Modern Irish Literature
Modern Irish Literature
Modern Irish literature is generally considered to have begun after the Irish Literary Renaissance, which spanned the years from 1885 to 1940 and is exemplified by the writings of William Butler Yeats, J. M. Synge, Padraic Colum, George Moore, and Sean O'Casey. While the writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance concerned themselves with distinguishing Irish literature from its British counterpart by focusing on Celtic mythology, folklore, and the country's peasant culture, Irish literature since the advent of World War II concerns a wide variety of themes, styles, and subject matter. Ireland's neutrality during World War II evidences the country's attempts to distance itself politically from Great Britain; the period following the war was marked with violence associated with the Northern Irish strife between Protestants and Roman Catholics and the North's struggle for independence from England. This political strife has become the predominant subject matter for such diverse writers as Benedict Kiely, Seamus Heaney, and others who, while condemning the brutality perpetuated by the Irish Republican Army, nevertheless advocate independence from Great Britain and a reunited country. Other writers—such as Denis Devlin, Sean O'Faolain, and Austin Clarke—focused on themes that depict the Roman Catholic Church as an unnecessarily restrictive force in the day-to-day lives of its Irish practitioners. The power wielded by the Irish Catholic Church resulted in many works being banned for perceived heretical and sexual transgressions.
Most Irish novels since World War II reveal their authors' preoccupation with political themes and the isolation and powerlessness felt by the country's inhabitants. The country's neutrality during the war often is blamed for the worldwide indifference to its literature following the war, which resulted in Irish writers producing what many critics perceive to be insular and parochial fiction. Many of these works contain stylistic similarities to the works of Irish novelist and short story writer James Joyce in their use of interior monologues and stream-of-consciousness narrative style. Among the most critically appreciated novelists are Benedict Kiely, John Banville, John McGahern, and Brian Moore. Irish poetry since the death of Yeats in 1939 was initially dominated by Louis MacNeice and, later, John Montague, Patrick Kavanagh, and Thomas Kinsella. In the 1960s poets from Northern Ireland, including Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, ignited another renaissance in Irish literature. These writers alternately depict the horrors of the violence in Ireland with writing of delicate beauty describing the rural Irish countryside. Irish drama since World War II often is considered to be dominated by the Absurdist works of Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot (1954) is considered the best example, and Brian Friel, whose play Translations (1981) attempts to debunk the stereotype of the ignorant Irish perpetuated by writers of the Irish Renaissance.
Long Lankin (novel) 1970
Nightspawn (novel) 1971
Birchwood (novel) 1973
Copernicus (novel) 1976
Kepler (novel) 1981
The Newton Letter (novel) 1983
Mephisto (novel) 1986
Molloy (novel) 1950
Malone Dies (novel) 1952
Waiting for Godot (drama) 1954
The Unnameable (novel) 1955
Endgame (drama) 1956
Krapp's Last Tape (drama) 1958
Radio II (drama) 1960
Happy Days (drama) 1961
Ghost Trio III (drama) 1976
The Quare Fellow (drama) 1956
The Hostage (drama) 1958
Borstal Boy (novel) 1961
Light a Penny Candle (poetry) 1982
Echoes (novel) 1985
The Hotel (novel) 1927
The Last September (novel) 1929
Friends and Relations (novel) 1931
To the North (novel) 1932
The Death of the Heart (novel) 1935
The House in Paris (novel) 1935
The Heat of the Day (novel) 1949
A World of Love (novel) 1955
The Little Girls (novel) 1964
Eva Trout (novel) 1968
The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (short stories) 1981
The Flats (drama) 1971
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Contemporary Literature, 1940-80,” in A Short History of Irish Literature, University of Notre Dame Press, 1986, pp. 210-48.
[In the following essay, Deane presents an overview of Irish literature between 1940 and 1980.]
In the thirties and forties of this century, a number of writers emerge whose careers as artists are indistinguishable from their crusades as men of letters against the philistinism and parochialism of the new state. Sean O'Faolain is the outstanding personality in a group which includes Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O'Connor, Peadar O'Donnell and Sean O'Casey. O'Faolain was editor of a literary magazine The Bell from 1940 to 1946; Peadar O'Donnell gave it a more emphatic left-wing orientation during his editorship from 1946 until the last number in 1954. The Bell followed the example of George Russell's (AE) magazines, The Irish Homestead (1905-23) and The Irish Statesman (1923-30), by becoming a focus for new writing and for the dissenting voices which sought to articulate a critique of Irish social and political life. The literature of this generation thus combines, in a curious way, the emotions of commitment to and of alienation from Ireland, alternatively formulated in utopian and iconoclastic versions of what the country could be and what it actually was. Along with the more specifically literary...
