Irish poetry

Jonathan Swift

Irish poetry includes poetry in two languages, Irish and English. The complex interplay between these two traditions, and between both of them and other poetries in English, has produced a body of work that is both rich in variety and difficult to categorise.

The earliest surviving poems in Irish date back to the 6th century, while the first known poems in English from Ireland date to the 14th century. Although there has always been some cross-fertilization between the two language traditions, an English-language poetry that had absorbed themes and models from Irish did not finally emerge until the 19th century. This culminated in the work of the poets of the Irish Literary Revival in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Towards the last quarter of the 20th century, modern Irish poetry tended to a wide range of diversity, from the poets of the Northern school to writers influenced by the modernist tradition and those facing the new questions posed by an increasingly urban and cosmopolitan society.

Early Irish poetry

Poetry in Irish represents the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. The earliest examples date from the 6th century, and are generally short lyrics on themes from religion or the world of nature. They were frequently written by their scribe authors in the margins of the illuminated manuscripts that they were copying. The best known example is Pangur Bán.

It was practical for poems to be short because the Irish recognized that it was necessary to use any means necessary to make the poems lasting in their oral culture. To accomplish such a feat as well as they have, they used complicated rhyme schemes that would render a poem nonsensical if any of the key words were changed from the original version.

In an oral culture, Irish poetry had many uses. A poem could be used to immortalize both the poet and the subject of the poem; oftentimes kings would commission poets to create a piece about them. Such poems would be passed on to descendants so they would remember the great deeds of past generations. Kings would also commission poets to write poems of advertisement, speaking of the king's greatness and worthiness, to attract young men to be warriors on behalf of their kingdom. Oral poetry, because it was in the vernacular, was often used for entertainment. Poems that were entertaining could also be informative, teaching people lessons or offering them wisdom of experience for dealing with situations they would encounter in their everyday lives. Finally, poems, especially those featured in the sagas, were thought to be an instrument of the supernatural: certain poems could enchant people or objects.

Another source of early Irish poetry is the poems in the tales and sagas, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Unlike many other European epic cycles, the Irish sagas were written in prose, with verse interpolations at moments of heightened tension or emotion. Although usually surviving in recensions dating from the later medieval period, these sagas and especially the poetic sections, are linguistically archaic, and afford the reader a glimpse of pre-Christian Ireland.

Medieval/Early modern

Main article: Irish bardic poetry

Irish bards formed a professional hereditary caste of highly trained, learned poets. The bards were steeped in the history and traditions of clan and country, as well as in the technical requirements of a verse technique that was syllabic and used assonance, half rhyme and alliteration known as Dán Díreach.

As officials of the court of king or chieftain, they performed a number of official roles. They were chroniclers and satirists whose job it was to praise their employers and damn those who crossed them. It was believed that a well-aimed bardic satire, glam dicin, could raise boils on the face of its target. However, much of their work would not strike the modern reader as being poetry at all, consisting as it does of extended genealogies and almost journalistic accounts of the deeds of their lords and ancestors.

The Metrical Dindshenchas, or Lore of Places, is probably the major surviving monument of Irish bardic verse. It is a great onomastic anthology of naming legends of significant places in the Irish landscape and comprises about 176 poems in total. The earliest of these date from the 11th century, and were probably originally compiled on a provincial basis. As a national compilation, the Metrical Dindshenchas has come down to us in two different recensions. Knowledge of the real or putative history of local places formed an important part of the education of the elite in ancient Ireland, so the Dindshenchas was probably a kind of textbook in origin.

Verse tales of Fionn and the Fianna, sometimes known as Ossianic poetry, were extremely common in Ireland and Scotland throughout this period. They represent a move from earlier prose tales with verse interludes to stories told completely in verse. There is also a notable shift in tone, with the Fionn poems being much closer to the Romance tradition as opposed to the epic nature of the sagas. The Fionn poems form one of the key Celtic sources for the Arthurian legends.

British Library Manuscript, Harley 913, is a group of poems written in Ireland in the early 14th century. They are usually called the Kildare Poems because of their association with that county. Both poems and manuscript have strong Franciscan associations and are full of ideas from the wider Western European Christian tradition. They also represent the early stages of the second tradition of Irish poetry, that of poetry in the English language, as they were written in Middle English.

