© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

Historical Background

Ireland found itself in an odd position as the nineteenth century approached its end and Europe prepared to move into the new century, its leading powers the colonial masters of vast stretches of the rest of the world. While parts of Eastern Europe found themselves in subaltern positions relative to the still largely medieval reigning powers of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian Empires, and even Ottoman Empires, they were not truly colonies—and in any case those empires were all historical relics that were about to be swept away by World War I. Ireland, on the other hand, was the only European political entity that was genuinely a colony in a modern sense. It was, in fact, England’s oldest colony—and the place where Britain had learned to be a colonial power, beginning all the way back in the thirteenth century, when Pope Adrian IV granted overlordship of Ireland to Henry II of England, followed by a period of roughly a century during which the English solidified their rule.

The English-Irish relationship later became caught up in the battle between Protestantism and Catholicism in England. With Protestantism triumphant in England and with a Catholic majority in Ireland, this conflict naturally led to considerably tensions between the Irish and their English rulers. Three Irish rebellions were brutally suppressed during the reign of Elizabeth I. Another rebellion, begun in 1641, led to the Irish Confederate Wars, part of a larger conflict that involved Scotland as well. Here, upstart Irish Catholic forces were eventually crushed with special brutality in 1649-1650 by English armies under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, fresh off of his leading role in the English Civil Wars. Hundreds of thousands were killed in Ireland during this conflict, in which some historians have described Cromwell’s anti-Catholic tactics as near-genocidal.

One of the key moments in the history of Irish defeats at the hands of the British also involved Scotland as well. After the Catholic King James II of England was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, James and his followers mounted a Catholic army with the hope of regaining the throne and returning England to Catholic rule. James was Scottish by heritage and had many Scottish followers, but Ireland was a particular stronghold, due to the strength of Catholicism there, where Catholic armies had established almost total control after the Glorious Revolution. For his part, the new staunchly Protestant King William III of England (the former Prince of Orange of Holland and James’s nephew/son-in-law) sought to consolidate his power by putting a quick end to the Catholic threat. This situation came to a head when the armies of James and William faced off in the decisive Battle of the Boyne in 1690. A Catholic victory could have helped return James to the thrones of England and Scotland, with Ireland potentially winning independence as a reward for Irish support of James’s cause.

Unfortunately, for the Irish, William’s Protestant armies won a decisive victory, partly because, due to the complicated politics on continental Europe at the time, the Catholic Pope Alexander VIII in Rome backed William’s Protestant forces. In short, even when fighting on their home turf for Catholic power with the support of the recently-deposed King of England, events still conspired to lead to an Irish defeat. Two days later, William’s army marched triumphantly into Dublin, occupying the Irish capital. The Battle of the Boyne is still commemorated each year on July 12 (on a holiday known simply as “The Twelfth”) by loyalists in both Scotland and (especially) Northern Ireland as a great historic victory for the cause of British Protestant power. A Battle of the Boyne commemoration ceremony in Edinburgh plays an important (comic) role in the 2017 film T2 Trainspotting, in which the (Scottish) central characters infiltrate the ceremony and then rob the participants of their credit cards, subsequently using them to withdraw money from ATMs, which is made easier by the fact that most of them seem to have set their PINs as “1690,” the year of the original battle, suggesting that their devotion to this three-hundred-year-old event is ridiculous.

Over the years, various “Penal Laws” were instituted by the English with a special eye toward limiting Catholic power in Ireland. These laws banned Catholic education and limited Catholic ability to own and inherit property, hold leases, or conduct businesses, essentially making Catholics second-class citizens. Animosity between the Irish and their English rulers was exacerbated by the Scottish-English Act of Union (1706–1707) that joined England (which had already incorporated Wales) and Scotland as the single political entity of Great Britain, placing Scotland nominally in a partnership with Britain, but leaving the Irish in an essentially colonial position. Meanwhile, with the Enlightenment in full swing, talk of liberty and equality was in the air, but the Irish were feeling increasingly left out. By the last decade of the eighteenth century, the success of the American Revolution and then the French Revolution suggested that liberty sometimes had to be won by violence. In 1798, the Irish, led by Wolfe Tone, mounted an armed attempt to expel their British rulers from the island, with the hope of support from the French. The French, in fact, did launch a fleet of ships intent on an invasion of Ireland, but (in another case of historical bad luck for the Irish) bad weather at sea prevented most of the French ships from arriving in Ireland, and the rebellion was crushed by British armies.

In 1801, another Act of Union officially added Ireland to Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Many in Ireland, however, felt that they had essentially been coerced into joining the union, which was in any case an uneven arrangement that left Great Britain with all the real power and Ireland still in what was in reality a colonial position. For the entire nineteenth century, widespread animosity toward British rule (especially among Catholics) was rampant in Ireland, exacerbated by events such as the Potato Famine of 1845–1849, in which hundreds of thousands of Irish people starved, with Britain providing little aid (and in fact continuing to import food from Ireland). Many others emigrated, especially to the U.S., where 1.6 million Irish immigrants arrived between 1847 and 1854. All in all, the Irish population fell from 8.5 million in 1845 to 6.5 million in 1851. Of those remaining, many held a special grudge against their British rulers, and anti-British sentiment ran high in Ireland by the last decade of the nineteenth century, during which the general economic state of Ireland had declined, with Dublin experiencing special deterioration that left large parts of the city in states of advanced decay by the end of the century.

