Ireland's Contemporary Writers: An Exploration

By Heaney, Liam | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Ireland's Contemporary Writers: An Exploration


Heaney, Liam, Contemporary Review


NORTHERN Ireland and the Irish Republic can rightly boast of a rich, enduring literary heritage. This article explores some of the most salient features of contemporary Irish writing, in both the North and South of Ireland and considers some of the writers who have helped to create Ireland's abundant array of literature. By way of introduction, it is appropriate to refer to some of the literati who have contributed to the literature of Ireland over the past few centuries. Many of these literary figures had talents in more than one literary form, achieving success as novelists, short story writers, poets, dramatists, essayists, playwrights and translators. Arguably, their contributions have enhanced the range and wealth of Ireland's literary legacy.

Many readers will be familiar with the contributions made by Ireland's authors over the past few centuries, which include, such eminent names as, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849), Thomas Moore (1779-1852), William Carleton (1794-1869), Gerald Griffin (1803-1840), Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). Brain Stoker (1847-1912), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). W.B.Yeats (1865-1939), J.M.Synge (1871-1909), Sean O Casey (1880-1964), James Joyce (1882-1941), Austin Clarke (1896-1974), Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), Sean 6 Faolain (1900-1991). Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967). Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), Brendan Behan (1923-1964), John Hewitt (1907-1987) and Brian Moore (1921-1999), to name but a few. The works of these writers, and many others, have endured down through the decades and have inspired and enthused contemporary writing, in both the North and in the South of Ireland.

Reviewing the Past

It is worth considering briefly the work of a few of the above named authors by way of setting the context for the writers, poets and playwrights of today. The work of Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) offers an interesting starting point. Maria Edgeworth was born in Oxfordshire and then in 1782 settled in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Her works include, Belinda (1801), The Absentee (1812), Patronage (1813). Comic Dramas (1817) and Castle Rackrent (1834). Her most famous work is the novel. Castle Rackrent (1800) which chronicles the history of a corrupt, cunning, incorrigible family, the Rackrents. Castle Rackrent is reputed to be the first regional novel in English and in his introduction to the novel, George Watson (1964) highlights the significance of her work. Watson suggests that 'the regional novel is the gateway to the ampler world of the historical novel, since it represents whole societies and conceives of individual characters as composing societies' (vi). In short, Edgeworth through her narrator, the 'faithful Thady Quirk', tells the story of the Rackrents' way of life and of the surrounding neighbourhood. It is a short but finely crafted novel that leaves the reader with some understanding of a way of life that is long since gone.

The writings of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), which included, poetry, prose and plays, are known throughout the literary world. Much of Yeats' work seeks to create a magical, mystical world which reflects Ireland's captivating landscape and marvellous mythology. The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) and The Wild Swans at Coole (1917) give some sense of his yearning to portray 'romantic' Ireland.

In two of his most famous poems, 'September 1913' and 'Easter 1916', Yeats conveys his dismay with the civil unrest and the needless loss of life in his country. In 'September 1913', from his collection Main Street and Other Poems (1917), he concludes that 'All that delirium of the brave? / Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, / It's with O'Leary in the grave' (p.66). In the poem, 'Easter 1916', Yeats found it difficult to come to terms with the outcome of the Irish Civil War declaring that

Now and in time to be
Wherever green is worn
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. … 

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