During the Elizabethan reconquest, two of the most significant English poets of the time saw service in the Irish colonies. Sir Walter Raleigh had little impact on the course of Irish literature, but the time spent in Munster by Edmund Spenser was to have serious consequences both for his own writings and for the future course of cultural development in Ireland. Spenser's relationship with Ireland was somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, an idealised Munster landscape forms the backdrop for much of the action for his masterpiece, The Faerie Queene. On the other, he condemned Ireland and everything Irish as barbaric in his prose polemic A View of the Present State of Ireland.

In A View, he describes the Irish bards as being,

soe far from instructinge younge men in Morrall discipline, that they themselves doe more deserve to be sharplie decyplined; for they seldome use to chuse unto themselves the doinges of good men, for the ornamentes of theire poems, but whomesoever they finde to bee most lycentious of lief, most bolde and lawles in his doinges, most daungerous and desperate in all partes of disobedience and rebellious disposicon, him they sett up and glorifie in their rymes, him they prayse to the people, and to younge men make an example to followe.

Given that the bards depended on aristocratic support to survive, and that this power and patronage was shifting towards the new English rulers, this thorough condemnation of their moral values may well have contributed to their demise as a caste.

Gaelic poetry in the 17th century

For historical context, see History of Ireland (1536–1691).

The Battle of Kinsale in 1601 saw the defeat of Hugh O'Neill, despite his alliance with the Spanish, and the ultimate victory in the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland came with his surrender to crown authority in 1603. In consequence, the system of education and patronage that underpinned the professional bardic schools came under pressure, and the hereditary poets eventually engaged in a spat - the Contention of the bards - that marked the end of their ancient influence. During the early 17th century a new Gaelic poetry took root, one that sought inspiration in the margins of a dispossessed Irish-speaking society. The language of this poetry is today called Early Modern Irish. Although some 17th-century poets continued to enjoy a degree of patronage, many, if not most, of them were part-time writers who also worked on the land, as teachers, and anywhere that they could earn their keep. Their poetry also changed, with a move away from the syllabic verse of the schools to accentual metres, reflecting the oral poetry of the bardic period. A good deal of the poetry of this period deals with political and historical themes that reflect the poets' sense of a world lost.

The poets adapted to the new English dominated order in several ways. Some of them continued to find patronage among the Gaelic Irish and Old English aristocracy. Some of the English landowners settled in Ireland after the Plantations of Ireland also patronised Irish poets, for instance George Carew and Roger Boyle. Other members of hereditary bardic families sent their sons to the new Irish Colleges that had been set up in Catholic Europe for the education of Irish Catholics, who were not permitted to found schools or Universities at home. Much of the Irish poetry of the 17th century was therefore composed by Catholic clerics and Irish society fell increasingly under Counter-Reformation influences. By mid century, the subordination of the native Catholic upper classes in Ireland boiled over in the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Many Irish language poets wrote highly politicised poetry in support of the Irish Catholics organised in Confederate Ireland. For instance, the cleric poet Pádraigín Haicéad wrote, Éirigh mo Dhúiche le Dia ("Arise my Country with God") in support of the rebellion, which advised that

Caithfidh fir Éireann uile
o haicme go haonduine...
gliec na timcheall no tuitim

("All Irishmen from one person to all people must unite or fall")

Another of Haicéad's poems Muscail do mhisneach a Banbha ("Gather your courage oh Ireland") in 1647 encouraged the Irish Catholic war effort in the Irish Confederate Wars. It expressed the opinion that Catholics should not tolerate Protestantism in Ireland,

Creideamh Chríost le creideamh Lúiteir...
ladgadh gris i sneachta sud

(The religion of Christ with the religion of Luther is like ashes in the snow")

Following the defeat of the Irish Catholics in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland 1649–53, and the destruction of the old Irish landed classes, many poets wrote mourning the fallen order or lamenting the destruction and repression of the Cromwellian conquest. The anonymous poem an Siogai Romanach went,

Ag so an cogadh do chriochnaigh Éire
s do chuir na milte ag iarri dearca...
Do rith plaig is gorta in aonacht

("This was the war that finished Ireland and put thousands begging, plague and famine ran together")

Another poem by Éamonn an Dúna is a strange mixture of Irish, French and English,

Le execution bhíos súil an cheidir
costas buinte na chuine ag an ndeanach

(The first thing a man expects is execution, the last that costs be awarded against him [in court]")

Transport transplant, mo mheabhair ar Bhéarla
("Transport transplant, is what I remember of English")
A tory, hack him, hang him, a rebel,
a rogue, a thief a priest, a papist