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SOURCE: “The Honour of Naming: Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel,” in A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama 1891-1980, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 188-212.
[In the following excerpt, Maxwell compares and contrasts the plays of Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel.]
Martin. I was the like of the little children do be listening to the stories of an old woman, and do be dreaming after in the dark night it's in grand houses of gold they are, with speckled horses to ride, and do be waking again, in a short while, and they destroyed with the cold, and the thatch dripping maybe, and the starved ass braying in the yard.
The Well of the Saints
Estragon. You and your landscapes! Tell me about the worms!
Vladimir. All the same, you can't tell me that this (gesture) bears any resemblance to … (he hesitates) … to the Macon country for example. You can't deny there's a big difference.
Waiting for Godot
In the late nineteen-twenties in Paris, when he was an assistant at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Beckett championed Joyce's Work in Progress and at times helped him by taking dictation. Beckett's literary way, however, does not imitate...
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SOURCE: “Friel and After: Trends in Theater and Drama,” in New Irish Writing: Essays in Memory of Raymond J. Porter, edited by James D. Brophy and Eamon Grennan, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 13-34.
[In the following excerpt, Murray discusses the drama of Brian Friel, John B. Keane, Eugene McCabe, Thomas Kilroy, Bernard Farrell, Hugh Leonard, Graham Reid, and Tom McIntyre.]
In concluding his book on Brian Friel in 1973 D. E. S. Maxwell quoted him as saying: “I would like … to write a play that would capture the peculiar spiritual, and indeed material flux, that this country is in at the moment. This has got to be done, for me anyway, at a local, parochial level, and hopefully this will have meaning for other people in other countries.”1 Maxwell seemingly found this to be a “fair description” not only of Friel's plays up to 1973 but even of those written and staged in the 1970s and early 1980s, because he quotes the same words at the end of his Critical History of Modern Irish Drama, adding: “Friel's work is entirely compatible with that of his contemporaries considered here.”2 One may deduce from this repetition two things: (1) Friel's work has remained consistent in its concentration on local affairs, construed as having general or universal implications; (2) Friel's approach to drama is representative of the approach of Irish playwrights in general. One...
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SOURCE: “Northern Ireland: Our Troy? Recent Versions of Greek Tragedies by Irish Writers,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XLI, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 77-6.
[In the following excerpt, Teevan focuses on Greek tragedy adaptations in the Irish theater and poetry.]
“Each nation … fashion[s] a classical Greece in its own image.”
It is, perhaps, only after one has written something that one begins to see not only one's own personal motivations for doing so, but also the broader social environment and forces that contributed to the making of the text. In 1994 I undertook a translation and, ultimately, an adaptation of Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.2 At the time I had a variety of personal reasons for choosing this particular text—not least my attraction to both Iphigenia's notorious change of mind,3 and the equally notorious suspicions concerning the authorship of certain passages in the text we know as Iphigenia in Aulis.4 The first gave me a great dramatic character, the second allowed me the freedom to play with the structure of the text.5 However, it was only after completing my version that I began to see those broader social forces that I and my text had been subject to, and through this I began to see the relationship...
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SOURCE: “The Irish Novel: Exile, Resignation, or Acceptance,” in Wascana Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1967, pp. 5-17.
[In the following essay, Caswell discusses the fiction of Brian Moore, Kate O'Brien, Frank O'Conner, and Brinsley MacNamara.]
It is a commonplace in the study of modern Irish literature that the Irish literary revival, with the somewhat doubtful exception of George Moore and with the singular exception of James Joyce, produced few novelists of note. Perhaps Joyce is sufficient for a multitude of novelists, but the fact of their scarcity is strange when we recall the plentitude of Irish poets, dramatists and short-story writers. However, between Moore's The Lake (1905) and Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914) no Irish fiction writer of significance chose to work in the novel form. An exception might be made for James Stephens' The Charwoman's Daughter (1912) and Demi-Gods (1914), but these works, being much closer to fantasy than to the realistic-symbolic novel of the twentieth century, are novels only in a special sense. Since the revival Irish novelists have increased in number, but, as concerns prose fiction, it is the Irish short story that is distinctive and not the Irish novel. How can this marked discrepancy be explained?
One way of accounting for the more significant achievement of the Irish writer in the short story...
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SOURCE: “Recent Irish Fiction,” in The Dublin Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 75-8.
[In the following essay, Harmon presents a brief overview of the Irish novelists Patrick Boyle, Edna O' Brien, John Broderick, Richard Power, and Andrew Ganly.]
