Modern literature in Irish

Modern literature in Irish

Although Irish has been used as a literary language for more than 1500 years (see Irish literature), and in a form intelligible to contemporary speakers since at least the sixteenth century, modern literature in Irish owes much to the Gaelic Revival, a cultural movement which began in the late nineteenth century.[1]


Early revival

By the end of the nineteenth century, Irish had dwindled from being the dominant language of Ireland to being the first language only of a minority, and little literature was being produced. The Gaelic Revival sought to arrest this decline. In the beginning the revivalists preferred the style used in Early Modern (Classical) Irish, notably by Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Céitinn) in Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (History of Ireland), a much-read 17th century work. Céitinn's Irish, however, was soon ousted by the popular dialects actually being spoken in the Gaeltachtaí, especially as championed by a native speaker from the Coolea-Muskerry area, Father Peadar Ua Laoghaire, who in the 1890s published, in a serialised form, a folkloristic novel strongly influenced by the storytelling tradition of the Gaeltacht, called Séadna. His other works include the autobiography Mo Scéal Féin and retellings of classical Irish stories, as well as a recently reissued adaptation of Don Quixote.

Ua Laoghaire was soon followed by Patrick Pearse, who was to be executed as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Pearse learnt Irish in Rosmuc and wrote idealised stories about the Irish-speaking countryside, as well as nationalistic poems in a more classical, Keatingesque style.

Pádraic Ó Conaire was a pioneer in the writing of realistic short stories in Irish; he was also to the forefront of Irish-language journalism. His most important book is his only novel, Deoraíocht (Exile), which combines realism with absurdist elements. He was to die in the nineteen twenties, not yet fifty years old. Ó Conaire became something of a mythical figure in Irish literary folklore because of his highly individual talent and engaging personality.

Early twentieth-century writing from the Gaeltachtaí

From the end of the 19th century researchers were visiting the Gaeltacht to record the lives of native speakers in authentic dialect. This interest from outside stimulated several notable autobiographies, especially on Great Blasket Island: Peig by Peig Sayers, An tOileánach ("The Islandman") by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, and Fiche Bliain ag Fás ("Twenty Years a-Growing") by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.

Micí Mac Gabhann was the author of Rotha Mór an tSaoil ("The Big Wheel of Life"), written in his native Ulster Irish. The title refers to the Klondike gold rush, ruathar an óir, at the end of the 19th century, and the hardship Irish gold-seekers endured on their way to tír an óir, the gold country.

Another important figure was the prolific writer of rural novels, Séamus Ó Grianna (pen name "Máire"). Séamus Ó Grianna's most important contribution to modern literature in the language might be the fact that he persuaded his brother Seosamh (who called himself Seosamh Mac Grianna in Irish) to write in Irish. Seosamh was a less prolific and less fortunate writer than his brother, and was stricken by a severe depressive psychosis in 1935, so that he had to spend the rest of his life – more than fifty years – at a psychiatric hospital. Before his psychosis, however, he wrote an impressive novel about the difficult transition to modernity in his own Gaeltacht, called An Druma Mór ("The Big Drum" or "The Fife and Drum Band"), as well as a powerful and introspective account of his travels called Mo Bhealach Féin ("My Own Way"). His last novel, Dá mBíodh Ruball ar an Éan ("If the Bird Had a Tail"), a study of the alienation of a Gaeltacht man in Dublin, was left unfinished, a fact suggested by the title.

Both brothers were acknowledged translators. In addition to Walter Scott's Ivanhoe into Irish, Seosamh's work in this field includes the Irish versions of Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly, in Irish Díth Céille Almayer, as well as Peadar O'Donnell's Adrigoole, in Irish Eadarbhaile.

Irish-language modernism

Modernist literature was developed further by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a schoolmaster from Connemara, who was the Irish-language littérateur engagé par excellence. He was active in the IRA, and spent The Emergency years (i.e. the years of the Second World War) at a detention camp in Curach Chill Dara (Curragh, County Kildare) together with other IRA men. At the camp he began his modernist masterpiece, the novel Cré na Cille ("Churchyard Clay"). Reminiscent of some Latin American novels (notably Redoble por Rancas by Manuel Scorza, or Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo), this novel is a chain of voices of the dead speaking from the churchyard, where they go on forever quarrelling about their bygone life in their village. The novel is a refutation of the romantic view of the Gaeltacht typical of the early years of the linguistic revival, and an excellent example of Ó Cadhain's dark and scarifying prose.