After this period, the poets lost most of their patrons and protectors. In the subsequent Williamite War in Ireland Catholic Jacobites tried to recover their position by supporting James II. Dáibhi Ó Bruadair wrote many poems in praise of the Jacobite war effort and in particular of his hero, Patrick Sarsfield. The poets viewed the war as revenge against the Protestant settlers who had come to dominate Ireland, as the following poem extract makes clear,

"You Popish rogue", ni leomhaid a labhairt sinn
acht "Cromwellian dog" is focal faire againn
no " cia sud thall" go teann gan eagla
"Mise Tadhg" geadh teinn an t-agallamh

("You Popish rogue" is not spoken, but "Cromwellian dog" is our watchword, "Who goes there" does not provoke fear, "I am Tadhg" [an Irishman] is the answer given") From Diarmuid Mac Carthaigh, Céad buidhe re Dia ("A hundred victories with God").

The Jacobite's defeat in the War, and in particular James II's ignominious flight after the Battle of the Boyne, gave rise to the following derisive verse,

Séamus an chaca a chaill Éire,
lena leathbhróg ghallda is a leathbhróg Ghaelach

("James the shit who lost Ireland, with his one shoe English and one shoe Irish")

The main poets of this period include Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, (1625?1698), Piaras Feiritéar (1600?1653) and Aogán Ó Rathaille (16751729). Ó Rathaille belongs as much to the 18th as the 17th century and his work, including the introduction of the aisling genre, marks something of a transition to a post Battle of the Boyne Ireland.

The 18th century

The 18th century perhaps marks the point at which the two language traditions reach equal weight of importance. In Swift, the English tradition has its first writer of genius. Poetry in Irish now reflects the passing of the old Gaelic order and the patronage on which the poets depended for their livelihoods. This, then, is a period of transition writ large.

Gaelic songs: the end of an order

As the old native aristocracy suffered military and political defeat and, in many cases, exile, the world order that had supported the bardic poets disappeared. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that much Irish language poetry and song of this period laments these changes and the poet's plight. However, being practical professionals, the poets were not above writing poems in praise of the new English lords in the hope of finding a continuity of court patronage. This was not generally a successful tactic, and Gaelic poets tended to be folk poets until the Gaelic revival that began towards the end of the 19th century. However, many of the poems and songs written during this period of apparent decline live on and are still recited and sung today. The end of old ways, a feature of the bardic laments of the 18th century, is also to be found in the early 19th century poem Caoine Cill Chais (The Lament for Kilcash). In this verse the anonymous poet laments that the castle of Cill Chais stands empty, its woods are cut down and its old splendours departed. (Flood and Flood 1999:85-93):

Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad,
tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár;
níl trácht ar Chill Chais ná a teaghlach,
is ní bainfear a cling go bráth;
an áit úd ina gcónaíodh an deighbhean
a fuair gradam is meidhir thar mná,
bhíodh iarlaí ag tarraing thar toinn ann,
is an tAifreann binn á rá.

What shall we do from now on without timber?
The last of the woods is gone.
No more of Kilcash and its household
And its bells will not ring again.
The place where that great lady lived
Who received esteem and love above all others
Earls came from overseas to visit there
And Mass was sweetly read.

Cúirt An Mheán Oíche

Cúirt An Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) by Brian Merriman (17471805) is something of an oddity in 18th-century Irish poetry in Irish. Merriman was a teacher of mathematics who lived and worked in the Munster counties of Clare and Limerick. Cúirt An Mheán Oíche, effectively his only poetic work, was written around 1780. The poem begins by using the conventions of the Aisling, or vision poem, in which the poet is out walking when he has a vision of a woman from the other world. Typically, this woman is Ireland and the poem will lament her lot and/or call on her 'sons' to rebel against foreign tyranny.

In Merriman's hands, the convention is made to take an unusual twist. The woman drags the poet to the court of the fairy queen Aoibheal. There follows a court case in which a young woman calls on Aoibheal to take action against the young men of Ireland for their refusal to marry. She is answered by an old man who first laments the infidelity of his own young wife and the dissolute lifestyles of young women in general. He then calls on the queen to end the institution of marriage completely and to replace it with a system of free love. The young woman returns to mock the old man's inability to satisfy his young wife's needs and to call for an end to the celibacy among the clergy so as to widen the pool of prospective mates. Finally, Aoibheal rules that all men must mate by the age of 21, that older men who fail to satisfy women must be punished, that sex must be applauded, not condemned, and that priests will soon be free to marry. To his dismay, the poet discovers that he is to be the first to suffer the consequences of this new law, but then awakens to find it was just a nightmare. In its frank treatment of sexuality and of clerical celibacy, Cúirt An Mheán Oíche is a unique document in the history of Irish poetry in either language.