It was little wonder, then, that a vibrant Irish Nationalist movement began to gain political traction in Ireland in the last decades of the nineteenth century. This movement, to an extent, grew out of the growing political power of those who supported Irish independence from Britain. A form of limited independence, known as “Home Rule” (in which the Irish would control most of their own affairs, though the British would still be in charge of military and foreign relations) became particularly popular and seemed at times close to approval in the British Parliament. The movement for Home Rule was spearheaded by the charismatic Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891) but collapsed when Parnell became involved in a scandal due to the fact that it was discovered that he had long been living with another man’s wife—a woman who was long estranged from her husband but could not get a divorce because divorce was forbidden for Irish Catholics at the time. Parnell was even denounced from the pulpit in Catholic Churches all over Ireland, causing many in Ireland to feel that they had once again been betrayed by the Church, loyalty to which had set them at odds with the British to begin with.

With political solutions continuing to fall short, the Irish Nationalist movement began increasingly to concentrate on culture, especially as many felt that the English had ruled Ireland so long that the Irish were beginning to lose any sense of a cultural identity apart from the legacy of British colonial rule. Efforts to revive the Irish language (which had become virtually extinct after centuries of English rule) made little headway, but the attempt to step up the production of genuinely Irish literature met with considerable success, in what came variously to be known as the Irish Literary Renaissance or the Irish Literary Revival. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the Irish had been identified with the British for so long that, even after this revival and the emergence of such anticolonial Irish literary giants as William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) and James Joyce (1882–1941), Irish literature was long considered simply to be a subset of “British” literature, especially outside of Ireland, where authors such as Yeats and Joyce were typically included in college courses on British literature, with relatively little emphasis on their anti-British inclinations.

Modern Irish Literature

It was only with the rise of postcolonial literary studies in the 1980s that modern Irish literature came to be considered to be a phenomenon in its own right, best studied as a form of postcolonial literature, understandable within the same theoretical frameworks as African or Caribbean postcolonial literature. Thus, the important Irish critic Declan Kiberd has pointed out that “the history of independent Ireland bears a remarkable similarity … to the phases charted by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth” (Inventing 551–52). Similarly, David Lloyd suggests that Ireland has largely conformed to the model of bourgeois nationalism presented by Fanon (Anomalous 7).[1] My readings of Irish literature in this volume will be conducted from this postcolonial perspective, which seems a logical choice given that so much of modern Irish literature drew its energies from the Revival and other forms of anticolonial resistance.[2]

This Revival itself was boosted by the efforts of the young Yeats to collect and publish indigenous Irish folk tales and myths, providing material on which Irish writers could draw that was independent of British cultural traditions. In 1888, for example, Yeats published Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, while in 1893 he published The Celtic Twilight, which collected traditional stories from the rural West of Ireland. The latter was successful enough that the Irish Literary Revival has often been known by the alternative name of The Celtic Twilight. It also helped to launch Yeats as Ireland’s most important poet, ending with his poem “Into the Twilight,” which draws on the material and themes of the rest of the book and attempts to create a sense of Ireland as a mystical land that transcends the centuries of British rule.

Into the Twilight

By William Butler Yeats

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,

Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;

Laugh, heart, again in the gray twilight;

Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

Thy mother Eire is always young,

Dew ever shining and twilight gray,

Though hope fall from thee or love decay

Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill,

For there the mystical brotherhood

Of hollow wood and the hilly wood

And the changing moon work out their will.

And God stands winding his lonely horn;

And Time and World are ever in flight,

And love is less kind than the gray twilight,

And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

Here, we see an intentionally old-fashioned style that seeks to look back to the days before British rule in Ireland, though this kind of move clearly flew in the face of the emerging modernist movement as time moved forward. Yeats, however, would turn out to be an extremely versatile and durable poet who would himself eventually become a leading modernist and would remain at the forefront of Irish poetry until his death. Some of the most important poems of his career will be presented as an “Exemplary Text” within this project.

