Charting the evolving story of Ireland’s literary history

What we call ‘Irish literature’ had a long birth across centuries of conflict and change

In May 1803, shortly before Robert Emmet’s rebellion, Thomas Moore was offered the Poet Laureateship of Ireland, a post that was to be created especially for him by William Wickham, Chief Secretary of Ireland. Moore’s father was unconvinced by the merits of a life in literature and cautioned the young poet to hold out for something better. As Moore himself put it: “[I]t would place me on a ladder indeed, but a ladder which has but the one rank, where I should stand stationary forever.”

Other professional opportunities soon presented themselves, thanks to Moore’s powerful friends and patrons, who found him a potentially lucrative job as Registrar of the Naval Prize Court of Bermuda. By the end of the same year, Moore had left Dublin for Hamilton, expressing delight at this “promising opportunity of advancement”: “My foot is upon the ladder pretty firmly,” he wrote home, detailing the prospective beauties of Bermuda and the boons of its balmy climate.

His journey, which lasted about a year, took him from London to Bermuda and then Virginia, Washington, Philadelphia and into Canada before he arrived back in London in November 1804. Among the poems written on the journey westward were some that became local and national classics: these include The Lake of the Dismal Swamp, set in Norfolk, Virginia, and The Canadian Boat Song. None, however, were about Ireland.

On his return to London, a poor review of the new poems in The Edinburgh led him to challenge its editor, Francis Jeffrey, to a duel. The affray was prevented by the police and an embarrassed Moore fled to Dublin. There he met James and William Power and agreed to write the lyrics for a new collection to be called Irish Melodies, with music arranged by Sir John Stevenson. And so a splendid Irish talent was born: Moore went on to become one of the greatest cultural celebrities of his day and an enduring influence on later eras.


Irish literature is now a term with clear meanings and resonances

Moore’s roundabout road to success illustrates something about the idea of an “Irish literature”: its birth was by no means certain, and its flourishing far from guaranteed. His books and his fame grew while the idea of an Irish Poet Laureate died away, until that is, the 1990s, when devolutionary energies propelled the establishment of Irish, Scottish and Welsh versions of the role of authorised national literary figure. The Ireland Chair of Poetry was created in 1998 and joined by the Laureateship for Irish Fiction in 2015.

In the interim, of course, many writers now considered important struggled and few replicated Moore’s astonishing achievements. Such success remains a rare and glittering prospect. Indeed, the first Laureate for Irish Fiction, Anne Enright, used the platform afforded by the position to remind us of the practical and financial difficulties still faced by those brave individuals who seek to make their living by acts of imagination.

Laureateships, like prizes and bursaries, recognise a coherent tradition built over time and reinforce a robust faith in the value of Irish literature as a category. Irish literature is now a term with clear meanings and resonances, institutionalised as an aspect of Irish life. It can be quoted and honoured as well as debated and disputed. But the apparent certainty with which we now use the term should not blind us to its long birth across centuries of conflict and change, nor to its shifting meanings in a changing present.


Today, as in Moore’s day, we celebrate the outstanding accomplishments of brilliant authors but we do not always look closely at the levers and mechanics of literary history, to see the ways in which reputations rise and fall over time. When did the category of Irish literature emerge, how did that happen, and what came before it? How did various locations around the globe – not only in England and the United States, but in Europe, Asia and the Southern hemisphere – contribute to the making of a body of works, processes and practices we call Irish literature?

Our new multi-volume history, Irish Literature in Transition, describes the passage between distinct periods from 1700 to the present but also tracks subtle interconnections, contingencies and modulations across time. Over the course of these centuries, a variety of ideas about the ways in which culture might be aligned with a developing nation emerged.

As early as 1758, Thomas Sheridan thought that Dublin needed a national theatre, a goal whose realisation would have to wait until the establishment of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 and the opening of the Abbey in 1904. During the 1920s the Abbey became the first state-subsidised theatre in the English-speaking world, yet at all points the self-consciously “national” drama the Abbey was founded to promote co-existed with other performances in Ireland, including Shakespeare, European drama, melodrama, and music hall.

