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W. B. Yeats | © Bain News Service/WikiCommons
W. B. Yeats | © Bain News Service/WikiCommons
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An Introduction to Irish Literature in 10 Writers

Picture of Kate Phelan
Updated: 31 January 2017
Having only begun producing fiction in English during the the 18th century, the Irish have come to be recognised as some of the finest and most innovative English-language writers in the world, breaking new creative ground time and again. Its breadth defies abbreviation, but the below is as comprehensive an introduction to the history of Irish literature as can be managed in ten writers.

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)

The invention of the relatively young genre of Irish fiction written in English is most often credited to the Trinity College Dublin graduate and cleric Jonathan Swift. Born in 1667, Swift is best known for his most famous novel, Gulliver’s Travels – published in 1726 – but his writing in general is said to have influenced everyone from Voltaire to James Joyce. As well as fictional works, Swift also penned several pamphlets championing Irish independence from English rule, in his capacity as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849)

Anglo-Irish author Maria Edgeworth doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves, in spite of the fact that she is noted as having been ‘a significant figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe’. Born in England, Edgeworth moved to Ireland as a child with her father, who later gave her home-schooling in law, politics, literature and other subjects. Her first novel – a realist satire of Anglo-Irish landlords published in 1800 – was all kinds of groundbreaking: It is generally held to be the English-speaking world’s first historical novel, as well as its first regional novel.

Lady Sydney Morgan (1781–1859)

Novelist Lady Sydney Morgan was quite possibly Ireland’s first overtly feminist writer – one of the last projects she ever completed was entitled Woman and Her Master (1840). A highly successful author making her own money at a time when that kind of independence for a woman went very much against the grain, she made waves in 1806 with the publication of The Wild Irish Girl – an epistolary novel in support of Catholic emancipation. Other works included the 1814 novel O’Donnell, widely considered her best.

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)

With an insatiable wit that has made him one of the most oft-quoted literary figures in history, Oscar Wilde can sometimes be dismissed with the same snobbishness often applied to comedy generally as an art form. But the contribution he made to the world of literature during his comparatively short life – particularly through farcically comic plays like The Importance of Being Earnest – shouldn’t be underestimated, and his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) was one of the first to feature an implicitly homosexual central character.

Oscar Wilde statue, Merrion Square
Oscar Wilde statue, Merrion Square | © William Murphy/Flickr

W. B. Yeats (1865–1939)

Symbolist poet W. B. Yeats was Ireland’s first Nobel Laureate, winning the prize in 1923 – the year after the country gained independence from England – for poetry that was said to ‘give expression to the spirit of a whole nation’. Considered one of the greatest poets of his time, Yeats also produced many plays throughout his lifetime. Arguably his best and most influential works are those in which he attempted to make sense of the events of the Irish struggle for independence from 1916 onwards, taking place when the writer was in his early 50s.

James Joyce (1882–1941)

Ulysses (1922) author James Joyce once wrote to his brother that, ‘When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for a thousand years, that it is the “second” city of the British Empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice, it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world’. Joyce clearly made it his mission to do just that, writing about his home city even after emigrating to Europe. Becoming a touchstone for Irish literature – and regarded as one of the most important writers in history – he left a giant pair of shoes for others coming later to try to fill.

Ulysses by James Joyce
Ulysses by James Joyce | © poppet with a camera/Flickr

Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973)

The endlessly prolific Elizabeth Bowen published ten novels and 13 short story collections throughout her illustrious career, on top of 16 works of non-fiction. Bowen’s last novel, Eva Trout (1968), won her the James Tait Black Memorial Prize – one of Britain’s oldest literary prizes – and a place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist in 1970, the first year a woman ever took home the prize. Bowen was also the first woman to ever inherit her family’s historic country home of Bowen’s Court in County Cork – she later wrote a book about it.

Elizabeth Bowen commemorative plaque
Elizabeth Bowen commemorative plaque | © Simon Harriyott/Flickr

Samuel Beckett (1906–1989)

Born in Dublin, the avant-garde novelist, playwright and poet Samuel Beckett is often paired with James Joyce as one of the most widely celebrated writers of the 20th century. Another Nobel Laureate, Beckett treasured a fervent style of modernism that did away entirely with convention, having a profound and long lasting influence on artists of many varieties that followed him, from members of the US’ Beat generation to classical music composers. He is now remembered with a theatre and drama school in his name at his alma mater, Trinity College.

Louis le Brocquy, Image of Samuel Beckett (detail), 1979, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm
Louis le Brocquy, Image of Samuel Beckett (detail), 1979, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm | © Estate of Louis le Brocquy

Mary Lavin (1912–1996)

Born in the US to Irish immigrant parents, Mary Lavin was brought back to Ireland at the age of ten, when the family came to live in Dublin. Having been mentored by the Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsany as a young woman, Lavin published her first short story collection in 1943, winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. She sustained this immediate success throughout a long career that saw her win two Guggenheim fellowships, publish widely, and be elected a Saoi of Aosdána – one of the Irish cultural world’s highest honours. Often compared to Chekov, she was called ‘one of modern Irish fiction’s most subversive voices’.

Seamus Heaney (1939–2013)

Renowned poet and playwright Seamus Heaney’s 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature is just one of a lengthly list of major accomplishments – including the international Golden Wreath of Poetry, the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A former Harvard University poet in residence, Heaney was called ‘the greatest poet of our age’ during his lifetime, as well as being referred to as ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats’ by the America poet Robert Lowell.

Seamus Heaney in the studio with his portrait by Colin Davidson
Seamus Heaney in the studio with his portrait by Colin Davidson | © Frankenthalerj/WikiCommons