Welcome to the third part of our journey across Irish literature! In the first part, we talked about Irish literature from the arrival of Christianity to the Middle Ages. The second part of our Irish literature series was dedicated to the period from the 16th century until the 1960s. Check the previous parts if you missed them because our next stop is Irish contemporary literature!
“Troubles” and other social issues
After gaining independence, Ireland still struggled with the trauma caused by tragic historical events. The issues of national or cultural identity also remained unclear. Old tragedies and new uncertainties were captured by modern Irish authors in prose, poetry and drama.
In the 1960s, Irish writers had to fight against government censorship. Edna O’Brien’s novel The Country Girls, published in 1960, questioned the oppression of women by society and Roman Catholicism. The novel was banned, as was John McGahern’s The Dark (1965), his second novel about a young man’s claustrophobic coming-of-age. Because of the novel’s sexual scenes, McGahern couldn’t work as a teacher anymore.
In the 1960s, there were mass civil rights protests in Northern Ireland, which led to many novels by Irish authors. Many of them responded to an especially acute situation in Northern Ireland – the “Troubles,” or the violence between Catholics and Protestants.
American-born Irish poet John Montague wrote a long poem The Rough Field (1972). This poem is divided into ten sections with an epilogue and responds to the state of the nation. Apart from talking in general about the “Troubles,” Montague looks into the historical and traditional roots of this violence. Eavan Boland was a female poet who investigated Irish national identity and the role of women in Irish history. Another famous Irish poet Seamus Heaney addressed the violence in Northern Ireland and contemporary Irish experience in his poetry collections Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975).
The “Troubles” also influenced theatre. A new movement in drama and cultural politics was brought by playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea, who founded The Field Day Theatre Company in Derry. In 1980, they staged a play called Translations about British engineers translating the Irish landscape into English. At that moment, it became clear that Irish literature could be considered as postcolonial national literature.
The Irish language has also been an important issue. Michael Hartnett, who was equally fluent in Irish and in English, wrote and translated poetry. In 1974, Hartnett went to live in the village of Templeglantine in order to get closer to the Irish language. In 1975, he published A Farewell to English, in which he promised to write only in Irish in the future.
Yet the attempts to challenge censorship and bring up new themes in literature were necessary. The above mentioned John McGahern kept publishing new novels, and in 1990, Amongst Women about a tyrannical father and former IRA leader was published. This novel was the most acclaimed of his work and well-received by critics.
The late 1980s and 1990s were the years when writers could finally reflect on the cultural transformations that happened in Ireland over the past sixty years. The Irish economy improved in 1987. It was the beginning of the period of growth known as the Celtic Tiger, which lasted until the crisis in 2008. At the same time, Irish feminism rose, and the liberal movements led to the decline of religiosity.
In 1995, Heaney became the fourth Irish Nobel prize winner (check this article if you forgot who the other winners were). Critics praised Heaney for his ability to interweave Irish history and myths within his poetry. Seamus Heaney also often depicted the scenes of Irish rural life.
At the same time, Irish theatre raised a lot of controversial themes, such as ethnic prejudice, trauma and unhealthy relationships, putting them into Irish settings. Among the ten best Irish plays we chose, Portia Coughlan and By The Bog of Cats by Marina Carr, Disco Pigs by Enda Walsh, The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh were staged between 1996-1998.
Caitlín Maude and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill were two great Irish-language poets of that time. Widely known as an actress, Caitlín Maude wrote lyrical poems, which were published in a posthumous collection Caitlín Maude, Dánta. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poems combined Irish mythology and folklore with the contemporary themes of feminism and culture. In 2018, she received the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award for her outstanding poetry. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill remains one of the most well-known Irish-language writers.
The 21st century
In the 21st century, Irish literature remains vibrant and continues to investigate injustice and violence, mental health, stories of captivity, feminism and other social issues. There are more and more brilliant women writers, such as Emma Donoghue, Louise O’Neill, Lisa McInerney and so on. Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 for her novel The Gathering. John Banville, Literary Editor at the Irish Times from 1988 to 1999, also won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for the novel called The Sea.
Literature in the Irish language is being promoted in the genre of the novel. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne writes novels in both English and Irish. Her most recent novel is called Aisling Nó Iníon A (2015). In 2002, Lorcán S. Ó Treasaigh’s published an autobiographical novel Céard é English? (What Is English?), in which he describes his experience as an Irish native speaker in mostly English-speaking Dublin.
Irish poetry of the 21st century is represented by Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and Thomas Kinsella. In his poems, Paul Muldoon could touch upon deeply personal but also political themes. Derek Mahon’s poetry is very musical and explores contemporary themes through the form of classical poetic conventions. Irish playwrights Frank McGuinness, Martin MacDonagh and Marina Carr kept writing for the stage. Their plays were staged by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin as well as other companies in Ireland, the UK and the US. In 2008, there was a premiere of Little Gem by Elaine Murphy, a tragic comedy about three women going through a personal crisis.
Now Irish authors are also becoming popular beyond the literary medium. The movie adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room received four Oscar nominations and won one for the Best Actress. Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People was recently adapted into a successful TV series. The book, which tells about the complex relationship between two teenagers, was published in 2018 and was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.
Irish literature has always been more than just an aesthetic expression. It served as a response to social and political issues in Ireland and represented a quest for Irish cultural identity. At the same time, Irish literature moved in the ways of rejecting previous literary conventions and defining the new ones that better reflected the historical changes.
This was the last part of our Irish literature series. Hope you learned a lot and enjoyed our journey!
Have you ever studied Irish literature? What was new to you and what did you already know? Tell us more about it in the comment section below!