Early Irish-English Literature
The earliest Irish-English literature was of two types: the pastoral, patriotic, convivial, and
humorous verse written by anonymous poets of the people and including such well-known
examples as “The Wearin' O' the Green” (1798), “The Boyne Water,” and “Irish Molly
O”; and sophisticated verse written by known poets. The principal writers of the latter
type of poetry were Thomas Moore, the author of Irish Melodies (10 parts, 1807-34) and
National Airs (1815); Gerald Griffin, the author of “Aileen Aroon” and many other
poems; and Francis Sylvester Mahony, better known as Father Prout, the author of the
famous “Bells of Shandon.” Two writers who were better known as novelists
Charles James Lever and Samuel Lover, wrote the verses for two of the best-known Iris
comic songs, “The Widow Malone” and “The Widow Machree,” respectively.
From about the middle to the end of the 19th century, the work of patriotic and lyric poets
dominated Irish poetry written in English. Seriocomic novels, often caricaturing Irish life
and character, were also a popular form of 19th-century Irish literature.
Patriotic and Lyric Poetry
To the patriots, the need to arouse the Irish people to a sense of nationalism was stronger
than the impulse to write poetry distinguished for its formal or aesthetic perfection. The
work of these poets was characterized by flamboyant diction and fiery emotion and was
important for its political effect. Many of them contributed poems to the Nation (founded
1842), a journal devoted to the promotion of the cause of Irish nationalism. They include
Thomas Osborne Davis, who wrote “Lament of Owen Roe O'Neill”; Joseph Sheridan Le
Fanu, who also wrote novels (see below); Denis Florence MacCarthy, who wrote The
Bell-Founder (1857); Jane Francesca Elgee, Lady Wilde, who wrote under the name of
Speranza; and Thomas D'Arcy McGee. The most outstanding of the lyrical poets, listed
chronologically, are Jeremiah Joseph Callanan; James Clarence Mangan, author of “Dark
Rosaleen”; Edward Walsh; Sir Samuel Ferguson, author of Lays of the Western Gael
(1865); Aubrey Thomas de Vere, author of The Foray of Queen Maeve and Other
Legends of Ireland's Heroic Age (1882); and William Allingham, who wrote Irish Songs
and Poems (1887).
Protestant and Roman Catholic Fiction
Much distinguished fiction was
written in the 19th century by Irish authors writing in English. Protestants treated Irish life
from the point of view of the Anglo-Irish upper classes or gentry, and Roman Catholic
writers, mainly of Celtic ancestry, dealt principally with the lives of the Irish Roman
Among the important Protestant writers were Maria Edgeworth, whose Castle Rackrent
(1800) was one of the first regional novels in English; it gives a realistic picture of social
conditions, tempered with understanding and ironic humor. Later writers included Lady
Sydney Morgan, author of The Wild Irish Girl (1806); William Hamilton Maxwell, writer
of tales of military life, including Stories of Waterloo (1834); Samuel Lover, whose Rory
O'Moore, a National Romance (1837) and Handy Andy (1842) were stories of the Irish
peasantry; and Charles James Lever, writer of the picaresque novels The Confessions of
Harry Lorrequer (1837) and Jack Hinton (1843).
Among the Roman Catholic fiction writers were two brothers, John Banim and Michael
Banim, noted for their stories depicting the life of the poverty-stricken Irish peasant, as in
Tales of the O'Hara Family (6 vol., 1825-26); Gerald Griffin, The Collegians (1829), a
tale of middle-class Irish life; and William Carleton, author of Fardorougha the Miser
Other eminent Irish novelists of the 19th century were Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, who
wrote Uncle Silas (1864); Charles J. Kickham, the author of Sally Cavanagh (1869); and
Emily Lawless, the author of Hurrish (1886).
Irish Literary Revival
A remarkable revival in Irish literature written either in Gaelic or in English began in the
last decade of the 19th century. In contrast to earlier fiction and poetry, the mood now
was one of conscious dedication to the national cause.
Turn of the Century
The principal Irish writers in English who are identified with this so-called Irish
Renaissance are the poets William Butler Yeats, Æ (George William Russell), and
Padraic Colum; the playwrights Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, John Millington Synge,
and Sean O'Casey; the novelist and playwright George Moore; and the poet and fiction
writer James Stephens. For further discussions of their work, and articles under the names
of the individual writers.
Notable translations of Gaelic epic material were made by Lady Gregory in Cuchulain of
Muirthemne (1902) and Gods and Fighting Men (1904); by Thomas William Rolleston in
Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (1911); and by Douglas Hyde in Legends of Saints
and Sinners from the Irish (1915).
Among representative fiction writers of the period are Standish James O'Grady,author of
historical romances; James Owen Hannay, who, under the pen name of George A.
Birmingham, wrote such novels as The Seething Pot (1905) and Wild Justice (1930); and
Edith Anna Oenone Somerville and Violet Florence Martin. Somerville and Martin were
cousins who, under the joint pen name Somerville and Ross, wrote travel books, books for
children, and other works. Two of their best-known collaborations were the humorous
Some Experiences of an Irish R. M. (1899), observations of Irish country life by a
bemused Englishman who has been appointed a resident magistrate; and The Real
Charlotte (1894), a novel of upper-class society in late Victorian Ireland.
