IN THE Politics of Irish Literature, the critic Malcolm Brown noted the prominence of Irishmen (Shaw, Yeats, Joyce etc) among major writers of the 20th century. Declan Kiberd's Irish Classics examines them, and their predecessors, in a heroic effort to get to grips with all "the most enduring and influential works" in the Irish canon. Kiberd's last, vast study, Inventing Ireland, had to do with images of the country filtered through literature, while this opus is concerned with the interaction between historical circumstance and literary impetus. It's a powerful and vibrant undertaking.
Perhaps "canon" is not the right word. One of Kiberd's strongest contentions is that tradition in Ireland was most vigorous at precisely those points when about to be broken, subverted or reanimated. The most interesting writers were those who ducked out of every obligation to comply with a tradition designated as "official".
That was true even when the refusal wasn't altogether voluntary, as with the fili (poets) of the 17th century, whose sources of patronage and livelihood were snatched away after the Flight of the Earls in 1607 (Kiberd's starting- point). This was the end of the Bardic Schools, with 14-year apprenticeships, and of the formal eulogies and elegies with which the old Gaelic families advertised their standing.
Everything went haywire. Suddenly the countryside seemed awash with ex- fili, endless old beggars resorting (with success) to freer verse-forms in their outcries against their own loss of prestige and social upheaval in general. Aogan O Rathaille (c1675-1729), with his "Pain, disaster, downfall, sorrow and loss", is perhaps the greatest exponent of this "ferocious impoverishment" mode.
Irish Classics considers the whole range of literature written in the country since the 17th century, in both Irish and English: the bilingual approach is one of its strengths. The most recent Irish- language work to which a chapter is devoted is Mairtin O Cadhain's remarkable novel of 1949, Cre na Cille (Churchyard Clay), set in a cemetery in which the dead carry on exactly as they did in life, apart from being unable to rise out of their coffins. …