Yeats was also an important dramatist, and his play Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), which deals with the 1798 rebellion, is still considered a classic of Irish drama. In fact, the Irish Revival had particular success in the realm of drama, especially after the opening of the Abbey Theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland) in Dublin in 1904. Here, the Irish established a vibrant theatrical scene, introducing the works of Irish dramatists. Yeats himself wrote drama, as did his friend Lady Gregory (1852–1932), while both Yeats and Lady Gregory were among the founders of the Abbey Theatre. But the two most important playwrights to emerge from this scene were probably the left-leaning Seán O’Casey (1880-1964), who specialized in writing about urban working-class topics, and John Millington Synge (1871-1909), who specialized in writing about the rural Irish peasantry. Synge would thus seem to be especially resonant with the Irish Nationalist attempt to draw upon Irish folk customs as a source of literary inspiration, which is one reason why both Yeats and Lady Gregory were enthusiastic supporters of his work. On the other hand, the details of his work were sometimes controversial. Indeed, his reputation today rests primarily on The Playboy of the Western World, which premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1907, triggering riots by incensed theatre-goers who believed that the content of the play was a morally offensive affront to the Irish people. Nevertheless, though Synge died young (of cancer), his work established plays of Irish peasant life as the mainstay of the Abbey Theatre well into the 1950s. Other plays by Synge include In the Shadow of the Glen (1903), Riders to the Sea (1904), and The Well of the Saints (1905). O’Casey’s urban-oriented, socialist-slanted plays were a different matter, and he did not emerge as a major dramatist until the 1920s, after the establishment of Home Rule. However, his work ultimately became more important than Synge’s, partly for its extensive engagement with the history of the Irish fight for independence in the first decades of the twentieth century, a fight that, in fact, was quite an eventful one.

One of the crucial events in the movement toward independence occurred with the founding of the Sinn Féan (“Ourselves”) political party by Arthur Griffith in 1905. Taking an avowedly Nationalist approach, Sinn Féan quickly gained followers and became a focal point for Irish Nationalist Political activity. Meanwhile, the international workers’ movement that had begun with the Second International came to Ireland in August 1913 when workers in Dublin began a widespread labor action that eventually led to 20,000 workers—led by socialists James Larkin (1876–1947) and James Connolly (1868–1916)—going out on strike against roughly 300 different employers. In response, the employers locked out the striking workers and brought in strikebreakers from Britain and other parts of Ireland to replace them. Employers hired thugs to intimidate the striking workers with violence; the workers responded by organizing the paramilitary Irish Citizen Army to defend themselves. The Dublin Lock-out ended when many of the workers, their families starving, agreed to return to work, though many of the leaders of the strike were blacklisted and not allowed back to work. Much bitterness ensued and many workers were radicalized, becoming more devoted than ever to the notion that workers had a fundamental right to unionize.

The radicalism spurred by the Dublin Lock-out provided important energies to the Easter Rising of 1916, when organized labor was at the forefront of the uprising, along with members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret nationalist organization that had been founded in 1858. A number of Sinn Féan members also took part in the Rising, though the party itself did not directly support the action. This armed insurrection began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, and lasted for six days, during which Irish rebels seized and held several key locations around Dublin, including, most notably, the General Post Office. The actual insurrection was spearheaded by members of the Irish Volunteers (led by poet and Irish language advocate Patrick Pearse, 1879–1916) and the Irish Citizen Army[3] (led by Connolly, with Larkin away in America seeking to organize workers there at the time). 200 women of the Cumann na mBan organization also participated in the uprising. There were minor actions in other parts of Ireland as well, but the insurrection never coalesced into a general revolt, partly because of miscommunication among rebels across the island, leaving the rebels in Dublin largely isolated.

That the Rising occurred in the midst of World War I was no accident: the Irish rebels hoped that the British military would be preoccupied with the war against Germany and that the Germans would provide support to the rebels—which they did, to a minor extent, by supplying arms via their negotiations with former British colonial officer Roger Casement, now a committed Irish Nationalist and a militant opponent of colonialism (thanks to the colonialist atrocities he had observed as a British agent in the Belgian Congo). The rebels, however, miscalculated badly, and the British put down the insurrection in less than a week with a massive show of firepower. Estimates vary, but around 500 people died as a result of the fighting, though over half of those were noncombatants, the majority of whom were killed as collateral damage by British assaults (including artillery bombardments) of rebel positions. Over 3,000 Irish prisoners were taken by the British after the rebel surrender, and nearly 2,000 were sent to internment camps for extended periods, including Griffith, who (like many of those who were arrested) was not actually involved in the uprising. Most of the leaders of the Rising were summarily executed by firing squad after hasty courts martial, including Pearse, Connolly, and John McBride (the estranged husband of actress and activist Maud Gonne (1866–1953), the longtime object of Yeats’s romantic affections). Casement was arrested and tried in London, then hanged. One of the leaders of the Rising, Éamon de Valera (1882–1975), escaped execution, largely because he was an American citizen (born in New York City). De Valera would go on to become the most important political figure in Ireland over the next half century.

After the Rising, much of the city of Dublin was in ruins, ravaged by fires and British artillery. And many of the most effective leaders of the Irish cause lay dead. Connolly was an especially important loss, depriving the anticolonial movement in Ireland of an important socialist figure who might have helped to take postcolonial Ireland in a very different direction. Connolly was a sophisticated thinker who knew that the situation in Ireland was far more than a simple case of Britain dominating Ireland; it was also a case of capitalist inequality and of the rich dominating the poor. In a mode that strikingly anticipates the work of Fanon, Connolly recognized that nationalist liberation from colonial rule was but a first step and that true liberation in Ireland would require that this nationalist revolution be followed by a socialist one. He stated the situation quite clearly as early as 1897 in his pamphlet “Socialism and Nationalism”:

“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.