The Irish literary revival extended far into the 20th century. By 1940 the excitement
generated in the earlier years had largely subsided, but many writers continued to produce
distinguished works. Notable among them was the playwright Sean O'Casey, author of
such plays as Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The
Plough and the Stars (1926), realistic pictures of Dublin slum life. He also wrote six
books about his life that, combined under the title Mirror in My House (2 vol., 1956),
represent a major contribution to Irish literary history. Other significant historical and
personal recollections were written by the critic and short-story writer Mary Colum,
whose Life and the Dream (1947) recalls the personages and concerns of the literary
revival; and by the playwright and manager-director of the Abbey Theatre, Lennox
Robinson, in Ireland's Abbey Theatre 1899-1950 (1951) and I Sometimes Think (1957).
Fiction and Nonfiction
At the same time, several new Irish writers came on the scene, including the novelists
Liam O'Flaherty, author of powerful tales of Irish life such as The Informer (1925), later
made into a famous motion picture, and Famine (1937); and Elizabeth Dorothea Cole
Bowen, author of such perceptive novels of personal relationships as Death of the Heart
(1939) and Eva Trout (1968) and of a number of short stories. Molly Keane enjoyed a
vogue in the 1930s for her novels about Anglo-Irish society, such as Mad Puppetstown
(1931) and The Rising Tide (1937)—published under the pseudonym M. J. Farrell. After
a 30-year hiatus she returned to writing with the mordantly funny Good Behaviour (1981)
and Time after Time (1983). Another popular novelist, writing from the rural Catholic
tradition, is Edna O'Brien, author of The Country Girls (1960) and The Lonely Girl
(1962), filmed as The Girl with Green Eyes (1965). Most of her novels and short stories,
many of which have appeared in the New Yorker, are autobiographical explorations of
rebellious young women's attempts to come to grips with their roots and their
unsuccessful searches for emotional fulfillment.
Not to be overlooked is the immensely versatile Brian O'Nolan, familiar as the author of
the Irish Times column “Cruiskeen Lawn” under the pseudonym Myles nagCopaleen, and
also the author of such brilliantly complex comic novels as At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
and The Dalkey Archive (1964), and the surrealistic The Third Policeman (1967)—under
another pen name, Flann O'Brien.
Among Irish short-story writers, one of the best known is Michael O'Donovan, pen name
Frank O'Connor, who wrote Traveler's Samples (1951) and Domestic Relations (1957).
William Trevor (originally named William Trevor Cox, 1928- ) is a short-story writer and
dramatist who writes hauntingly of modern Irish life, loneliness, and disillusion.
Collections of his stories have been published under the titles Angels at the Ritz and Other
Stories (1976) and Other People's Worlds (1981). Bernard MacLaverty established his
reputation as a short-story writer with Secrets and Other Stories (1977) and the novella
Lamb (1980), a poignant, possibly allegorical tale of the doomed relationship between an
Irish teaching Brother and one of his pupils.
The biography, the literary essay, and the short story are represented, respectively, in the
following by Sean O'Faolain: The Great O'Neill (1942), The Vanishing Hero (1957), and
The Talking Trees (1971).
Two 20th-century Irish writers, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, although not usually
associated with the literary revival in their country of birth, are recognized as major
figures in world literature. Joyce deliberately isolated himself from the Irish literary,one of its severest critics, but all his fiction and his only play, Exiles
(1918), are set in Dublin; they are profound explorations of the Irish character and social
environment in the early years of the century. Like Joyce, Beckett left Ireland after
university for permanent exile in Europe; living in Paris, he went on to create some of the
world's most influential modern experimental literature. Most of his major fiction is set in
Ireland and depends heavily on Irish speech rhythms and Dublin argot, as does his
celebrated play, Waiting for Godot (1952).
The dominant figure of 20th-century Irish poetry, and a major world poet, was William
Butler Yeats, some of whose work was published as Collected Poems (2nd ed., 1952).
After Yeats's death, the stream of vital poetry he fostered continued to flow. The Roman
Catholic poets Austin Clarke, whose poetry was published in Collected Poems (1936) and
Orphide and Other Poems (1971), and Thomas Kinsella, author of Downstream (1962)
and Nightwalker and Other Poems (1968), are notable in a group of writers of difficult,
lyrical, passionate poetry. Another member of the group is Patrick Joseph Kavanagh, a
caustic iconoclast whose verses appear in Collected Po- ems (1964).
In the 1980s Seamus Heaney attracted international attention. His passion for words and
vivid imagery that reflect the tragic conflicts of the Irish experience is evinced in his
Poems: 1965-1975 (1980), and in the longer verse cycles Sweeney Astray (1983), a
version of an early medieval Gaelic work, and Station Island(1984). Preoccupations:
Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (1980) contains Heaney's sensitive literary criticism and other
The robust vitality of the Irish theater continued in the ironic works of Denis William
Johnston, such as The Old Lady Says “No”! (1929) and The Moon in the Yellow River
(1931), and in the writings of Brendan Behan, notably The Quare Fellow (1956) and the
raucous play The Hostage (1958). Behan is also the author of the autobiographical
In recent years, Brian Friel, author of Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1965), Living Quarters
(1978), and Translations (1981), among other plays, and of several short stories, has
continued the themes of national introspection that are central to all Irish writing of the
20th century. For additional information on individual writers, see biographies of those
whose names are not followed by dates.