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The earliest Irish literature consisted of original lyric poetry and versions of ancient prose tales. The earliest poetry, composed in the 6th century, illustrates a vivid religious faith or describe the world of nature, and was sometimes written in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. Unusually among European epic cycles, the Irish sagas (such as Tain Bo Cuailnge) were written in prose, with verse interpolations expressing heightened emotion.

Although usually found in recensions of the later medieval period, these works are linguistically archaic, and thus throw light on pre-Christian Ireland. After the Old Irish period, there is a vast range of poetry from medieval and Renaissance times. By degrees the Irish created a classical tradition in their own language, though they continued to use Latin. Verse remained the main vehicle of literary expression, and by the 12th century questions of form and style had been essentially settled, with little change until the 17th century.

The literary language (known in English as Classical Irish), was a sophisticated medium with elaborate verse forms, and was taught in bardic schools (i. e. academies of higher learning) both in Ireland and Scotland. These produced historians, lawyers and a professional literary class which depended on the aristocracy for patronage. Much of the writing produced in this period was conventional in character, in praise of patrons and their families, but the best of it was of exceptionally high quality and included poetry of a personal nature.

Gofraidh Fionn O Dalaigh (14th century), Tadhg Og O Huiginn (15th century) and Eochaidh O Heoghusa (16th century) were among the most distinguished of these poets. Every noble family possessed a body of manuscripts containing genealogical and other material, and the work of the best poets was used for teaching purposes in the bardic schools. In this hierarchical society, fully trained poets belonged to the highest stratum; they were court officials but were thought to still possess ancient magical powers. Women were largely excluded from the official literature, though female aristocrats could be formidable patrons in their own right.

An example is the 15th century noblewoman Mairgreag Ni Cearbhaill, praised by the learned for her extraordinary hosptiality. At that level a certain number of women were literate, and some were contributors to an unofficial corpus of courtly love poetry known as danta gradha. Prose continued to be cultivated in the medieval period in the form of tales. The Norman invasion of the 12th century introduced a new body of stories which influenced the Irish tradition, and in time translations were made from English. The early modern period

The 17th century saw the tightening of English control over Ireland and the suppression of the traditional aristocracy. This meant that the literary class lost its patrons, since the new nobility were English speakers with little sympathy for the older culture. The elaborate classical metres lost their dominance and were largely replaced by more popular forms. This was an age of social and political tension, expressed with power and anguish by Daibhi O Bruadair, an outstanding poet, and by the anonymous authors of Pairliment Chloinne Tomais, a corrosive prose satire on the aspirations of the lower classes.

Prose of another sort was represented by the elegant historical works of Geoffrey Keating and the great compilation known as the Annals of the Four Masters. The consequences of these changes were seen in the 18th century, when the sophistication of the old high tradition reappeared at a popular level. Poetry was still the dominant literary medium and its practitioners were poor scholars, often educated in the classics at obscure local schools and themselves often schoolmasters by trade. Such writers produced work of great refinement in popular metres for a local audience.

This was particularly the case in Munster, in the south-west of Ireland, and notable names included Eoghan Rua O Suilleabhain and Aogan O Rathaile. A certain number of local patrons were still to be found, even in the early 19th century, and especially among the few surviving families of the Gaelic aristocracy. Irish was still an urban language, and continued to be so well into the 19th century. In the first half of the 18th century Dublin was the home of an Irish-language literary circle connected to the O Neachtain (Naughton) family, a group with wide-ranging Continental connections. 14] There is little evidence of female literacy for this period, but women were of great importance in the oral tradition. They were the dominant composers of traditional laments, which contain some of the most intense poetry in the language. The most famous of these laments is Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire, composed in the late 18th century by Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, one of the last of the Gaelic gentry of West Kerry. [15] Compositions of this sort were not committed to writing until collected in the 19th century. The manuscript tradition

Well after the introduction of printing to Ireland, works in Irish continued to to be disseminated in manuscript form. Access to the printing press was hindered in the 1500s and the 1600s by official caution, although an Irish version of the Bible (known as Bedell’s Bible after the Anglican clergyman who commissioned it) was published in the 17th century. A number of popular works in Irish, both devotional and secular, were available in print by the early 19th century, but the manuscript remained the most affordable means of transmission almost until the end of the century.

