Ireland’s Irish-language literature

By | June 12, 2020

Irish literature actually includes two literatures, one in the original language, Irish Gaelic, and another in the language the English conquerors brought with them. This literature is often referred to as Anglo-Irish literature.

Literature in Irish

Irish literature extends over a year and a half. The first traces we find of the language are tombs in the ogham alphabet, which correspond to our runes. These inscriptions, which date to the 300 and 400 AD, show the language at an archaic stage. In the first literary sources of the 7th and 8th centuries, the Latin alphabet was used; it had been introduced by Christian missionaries in the 400s. Irish literature can be divided into four periods.

The time until the 1100s

Linguistically, the period covers everything from archaic Old Irish to Late Middle Irish. Irish literature was from the earliest times an aristocratic literature taken care of by a professional group of filid (viewers). They should know the sagas and genealogies (genealogies) and praise. This was identical to maintaining the glory of the ruling class. The official poetry of the period consisted mainly of panegyric and elegies, and this is what is best preserved. But fragments of an apartment poem have also been preserved, showing genuinely lyrical features. In the oldest metric known, two half-verses (half lines) are bound together by alliteration, a system reminiscent of early Germanic poetry.

The entire literary tradition was maintained by the monasteries. The Church in Ireland not only tolerated the country’s language but used it in religious writings. After a couple of centuries it had completely replaced Latin in all fields except the purely liturgical. The official religious poetry is as prosaic as the official to filid. This includes the famous Félire Óengusso (Calendar of Oengus), written around the year 800. It contains a sentence of four verse lines for each day of the year. More interesting is the 9th century Saltair na Rann (David’s hymns), a bible story of 150 strophes in debide-versemålet. Yet, it is not these great works that are the highlights of Irish religious poetry, but the personal record of a monk asking forgiveness for lack of concentration during meditation, or the nun asking God to promise her the task of caring for the Jesus child. These anonymous poets were not filthy, and they avoided the more difficult meters, but had great help in a language that had already been developed over several centuries. But the greatest association of literary tradition and religious feeling is found in natural poetry.

Of historical poetry, the great Dinnhenchas should be mentioned. It is available in both prose and verse. One can call it a lexicon in national topography. Topics such as grammar, lexicography, law, and verse theory were also designed in verses to make it easier to remember.

The early Irish epic is in a narrative prose that often contains uplifting non-narrative passages, either rhetorically or in verse. The oldest sagas are in a language that states that they were first written down in the 600s and 700s. These are presumably stories that have previously been spoken orally. The great Codex Lebor na HUidre (The Book of Dun Cow) from the beginning of the 12th century is the oldest manuscript ever preserved. The reason that so much has been lost is the invasions of Vikings in the 800s and 900s. They interrupted all serious literary activity, which was not resumed until the 11th century. The best known circle of legends is that of Ulaid(Ulsters), the people who have given the name of the province of Ulster. When the sagas were written down, this was the power and significance of the people for a long time only a saga. This is where we find Ireland’s most famous epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Looting in Cúailnge).

Religious prose includes a group of writings called “visions.” The most famous of these is Fís Adamnáin (Adamnán’s vision). The hagiographic literature is extensive and colorful in both Latin and Irish. The oldest covered saint biography is the Vita Sanctae Columbae from the late 600s, written down by Adamnán of Iona. Among the statutes is the best evidence not only for archaic Old Irish language, but also for the social life of early Christian Ireland. At the heart is Senchas Már (Big Code).

From the 1100s to the middle of the 1600s

Linguistically, it includes Late Middle Irish and Classical Modern Irish. From the 1100s, the traditions came to be managed by worldly families, where shell farming was inherited. Bardenes (baird)reform consisted of gaining greater correspondence between the literary language and contemporary speech, and reducing the number of meters used by filid, and gaining greater accuracy in rhythm and more freshness in inroads and alliteration. The themes were limited to praise either by the benefactor or by God. This is because the poets no longer belonged to the monasteries, but were completely dependent on protection in order to maintain the high standard of living they believed to be entitled to. After six to seven years of training, they were free to choose a tentative or permanent benefactor. Today we see little of value in the official poetry of the bards. But one poet that can still be read is Muireadhach Albanach (c. 1214-40). with the elegy he wrote at the death of his wife.

The great amount of prose during this period is mainly occupied by the hero Finn and his warrior squad (fian). Although these stories are omitted in the 12th century manuscripts, they must have existed among people for centuries. Prominent among these narratives is Agallamh na Seanórach(The interrogation of the old men). The prose degenerated gradually and took on a bombastic style full of alliterations. In time, the ballad, which is easier to read than the prose, arose, which represents the prelude to popular literature. The metric rules here were drastically simplified from the bard’s technique. The ballads were very popular with ordinary people, and new themes were gradually addressed. The ballads about Oisín and Finn, which got a huge scope, followed J. Macpherson’s forgeries.

