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Literature and Writing

Irish Literature

independent Ireland, Irish landscape, Irish writers, Roman alphabet, Irish Free State

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>  Early Irish Literature: Before 1200

>  Anglo-Irish Literature: 1200 to 1800

>  Irish Revival: 1800 to 1949

>  After Independence: 1949 to the Present

Irish Literature, the oral and written literature of the people of Ireland, an island that today comprises the independent Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is politically part of the United Kingdom. In recent years the definition of Irish literature has been broadened to encompass literature produced by Irish writers living outside Ireland and writers of Irish descent whose work reflects the Irish or Irish emigrant experience.

Irish literature is composed in the Irish and the English languages. Irish, also known as Gaelic, is the traditional tongue of Ireland. The oldest Irish literature consists of stories and poems about ancient kings and heroes, which were transmitted orally in Irish. Written literature in Ireland begins after Christian missionaries arrived in the 5th century ad and introduced the Roman alphabet, which was then adapted to the Irish language. Christianity coexisted with traditional Irish ways, rather than supplanting them, and has continued to do so to the present day. Both traditions figure strongly in Irish literature.

The second major influence on Irish literature, after Christianity, was colonization from England, which began in the 12th century. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the English had consolidated their power in Ireland, and Anglo-Irish writers—Irish-born writers of English descent—dominated Ireland’s literary culture. English was the language of the rulers; literature in Irish survived largely in oral tradition. Anglo-Irish literary movements of the 19th century sought to revive Gaelic culture and the Irish language. These movements linked literature with the cause of Irish political and cultural independence from Britain. The revival gained strength when Irish became an official language in 1922. At that time the island was divided politically into the Irish Free State, which became Ireland in 1949, and Northern Ireland. Today writers in Irish and English continue to find themes in the Irish landscape and in Irish history.

Irish literature reflects the bravado of Celtic heroes as well as the suffering and hardships the Irish people have experienced over the course of their history. Despite these hardships, wit and humor—often in the form of satire or irony—have characterized much of Irish literature. Another defining feature has been an exploration of the riches of language and an enjoyment of wordplay. A love of language is evident in Irish literature, from the early sagas to the 20th-century experiments of James Joyce.


Murphy, Maureen O'Rourke, B.A. Ph.D.

Professor of English, Hofstra University. President of the American Committee for Irish Studies. Author of "Irish Literature: A Reader".

Article key phrases:

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