Swift and Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith

In Jonathan Swift (16671745), Irish literature in English found its first writer of real genius. Although best known for prose works like Gulliver's Travels and A Tale of a Tub, Swift was a poet of considerable talent. Technically close to his English contemporaries Pope and Dryden, Swift's poetry evinces the same tone of savage satire, and horror of the human body and its functions that characterises much of his prose. Interestingly, Swift also published translations of poems from the Irish.

Oliver Goldsmith (1730?1774) started his literary career as a hack writer in London, writing on any subject that would pay enough to keep his creditors at bay. He came to belong to the circle of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke and Sir Joshua Reynolds. His reputation depends mainly on a novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, a play, She Stoops to Conquer, and two long poems, The Traveller and The Deserted Village. The last of these may be the first and best poem by an Irish poet in the English pastoral tradition. It has been variously interpreted as a lament for the death of Irish village life under British rule and a protest at the effects of agricultural reform on the English rural landscape.

Weaver Poets and vernacular writing

Local cultural differences in areas such as north and east Ulster produced minor, and often only loosely associated, vernacular movements which do not readily fit into the categories of Irish or English literature. For example, the Ulster Weaver Poets wrote in an Ulster Scots dialect.

Working class or popular in nature, remaining examples are mostly limited to publication in self-published privately subscribed limited print runs, newspapers, journals of the time.[1]

The promotion of standard English in education gradually reduced the visibility and influence of such movements. In addition, the polarising effects of the politics of the use of English and Irish language traditions also limited academic and public interest until the studies of John Hewitt from the 1950s onwards. Further impetus was given by more generalised exploration of non-"Irish" and non-"English" cultural identities in the latter decades of the 20th Century.

The 19th century

During the course of the 19th century, political and economic factors resulted in the decline of the Irish language and the concurrent rise of English as the main language of Ireland. This fact is reflected in the poetry of the period.

Paradoxically, as soon as English became the dominant language of Irish poetry, the poets began to mine the Irish-language heritage as a source of themes and techniques. J. J. Callanan (17951829) was born in Cork and died at a young age in Lisbon. Unlike many other more visibly nationalist poets who would follow later, he knew Irish well, and several of his poems are loose versions of Irish originals. Although extremely close to Irish materials, he was also profoundly influenced by Byron and his peers; possibly his finest poem, the title work of The Recluse of Inchidony and Other Poems (1829), was written in Spenserian stanzas that were clearly inspired by Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Probably the most renowned Irish poet to write in English in a recognisably Irish fashion in the first half of the 19th century was Thomas Moore (17791852), although he had no knowledge of, and little respect for, the Irish language. He attended Trinity College Dublin at the same time as the revolutionary Robert Emmet, who was executed in 1803. Moore's most enduring work, Irish Melodies, was popular with English audiences. The poems are, perhaps, somewhat overloaded with harps, bards and minstrels of Erin to suit modern tastes, but they did open up the possibility of a distinctive Irish English-language poetic tradition and served as an exemplar for Irish poets to come. In 1842, Charles Gavan Duffy (18161903), Thomas Davis, (18141845), and John Blake Dillon (18161866) founded The Nation to agitate for reform of British rule. The group of politicians and writers associated with The Nation came to be known as the Young Irelanders. The magazine published verse, including work by Duffy and Davis, whose A Nation Once Again is still popular among Irish Nationalists. However, the most significant poet associated with The Nation was undoubtedly James Clarence Mangan (18031849). Mangan was a true poète maudit, who threw himself into the role of bard, and even included translations of bardic poems in his publications.

Another poet who supported the Young Irelanders, although not directly connected with them, was Samuel Ferguson (18101886). Ferguson once wrote: 'my ambition (is) to raise the native elements of Irish history to a dignified level.' To this end, he wrote many verse retellings of the Old Irish sagas. He also wrote a moving elegy to Thomas Davis. Ferguson, who believed that Ireland's political fate ultimately lay within the Union, brought a new scholarly exactitude to the study and translation of Irish texts. William Allingham (18241889) was another important Unionist figure in Irish poetry. Born and bred in Ballyshannon, Donegal, he spent most of his working life in England and was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and a close friend of Tennyson. His Day and Night Songs was illustrated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. His most important work is the long poem, Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland (1864), a realist narrative which wittily and movingly deals with the land agitation in Ireland during the period. He was also known for his work as a collector of folk ballads in both Ireland and England.

