Irish Literary History

Literature written in Ireland differs from that of Great Britain in many ways. Although Ireland and England were closely linked as island neighbors for many centuries, Irish literature has a history of its own, the specific characteristics of which continue to this day.

In addition to the Celtic roots, the influence of two languages ​​is a specialty of Irish literature. Irish and English both influenced and enriched her. But Irish literature has always been in exchange with continental European literature, especially in the modern age. In return, literature from Ireland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century brought new creative impulses to many European writers in order to develop further in style and form.

The Celtic roots

Although Ireland is a relatively small country, it has produced a large number of well-known writers whose works have decisively influenced the development of world literature. Up to the present day Irish literature shows some very typical characteristics which in this form are unique to the literature of the Emerald Isle. In order to better understand its characteristics, it is necessary to take a brief look at the roots of literary creation in Ireland. These begin in the world of mythology and closely related to it, in the oral tradition of poetry. These stories and legends became popular among the people of Ireland passed on from generation to generation long before the dawn of Christianity.

Texts that tell us about this period mostly in epic form were written in Irish monasteries and abbeys from the 6th century onwards. Irish monks had made it their business to record the stories of the people in their office on parchment paper so that they would not be forgotten. They mainly told of the lives of Irish heroes and their struggle for the land and the royal throne against the enemies of the tribe. Each royal court kept a full-time poet, the so-called fíli , who was able to artfully tell these stories in front of an audience. On this public and ordered according to strict rules Presenting the stories in prose or verse form may be attributed to two essential characteristics of Irish literature: on the one hand, the pleasure in extravagant storytelling and, in relation to the myths and legends, on the other hand, a strong presence of supernatural events.

Irish literature and education policy

When Ireland was linked to its neighboring English island in the 12th century, Ireland became a colony of mighty England. This meant that a new system of rule and administration replaced the old structures. It is important for the development of Irish literature that members of the English nobility came to Ireland at this point in time to administer the colonial areas. These had a school education enjoyed and were thus able to read and write. Even more: they had a much stronger connection to the European (writing) culture than the residents themselves. It is true that the English-born and Irish nobility mixed through alliances and marriages. For the development of literature, however, this meant that the Celtic myths and legends were still told as part of the Irish cultural heritage (the role of the “fíli” existed in its official function well into the 16th century and a changed one Shape to this day). But because they did not belong to the new, official culture of the country, and the settlers who were capable of writing were more oriented towards literary developments in Europe, they lost more and more attention over time.

The supremacy of the English-born settlers increased in the 16th century through the settlement in the north and east of Ireland (plantation) ordered by the English crown . From this point on, that higher social class began to emerge which was to have a decisive influence on the development of Irish literature until the beginning of the 20th century: the Protestant Ascendancy . Their influence was secured primarily through access to higher education and the associated acquisition of literacy skills. Not only that: by creating exclusive educational institutions like Trinity College Dublin(1592) the Anglo-Irish class secured their supremacy in society. Because the policy directed by England made it difficult for the majority of Irish residents, the Catholics, to obtain a school education through systematic discrimination on the basis of their faith (Penal Laws 1696-1725). In addition, the Anglo-Irish settlers and their descendants were also better off economically and thus simply had more time to study books. The introduction of the state primary school system for all Irish in 1831 did not change this much. At least the founding of the first Catholic university in 1854, today’s University College Dublin, enabled Catholics now also have access to higher education and the literatures of the world, especially classical literature.

Irish literature and Catholicism

The connection between education, the access to literature that it provides and the Catholic Church is extremely important for an understanding of Irish literature to this day. Because the education the Catholic Irish received was imparted to them by the Church and its religious orders. Literary education consisted primarily of knowledge of the Bible, mostly in Latin, and of classical literature. This type of training has survived to this day: the Irish school system is mainly run by religious orders, although many other subjects are now on the curriculum. At school, the imagery of the Bible, especially the ideas of heaven and hell, but also the concept of sin are a common motif in Irish literature (written by Catholics).

Irish literature and the family

The family is another important subject in Irish literature. The family can be counted as a counterpart to the Anglo-Irish rulership issue, as the family is often brought into connection with the influence of the Catholic Church and is therefore more associated with the Catholic-Irish writers. Most of the time, this involves studying father-son relationships or the role of women in society.

As a relatively small country, Ireland has produced a tremendous number of influential writers. Not only that, Ireland also has a relatively large number of Nobel Prize winners in literature:

and SEAMUS HEANEY (1995).

Irish Literary History