So much attention has been given to the happy resurgence of poetry in the past ten years that the position of the Irish novel has almost escaped attention. Poets tend to gain recognition more easily, since their work appears in the national newspapers and in the little magazines. And it would almost seem that it is only when a novel runs foul of the censorship laws, is profaned by the hands of the customs officials, or earns its author expulsion from his profession that the novelist comes into public focus. Nevertheless, the exciting fact is that Ireland now has a number of good and promising novelists. And the evidence of the little magazines and of hearsay is that more are about to emerge.
Patrick Boyle is older than John Broderick, John MacGahern or Edna O'Brien. But his first book of short stories1 and his first novel2 reveal a remarkably vigorous talent. Unlike the typical Irish hero, Boyle's hero is an exuberant victim. Degraded by his own passionate need for physical release and by his inability to find a cause large enough to absorb and fulfil his emotional needs, he staggers riotously to his own doom....
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SOURCE: “Frank O'Connor and the Modern Irish Short Story,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 53-67.
[In the following excerpt, Peterson compares and contrasts the short fiction of Frank O'Connor with the works of Mary Lavin and James Joyce.]
Frank O'Connor, one of Ireland's most prolific and successful short-story writers, has long been a major influence, through his critical writings, on efforts to describe and judge the modern Irish short story. In The Lonely Voice, his most influential book of criticism, O'Connor defines the short story “as a private art intended to satisfy the standards of the individual, solitary, critical reader.”1 Because of its solitary nature, the short story inevitably draws its subject matter, its characters and situations, from an isolated or “submerged population.” The reason, according to O'Connor, that Russia, America, and especially Ireland have produced so many great short-story writers is that each country is populated with so many alienated individuals—“outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society.” By focusing on the isolated world of artists, dreamers, or more common victims of society or of their own sensibility, the greatest short-story writers create a dramatic art most clearly identified by its “intense awareness of human loneliness” (LV, p. 19).
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SOURCE: “Change Naturally: The Fiction of O'Flaherty, O'Faolain, McGahern,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 1983, pp. 138-44.
[In the following essay, Freyer examines the fiction of Liam O'Flaherty, Sean O'Faolain, and John McGahern.]
The English upper classes have an irritatingly patronizing way of saying: “Of course, you Irish are always rebels.” But, if one looks at Irish fiction this century and compares it with other European literatures, one has to concede this is in a measure true. Whereas novels of the Resistance in France, or those of the “angry young men” in Britain were only passing phases in the literature of those countries, the novel of the lonely individual pitted against and usually defeated by the society around him has been one staple ingredient of Irish fiction. The prototype is, of course, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist. Stephen Dedalus's motivation is primarily aesthetic, thus linking him with the Romantics and a non-Irish world outside, but there are strong elements of local satire in his disdain for the Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism he saw about him. The three novels examined here reflect more specifically critiques of Irish society at three distinct phases of our history. While I correctly approach these works primarily as social documents, let me add that I regard all three as fine products of the creative imagination. It is precisely because of...
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SOURCE: “Irish Fiction: A Mirror for Specifics,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XX, No. 2, 1985, pp. 90-104.
[In the following essay, Lubbers detects similar themes in Irish fiction since James Joyce, focusing on works by such authors as Brian Moore, Frank O'Connor, and John McGahern.]
Irish fiction of the 19th century shows a considerable amount of continuity and homogeneity. Beginning with George Moore, a reorientation began that was part of the tremendous creative energy released by the cultural renaissance although only marginally inspired by it. Modern Irish fiction writers concentrated on materials almost entirely different from those that had attracted their predecessors. This new beginning is most clearly observable in the works of Moore, Stephens, and Joyce, but can also be seen in the work of Gerald O'Donovan and Brinsley Macnamara. When a critic writing in the late 1920s held Macnamara responsible for founding the “squinting windows” school of Irish realistic fiction,1 which depicts the narrowness of provincialism, he was referring to this reorientation in fiction which, of course, reflects political, economic, and social changes. Just as the consequences of the Penal Laws—which “completed the division of Ireland into two separate societies: Protestant and Catholic, conqueror and conquered”2—reverberated through Irish fiction from Lady Morgan to Somerville and...
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SOURCE: “New Voices: The Contemporary Novel,” in The Irish Novel: A Critical History, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 261-303.
[In the following essay, Cahalan discusses the fiction of Benedict Kiely, Brian Moore, John McGahern, Aidan Higgins, John Banville, William Trevor, James Plunkett, Edna O'Brien, Janet McNeill, Iris Murdoch, Eilís Dillon, Julia O'Faolain, Jennifer Johnston, Michael Farrell, Walter Macken, Sam Hanna Bell, Anthony C. West, John Borderick, Richard Power, Thomas Kilroy, and Anthony Cronin, as well as several writers in the Irish language.]
