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The Cambridge History of Irish Literature
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This is the first comprehensive history of Irish literature in both its major languages, Irish and English. The twenty-eight chapters in this two-volume history provide an authoritative chronological survey of the Irish literary tradition. Spanning fifteen centuries of literary achievement, the two volumes range from the earliest medieval Latin texts to the late twentieth century. The contributors, drawn from a range of Irish, British and North American universities, are internationally renowned experts in their fields. The Cambridge History of Irish Literature comprises an unprecedented synthesis of research and information, a detailed narrative of one of the world's richest literary traditions, and innovative and challenging new readings. No critical work of this scale and authority has been attempted for Irish literature before. Featuring a detailed chronology and guides to further reading for each chapter, this magisterial project will remain the key reference book for literature in Ireland for generations to come.


'… a remarkable editorial and publishing contribution to current Irish studies. It offers the opportunity for creative debate.'

Source: Irish Times

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  • 1 - The literature of medieval Ireland to c. 800: St Patrick to the Vikings
    pp 9-31
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    Literature and scholarship, in Irish and in Latin, were prized and cultivated in early Christian Ireland. The earliest Latin texts known to have been composed in Ireland are the works of St Patrick, the Confession and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. The Bible, Latin grammar and computistics were intensively studied in the Irish monastic schools, and numerous exegetical tracts were taken from Ireland to Europe where they were often ascribed to authorities such as Augustine or Jerome. Among the hymns and versified prayers composed in Latin, pride of place may be given to the Altus Prosator, which is attributed to Colum Cille, and has been described as a kind of early Paradise Lost. The relationship between the Israelites and Christ is depicted in terms of Irish concepts of lordship and kinship. The Irish schools were deeply committed to the study of senchas 'knowledge of the past'.
  • 2 - The literature of medieval Ireland, 800–1200: from the Vikings to the Normans
    pp 32-73
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    The literary landscape of the period defined in linguistic terms as Classical Old Irish and Middle Irish is remarkable both for its size and for the sheer variety of its terrain. Medieval anthologies, in the form of surviving manuscripts, generally display a far greater heterogeneity. This chapter provides an overview of the all-important manuscript tradition. The monastic affiliations of the predominantly vernacular manuscripts are equally evident. Few extant medieval manuscripts display the thematic unity of the Leabhar Breac. Great compendia of diverse and apparently disparate material for the most part, they were likened by Gerard Murphy to modern-day museums. An ability to read and assimilate Latin texts is attested by the intimate knowledge of a wide range of sources displayed by the authors of vernacular material. Works produced in Ireland display greater linguistic diversity. Old Norse may well have been cultivated as a literary language in the Hiberno-Norse colonies, just as Norman French certainly was among later settlers.
  • 3 - The literature of later medieval Ireland, 1200–1600: from the Normans to the Tudors
    pp 74-139
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    This chapter explores the development of writing in both prose and poetry in Irish and other languages within an inclusive framework of analysis. The literature of later medieval Ireland provides vivid testimony for contemporary ideological, social and religious beliefs; but perhaps more strikingly and affectingly, it provides a rare and valuable insight into the world-view and varied human emotions of the late medieval Irish literati and the men and women for whom they composed. The Cistercian and Augustinian expansion in Ireland displaced an integral support of Gaelic scholarship as the older monasteries declined. The Norman invasion of 1169 and the subsequent settlements brought Norman-French and English speakers into Ireland in considerable numbers. A wide range of religious material was produced during this period, with the fifteenth century seemingly the most active for Irish-language material. Over one hundred fifteenth- to seventeenth-century manuscripts containing Irish-language medical texts are extant.
  • 4 - Literature in English, 1550–1690: from the Elizabethan settlement to the Battle of the Boyne
    pp 140-190