Literature has often been called upon to step in and tell the story of Ireland

The Abbey’s current production – Jody O’Neill’s What I (Don’t) Know About Autism – seeks to extend the remit of the national theatre by exploring autistic identity on stage. But the Abbey is not the place to begin to tell a straightforward story of growing inclusivity and widening recognition. Exclusions and absences are woven into the texture of Irish culture across the centuries. But it is also the case that questions prompted by the contemporary cultural landscape can help us see a literary history marked by recurrence and return, sharp rifts and departures as well as connections and progress.

Some of the specific elements of the production of O’Neill’s play – a “relaxed performance” attuned to the needs of autistic performers and audience members, leaving the house lights on, allowing audience members to move freely about the theatre and make noise – hearken back to previous centuries of theatre history, before audiences were expected to stay seated and silent in the dark.

Ideas about the relationship between literature and culture did not always cleave to the national story. In the early years of the 19th century Maria Edgeworth expressed an interest in founding a journal dedicated to works written by “literary ladies”. At the time her friends and advisers thought that the suggestion was behind the times. Such a prospect, however, may still seems fresh: we are several decades on from the publication of volumes one to three of the Field Day Anthology, which sparked controversy over scholarly sexism, and have yet to break free from the cycles of retrieval and forgetting.

The subsequent publication of volumes four and five of the Field Day Anthology led to a different kind of controversy over literary standards and the aesthetic limitations of a history made with multiple frameworks and stories. As feminist controversies and questions driven by a concern for diversity continue to run up against the language of literary value, a renewed understanding of our literary history can give us the grounds from which to analyse and intervene in such debates.

Irish Literature in Transition revises and expands the canon while also remaining attentive to questions of quality and importance. Aesthetic standards and tastes vary among readers and change over time, as works that were initially condemned or ignored came to be understood and admired. James Joyce’s Ulysses originally provoked incomprehension and outrage among many readers; now it is routinely cited as one of the most important Irish books.

Story of Ireland

In the absence of a strong Irish school of political or sociological theory, literature has often been called upon to step in and tell the story of Ireland. “I think we can by now speak of an Irish tradition,” Seamus Heaney wrote in 1977, referring to “a consideration of the politics and anthropology of our condition”. And yet, paradoxically, scholars have tended to subordinate the literary tradition to the lines laid down by other disciplines, deferring in particular to political history as having a special responsibility to tell the national story.

The current international flourishing of Irish writing of all kinds presents an unmissable opportunity

Although it is often remarked that culture led the way in changing Irish society (most famously, the line leading from the literary revival to the War of Independence), literary scholarship has not in turn led the debate about how to remember that past. Scholars of folklore, Irish, sociology and geography no doubt have similar complaints, as Ireland looks back at its past in the context of a period of extraordinary social and cultural change.

The current international flourishing of Irish writing of all kinds presents an unmissable opportunity to explore new kinds of questions as we revisit the past. Literary critics can now work with new approaches (attuned to the body, to sexualities, to the environment) and new technologies (distant reading, network analysis, geographical information systems). We also have a much broader sense of the global context for an Irish literary tradition that was made in the Atlantic world and across the British empire.

As the focus widens, however, and reframes an Irish literature in transition, so it returns us to our present moment. Irish Literature in Transition invites readers to take a critical look at the cultural stories that we currently tell, an invitation to reimagine the literary past and renew readerly interest in the textures of that tradition. Each volume intervenes in continuing critical conversations, charting the contours of literary history across the centuries and highlighting the significance of change as a lived, felt force.
Claire Connolly and Marjorie Howes are General Editors of Irish Literature in Transition, a new series of six books from Cambridge University Press addressing Irish writing from 1700 to 2020. The contributing editors are Matthew Campbell, Eric Falci, Moyra Haslett, Eve Patten and Paige Reynolds.