During the last thirty or so years, an impressive growth in the number of Irish novels and Irish novelists has occurred. In 1960 Stephen P. Ryan asked, “What has become of the Emerald Isle's once promising literary revival?” …, but today one is hard-pressed to know where to best begin a discussion of the embarrassment of riches in contemporary Irish literature. In this period more than thirty worthy novelists must compete with each other for recognition. Historically linked to the growth of the middle class in England and America, the novel has typically prospered when a nation comes of age—which is exactly what finally began happening in Ireland in the late 1950s. The contemporary novelist and critic Thomas Kilroy notes that “there is the widely accepted view nowadays among the historians...
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SOURCE: “A Crisis of Fiction: Flann O'Brien, Francis Stuart, John Banville,” in Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish Culture, Manchester University Press, 1988, pp. 83-100.
[In the following essay, Kearney discusses works by Flann O'Brien, Francis Stuart, and John Banville.]
What was to become of the Irish novel after Joyce and Beckett? How would it be possible to go on writing fiction once its basic narrative quest-structure had been radically overhauled by Ulysses and the Trilogy? The fact of the matter is that the majority of Irish novelists continued, as did the majority of novelists elsewhere, in the classical tradition of fiction-writing in spite of the challenge issued by the radical modernism of Joyce and Beckett. In this mainstream tradition of Irish novelists figure such celebrated authors as Liam O'Flaherty, Sean O'Faolain, Kate O'Brien, Jennifer Johnston, Edna O'Brien, James Plunkett, Bernard McLaverty, John McGahern, Brian Moore and others. These writers broadly conform to the structural requirements of classical realism unflustered by the modernist problematic of fiction (though some did, on occasion, incorporate aspects of its interrogative character). A small number of modern Irish novelists, however, explicitly chose to preoccupy themselves with the modernist critique of writing. In this ‘critical’ movement of fiction, which we could even call a...
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SOURCE: “Irish Jokes: A Lacanian Reading of Short Stories by James Joyce, Flann O'Brien, and Bryan MacMahon,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 237-45.
[In the following essay, Ingersoll discusses humor in the works of James Joyce, Flann O' Brien, and Bryan MacMahon.]
Modern Irish literature has had its share of great poems, novels, and plays, but in terms of sheer bulk, it is the short story or the tale in which the Irish have excelled. Traditionally a culture that has offered few possibilities for action other than violence, Ireland has generated an inordinately large number of storytellers, in pubs and in print, for whom talking may be the most meaningful alternative to inactivity or violent action. Surveying any collection of Irish short stories, the reader finds many which bear striking similarities in their narrative structure to the stories told and retold in pubs. These stories may be viewed, then, as elaborated jokes, with their scrupulously engineered structure of expectations and their inevitable “punchline.”
One result of the “return to Freud” signaled by Jacques Lacan and the French Freudians is the renewed interest in using psychoanalytic insights in reading literary texts. Unfortunately, as many of us have already discovered to our frustration and dismay, Lacan can be not only brilliant and provocative but also elusive and obscure....
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SOURCE: “The Bicycle and Descartes: Epistemology in the Fiction of Beckett and O'Brien,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 76-94.
[In the following essay, Booker discusses epistemology in the works of Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien.]
A fascinating scene concludes Samuel Beckett's Murphy in which the old, crippled Mr. Kelly—a forerunner of later, more paradigmatic crippled Beckett “heroes” like Malone—flies his kite in the park. Mr. Kelly is a skillful flier, even from his wheelchair, and the kite reaches such heights that it disappears from view, giving its owner an opportunity to engage in some profound epistemological speculations: “Now he could measure the distance from the unseen to the seen, now he was in a position to determine the point at which seen and unseen met.”1 This is a supreme Beckettian moment, both in its acknowledgement that there is an “unseen” to which human scientific and philosophical investigations simply do not have access and in the futility of Mr. Kelly's attempt to gain a knowledge even of the boundary of the unseen.2 He falls asleep, the winch slips from his hand, and the kite is lost forever—the crippled Mr. Kelly tottering impotently behind the receding string.
The little epistemological parable with which Beckett ends his first published novel is certainly not unique. Angela Moorjani, for...
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SOURCE: “How It Is on the Fringes of Irish Fiction,” in Irish University Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1992, pp. 151-67.