Ferguson's research opened the way for many of the achievements of the Celtic Revival, especially those of Yeats and Douglas Hyde, but this narrative of Irish poetry which leads to the Revival as culmination can also be deceptive and occlude important poetry, such as the work of James Henry (17981876), medical doctor, Virgil scholar and poet. His large body of work was completely overlooked until Christopher Ricks included him in two anthologies, and eventually edited a selection of his poetry. Various in his means, cosmopolitan in his range and possessed of an acute wit, Henry shows the negative force of nationalism in Irish criticism: his omission from standard accounts and anthologies for over 100 years can only be due to his blithe disregard of the matter of Ireland. 'Irish poetry', James's example suggests, does not always have to be about Ireland.

Folk songs and poems

During the 19th century, poetry in Irish became essentially a folk art. One of the few well-known figures from this period was Antoine Ó Raifteiri (Anthony Raftery) (17841835), who is known as the last of the wandering bards. His Mise Raifteiri an file is still learned by heart in some Irish schools. In addition, this was one of the great periods for the composition of folk songs in both languages, and the majority of the traditional singer's repertoire is typically made up of 19th-century songs.

The Celtic revival

Probably the most significant poetic movement of the second half of the 19th century was French Symbolism. This movement inevitably influenced Irish writers, not least Oscar Wilde (18451900). Although Wilde is best known for his plays, fiction, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he also wrote poetry in a symbolist vein and was the first Irish writer to experiment with prose poetry. However, the overtly cosmopolitan Wilde was not to have much influence on the future course of Irish writing. W. B. Yeats (18651939) was much more influential in the long run. Yeats, too, was influenced by his French contemporaries but consciously focused on an identifiably Irish content. As such, he was responsible for the establishment of the literary movement known as the Celtic Revival. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. Apart from Yeats, much of the impetus for the Celtic Revival came from the work of scholarly translators who were aiding in the discovery of both the ancient sagas and Ossianic poetry and the more recent folk song tradition in Irish. One of the most significant of these was Douglas Hyde (18601949), later the first President of Ireland, whose Love Songs of Connacht was widely admired.

The 20th century

Yeats and modernism

In the 1910s, Yeats became acquainted with the work of James Joyce, and worked closely with Ezra Pound, who served as his personal secretary for a time. Through Pound, Yeats also became familiar with the work of a range of prominent modernist poets. He undoubtedly learned from these contacts, and from his 1916 book Responsibilities and Other Poems onwards his work, while not entirely meriting the label modernist, became much more hard-edged than it had been.

A second group of early 20th-century Irish poets worth noting are those associated with the Easter Rising of 1916. Three of the Republican leadership, Patrick Pearse (18791916), Joseph Mary Plunkett (18791916) and Thomas MacDonagh (18781916), were noted poets. Although much of the verse written by them is predictably Catholic and Nationalist in outlook, they were competent writers and their work is of considerable historical interest. Pearse, in particular, shows the influence of his contact with the work of Walt Whitman. Individual from these groups is the Boyne Valley "peasant poet" Francis Ledwidge, killed in 1917 in World War I.

However, it was to be Yeats' earlier Celtic mode that was to be most influential. Amongst the most prominent followers of the early Yeats were Padraic Colum (18811972), F. R. Higgins (18961941), and Austin Clarke (18961974). In the 1950s, Clarke, returning to poetry after a long absence, turned to a much more personal style and wrote many satires on Irish society and religious practices. Irish poetic Modernism took its lead not from Yeats but from Joyce. The 1930s saw the emergence of a generation of writers who engaged in experimental writing as a matter of course. The best known of these is Samuel Beckett (19061989), who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. Beckett's poetry, while not inconsiderable, is not what he is best known for. The most significant of the second generation Modernist Irish poets who first published in the 1920s and 1930s include Brian Coffey (19051995), Denis Devlin (19081959), Thomas MacGreevy (18931967), Blanaid Salkeld (18801959), and Mary Devenport O'Neill (18791967). Coffey's two late long poems Advent (1975) and Death of Hektor (1982) are perhaps his most important works; the latter deals with the theme of nuclear apocalypse through motifs from Greek mythology. Of this group, Devlin is the least experimental; his friendship with Allen Tate while working at the Irish embassy in Washington is one index of the traditional tendencies of his verse. Long poems such as 'Lough Derg' (1946) and 'The Heavenly Foreigner' (written in the late 1940s and early '50s) explore ideas of Catholicism and Europe in a densely imagistic and occasionally obscure style.