England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.

England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed.

Nationalism without Socialism—without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin – is only national recreancy” (Connolly 8).[4]

The Easter Rising, though not a direct success in its own right, did a great deal to galvanize Irish hatred of the British, especially after the post-uprising executions and the subsequent circulation of reports of British atrocities committed during the Rising itself. Yeats memorialized the event in his poem “Easter, 1916,” but, more importantly, the event led directly to a dramatic increase in support for Sinn Féan, which swept the 1918 elections to represent Ireland in the British Parliament, after which the members refused to take their seats in Westminster and instead established the Dáil Eireann and proclaimed an Irish republic. This quickly led to the founding of the Irish Republican Army (IRA, formed by members of the Irish Volunteers), which began a campaign of guerrilla actions against the British and their supporters in what came to be known as the Irish War of Independence, or the Anglo-Irish War (1919–1921). This conflict ended with a negotiated peace that included a modified form of Home Rule for Ireland with the founding of the Irish Free State in January, 1922. Many of the Irish insurgents, however, were dissatisfied with the terms of the peace, triggering a Civil War between supporters of the Free State (led by Michael Collins) and rebels who wanted still more autonomy for Ireland, led by de Valera.[5] The Free State forces prevailed, largely because they had the support of the British, but much bitterness remained in both sides after the official end of the civil war in May 1923.

All of these events were addressed in a trilogy of plays (known collectively as the “Dublin Trilogy”) written by O’Casey immediately after the events. The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) is set during the Irish War of Independence. Juno and the Paycock (1924, adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1930) is set during the Irish Civil War. And The Plough and the Stars (1926) is a sort of prequel that looks back to the Easter Rising. Other important plays by O’Casey include The Silver Tassie (1927)—an anti-imperialist play set during World War I—and The End of the Beginning (1937)—an unusual departure for O’Casey in that it is a comedy set in rural Ireland. 1937 was also the year of the adoption of a new Irish constitution that terminated all British sovereignty in Ireland (now under the leadership of de Valera as Taoiseach, or Prime Minister), except for Northern Ireland, which remained (and still remains) a part of the United Kingdom. By 1948, the bulk of Ireland had become the Republic of Ireland, cutting ties with Great Britain and even withdrawing from the British Commonwealth.

Unfortunately, while the Irish fight for independence had employed a great deal of radical rhetoric and enjoyed the support of a number of socialists and trade unionists, independence for Ireland under de Valera’s leadership did not lead to the kind of emancipation for which many had hoped. Indeed, largely due to the powerful influence exercised by the Catholic Church, which continued to impose its morally conservative views on the new nation, the Irish regime was in many ways more repressive than British colonial rule had been. It did not help that de Valera himself had drifted considerably to the right in his own political views.

While all of this was going on, the Irishman James Joyce (writing primarily in Paris, having permanently emigrated from Ireland in 1904) had established himself as perhaps the leading figure, not just in modern Irish literature, but in modern literature as a whole. Sympathetic with the Irish desire to become independent of British rule but unsympathetic to many of the specific attitudes of the Irish Nationalist movement (and to nationalism in general), the young Joyce was something of an outsider to the Irish Revival. Indeed, his work, often openly anti-Catholic and groundbreaking in its frank treatment of sexual themes, was initially considered shocking (to the point of being banned) in Ireland.

In 1904, when Joyce was still only twenty-two years old, he published three stories— “The Sisters,” “Eveline,” and “After the Race”) in a rather obscure weekly publication called The Irish Homestead. By the next year he had written nine more stories, conceiving of the twelve stories together as a collection to be called Dubliners. By the time this collection had been accepted by prominent London publisher Grant Richards and shipped off to the printer, Joyce had added still another story, “Two Gallants.” The printer, afraid of liability under England’s strict obscenity laws, informed Richards that the stories contained obscenities and couldn’t be printed. Thus began a difficult journey that would see Dubliners eventually grow to fifteen stories, including “The Dead,” by far the longest story in the collection and one that differs substantially from the others in the collection in style and tone. By the time Dubliners was finally published in 1914, Joyce had published a volume of poetry—Chamber Music (1907) and had worked extensively on a semi-autobiographical novel he intended to entitle Stephen Hero, before abandoning it in frustration. By 1914, though, he was already at work on another version of the novel, eventually published in 1916 as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Portrait was even more different from the relatively conventional Stephen Hero than “The Dead” was from the earlier Dubliners stories, though some observers have seen the transition between the earlier stories and “The Dead” as part of the same process as the transition from Stephen Hero to Portrait. That process was nothing more than the birth of Joyce as a modernist author, which some might equate to the birth of genuinely modernist literature as a whole. Dubliners is discussed as an Exemplary Text in this project. Portrait is a modernist masterpiece that employs a variety of styles and narrative strategies to tell the story of the development of Stephen Dedalus from a young child to a promising young poet who feels that he must leave Ireland to achieve his potential as an artist—as did Joyce.

