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Irish writing of 8th century

For a comparatively small island, Ireland has made a disproportionately large contribution to world literature in all its branches. Irish literature encompasses the Irish and English languages.

The island's most widely-known literary works are undoubtedly in English. Particularly famous examples of such works are those of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Ireland's four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature; William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. Ireland's oldest literary traditions, however, are found in the Irish language, referred to simply as "Irish". Indeed, Irish has the third oldest literature in Europe (after Greek and Latin)[1] and the most significant body of written literature (both ancient and recent) of any Celtic language. Furthermore, the historic influence of Irish language traditions, such as a strong oral tradition of legends and poetry, has helped make much English Literature in Ireland quite distinctive from that in other countries. From the older tradition, many Irish writers in English inherited a sense of wonder in the face of nature, a narrative style that tends towards the deliberately exaggerated or absurd and a keen sense of the power of satire. In addition, the interplay between the two languages has resulted in an English dialect, Hiberno-English, that lends a distinctive syntax and music to the literature written in it.

Irish literature is rooted in Celtic mythology as well as the suffering and hardships the Irish people have experienced over the course of their history. Wit and humour, often in the form of satire or irony, have characterized much of Irish literature. Another key feature has been the ample use of wordplay - from the early sagas to the 20th-century experiments of James Joyce.


Poetry in Irish represents the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. The earliest examples date from the 6th century, and are generally short lyrics on themes from religion or the world of nature. They were frequently written by their scribe authors in the margins of the illuminated manuscripts that they were copying. Another source of early Irish poetry is the poems in the tales and sagas, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Unlike many other European epic cycles, the Irish sagas were written in prose, with verse interpolations at moments of heightened tension or emotion. Although usually surviving in recensions dating from the later medieval period, these sagas and especially the poetic sections, are linguistically archaic, and afford the reader a glimpse of pre-Christian Ireland. After the Old Irish period, there is a vast and rich range of poetry from medieval and Renaissance times.

After the Battle of Kinsale, and the exile of much of the Gaelic nobility the old Gaelic order in the seventeenth century that had supported the old professional bards began to break down. The major Irish-language poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, such as Aogán Ó Rathaille, Brian Merriman, Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin and Antoine Ó Raifteiri were increasingly drawn from among the people rather than being trained in professional bardic schools. 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. Of them all, however, Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill's Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire has been described as the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.[1] 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 Romantic and Victorian verse and song. Particularly notable in this vein were the lyrics (poetical and musical) of Thomas Moore, author of several volumes of Irish Melodies. The trend reached its apotheosis 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 dominated, in inspiration or in fomenting rebellion. 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.

Contents

Poetry

Irish poetry has a long and complex history. Ireland has one of the oldest vernacular literature and poetry traditions in Europe and represents a more or less unbroken cycle from the 6th century to the present day. In addition, since at least the 14th century, poetry in English has also been written in Ireland and by Irish writers abroad. Irish contribution to the corpus of world literature in this respect has been broad and original, drawing from rich Irish culture with Celtic and Christian roots.

Fiction

James Joyce

Although the epics of Medieval Ireland were written in prose and not verse, most people would probably consider that modern 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 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, the Anglican author of Dracula, was outside both traditions, as was at least the early work of Lord Dunsany.

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, considered to be one of the 20th century's greatest literary achievements, and has been referred to as "a demonstration and summation of the entire [Modernist] movement".[2] 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.

Cathal Ó Sándair (1922-1996), one of the most prolific Irish language authors, produced over one hundred novels, many of them westerns featuring cowboys and gun fights. Born in Weston Super Mare, England to an English father and Irish mother, his family moved to Ireland when he was a child. His first novel appeared in 1943 and featured Réics Carló, the most famous Irish language detective.

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 McNamara to John McGahern.

The Irish short story has also proven popular with Irish fiction writers. Well known short story writers include Frank O'Connor, William Trevor and Sean O'Faolain.

Theatre

George Bernard Shaw

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.

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, Frank McGuinness, 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 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.

See also

References

  1. ^ Kiberd, Declan (2000). Irish Classics. Granta Books. 
  2. ^ Beebe, Maurice (Fall 1972). "Ulysses and the Age of Modernism". James Joyce Quarterly (University of Tulsa) 10 (1): p. 176.

Further Reading

  • Brady, Anne & Cleeve, Brian (1985). Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers. Lilliput. ISBN 0946640114
  • Jeffares, A. Norman (1997). A Pocket History of Irish Literature. O'Brien Press. ISBN 0862785022
  • Welsh, Robert (ed.) & Stewart, Bruce (ed.) (1996). The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature. Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198661584
  • Wright, Julia M. (2008). Irish Literature, 1750-1900: An Anthology. Blackwell Press. ISBN 978-1405145206

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