Modern Irish Literature Critical Essays

Vivian Mercier


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.