[In the following essay, Imhof examines the fiction of Sean O'Faolain, Sebastian Barry, Dermot Bolger, Aidan Higgins, Kevin Kiely, Aidan Mathews, Brian McHale, and Robert McLiam Wilson.]
In Sean O'Faolain's story “The Faithless Wife”, the principal character reflects on the nature of Irish fiction and he comes up with this, not especially flattering verdict:
Irish fiction was a lot of nineteenth-century connerie about half-savage Brueghelesque peasants, or urban petits fonctionnaires who invariably solved their frustrations by getting drunk on religion, patriotism or undiluted whiskey, or by taking flight to England. Pastoral melodrama. (Giono at his worst.) Or pastoral humbuggery. (Bazin at his most sentimental.) Or, at its best, pastoral lyricism. (Daudet and rosewater.)1
There is still a lot of that about—religion, patriotism, undiluted whiskey and all. But there have also been some significant changes within the last couple of decades. Fintan O'Toole, for one, has diagnosed a “dislocation of the sources of continuity from the immediate and political to the historical and literary” in the recent poetry of Thomas Kinsella and he finds this “not a unique response in...
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SOURCE: “Reinventing a Form: Aidan Higgins and John Banville,” in The Anglo-Irish Novel and the Big House, Syracuse University Press, 1998, pp. 234-60.
[In the following excerpt, Kreilkamp discusses the “Big House” Irish novels of Aidan Higgins and John Banville.]
Among contemporary Irish novelists who write about the Big House, only Aidan Higgins and John Banville inherit the techniques and preoccupations of the experimental post-Joycean novel. Both dissolve the chronological sequences of realistic fiction, emphasizing traditional narrative far less than the exploration of individual consciousness. And both respond to and emerge from that breakdown of cultural certainties that accompanies all modernist writing. Higgins's and Banville's use of the conventions of the Big House genre as a catalyst for their innovations suggests the generative power of a traditional form. For each, the illusionary quality of Anglo-Irish life, its creation of fantasies of the past that fail to compensate for the decay of the present, becomes a source for setting, imagery, and theme. In turning to Big House conventions, Higgins and Banville reinvent, and in Banville's case, subvert, the form.
Higgins's Langrishe, Go Down internationalizes a parochial genre by juxtaposing the decline of Anglo-Ireland with the collapse of the Allies under the Axis aggressions that preceded World War II. Thus, a...
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SOURCE: “Contemporary Irish Poetry,” in Chicago Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 2 & 3, 1964, pp. 152-68.
[In the following essay, Torchiana compares the poetry of John Montague, Richard Murphy, Austin Clarke, and Thomas Kinsella.]
Contemporary Irish poetry written in English can show nothing comparable to the poetry of Yeats, perhaps even to that of Gogarty or the late Denis Devlin. Yet modern Ireland has several very competent, often satisfying poets.1 They would not be caught dead writing the lumpish verse, that still passes for poetry, once scribbled by AE, Katherine Tynan, F. R. Higgins, and Seumus O'Sullivan, and now by Ewart Milne, Donagh MacDonagh, and Monk Gibbon. Nevertheless, this persistent load of uninspired sing-song or doggerel that passes for contemporary verse at any time in Ireland is significant in itself. It suggests that the average educated Irishman, while a great hand at quoting verse and voicing song, has no more real interest than ever in the intricate quality of poetry. One hears, characteristically, “The Ballad of Father Gilligan” quoted much more frequently than, say, “Among School Children” or “Sailing to Byzantium.” Moreover, there is now, as ever, little if any intelligent literary criticism written in the Republic. And the little magazines of any importance like The Dubliner and Poetry Ireland are just beginning to be concerned with the...
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SOURCE: “The Speckled Hill, the Plover's Shore: Northern Irish Poetry Today,” in Encounter, Vol. XLI, No. 6, December, 1973, pp. 70-6.
[In the following essay, Dunn discusses the contemporary poetry of Northern Ireland, including Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, James Simmons, and John Montague.]
In the North of Ireland, poets—most of them young—are faced with the cruel but interesting difficulties of realising their attitudes to violence and history. In a recent survey of contemporary Irish literature compiled by the French critic Serge Fauchereau, political topicality is elicited from poets in a series of interviews.1 What emerges is that to be a poet in the country of Yeats is at the present time an embarrassment. Michael Longley talks of poetry being a force to be reckoned with, quoting with touching literary and political naïvety Shelley's remark about “unacknowledged legislators.” But the edicts of poetic legislation are as violable as any other. If what Shelley said is true, then poetry clearly has a responsibility before and after, as well as during, the sway of violence. And in the Irish case, it would seem that prior legislation was a disaster, or on one side and not another.