Manuscripts were collected by literate individuals (schoolmasters, farmers and others) and were copied and recopied. They might include material several centuries old. Access to them was not confined to the literate: the contents were read aloud at local gatherings, thus exposing even the illiterate to the riches of the literature. This was still the case in the late 19th century in Irish-speaking districts. Manuscripts were often taken abroad, particularly to America.

In the 19th century many of these were collected by individuals or cultural institutions. Modern writing In the 19th century English was well the way to becoming the dominant vernacular. Down until the Great Famine of the 1840s, however, and even later, Irish was still used over large areas of the south-west, the west and the north-west. A famous long poem from the beginning of the century is Cuirt an Mhean Oiche (The Midnight Court), a vigorous and inventive satire by Brian Merriman from County Clare. The copying of manuscripts continued nabated, and one such collection was in the possession of Amhlaoibh O Suilleabhain, a teacher and linen draper of County Kilkenny who kept a unique diary in vernacular Irish from 1827 to 1835 covering local and international events, with a wealth of information about daily life. The Great Famine of the 1840s hastened the retreat of the Irish language. Many of its speakers died of hunger or fever, and many more emigrated. The hedge schools of earlier decades which had helped maintain the native culture were now supplanted by a system of National Schools where only English was permitted. Literacy in Irish was restricted to a very few.

A vigorous English-speaking middle class was now the dominant cultural force; a number of its members were influenced by political or cultural nationalism, and some took an interest in the literature of the Irish language. One such was a young Protestant scholar called Samuel Ferguson who studied the language privately and discovered its poetry, which he began to translate. He was preceded by James Hardiman, who in 1831 had published the first comprehensive attempt to collect popular poetry in Irish. These and other attempts supplied a bridge between the literatures of the two languages. The Anglo-Irish tradition

Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), a powerful and versatile satirist, was Ireland’s first earliest notable writer in English. Though born in Ireland, he spent much of his life in England, where he may have felt more at home. Oliver Goldsmith (1730 – 1774), born in County Longford, moved to London, where he became part of the literary establishment, though his poetry reflects his youth in Ireland. Maria Edgeworth (1767 -1849) furnished a less ambiguous foundation for an Anglo-Irish literary tradition. Though not of Irish birth, she came to live there when young and closely identified with Ireland. She was a pioneer in the realist novel.

Other Irish novelists to emerge during the 19th century include John Banim, Gerald Griffin, Charles Kickham and William Carleton. Their works tended to reflect the views of the middle class or gentry 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 the early work of Lord Dunsany. One of the premier ghost story writers of the nineteenth century was Sheridan Le Fanu, whose works include Uncle Silas and Carmilla.

The novels and stories, mostly humorous, of Edith Somerville and Violet Florence Martin (who wrote together as Martin Ross), are among the most accomplished products of Anglo-Irish literature, though written exclusively from the viewpoint of the “big house”. In 1894 they published The Real Charlotte. 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. Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900), though born and raised in Ireland, spent the greater part of his life in England.

Despite this, he is usually claimed to be an Irish writer. His plays are distinguished for their wit, and he was also a poet. The growth of Irish cultural nationalism towards the end of the 19th century, culminating in the Gaelic Revival, had a marked influence on Irish writing in English. This can be clearly seen in the plays of J. M. Synge (1871 -1909), who spent some time in the Irish-speaking Aran Islands, and in the early poetry of William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), where Irish mythology is used in a personal and idiosyncratic way.

Modern Irish writing in English James Joyce Yeats was already prominent at the beginning of the 20th century, but his style changed under the influence of his contact with modernism. The generation of Irish poets who 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.

This period also saw the emergence of such significant figures as Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney and Brian Coffey. Joyce is often regarded as the father of the literary genre “stream of consciousness”, best exemplified in his famous work, Ulysses, considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest literary achievements. It has been described as “a demonstration and summation of the entire [Modernist] movement”. [22] 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 Beal Bocht. 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 proved a popular genre, with well-known practitioners including Frank O’Connor, William Trevor and Sean O’Faolain.