Portrait’s ironic treatment of Stephen (who sometimes comes off as insufferably pompous and pretentious), its critical attitude toward the Catholic Church (which shackles Stephen’s mind and impedes his development as an artist, even after he has disavowed religious belief), and its masterful use of stylistic devices such as indirect free style and stream-of-consciousness mark it as a landmark text. It is still one of the most admired novels of the twentieth century—and one of the novels that is most widely taught in college classes. However, it pales in comparison with Joyce’s next novel, the monumental Ulysses (1922), widely regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century and perhaps the greatest ever written. It is probably the single most important monument produced by literary modernism and has remained the standard against which all innovative novels have been measured for nearly a century now.

Ulysses is such a rich novel that it has been greatly admired even by critics who have ignored large portions of its achievement. For example, the novel was seen by the New Critics as a masterpiece of style and form, even though they ignored its extensive social and political commentary. And it is certainly the case that the eighteen chapters of the novel, written in a variety of different styles and even based on fundamentally different ideas about how fiction is supposed to be constructed, represent a virtual encyclopedia of modernist stylistic experimentation. But the content of the novel is encyclopedic as well, and the novel evokes a particular place and time (Dublin on June 16, 1904) perhaps more vividly than any other novel before or since, even though so much of the novel’s action takes place inside the minds of its characters. More recent critics have come better to appreciate the political power of the novel’s engagement both with other cultural texts and with the material world, though critics are still unpacking the complex interactions between the novel’s stylistic experiments and its political commentary.[6] Joyce once predicted that critics would be working to understand his novel for hundreds of years and it now appears that he might have been correct.

Ulysses was not always so highly appreciated. Initial readers, having never seen anything like it, were often frustrated and perplexed. Aided by a century of critical exposition—and by a century of reading novels that have been influenced by Ulysses—today’s readers find the novel much more accessible. Some also initially saw the book as pornographic—again because it was so unprecedented in the frankness with which it dealt with sexual themes. For example, after its initial publication (by a French press that specialized in pornography), Ulysses was effectively banned from the United States. Copies shipped into the country were seized and burned by Post Office. The book was not, in fact, legally allowed into the country until a 1934 court ruling declared it not to be pornographic—partly because it was so hard to read that it couldn’t possibly be very titillating. Much of Joyce’s writing was effectively banned in Ireland itself until the 1960s, though—by the 1990s—this situation had changed so much that Joyce’s image was featured on the Irish ten-pound note and the Joyce industry had become a key element of Irish tourism. An annoted version of the first chapter of Ulysses is included as an exemplary text in this project.

Ulysses, despite its difficulties, is an easy read compared with Joyce’s next (and last) novel, Finnegans Wake (1939). Possibly the most difficult novel ever written, Finnegans Wake breaks apart language itself, building sentences from bits and pieces of information gleaned from a variety of sources in literature, myth, popular culture, and real life. It even constructs its own portmanteau words from bits and pieces of words drawn from dozens of different languages. Some have seen Finnegans Wake as pretentious and pointless, arguing that no one could possibly read it. Others have seen it as a brilliant experimental exercise that reveals the normally invisible processes through all texts are constructed and making important points about the nature if language itself. It was, for example, an important influence on the French deconstructionist philosopher of language Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), as was Ulysses.

Joyce’s influence on subsequent writers has been so monumental that it is almost impossible to measure—his influence is so broad and so extensive that it has even sometimes reached authors who have not even read his work (but who have read the work of others who were influenced by him). In Ireland, his most direct influence was on another expatriate writer, the young Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), who also lived most of his adult life outside of Ireland and who idolized Joyce as he began his own career as a writer. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Beckett moved to Paris, were to took a job as a lecturer in English at the École Normale Supérieure. While there, he was introduced to Joyce, beginning a long friendship during which, among other things, he served as Joyce’s volunteer secretary during the composition of Finnegans Wake, as Joyce’s failing eyesight necessitated help with the book. Yet Beckett himself would eventually become a major force in modern literature in his own right. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, becoming the third Irish writer to be so honored, joining Yeats and Shaw (an Irish-born dramatist who lived and worked mostly in England and is still widely thought of as a British writer more than an Irish one).

Beckett’s own early writing (in English) shows the clear influence of Joyce. The story collection More Pricks than Kicks (1934), the novel Murphy (1938), and the novel Watt (published in 1953, but written during World War II while Beckett was in hiding in France, on the run from the German Nazis) all show a strong Joycean influence. Of these, Watt, in particular, is an interesting work, but Beckett did not begin to fulfill his potential as a writer until he found his own voice, turning to black, absurdist comedy written in a minimalist mode that is almost the opposite of Joyce’s encyclopedic approach. Indeed, Watt can be seen as a sort of transition to Beckett’s later style: a self-parodic text, it undermines its own use of rationalist language and epistemology and looks forward to the minimalism and absurdism of Beckett’s later work.[7]

Writing in this mode, Beckett produced his most important achievement as a fiction writer in the so-called French trilogy, which includes Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1960). These highly experimental novels were all written in French (but were translated into English versions by Beckett himself). They thus indicate Beckett’s highly unusual status as a bi-lingual writer whose greatest achievements were written in his second language. In this sense, only his close contemporary Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) is comparable in the annals of world literature—and even Nabokov could not ultimately match Beckett’s versatility, because it was ultimately not as a fiction writer, but as a dramatist, that Beckett made his most important contributions.

