Irish Contribution to Literature

While the English language reached Ireland during the Middle Ages, the first major flowering of English literature in Ireland came during the eighteenth century.

Amongst the first Anglo-Irish writers to achieve literary success were Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Edmund Burke (1729-97), Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816). Later, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) produced major dramatic works.

Jonathan Swift was known for his political writings as well as his contribution to literature. He wrote a number of satirical essays including A Modest Proposal (1729) where Swift is seen to suggest that the Irish eat their young. Far from being a document advocating cannibalism, Swift hit out hard at the influence of London and landlords in Ireland:

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children

A century later, interest in Ireland’s ancient Celtic culture influenced Irish writers, most significantly William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), whose work inspired the modern renaissance in Irish writing. Yeats established an Irish National Theatre in Dublin and set out to create distinctively Irish literature (written in English). Yeats, Bernard Shaw and Seamus Heaney each won the Nobel Prize, in 1923, 1925 and 1994 respectively.

James Joyce (1882-1941) left Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century and spent most of the rest of his life in Europe, pioneering a new style of prose fiction. His encyclopaedic novel, Ulysses (1922), grafts the street life of his native city on to the plot of Homer’s Odyssey and chronicles a single day in the life of its principal characters.

Another Dubliner, Samuel Beckett (1906-89), who often wrote in French, created Waiting for Godot (1953), which has become a twentieth century classic. Beckett also won the Nobel Prize in 1969.

Authors such as Frank McCourt and Roddy Doyle have influenced modern Irish Literature heavily. It has been the writings of McCourt and Doyle that have been transferred to the big and small screen. Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize and Roddy Doyle has been awarded the Booker Prize.