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    This chapter discusses the diversity of Anglophone writing in the early modern period and traces the complex generic interconnections between texts by Irish authors from various ethnic backgrounds. It examines many of the writers who led peripatetic existences and produced work that evinced a complex awareness of the precarious and conflicted nature of identity and of the divided readerships that they target, situated severally in Ireland and in England. The Anglophone literature of early modern Ireland constitutes what Arthur Marotti terms a 'social textuality' in which the exchange of manuscripts or printed works enacts a struggle over perception, symbolic capital and political power. Traces of the political anxieties inspired by the Elizabethan wars in Ireland are evident in the peripheral figures and sub-plots of other plays of the period. The entrenched sectarianism unleashed by the Williamite wars and the symbolic defeat of Jacobite forces at the Boyne in July 1690 is evident in contemporaneous writings.
  • 6 - Prose in English, 1690–1800: from the Williamite wars to the Act of Union
    pp 232-281
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    Protestant writers of varying beliefs produced literary work, political, philosophical, theological, economic and scientific, of remarkable assurance for an audience that extended at times, to include pre-eminent figures in Great Britain, continental Europe and North America. In articulating Irish claims to legislative independence, the most significant work was The Case of Ireland's being bound by Acts of Parliament in England, Stated by William Molyneux. The greatest of all Irish philosophers, George Berkeley, transcends any overly schematic account of an Enlightenment versus Counter Enlightenment split in early eighteenth-century Irish thought. Historically and geographically, the setting of The Irish Princess, Clonmel in the 1690s, following the Williamite victory suggests a foregrounding of Irish subject matter in fiction. Irish prose of the second half of the eighteenth century reveals a dimming of the intellectual and imaginative brilliance of the period 1690-1750.
  • 7 - Poetry in English, 1690–1800: from the Williamite wars to the Act of Union
    pp 282-319
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    Irish printers and publishers were well placed to take advantage of the peace that followed the Williamite wars. Restrictions on the book trade, which had prevented its development for much of the seventeenth century, had been removed at the end of the reign of Charles II, and the copyright laws which operated in England did not apply in Ireland. For the first twenty-five years of the period under consideration, most poetry by Irish writers was printed in London where, indeed, many of them lived. Many interesting poetic descriptions of life in Ireland have survived from the middle years of the eighteenth century. Some of the poetry written in English outside the major cities and towns of Ireland in the second half of the eighteenth century provides clear evidence that, in the countryside at least, communities with differing backgrounds were interacting with each other.
  • 8 - Literature in Irish, 1690–1800: from the Williamite wars to the Act of Union
    pp 320-371
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    Early twentieth-century scholarship is characterised by the shortcomings of a newly developing domain: incompleteness of coverage, the tentative nature of either text or translation, and the restricted context in which the material is discussed. Poetry and prose remain the two dominant media in which the literature of the age is found. This chapter focuses on poetry primarily as, in the comparatively undeveloped domain of eighteenth-century Irish scholarship, it has received the greater share of attention, and consequently offers a platform on which to build further exposition and argumentation. Thoughts on the broader context in which events such as the foregoing took place form a second component within eighteenth-century Irish poetry. Real financial and military assistance continued to be made available during the opening decades of the 1700s, after the defeat of James II in the Williamite wars, to later Jacobite figures like James III. The chapter discusses the genesis of texts rather than the contents.
  • 9 - Theatre in Ireland, 1690–1800: from the Williamite wars to the Act of Union
    pp 372-406
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    The theatre in which the play was to be performed, Smock Alley was only the public theatre building to have been constructed in Ireland. When Othello was staged in 1691, there would have been cautious optimism that the theatre would survive the demise of the regime that had created it. In the long term, its survival would depend upon its ability to adapt to the tectonic ideological shifts set in motion by the Williamite wars. For much of the next century this ongoing process would give the act of theatre-going in Ireland a political resonance that exceeded the content of individual plays. Irish antiquarian interest in the Gaelic past coincided with a period in which theatre historians throughout Europe were formulating a wider Enlightenment narrative of the progressive development of the theatre and its role in the wider processes of civilisation.
  • 10 - Irish Romanticism, 1800–1830
    pp 407-448
