in 1928, introduced Irish audiences to many of the classics of the 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, TEAM 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.