In addition to Cré na Cille, Máirtín Ó Cadhain wrote several collections of short stories (one 'short' story, "Fuíoll Fuine" in the collection An tSraith dhá Tógáil, can count as a novella). An important part of his writings is his journalism, essays, and pamphlets, found in such collections as Ó Cadhain i bhFeasta, Caiscín, and Caithfear Éisteacht.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain's prose is dense, powerful and (especially in his early work) difficult for the novice. His style changed and became simpler with time, in part reflecting the urban world in which he settled. Essentially he wrote in an enriched form of his native dialect, even in contexts where a less dialectal style would have been appropriate. He was not afraid of enriching his Irish with neologisms and loanwords from other dialects, including Scottish Gaelic.

Modernism and renewal are also represented by several writers not of Gaeltacht background, such as Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin, and Breandán Ó Doibhlin (the last influenced by French literary theory). Ó Tuairisc, a stylistic innovator, wrote poetry and plays as well as two interesting novels on historical themes: L'Attaque, and Dé Luain. Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin sought to adapt Irish to the urban world: An Uain Bheo and Caoin Thú Féin offered a realistic depiction of a middle-class environment and its problems. Ó Doibhlin's Néal Maidine agus Tine Oíche is an example of introspective modernism.

Among the outstanding Irish-language poets of the first half of the 20th century were Seán Ó Ríordáin, Máirtín Ó Direáin and Máire Mhac an tSaoi. Ó Ríordáin was born in the Cork Gaeltacht: his poetry is conventional in form but intensely personal in content. He was also a brilliant prose writer, as evidenced by his published diaries. Ó Direáin, born on the Aran Islands, began as the poet of nostalgia and ended in austerity. Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who is also a scholar of note, has published several collections of lyric verse in which the classical and colloquial are effortlessly fused.

Contemporary literature in Irish

Among Gaeltacht writers, Pádraic Breathnach, Micheál Ó Conghaile and Pádraig Ó Cíobháin are three of the most important. They adhere in general to the realist tradition, as does Dara Ó Conaola. The work of Joe Steve Ó Neachtain, from the Conamara Gaeltacht, has proved consistently popular.

Caitlín Maude (d.1982), a native speaker from Conamara, wrote fluent and elegant verse with a distinctively modern sensibility. One of the best known poets is Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who was raised in the Munster Gaeltacht and was part of the new wave of the sixties and seventies. She is particularly interested in the mythic element in reality. Biddy Jenkinson (a pseudonym) is representative of an urban tradition: she is a poet and a writer of witty detective stories.

Others of Ní Dhomhnaill's generation were the mordant Michael Hartnett (who wrote both in Irish and English) and Michael Davitt (d.2005), a lyric poet whose work is both whimsical and melancholy. Others of his generation are Liam Ó Muirthile and Gabriel Rosenstock. Among those who followed are Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Tomás Mac Síomóin, Diarmuid Johnson and Louis de Paor. Ó Searcaigh, a lyric poet, is also a traveller: this bore fruit in his engaging travelogue about Nepal, Seal i Neipeal.

There is now more emphasis on popular writing in Irish, and among the writers who have had considerable success with lighter genres is Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, novelist, playwright and short story writer. Lorcán S. Ó Treasaigh has written a popular autobiography called Céard é English? (What is English?) about growing up as a native Irish speaker in the predominatly English-speaking city of Dublin. Colm Ó Snodaigh's novella, Pat the Pipe - Píobaire, describes a busker's adventures in Dublin's streets in the nineties.