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    Ireland entered the period of Romanticism scorched by what Quaker writer Mary Leadbeater called the 'ruthless fires' of the 1798 rebellion. Romanticism across Europe took its political bearings from the Enlightenment, with its radical faith in social progress and human perfectibility. This chapter treats Irish Romanticism both as a distinct cultural phenomenon, separate from British and other literary histories in the same period, and also as a phase that is temporally coincident with, and shares important connections to, the Romanticism that swept across Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. An important effect of Romantic aesthetics was the development of Romantic nationalism. Ireland emerged from this period with a renovated reputation as a naturally distinct national culture; this in turn fostered and supported new theories of nationality and nourished the cultural nationalism of the 1830s and 1840s.
  • 12 - Poetry in English, 1830–1890: from Catholic emancipation to the fall of Parnell
    pp 500-543
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    The poetry of Ulster Protestants such as Samuel Ferguson and William Allingham, who had an eye on British as well as Irish audiences, moved from lyric through social realism to the experiments in myth which laid the foundations of the Revival's interest in Celtic epic. In the case of Irish culture, poetry and music bore much responsibility in conceptions of an authentic Irish national culture, given the post-Ossianic conception of the poetic as a near-synonym for the Celtic. From mid-century, the waves of emigration westward also meant that Irish poetry was both published and performed across a larger English-speaking world. Irish Minstrelsy was an O'Connellite project conceived during the struggle for Catholic emancipation, and one consequence of O'Connell's educational programme was to encourage the Irish to move from speaking Irish to reading English. As social and economic conditions slid towards catastrophe, so the level of rhetorical indignation increased in Young Ireland poetry.
  • 13 - Literature in Irish, 1800–1890: from the Act of Union to the Gaelic League
    pp 544-598
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    This chapter argues that Irish-language literary activity in the nineteenth century constitutes, in the first place, a conscious, intellectual, ideological space for 'us' in the universe as a first principle, while also, although by secondary rather than by primary function, in many ways also distinguishing 'us' from 'them'. This space is where the internal cultural logic of Irish-speaking Ireland of the period is to be found, and moreover, as language as a repository of cultural meaning is vital to both society and to the individuals and groups that constitute that society, the only means of reading or understanding that society in its own terms from within is through its language. Learning in the Gaelic understanding of the word was a textual activity, and most of the material in manuscripts tends to be copies of canonical works from within the tradition, and not new literary creations in their own right.
  • 14 - Historical writings, 1690–1890
    pp 599-632
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    The most prominent histories published in the immediate aftermath of the Williamite success came from the victors' camp. In the eighteenth century, for example, Catholics and Protestants represented the past, both modern and pre-colonial, in ways which were shaped by the Williamite victory and the subsequent penal legislation against Catholics and Dissenters put in place to ensure an enduring Protestant ascendancy. The process by which Irish Protestants harnessed the past to their project of forging a stable and prosperous society in eighteenth-century Ireland can be seen in the publications of the Physico-Historical Society. For Catholic antiquaries, any interest shown by Protestant writers in the Gaelic past and language was to be welcomed enthusiastically, even if, as with Vallancey, it went far beyond Catholic concerns. By highlighting a rich and all-but-vanished literary tradition, Macpherson's Ossian poems were also crucial in the development of Irish Protestant romanticism about the Gaelic world and it's past.
  • 15 - Literature and the oral tradition
    pp 633-676
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    This chapter emphasizes that the separation of 'literature' and 'oral tradition' requires a careful definition of terms, awareness of the preconceptions attached to them, and acceptance that the exercise is literally and figuratively academic. The concept of literature is peculiar to members of a highly literate society, in which the majority are taught to read, write and rely on print to guarantee the accuracy, longevity and availability of information. Movements to promote Modern Irish and Irish tradition began in the late nineteenth century, with mixed success. The composition of world-class literature in Modern Irish has proved it a viable creative medium, as versatile in print as it is in speech, and it is gratifying that since the founding of the Gaelic League, action and purpose have exchanged roles: learners used to read the literature in order to practice the language, and now people learn the language in order to read the literature.

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

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