Beckett’s absurdist comedy Waiting for Godot (written 1948–1949 but not performed on stage until 1953) has some claim to being the most important play of the twentieth century. Its Paris premiere was a sensation that made Beckett an international star and the leader of the theater of the absurd movement, powerfully influencing many subsequent dramatists. Perhaps more than any other single literary work, Waiting for Godot captured the changed perception of the nature of reality that was sweeping a Europe still reeling from the horrors of World War II. Endgame (first performed 1957) was also an important success. Like Waiting for Godot, Endgame seems at first to take place in an absurdist world that has little to do with reality, yet it also comments in important ways on the real world—in this case on the sense of possible impending doom brought about by the nuclear fears of the Cold War. It also, however, has broader significance and is still frequently performed around the world.

As Beckett’s career proceeded, his plays tended to become shorter, more minimalist, and more experimental, as if he were seeking to eliminate one element after another from his works in an attempt to find the bare minimum of elements that must remain present in order for a literary text still to be able to function. In Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), the shabby, aged title character attempts to recover the past by listening to recordings of his younger days; in Happy Days (1961), Winnie, the principal character, is buried to her waist in a mound but still powerfully attached to the meager possessions that surround her. Both plays are important and well known. Other, later, plays were more radical. Breath (1969) lasts only 30 seconds and consists only of a pile of rubbish, a breath, and a cry, but no real characters, events, or even dialogue. Not I (1973) is a brief monologue in which only the mouth of the speaker is illuminated and visible.

Beckett pursued this path of successive minimalization in his fiction as well, including late “novels,” such as Imagination Dead Imagination (1965), The Lost Ones (1970), Company (1980), Ill Seen Ill Said (1981), and Worstword Ho (1983). Of these, Company and Worstward Ho were written in English, then translated into French. The others, like most of Beckett’s late work, were written in French, then translated into English. All are minimalist texts (Imagination Dead Imagine is approximately six pages long), and all—at first glance—appear virtually meaningless. A close look, however, reveals that these texts have much to say about literature, language, and the nature of human existence. The Lost Ones, for example, provides a lesson in reading, warning readers not to seek complete mastery of the texts they read, especially literary ones: “This enigmatic text seems specifically designed to defeat totalizing epistemological readings, yet it also invites such readings by tantalizing readers with the potential for recuperation according to a variety of schemes” (Booker, Literature and Domination 142).

Despite his direct relationship with Joyce, Beckett’s ultimate move in an entirely different direction means that the Irish writer who was most directly the heir to Joyce was not Beckett, but Flann O’Brien (the pen name of Brian O’Nolan, 1911–1966)—though O’Brien was also one of the first important Irish writers to complain about the frustrations of having to write in Joyce’s shadow. One might, actually, see O’Brien’s work as informed by a combination of Joyce’s stylistic exuberance and Beckett’s darkly comic vision. In any case, it is by now a commonplace to think of Joyce, Beckett, and O’Brien as the three great figures of modern Irish fiction.

O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (published in 1939, and thus in the same year as Joyce’s last novel), is a major classic of modern Irish literature. Marked by an extreme literary playfulness, At Swim-Two Birds (like Finnegans Wake) has sometimes been seen as an important precursor of postmodernist fiction, rather than as a late example of modernism. It is a raucous, unruly text that self-consciously breaks all of the rules of realist fiction. It is, indeed, constructed according to the advice offered early in the book by its narrator, who declares that, as a genre, “the novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could at will adjust the degree of his credulity” (33).

O’Brien followed At Swim-Two-Birds (which draws significantly on Irish mythology, though in an irreverent way) with An Béal Bocht (1941), making him probably the most important Irish writer to have written a novel in the Irish language. Published under the pseudonym “Myles na gCopaleen” (which he also used in the columns he wrote for the Irish Times), An Béal Bocht did not appear in English translation (by Patrick C. Power) until 1973 but has probably ultimately had more readers in English than in Irish. It is a wildly funny (but extremely dark) tale that “explores the cultural domination of Ireland that results from the imposition of the English language on the Irish people, but it also explores the complicity of the Irish in their own oppression in ways that suggest possibilities of successful resistance” (Booker, Flann O’Brien 6).

