Irish Literature

Irish literature consists of literary works written in English as well as in the Irish language. Well-known works, written in English include those by novelists, poets and playwrights such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. Yeats, Shaw, Beckett and Heaney have all been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The earliest Irish poetry reputedly dates to the sixth century, with lyric poetry noted as early representations of the art form. Early medieval Irish literature comprised lyric poetry and renditions of prose.

The first major Irish poets writing in English were Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith. The 19th century saw Thomas Moore emerging as a poet of Irish Melodies, writing poetry in a lyrical musical way. This style became popular, and is superbly presented in the early writings of William Butler Yeats. Yeats altered his style of writing at the onset of the 20th century, when he began to be influenced by modernism.

James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, writing in the modernist age, wrote poetry in addition to the fiction and drama for which they are best known. Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney and Brian Coffey emerged in the 20th century as writers of note. During the 20th century an upsurge in interest in works written in Irish occurred. A theater dedicated to Irish-language plays, the An Taibhearc, was founded in 1928 to feature these works.

Irish fiction is noted as beginning in the 18th century, albeit medieval Irish epics were written in prose. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Oliver Goldsmith's fiction including The Vicar of Wakefield are well-known novels of this time. The 19th century saw a generation of Irish novelists such as John Banim, Gerald Griffin, George Moore and Charles Kickham writing from a ruling-class perspective. William Carleton, however, depicted the life of Irish peasantry. Bram Stoker's Gothic novel Dracula highlighted another form of literature at this time.

George Moore, using a French realist technique in his English novels, preceded James Joyce, an author who features the "stream of consciousness" style as in his epic work Ulysses. Finnegans Wake, Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are modernist classics by Joyce.

A prolific Irish writer of the 20th century is Cathal O Sandair, who penned over 100 novels. Aidan Higgins' Langrishe, Go Down is an experimental novel of the big house genre. Novelists from the lower social classes came to the forefront with the establishment of the Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland. Brinsley McNamara and John McGahern are writers from this style. Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain are included in the Irish fiction genre of short stories.

Irish drama, although tracing roots to early religious presentations, has its first official documentation in the 17th century with a performance of Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton's Gorboduc at Dublin Castle.

Most Irish playwrights moved to London to further their careers. William Congreve rose to prominence as a playwright of Restoration comedies in the 18th century. Congreve's The Way of the World, written in 1700, is studied and performed today as part of a canon of literary masterpieces. Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan also staged their plays in London. These include Goldsmith's The Good-Natur‘d Man and She Stoops to Conquer, and Sheridan's The Rivals, The School for Scandal and The Critic.

Dion Boucicault, an Irish playwright of the 19th century, was known for his humor. Oscar Wilde, however, became famous for his superlative wit. Wilde's plays were extremely successful, and include Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and the famous The Importance of Being Earnest. George Bernard Shaw's early writing was largely political, and was not as popular as his later works. Major Barbara, Saint Joan and Pygmalion (transformed into the film My Fair Lady) are popular dramas still performed

In 1899 the Irish Literary Theater was established. Eventually becoming known as the Abbey Theater, plays by William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey were performed there.

By the middle of the 20th century a key figure of Irish drama emerged. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, written in 1953, brought him fame. Endgame, his second play, is also an example of what is termed Theater of the Absurd.

Other Irish dramatists of the 20th century incude Denis Johnston, Hugh Leonard, Tom Murphy, Thomas Kilroy, Frank McGuinness and John B. Keane. Brendan Behan and Brian Friel are playwrights who, along with Beckett, feature a lyrical lilting language style that is reminiscent of J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey. Marina Carr, Frank McGuinness, Christina Reid and Martin McDonagh are contemporary Irish playwrights. Irish drama has been largely interlinked with the politics of the country, reflecting a close mirror-like relationship between national politics and theater.

Irish Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

A Companion to Irish Literature By Julia M. Wright Wiley-Blackwell, vol.2, 2010
Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders By Vivian Mercier; Eilís Dillon Clarendon Press, 1994
Back to the Present, Forward to the Past: Irish Writing and History since 1798 By Patricia A. Lynch; Joachim Fischer; Brian Coates Rodopi, vol.1, 2006
The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers By Theresa O'Conner University Press of Florida, 1996
The Irish Dramatic Movement By Una Ellis-Fermor Methuen, 1954 (2nd edition)
Studies in Irish Literature and History By James Carney Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1955
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