Irish poetry has a history of two languages: Irish and English. These dual traditions are interwoven in the complex tapestry of Irish poetry.
The earliest Irish poetry dates to the sixth century, with lyric poetry noted as early representations of the art form. Themes are culled from religion or the natural world. Often, poetic works of the time were written by scribes in the margins of manuscripts. The Táin Bó Cúailnge is an early source of Irish poetry. Epic sagas, written in prose, contained verses at significant emotional moments.
Early medieval Irish literature comprises lyric poetry and renditions of prose. Irish bards wrote according to a strict syllabic and rhythmic structure. As court officials, their role was that of chronicler, and the journalistic format of their verse is difficult to be conceived as poetry by the modern reader.
A new Gaelic poetry came into being in the 17th century, following a conquest that saw the demise of bardic poetry educationally. Using an early modern Irish language style, the poets wrote with an accented meter about themes of political and historical relevance.
The English and Irish language traditions in poetry gained equal importance in the 18th century. Writing in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Anglo-Irishman Jonathan Swift was the first major poet writing in English, albeit that he is most known as a novelist for his Gulliver's Travels. He was followed by a fellow Anglo-Irish novelist and poet (and playwright), Oliver Goldsmith, whose The Deserted Village has been ranked by critics as the best pastoral poem by an Irish poet writing in English.
English rose as the main language in Ireland during the 19th century. The decline of the Irish language was lamented in poetry at the time through allegories of a castle standing empty and the Catholic religion relegated underground. However, poets such as J.J. Callanan began to look to the Irish language heritage for its techniques and themes. Thomas Moore, writing in the first half of the 19th century, is a well-known Irish poet writing in an Irish style, but in the English language. His Irish Melodies set an example for future poets.
Gaelic poets were predominantly folk poets, until the Gaelic revival that began toward the end of the 19th century and moved into the 20th century. A diverse range of poets writing from a variety of perspectives and influences emerged. Some are defined by a modernist style while others wrote about a new urban and cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon established a magazine, The Nation, to present their verses promoting Irish nationalism. James Clarence Mangan assumed the role of bard with The Nation. Samuel Ferguson, aligning himself with the Young Irelanders, wrote poetry to evoke old Irish tales. William Allingham was another 19th-century realist poet activist of the time. Poetry written in Irish at this time became a form of folk art. The poetry of Antoine Ó Raifteiri (Anthony Raftery) is an example.
The second half of the 19th century was categorized by French symbolism, a poetic movement that influenced Irish writers such as Oscar Wilde, who also wrote poems in this manner. William Butler Yeats, although influenced by French symbolism, centered his writing on Irish subject matter. The Celtic Revival, an Irish literary movement, was led by Yeats. In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Douglas Hyde's Love Songs of Connacht and other works by the poet, also established him as a key player in the Celtic Revival.
Yeats altered his style of writing at the onset of the 20th century when he began to be influenced by modernism. Followers of Yeats' earlier Celtic style were writers Padraic Colum, F.R. Higgins and Austin Clarke as. Irish modernist poets looked to James Joyce.
John Hewitt is often termed the founding father of Northern Irish poetry. He and his contemporary Louis MacNeice are key poets of Northern Ireland.
Brian Coffey, Patrick Kavanagh, and Seamus Heaney emerged in the 20th century as poets of note. Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. The 21st century has seen a mix of experimental poetry, as well as women poets featured more prominently, particularly writers Eavan Boland and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain.
Irish poetry in the 21st century is affected by global trends, leading to the younger generation drawing on a range of influences. Pat Boran, Paula Meehan, Justin Quinn and Caitriona O'Reilly are a few of the prominent poets in the early 21st century, as well as Ciaran Carson, Patrick Chapman, Tony Curtis, Padraig J. Daly, Greg Delanty, Sean Dunne, Paul Durcan, Vona Groarke, Kerry Hardie, John Hughes, Thomas McCarthy, Hugh McFadden, Sinead Morrissey, Gerry Murphy, Bernard O'Donoghue, Conor O'Callaghan, Maurice Riordan and William Wall.