The short story remains a popular genre. Donncha Ó Céileachair and Síle Ní Chéileachair, brother and sister, published the influential collection Bullaí Mhártain in 1955: it dealt with both urban and rural themes. In 1957 Liam O'Flaherty (Liam Ó Flaithearta), who had been brought up with Irish on the Aran Islands, published the collection Dúil, his only work in the Irish language. One of the best known of contemporary practitioners is Seán Mac Mathúna (who also writes in English). He is not a prolific writer: his work is characterised by a poetic realism and has been praised for its originality. A writer of a more recent generation is Daithí Ó Muirí. The drive, black humour and absurdist quality of his work distinguish it from the realism of most modern writing in Irish.

Writers in Irish abroad

Countries other than Ireland have produced several contributors to literature in Irish, reflecting the existence globally of a group who have learned or who cultivate the language. It is of note that these writers and their readers do not always form part of the traditional diaspora.

Panu Petteri Höglund, a linguist, writer and translator, belongs to Finland's Swedish-speaking minority. He uses Irish as a creative medium, and has set himself the goal of producing entertaining and modern writing in an Irish up to Gaeltacht standards. For a long time he experimented with Ulster Irish on the Web, but he published his first book in standard Irish, albeit strongly influenced by native folklore and dialects.

Muiris (Mossie) Ó Scanláin, a native speaker from the Kerry Gaeltacht now resident in Melbourne, has written an autobiography in his own dialect (one rich in autobiographies) called An Mám ó Dheas, describing his life in Ireland, England and Australia.

Work of a different sort has been produced by Colin Ryan, an Australian whose short stories have appeared in the journals Feasta and Comhar. His stories, like Höglund's, are set outside Ireland, and often have a hallucinatory quality. He has also published poetry.

Literary magazines

The two Irish-language literary magazines chiefly responsible for the encouragement of poetry and short fiction are Comhar[2] (founded in 1942) and Feasta[3] (founded in 1948). The latter, presently edited by the poet and activist Pádraig Mac Fhearghusa, is the journal of the Gaelic League, though it has an independent editorial policy. Both magazines publish short fiction and poetry: the manifesto of Feasta also declares that one of its objects is to encourage students to write in Irish.

Feasta has enjoyed more stability than Comhar, which suffered from a declining readership and has now been reconstituted. It is presently edited by the veteran journalist Pól Ó Muirí.

Both magazines have had as contributors some of the most notable figures in modern Irish-language literature, and continue to encourage new writing.

Irish-language publishers

A number of publishers specialise in Irish-language material. They include the following.

  • Cló Chaisil publishes books in Irish only. It produces books for children, teenagers and adults.
  • Cló Iar-Chonnachta, founded in 1985, has as its particular aim the publishing of work by Gaeltacht writers. It has published over 300 books, predominantly in Irish, together with music.
  • Cois Life, established in 1995, publishes literary and academic works. Its output includes plays, fiction and poetry.
  • Coiscéim, founded in 1980, has published about 700 books, making it the largest private publisher in Ireland.
  • An Gúm has been publishing books in Irish since 1926 under the aegis of the Irish State. It is the largest Irish language publisher in the country, and now mainly publishes lexicography, textbooks and other curricular resources, together with material for children and young adults.
  • An tSnáthaid Mhór, founded in 2005, aims to publish high-quality contemporary books.
  • Irish Pages, founded in 2002, is a bilingual English and Irish journal. Its September 2010 issue is dedicated to writing in Irish.[4]


  • Irish language outside Ireland
  • Status of the Irish language

External links

See also

  • J.E. Caerwyn Williams agus Máirín Uí Mhuiríosa. Traidisiún Liteartha na nGael. An Clóchomhar Tta, 1979.[5]


  1. ^ This is discussed in Caerwyn Williams, J.E. and Ní Mhuiríosa, Máirín (1979), Traidisiún Liteartha na nGael, An Clóchomhar Tta, Baile Átha Cliath, pp.345-350, and more generally in Ó Conluain, Proinsias and Ó Céileachair, Donncha (1976 - reprint), An Duinníneach, Sairséal agus Dill, Baile Átha Cliath.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ IRISH PAGES Vol 5 No 2, The Irish Issue ISBN 0-9544257-7-4
  5. ^ A general survey of literature in Irish. It includes the modern period up the date of publication, but an update is required.

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