Seamus Heaney, in his replies to M. Fauchereau, defends the unpartisan nature of poetry. Having been asked to write poems directly about the crisis, Heaney has been able to confirm to...
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SOURCE: “‘The Enabling Ritual’: Irish Poetry in the 'Seventies,” in Shenandoah, Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer, 1974, pp. 3-24.
[In the following essay, Johnston compares works by Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Richard Murphy, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Seamus Deane, Richard Ryan, and Paul Muldoon.]
But the stupidity Of root, shoot, blossom or clay Make no demand. I bend my body to the spade Or grope with a dirty hand. W. B. Yeats Our pioneers keep striking Inwards and downwards. Seamus Heaney
After Austin Clarke's death, on March 19th of this year, his body was cremated.1 Knowing that the church was unlikely to grant him permission to be buried in Irish soil, this unrecanting heresiarch willed that his body be flown to Belfast where cremation is permitted. It seems likely that from his ashes will arise the second, fuller stage of the Irish poetic revival.
Clarke, who like the aging Yeats was spurred into song by ‘lust and rage,’ matched the younger poets book for book during the ’sixties and voiced the leman's song and the fili's curse with uncompromising integrity. He evolved from a lyric poet to a satirist and then a reflective ironist, but he was never a seer. His major gift to his peers,...
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SOURCE: “The Appetites of Gravity: Contemporary Irish Poetry,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 1, January-March, 1976, pp. 199-208.
[In the following review, Deane assesses works by Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, and Richard Murphy.]
Reading these five books, [Wintering Out, North, Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems, The Snow Party, and High Island,] I am reminded of what R. P. Blackmur wrote in 1948: “Almost the whole job of culture has been dumped on the artist's hands.” In Ireland, where this is particularly true, most writers have become wearied by the attritional quality of their relationship to their society and its history. Given the example of W. B. Yeats, the political and economic depression, the society's fixed loyalties and fissile emotions, it was difficult for an Irish poet of the thirties and forties to see his function as anything less than redemptive. It was as though every poet was compelled by circumstances to see himself as a major poet if he was to become a poet at all. This stress on creativity had to be damaging. Much Irish poetry after Yeats would have been more memorable if it could have settled for being less ambitious. This, I think, is at least part of the truth about Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Austin Clarke.
Thomas Kinsella inherited the disappointments of that era and...
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SOURCE: “Irish Poetry After Yeats,” in The Literary Review, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Winter, 1979, pp. 133-44.
[In the following essay, Frazier presents an overview of Irish poetry after W. B. Yeats's death, focusing on Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, Ciarán Carson, Michael Longley, and Derek Mahon.]
All readers of poetry will admit that one great poet has come out of Ireland in the twentieth century: William Butler Yeats. The enormous appeal of his poetry, especially to Americans, has resulted in a large Irish tourist industry. There are daily buses to Ballylee and Coole Park, summer schools in Sligo (now called “Yeats Country”), critical books on display in the windows of Dublin bookshops, and Anglo-Irish literature programs offered to foreign students in all the main universities. But if the Land of Poets and Dreamers has become a museum for pilgrims and critics, few of these visiting readers have offered more recent Irish poets anything like the veneration they have given Yeats. In fact, the reputations of Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh have always been far greater in Ireland than elsewhere, and, more recently, the popularity of Seamus Heaney's work in the British Isles has not spread to America. It is true, I think indisputably, that “the little room” and “great hatred” of Ireland have not thrown up another genius such as Yeats, but, one must add, neither have the more populous...
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SOURCE: “Re-Membering: Irish Poetry After Yeats,” in Eire-Ireland, Vol. XV, No. 3, 1980, pp. 120-26.
[In the following essay, Reilly responds to Adrian Frazier's essay on “Irish Poetry after Yeats.”]
The keynote poem in The Literary Review's Winter, 1979, issue on “Irish Poetry after Yeats” is Michael Longley's “On Hearing Irish Spoken.”1 The poet eavesdrops on a conversation between two fishermen gliding together in their currachs, and hears only “An echo of technical terms, the one I know / Repeating itself at desperate intervals / Like the stepping stones across a river in spate.” Longley, a Belfast Protestant and native speaker of English, feels himself cut off from the drowning echo of Ireland's native language. The central problem elaborated in this collection of essays, interviews, and poems is that of being cut off from one's culture and, therefore, from oneself. John Montague has said in his Introduction to The Book of Irish Verse: “The true condition of Irish poetry in the nineteenth century is … mutilation,” citing as symbolic example the choice offered, in one of Ferguson's ballads, the Lynnot Clan between castration and blindness. This collection's poems by thirteen contemporary Irish poets, interviews with four of them, and introductory essay by guest editor Adrian Frazier make it clear that mutilation—in Montague's gruesome image from...