O’Brien’s next novel, The Third Policeman, was initially rejected by publishers and did not appear until 1967, after the author’s death. A complex philosophical novel often compared to the work of Franz Kafka, The Third Policeman is nevertheless also quite funny. It joins At Swim-Two-Birds as the two O’Brien works that have enjoyed the most enduring readership and critical attention. O’Brien’s other two novels are perhaps lesser works, but the mock bildungsroman The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor (1961) is well worth a read and was very popular upon its initial publication. Set in Dublin between 1890 and 1910, it essentially returns to the Dublin made famous by Joyce, and in fact rivals Joyce in its “overwhelming evocation of squalor” in its depiction of Dublin during this era (Clissmann 273). It is also quite funny, which can certainly also be said of The Dalkey Archive (1964), which among other things features an irreverently-treated James Joyce as a character, though one of the other characters delivers a surprisingly accurate description of Joyce’s work:

“I consider his poetry meretricious and mannered. But I have an admiration for all his other work, for his dexterity and resource in handling language, for his precision, for his subtlety in conveying the image of Dublin and her people, for his accuracy is setting down speech authentically, and for his enormous humour” (111).

Roughly contemporaneous with the work of O’Brien was that of Brendan Behan (1923–1964). Though Behan is perhaps best remembered for his 1958 autobiographical work Borstal Boy, he also made important contributions as a playwright, continuing especially in the tradition of O’Casey. Borstal Boy relates, in first person, the experiences of the young Behan in the period 1939–1942, during which he, at age sixteen, was arrested in Liverpool as an Irish Republican Army terrorist, then imprisoned and eventually sent to a juvenile detention institution, or “Borstal.” Though based in fact, the book reads very much like a novel and one can probably assume that many of the events in the book are fictionalized to an extent. Given the context of the book, it is not surprising that Behan’s narrative provides important commentary on colonialism and the postcolonial condition, the continuing British presence in Northern Ireland serving as a particularly overt example of the neocolonial condition in which European rulers maintain influence and power in their former colonies well after the moment of ostensible independence. But the treatment of these issues in Borstal Boy is distinctive for its focus on class rather than nationality and for its clear suggestion that the working classes of England and Ireland have a great deal in common and that both are the exploited victims of the British ruling classes.

Not long after the deaths of figures such as Behan and O’Brien represented something of an end to an era in Irish literature, Ireland entered a thirty-year-long period of sectarian violence known as “The Troubles.” The Troubles had a long history and represented the culmination of animosities that had been building in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants for years, though many date the beginning of the Troubles as the civil rights march that occurred in Derry, Northern Ireland, on October 5, 1968, when marchers were confronted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and not allowed to march in favor of Catholic rights in Northern Ireland. From there, tensions continually increased until Sunday January 30, 1972, when thirteen unarmed civilians were shot and killed by British paratroopers during another civil rights march in Derry—in the event that came to be known in Ireland as Bloody Sunday. Soon, the situation escalated into a state of near-warfare in Northern Ireland, as nationalist paramilitary groups such as the IRA clashed with unionist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force, as well as the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Acts of violence spread to England and the Republic of Ireland as well, ultimately leading to more than 3,000 people (mostly civilians) being killed in various bombings and other attacks. The Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, officially brought the fighting to an end, though occasional violence has occurred even since then.

As of this writing, Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom and the Protestant majority there appears to be content with that arrangement, while Catholic residents of Northern Ireland continue to struggle for equal rights. The Republic of Ireland, meanwhile, has recently experienced a period of rapid economic growth spurred by its membership in the European Union. Indeed, the Irish economy from roughly the mid-1990s to 2008 (when Ireland was caught in the global recession) has been referred to as the “Celtic Tiger” because of its rapid and aggressive growth, which took Ireland from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to being one of the richest (in terms of per capita income). Even in 2018 when the effects of 2008 are still being felt to an extent, the nominal Gross Domestic Product per capita in Ireland (according to the International Monetary Fund) was over $70,000, making it by that measure the fourth wealthiest country in the world, well ahead of the that in United States and nearly twice that of the United Kingdom. Ireland has also undergone a period of great political liberalization in recent decades, spurred by a continuing decline in political power on the part of the Catholic Church. For example, despite the objections of the Church, divorce has been legal in Ireland (under certain circumstances) since 1996. In 2015, same-sex marriage was approved in Ireland by a popular referendum. In September 2018, a constitutional provision forbidding abortion was repealed, and the government is currently working on legislation to allow abortion during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.

Contemporary Irish Literature

Meanwhile, in recent years Irish literature has continued to enjoy a prominent place on the world cultural stage. Looking back to the Abbey Theatre (which was re-opened in a modern facility in 1966 after the original building burned in 1951), Irish drama has remained strong in the hands of figures such as Tom Murphy (1935–2018) and Frank McGuiness (1953– ). However, the most important Irish playwright of the past half century is probably Brian Friel (1929–2015), a writer from Northern Ireland who has sometimes been described as a sort of Irish Chekhov. Friel was closely associated with the Field Day Theatre Company, which Friel founded with actor Stephen Rea. The Field Day Company has produced numerous plays in Northern Ireland, beginning with Friel’s play Translations in 1980, centering their work in Derry, the focal point of so much violence during the Troubles. Their mission is to create a vibrant Northern Irish theatre that seeks to heal the sectarian rifts that have torn Ireland apart over the years—though their political orientation is largely republican and anticolonial. They have published numerous politically oriented cultural pamphlets, including those by prominent American cultural theorists Fredric Jameson and Edward Said.[8] In 1990, they published the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, edited by Seamus Deane. Among other things, this anthology seeks to differentiate Irish literature from British literature. That same year, Friel’s important play Dancing at Lughnasa (another exemplary text discussed at length in this project) premiered at the Abbey Theatre, establishing an important contact between the Field Day project and the Abbey Theatre tradition.