While Yeats and his followers wrote about an essentially aristocratic Gaelic Ireland, the reality was that the actual Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s was a society of small farmers and shopkeepers. Inevitably, a generation of poets who rebelled against the example of Yeats, but who were not Modernist by inclination, emerged from this environment. Patrick Kavanagh (19041967), who came from a small farm, wrote about the narrowness and frustrations of rural life. John Hewitt (19071987), whom many consider to be the founding father of Northern Irish poetry, also came from a rural background but lived in Belfast and was amongst the first Irish poets to write of the sense of alienation that many at this time felt from both their original rural and new urban homes. Louis MacNeice (19071963), another Northern Irish poet, was associated with the left-wing politics of Michael Roberts's anthology New Signatures but was much less political a poet than W. H. Auden or Stephen Spender, for example. MacNeice's poetry was informed by his immediate interests and surroundings and is more social than political. In the South, the Republic of Ireland, a post-modernist generation of poets and writers emerged from the late 1950s onwards. Prominent among these writers were the poets Antony Cronin, Pearse Hutchinson, John Jordan, Thomas Kinsella and John Montague, most of whom were based in Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s. In Dublin a number of new literary magazines were founded in the 1960s; Poetry Ireland, Arena, The Lace Curtain, and in the 1970s, Cyphers.

Poetry in Irish

With the foundation of the Irish Free State it became official government policy to promote and protect the Irish language. Although not particularly successful, this policy did help bring about a revival in Irish-language literature. Specifically, the establishment in 1925[2] of An Gúm ("The Project"), a Government sponsored publisher, created an outlet both for original works in Irish and for translations into the language. Since then, a number of Irish-language poets have come to prominence. These include Máirtín Ó Direáin (19101988), Seán Ó Ríordáin (19161977), Máire Mhac an tSaoi (born 1922), Michael Hartnett (born 1941), Gabriel Rosenstock (born 1949), and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (born 1952). While all these poets are influenced by the Irish poetic tradition, they have also shown the ability to assimilate influences from poetries in other languages. The dramatist and actor Micheál Mac Liammóir (1899–1978) included many poetic verses he wrote in the Irish-language in his works.

The Northern School

The Northern Irish poets have already been mentioned in connection with John Hewitt. Of course, there were others of some importance too, including Robert Greacen (1920–2008) who, along with Valentin Iremonger, edited an important anthology, Contemporary Irish Poetry in 1949. Greacen was born in Derry, lived in Belfast in his youth and then in London during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He won the Irish Times Prize for Poetry in 1995 for his Collected Poems, after he returned to live in Dublin when he was elected a member of Aosdana. Other poets of note from this time include Roy McFadden (1921–1999), a friend for many years of Greacen. Another Northern poet of note is Padraic Fiacc (1924- ), who was born in Belfast, but lived in America during his youth. In the 1960s, and coincident with the rise of the Troubles in the province, a number of Ulster poets began to receive critical and public notice. Prominent amongst these were John Montague (born 1929), Michael Longley (born 1939), Derek Mahon (born 1941), Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), and Paul Muldoon (born 1951).

Heaney is probably the best-known of these poets. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, and has served as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory and Emerson Poet in Residence at Harvard, and as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Derek Mahon was born in Belfast and worked as a journalist, editor, and screenwriter while publishing his first books. His slim output should not obscure the high quality of his work, which is influenced by modernist writers such as Samuel Beckett.

Muldoon is Howard G. B. Clark '21 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. In 1999 he was also elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. Some critics find that these poets share some formal traits (including an interest in traditional poetic forms) as well as a willingness to engage with the difficult political situation in Northern Ireland. Others (such as the Dublin poet Thomas Kinsella) have found the whole idea of a Northern school to be more hype than reality, though this view is not widely held.