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SOURCE: “An Ulster Renaissance? Poets from the North of Ireland, 1965-1980,” in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1981, pp. 5-23.
[In the following essay, Brown discusses the poetry of Northern Ireland poets Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, John Montague, and Derek Mahon.]
The first poem in a recent anthology Poets from the North of Ireland (edited by Frank Ormsby and published in 1979) included the line about a Northern poet:
His rainy countryside didn't, scholastically, exist. …
Whether it can be said to exist poetically in any worthwhile sense will be the subject of this paper as it seeks to marshal evidence to show that since the mid 1960's a distinctive school of poetry has established itself in the North of Ireland, so that the poetic stirrings there in the period can be usefully understood as an Ulster Renaissance. The primary question to which answers will be sought is whether the revival of poetry in the province in the last fifteen years has been anything more significant than several distinctive talents providing occasion for a superficial media-inspired notion of a renaissance, gratifying to local amour propre but without any profound basis in cultural fact.
It is in formal and generic aspects of the Northern poets' work that I believe we can discern ways in which the term “Renaissance” can have its serious meanings...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney, University of California Press, 1986, pp. 1-15.
[In the following essay, Garratt traces the evolution of Irish poetry from the Irish Renaissance to the international acclaim of Seamus Heaney.]
The following essay offers a reading of Irish poetry since Yeats and attempts to explain a main current, or preoccupation, in the writing of certain poets from the 1930s to the 1970s. As a reading it is selective both in its choice of poets and in its critical vantage point. I have chosen these particular poets because I believe that they represent the major voices in Irish poetry after Yeats. In most cases I do not anticipate any arguments; enough critical attention already has been paid to these writers to justify their inclusion in any book about twentieth-century Irish poetry. When dealing with very recent or contemporary poets, my choices were made somewhat difficult because of the continual publication of new work as I was writing this book. As a result, I chose to discuss the most recent generation, those writers whose reputations are still evolving, by emphasizing the works of Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, the most established and best known among them. Any gathering of writers which purports to reveal a direction in literature can be criticized for its omissions; I respond in advance that the poets whom I...
(The entire section is 5539 words.)
SOURCE: “Threaders of Double-Stranded Words: News from the North of Ireland,” in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 2, Winter, 1989, pp. 179-92.
[In the following essay, Drexel reviews works by Ciarán Carson, Medbh McGuckian, and Paul Muldoon.]
Fifty years after his death, Yeats's influence on Irish poetry is finally beginning to fade. It isn't that the current generation has discounted him—to the contrary. But if there is a presiding figure now for younger Irish poets to contend with, it's Seamus Heaney. Heaney's accomplishment in our day may not match that of Yeats in his, but Heaney is by far the most visible Irish poet currently at work.
Yeats's dominance was such that those gifted poets who followed closely on his heels, chronologically speaking—Austin Clarke, Padraic Colum, and Denis Devlin, among others—were driven into real or figurative exile. Not even the feisty, wholly individual Patrick Kavanaugh, who always spoke with his own voice, was able to have things altogether on his own terms. MacNeice, a Northern Protestant, luckily felt no obligation to compete with the legend of W. B.—he lacked the proper cultural credentials anyway—but he had the misfortune to be forever paired in readers' minds with his English contemporary, Auden.
It was more the simple passage of time and the complex course of extra-literary history...
(The entire section is 4761 words.)
SOURCE: “Small Gifts of Knowing,” in The Literary Review, Vol. 40, No. 4, Summer, 1997, pp. 561-65.
[In the following essay, Kennedy discusses modernism, politics, and religion as elements of contemporary Irish poetry.]
The poet Patrick Kavanagh once quipped that Ireland has a standing army of at least five thousand poets. This would seem to be no exaggeration. Despite Samuel Beckett's charge that the Irish as a nation “never gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever,” Patrick Crotty in Modern Irish Poetry (The Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1995) notes, “Contemporary Ireland is clearly hospitable to new poetry,” though he adds, “Whether it is in any serious sense responsive to it is another matter.”
It seems to me that poetry and story are an integrated part of the lives of the Irish. In comparison to the United States, writing is far less institutionalized in Irish universities and is not compartmentalized. There are poets everywhere, storytellers, and you hear verse quoted by cab drivers and doctors, administrators and barmen. Poems and stories are broadcast on radio, published in newspapers, and people read them. Books of Irish fiction and poetry issued by more than two dozen small publishers are reviewed in the daily newspapers and stocked and sold in the many bookstores throughout Ireland.
