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How to identify some really Good Irish Literature

Post by: Kabita Sonowal

“For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” – James Joyce



As the political landscape shifted in many parts of the globe in the nineteenth century, Ireland was struck by the Potato Famine or an Gorta Mor (in the Irish language) in 1845 – 49. It left behind immense poverty, death, and disease and revealed a very susceptible side of the Irish society. The ever-widening gap between the ascendancy class (Anglo-Irish Protestants) and the Irish tenants (Catholics) caused uproar, controversy, and mass exodus to other countries. John Mitchell’s article ‘English Rule’ lambasted that the Irish expected a famine with each passing day and that ‘starving children cannot sit down to their scanty meal but they see the harpy claw of England in their dish’. He strongly believed that hunger was a catalyst to several revolutions. Despite the dismal situation, Ireland exported food those days and there remained the irony. The seed of Irish Nationalism was sown and Irish literature became a blend of mysticism, folklore, existentialism, and romance against the backdrop of a rich Irish heritage and society. Note that there are four Irish Nobel laureates in literature: Seamus Heaney, WB Yeats, GB Shaw, and Samuel Beckett and their writings although unique from each other reflect several aspects of society and what it means to be Irish.



The blight is reminiscent in Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘At a Potato Digging’ – ‘Stinking potatoes fouled the land, pits turned pus into filthy mounds: and where potato digger are you still smell the running sore’.  At a Potato Digging reflects a peasant’s relationship with the Irish bucolic soil and potato digging is part of Ireland’s social history (‘mindlessly as autumn’). There is also a trace of the pagan folklore when the poem reads – ‘Centuries Of fear and homage to the famine god toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees, Make a seasonal altar of the sod’.



WB Yeats’ poetry is steeped in Irish imagery.  An Anglo-Irishman from the Protestant landed gentry; he grew up at a time (1880s) which witnessed the shift of political power in Ireland from the Protestants to the Catholics. The political situation left a profound mark in his poetry and a sense of cynicism about Ireland’s future. His poem, The Second Coming is based on the apocalypse. The imagery in this poem is considered as some of the best from twentieth century literature. Some of his other best-known poems are The Magi, He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, The Song of the Wandering Aengus, Red Hanrahan's Song about Ireland, and The Cat and the Moon.



GB Shaw’s plays have always delighted the reading audience with their effortless wit and ready sarcasm.  A member of the Fabian Society, he focused his concern on societal reform mainly improving the lives and conditions of the working class. Further the Fabian Society ran along the lines of socialism via peaceful means. Some of his most-loved plays are: Major Barbara, Saint Joan, Pygmalion, Androcles and the Lion, Arms and the Man, and Candida.


Samuel Beckett is synonymous with Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Trap, and Happy Days. His gallows humor illustrates the Theater of the Absurd and is a portrayal of the futility and despair of man’s existence. He is also regarded as one of the last modernists. He wrote about alienation, poverty, and a sense of loss. Waiting for Godot is an example of minimalist setting where the audience and the actors keep waiting for something to happen, yet nothing ever happens.


James Joyce is best-known for Ulysses, a brilliant colossal piece of work that is based on Homer’s Odyssey. He uses the stream of consciousness technique to tell the story about a host of characters with a Dublinesque setting. Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Flann O'Brien, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Phillip Norbert Årp, Salman Rushdie, Robert Anton Wilson, John Updike, and Joseph Campbell were and have been inspired by him. His other works such as Dubliners, Finnegans Wake, and The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man are known for Joyce’s experimental style and have been a rage among readers.

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