Of other prose are compositions in which the older sagas have been added to elements of the folk tales, or as Cogadh Gaedheal re Gallaibh(The Irish War with the Strangers), a saga applied to a significant historical person, Brían Bóroimhe. Here, too, the style is overloaded and hungry. In addition, a number of translations at the end of this period came from both Latin and English. In the 1400s, the art of printing began to make literature accessible to more and more people in Europe, while in Ireland there was a fatal obstacle: the Irish language had no power in the cities and no access to the printing press. Irish literature was therefore necessarily an aristocratic literature preserved by those who could afford to keep literature and supply them with the expensive parchment, which was not replaced by paper until the end of this period.

From the 17th century to the end of the 19th century

During this time, the language evolved from being close to classical Irish to being represented only in the form of dialects as we know them in our time. Under Elizabeth 1, the power of the Irish nobility was broken down. With it also disappeared the bards that had been under its protection. This is also how the old tradition went away. There were no learned men to form a new one. From now on, the Irish language began to lose its position as the most common language in the country. In Scotland, which had the same tradition, it continued with the aristocracy there until the time after 1745. But the language and style of the bards, which had remained unchanged for 400 years, were too difficult to maintain for poets who had not undergone the special the strict discipline of schools. But just as the bards had taken over after filid 500 years earlier, now took a new school of poets over after the bards. The language of poetry moved towards the spoken language, and this, together with the powerful simplification of the metrical pattern of the bards, gave the poets a new force and vitality. Here, for the first time, one finds genuine patriotism in response to the new regime of the 17th century.

Highest among the poets is Dáibhidh Ó Bruadair (1625–97). After him and the slightly later Ó Raithile (1670-1726), the poetry came completely into the hands of ordinary people. Here the satire still had appeal, and these peasant poets kept the literary tradition up to the late 18th century. The last flourishing within the tradition associated with the Munster district is Cúirt an Mheánoíche (Court Meeting at Midnight) by Brian Merriman (1740-1808). Subsequently, Irish poetry restricted itself to folk tales, and even these were created less and less after the famine disaster of 1846-47.

Some of the prose was still written in the 17th century. Most important is Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (The Annals of the Four Masters), a collection of all material available on Irish history until 1616. The work was performed by the Franciscan monk Michel O’Clery. Séathrún Céitinn wrote the first historical work in Irish, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn. Religious works written by Irish Franciscans in Louvain were smuggled into the country. The first book to be printed was the Protestant translation of the New Testament in 1603. During the 1800s and 1900s, only a few catechisms were printed in Irish. There was no literary activity in the mid-19th century, and almost none of the Irish speakers were literate in Irish.

The time from the end of the 19th century

The period from the late 1800s to the present is characterized by the Gaelic Renaissance. Already in the latter half of the 19th century an interest in Irish language and literature arose from a purely antiquarian point of view. That the reconstruction of an Irish written language could also be exploited politically, so far there were few. The growing interest was still only academic. It was not until the establishment of the Gaelic League in 1893 that the extent of the Irish language still preserved as a spoken language in certain areas of the country began to be assessed. This Irish-speaking rural population had long since been granted minority status. Proponents of the Irish Renaissance faced a major problem in deciding how to write this language that had lost the old standard and was now split into dialects. The classic language of the bards was too archaic to be reintroduced, and some Ivar Aasen did not come forward and form a new language based on the dialects. That is why everyone wrote their dialect. From the mid-1900s, a standard for written language was drawn up by the government, and this has gradually been accepted.

It was in the County of Munster, where the literary tradition was best preserved, that the greatest contributions to a new written literature came. The Munster Priest Peter O’Leary accelerated the revival with a stream of novels, essays and translations. But it was the fisherman Tomás Ó Criomhthain who made the best contribution in 1929 with the description of life An tOileánach (The Islander), translated into a variety of languages. On the Ulster dialect, or closer to the Donegal dialect, the brothers wrote Séamus Ó Grianna (the pseudonym Máire) and Seosamh Mac Grianna. From the Connacht district in the west came three good short story writers, Pádraig Ó Conaire, Liam O’Flaherty (who wrote mostly in English) and Máirtín Ó Cadhain. The short story has become the most successful genre. The novels have never been quite good and miss the urban environment, although there are exceptions. Máirtín Ó Cadhains Cré na Cille (Earth in the cemetery) is in many ways a Gaelic counterpart to Joyce’s Ulysses. Today, it appears that Breandán Ó hÉithir and several others with him also succeed with this format.

Among the lyricists, Máire Mhac an tSaoi (b. 1922), Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910–88) and Seán Ó Ríordáin (1917–77) are the most significant. Ó Direáin is the most popular and most easily accessible, Ó Ríordáin and Mhac an tSaoi more exclusive with little production behind it. There are several young lyricists writing in Irish Gaelic. These include Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (b. 1952), Tomás Mac Síomoóin and Mícheál Ó hAirtneide (b. 1941).

Máire Mhac an tSaoi