Of course, you find all the academic...
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SOURCE: “Dodging Around the Grand Piano: Sex, Politics, and Contemporary Irish Women's Poetry,” in Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la femme, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer/Fall, 1997, pp. 76-85.
[In the following essay, Smyth examines feminist issues as presented in the poetry of several contemporary Irish female poets.]
The preoccupation with Irishness as the primary terrain of criticism has disturbing repercussions for poetry, because poems which do not nourish these critical concerns are considered as either not really Irish, or not really poems.
L'auteure examine les représentations sexuelles et la sexualité dans la poésie féminine de l'Irlande contemporaine et remet en question l'éternelle assomption chez les critiques littéraires que la poésie irlandaise est prioritairement préoccupée par les mythes, l'histoire et l'identité nationale et culturelle.
She told the one who was beyond saving to have a nice day (she said it twice for effect) I will, she assured,
I'll have a bastarding ball dodging the Gods around the grand piano that isn't really there at all
—Rita Ann Higgings, from “God Dodgers Anonymous”
Knowledge is limited by the scope of the eye, the acuity of the ear, the accuracy of memory. Human, not godly. Even...
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SOURCE: “Earth Writing: Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, April, 1998, pp. 144-68.
[In the following essay, Kerrigan compares and contrasts the poetry of Ciaran Carson and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.]
In the human geography of these islands, diversity is the rule. Plainly, however, there are regions in which the juxtapositions of difference do not coincide with a tolerant multi-culturalism. Although the Troubles could only have happened in Ulster, there are aspects of the situation which echo across the archipelago. Events in Northern Ireland can seem locked—not least for Seamus Heaney—in a violent past which other parts of the archipelago have forgotten (1798, 1690), yet the linguistic, electronic, and environmental resources used to manage the crisis (from the media-manipulation of politicians to the surveillance systems of the military) are, as Ciaran Carson reminds us, as wired-up and futuristic as anything to be found in London. However elusive the links between poetry and place might be elsewhere, in Ulster they are frequently so palpable that they become problematic. Just as the labyrinthine properties of Carson's writing would be inconceivable without Belfast, so the excellences and limitations of Heaney derive in no small measure from his experience of ‘dislocation’ in Ulster, from a grounding which has led him to explore, in more nearly...
(The entire section is 8562 words.)
SOURCE: “Covert Voices: Women Poets After the Revival,” in Poetry in Modern Ireland, 1998, pp. 319-28
[In the following essay, Schirmer examines the poetry of Irish women writers Sheila Wingfield, Blanaid Salkeld, Mary Devenport O'Neill, Maire MacEntee, and Eithne Strong.]
Irish women poets writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and during the years of the literary revival achieved a certain visibility, even if their work was often subsumed by the various literary or political movements that both supported and contained them. The poetry of Irish women writing in the wake of the revival and the establishment of the Irish Free State was much less widely noticed in its day, and has since been largely forgotten. The relative silence of the female poetic voice in these years was part of a larger phenomenon. The political, cultural, and religious conservatism that dominated Irish society in the wake of independence often meant that women were denied cultural and political influence of all kinds; de Valera's famous vision of Ireland, for example, with its emphasis on the conventional family, Catholicism, and the traditional rural way of life, had few if any places in it for women outside the home. The effective absence of women from the mainstream of Irish poetry in these years, when Irish writing in general was not focused around well-defined cultural or political movements, also illustrates...
(The entire section is 3565 words.)
Bedient, Calvin. “The Thick and the Thin of It: Contemporary British and Irish Poetry.” Kenyon Review III, No. 3 (Summer 1981): 32-48.
Presents an overview of Irish and British poets, singling out Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill as among the best.
Brophy, James D., and Raymond J. Porter, eds. Contemporary Irish Writing. New Rochelle, N.Y. : Iona College Press; Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1983, 174 p.
Anthology of essays by various critics on such writers as Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Sean O'Riada, Thomas Kinsella, Brian Friel, and others.
Dawe, Gerald. “‘What's the Story?’: Irish Writing and British Studies.” Irish University Review 28, No. 2 (Autumn-Winter 1998): 217-26
Discusses whether Irish literature should be categorized as British literature.
Donovan, Stewart. “Song and Suffering: A Survey of the Literature of the Northern Irish Conflict, 1969-89.” Antigonish Review, No. 80 (Winter 1990): 145-61.
Discusses the rhetorical and agitprop works by such Irish writers as Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney that deal with the issues surrounding the Irish “troubles.”
Hildebidle, John. Five Irish Writers: The Errand of Keeping Alive. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983, 241 p.
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