In the late 1960s, two young Irish poets, Michael Smith (born 1942) and Trevor Joyce (born 1947) founded the New Writers Press publishing house and a journal called The Lace Curtain. Initially this was to publish their own work and that of some like-minded friends (including Paul Durcan, Michael Hartnett and Gerry Smyth), and later to promote the work of neglected Irish modernists like Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin. Both Joyce and Smith have published considerable bodies of poetry in their own right. Among the other poets published by the New Writers Press were Geoffrey Squires (born 1942), whose early work was influenced by Charles Olson, and Augustus Young (born 1943), who admired Pound and who has translated older Irish poetry, as well as work from Latin America and poems by Bertolt Brecht. Younger poets who write what might be called experimental poetry include Maurice Scully (born 1952), and Randolph Healy (born 1956). Many of these poets along with many younger experimentalists have performed their work at the annual SoundEye Festival in Cork, which has been recognised as an important event not just for Irish poetry, but for innovative work internationally.[3]


In addition to these two loose groupings, a number of prominent Irish poets of the second half of the 20th century could be described as outsiders, although these poets could also be considered leaders of a mainstream tradition in the Republic which was critically eclipsed by the Ulster-centric focus of American and British-based Irish Studies academics and the prejudices of others who are gender study specialists. These include Thomas Kinsella (born 1928), whose early work was influenced by Auden. Kinsella's later work exhibits the influence of Pound in its looser metrical structure and use of imagery but is deeply personal in manner and matter. He is Professor of English at Temple University, Philadelphia. Kinsella also edited the poetry of Austin Clarke, who, in his later work at least, could also be included with the outsiders in Irish poetry.

John Jordan (1930–1988) was an Irish poet born in Dublin on 8 April 1930. He was educated at Synge Street CBS, University College, Dublin (U.C.D.) and Pembroke College, Oxford. In his teens he acted on the stage of the Gate Theatre, Dublin, before winning a Scholarship in English and French to Oxford University from U.C.D. In the mid-1950s he returned to U.C.D. as a lecturer in English and taught there until the end of the 1960s. He was a celebrated literary critic from the late 1950s until his death in June, 1988 in Cardiff, Wales, where he had participated in the Merriman Summer School. He was also a short-story writer, a poet and a broadcaster. In 1962 he re-founded and edited the literary magazine Poetry Ireland. In this journal, he introduced a number of poets who were to become quite famous later, including Paul Durcan, Michael Hartnett and Seamus Heaney. This series of Poetry Ireland lasted until 1968–69. In 1981 he became the first editor of the new magazine published by the Poetry Ireland society, called Poetry Ireland Review. His Collected Poems (Dedalus Press) and Collected Stories (Poolbeg Press) were edited by his literary executor, Hugh McFadden, and published in Dublin in 1991. His Selected Prose, Crystal Clear, also edited and introduced by McFadden, was published by Lilliput Press in Dublin in 2006. Jordan's Selected Poems, edited with an Introduction by Hugh McFadden, was published in February 2008 by Dedalus Press.

Basil Payne (1923) was born in Dublin on June 23, 1923. Like John Jordan, he was educated at Synge Street CBS and University College, Dublin. In the 1960´s he held many poetry readings in Dublin, and in 1964 he won a Guinness International poetry prize, followed by another Guinness International prize in 1966. From 1972 to 1978 he lectured in literature at several universities in the USA, and in 1975 he received the Governor's Special Citation for unique contribution to the Arts in New Jersey. His published work amounts to three slim volumes, and numerous inclusions in anthologies of Irish poetry. According to the website run by his son, a more voluminous work, Dark and Light Fantastic, remains unpublished.

Michael Hartnett (19411999) was unusual amongst Irish poets in that he was equally fluent in both Irish and English. As well as original work in both languages, including haiku in English, he published translations in English of bardic poetry and of the Tao Te Ching. In his 1975 book A Farewell to English he declared his intention to write only in Irish in the future, describing English as 'the perfect language to sell pigs in'. A number of volumes in Irish followed: Adharca Broic (1978), An Phurgóid (1983) and Do Nuala: Foighne Chrainn (1984). In 1984 he returned to Dublin to live in the suburb of Inchicore. The following year marked his return to English with the publication of Inchicore Haiku, a book that deals with the turbulent events in his personal life over the previous few years. This was followed by a number of books in English including A Necklace of Wrens (1987), Poems to Younger Women (1989) and The Killing of Dreams (1992). He died in Dublin in 1999, aged 58.

Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (Eugene Watters) (19191982) was another bilingual poet. His The Weekend of Dermot and Grace (1964) is one of the most interesting Irish long poems of the second half of the 20th century and one of the few examples of the application of the lessons of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land in any work by an Irish poet. Patrick Galvin (born 1927) worked mainly with the ballad tradition and his poetry displays his left-wing politics. He has also written several volumes of memoirs, one of which, Song for a Raggy Boy, has been made into a film. Cathal Ó Searcaigh (born 1956) writes exclusively in Irish. Many of his poems are candidly homoerotic in their subject matter. He has also written plays, such as Oíche Ghealaí ("Moonlit Night"), whose homosexual content created controversy when it opened in Letterkenny in 2001.

Rita Ann Higgins is another poet who fits this title of "Outsider" Higgins is an unconventional poet who refuses to be confined to any particular framework. Having left school as a teenager Higgins became interested in poetry after being confined to hospital with T.B. Her poetry confronts social injustices and is a powerful voice within modern Irish poetry.

Other poets mentioned further on in the sections on Women Poets and Irish Poetry Today (in the 21st century) deserve a prominence equal to the poets mentioned here.

Women poets

The second half of the century also saw the emergence of a number of women poets of note. Two of the most successful of these are Eavan Boland (born 1944) and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (born 1942). Boland has written widely on specifically feminist themes and on the difficulties faced by women poets in a male-dominated literary world. She is professor of English at Stanford University. Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry resists easy summaries and shows her interest variously in explorations of the sacred, women's experience, and Reformation history. She has also translated poetry from a number of languages. Ní Chuilleanáin is a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin where she is an associate professor of English Literature. Other women poets of note are; Vona Groarke; Kerry Hardie; Kate Newmann; Medbh McGuckian; Paula Meehan; and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, whose first language is Irish, but whose work has been translated into English.

Irish poetry today

Irish poetry in the 21st century is undergoing development as radical as the 1960s. Increased globalisation has led to a younger generation of poets seeking influences and precursors as varied as post-war Polish poets and Contemporary Americans. An explosion of talent and publishing has been one of the consequences of free secondary school education introduced in the 1960s, allowing many southern poets (e.g. Thomas McCarthy, John Ennis, Dennis O’Driscoll, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill) to come to wider notice.

Among the significant Irish poets to have emerged in recent years are: Pat Boran, Mairéad Byrne, Ciarán Carson, Patrick Chapman, Harry Clifton, Tony Curtis, Pádraig J. Daly, Colin Dardis, Gerald Dawe, Patrick Deeley, Celia de Freine, Greg Delanty, Séan Dunne, Paul Durcan, Eamon Grennan, Vona Groarke, Kerry Hardie, Randolph Healy, Seamus Heaney, John Hughes, Pat Ingoldsby, Trevor Joyce, Brendan Kennelly, Seán Mac Falls, Derek Mahon, Thomas McCarthy, Hugh McFadden, Paula Meehan, Sinéad Morrissey, Paul Muldoon, Gerry Murphy, Bernard O'Donoghue, Conor O'Callaghan, Caitriona O'Reilly, Micheal O'Siadhail, Justin Quinn, Maurice Riordan, Maurice Scully, Michael Smith, Geoffrey Squires, William Wall, Catherine Walsh.

While academic attention has remained, perhaps disproportionately, focused on poetry from Northern Ireland, several of the younger generation of Irish poets (Justin Quinn, Caitriona O'Reilly) have proved perceptive and independent critics of the contemporary scene, as have several older poets who are also literary critics, such as Hugh McFadden, Dennis O'Driscoll and Michael Smith. One of the major movements in Irish poetry in the last ten years is in performance poetry, led by young poets who not only publish books of poetry but are known for their live poetry, and work in other mediums such as video. Some of the poets in this generation are Máighréad Medbh, Dave Lordan, Colm Keegan, Sarah Clancy, Elaine Feeney, Alvy Carragher, and Billy Ramsell.


  1. Charles Jones, The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language p594ff (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997)
  2. Dáil Éireann - Volume 42 - 28 June, 1932, Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - An Gúm, Cuireadh “An Gúm” nó an Scéim Foillsiúcháin atá ar siubhal faoi Roinn an Oideachais, cuireadh sin ar bun go hoifigeamhail fá ughdarás na Roinne Airgid ar an 6adh lá de Mhárta, 1925., An Gúm, or the "Publication Scheme", was in progress under the Department of Education, founded officially under the authority of the Department of Finance on the 6th day of March, 1925.
  3. "Quotes from Bernstein, Perloff and Goldsmith", SoundEye


Further reading

External links

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