The most important Irish poet of the past half-century was also associated with the Field Day Theatre Company, whose board of directors he joined in 1981. Seamus Heaney (1939–2013), the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, was also from Northern Ireland, though he split much of the time of his adult life between Dublin and the United States. He preferred to be considered an Irish poet, rather than a British one and once famously refused to have his work included in an anthology of British poetry, explaining his position with a snappy bit of poetry:

Be advised my passport’s green,

No glass of ours was ever raised

To toast the Queen.

However, Heaney, a Catholic and an Irish Nationalist who also declined an offer to become the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, was not radically anti-British by Irish standards. He served for a time as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, for example, and he was generally a voice for peace amid the Troubles that wracked Ireland, even if his nationalist sympathies were clear. He sometimes seemed reluctant to write political poetry, though, and some of his best remembered work—such as his much-admired translation of Beowulf (2000)—is not openly political but instead addresses general issues.[9] For example, his well-known poem “Blackberry-Picking” (first published in 1966 in the book Death of a Naturalist, his first published collection) metaphorically captures the broad experience of growing older and discovering that the world, in reality, is not the way we once thought it was. It celebrates the exuberance and optimism of childhood, then contrasts that with the disappointments of adulthood as the sweet dreams of youth turn sour.[10]

Another well-known Heaney poem, “Digging” (also from Death of a Naturalist)is subtly political in the way Heaney, the son and grandson of Northern Irish farmers, expresses his respect for and sense of solidarity with his working-class roots. He recalls the work of his father and grandfather digging the soil and then suggests that writing the poetry is his own form of digging, comparing his work with a pen to the spadework of his forebears. Writing poetry, the poem implies, is no more important or elevated than the humble work done by his father and grandfather. At the same time, the poem proclaims, writing poetry is still an honorable form of labor, one of which he clearly hopes his working-class ancestors would be proud to see him do.[11]

Irish fiction has also experienced something of a resurgence in recent years, especially in the work of John Banville (1945– ) and Roddy Doyle (1958– ), two writers who have received considerable global attention. Banville, writing in a sophisticated, sometimes metafictional style that has been compared with the work of Nabokov, has received the greater critical acclaim of the two; his novel The Book of Evidence (1989) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize,[12] an award that was eventually won by his novel The Seas (2005). As of this writing, he has published eighteen literary novels under his own name, as well as a number of crime novels under the pseudonym “Benjamin Black.” Doyle won the Booker Prize for his rather serious 1993 novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, though he is best known for his “Barrytown Trilogy” of highly-entertaining comic novels, comprising The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991). All three have been adapted to film, with the film version of The Commitments (1991), directed by British director Alan Parker, being named the 38th greatest British film of all time in a 1999 poll by the British Film Institute. Doyle is also the author of the “Last Roundup Trilogy” of historical novels that follows protagonist Henry Smart through various events ranging from participation in the Easter Rising in A Star Called Henry (1999) to work decades later as a Hollywood screenwriter in The Dead Republic (2010).


[1] On the importance of Fanon in postcolonial studies, see the section on Africa and postcolonial literature within this project.

[2] In addition to the work of Kiberd and Lloyd, many other readings of Irish literature as postcolonial have been conducted. See, for example, the books by Nolan and Duffy, as well as my own Ulysses, Capitalism, and Colonialism.

[3] By this time, the Irish Citizen Army counted Séan O’Casey among its members, though he did not participate in the Easter Rising.

[4] In Ken Loach’s much-admired 2006 film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Irish insurgents involved in the War of Independence recite lines from “Socialism and Nationalism” to remind themselves of their ultimate goals, with which the film clearly sympathizes.

[5] Events surrounding the beginning of the Irish Civil War are dramatized in Neil Jordan’s 1996 film Michael Collins, the title character of which was the leader of the Irish Free State until his assassination in August, 1922.

[6] See, for example, my chapter on Joyce and Shakespeare in Joyce, Bakhtin, and the Literary Tradition for a discussion of the ways in which Joyce’s extensive allusions to the works of Shakespeare in Ulysses constitute a subversive assault on the cultural authority of the British Empire (139–170).

[7] On this aspect of Watt, see my chapter on the novel in Literature and Domination (20–41).

[8] The leading example of this kind of activity is probably the volume Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, edited by Deane and including essays by Eagleton, Jameson, and Said.

[9] For more on the political dimensions of Heaney’s poetry, see Burris.

[10] The full text of this poem can be found at

[11] The full text of this poem can be found at

[12] The Booker Prize, established in 1968 and now officially known as the “Man Booker Prize,” is one of Britain’s highest literary honors. For more on this award, see Chapter 8.