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The Cambridge History of Irish Literature
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    • Online ISBN: 9781139055017
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This is the first comprehensive history of Irish literature in both its major languages, Irish and English. The twenty-nine 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

'The Cambridge History of Irish Literature provides much more than the comprehensive coverage and historical background expected of such a monumental work: it offers intelligent, up-to-date, theoretically informed and clearly written essays, each one driven by original scholarly argument … Although it's intellectually weighty, each volume is easy to carry; in reader-friendly fashion the notes follow immediately after each chapter; the chronology of Irish history is the most complete and accurate one produced in the past twenty years; the maps are elegant and useful …'

Source: The Times Literary Supplement

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  • 1 - Literature and politics
    pp 9-49
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    In Ireland, artists are expected to see things other mortals don't see and the social powers accorded to the artist are of ancient lineage. The filí or poets stood second only to the chieftain in the power-structure of Gaelic Ireland, carrying rods as symbols of their vatic powers. It would be hard to overestimate the social power of the virtual worlds often created by writers within the colonial scheme. The ever-shifting perspectives allowed by the story might be applied also to Anglo-Irish relations, with Swift seen as offering an early instance of imperial feedback to the metropolitan centre of London. Ulysses was published at just that moment in the history of surrealism when Bohemia, through advertising, was about to become an avant-garde form of publicity. Literature in the eyes of politicians and church leaders was still a force sufficiently powerful and subversive to deserve control and even outright banning.
  • 2 - The Irish Renaissance, 1890–1940: poetry in English
    pp 50-112
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    The fifty years from 1890 to 1940 are at once among the most distinguished and the most problematic in the development of Irish poetry in English. Yeats published his first collection of poems in 1889, when he was twenty four, while his final volume, Last Poems and Two Plays, appeared within a few months of his death on 28 January 1939. 'After us the Savage God', Yeats wrote in The Trembling of the Veil. An Old Rector's Story', the opening poem of the inaugural Revival anthology, Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland. The female contemporary of Lawless who displayed the most 'Protestant' work ethic of the period was the decisively Catholic Katharine Tynan. Something of the trajectory of Irish poetry from AE to J. M. Synge is incorporated in the artistic development of Seamus O'Sullivan. As co-founder of the Gaelic League and editor/translator of the hugely influential Love Songs of Connacht, Douglas Hyde exemplified both tendencies at their most vigorous.
  • 3 - The Irish Renaissance, 1890–1940: prose in English
    pp 113-180
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    The Irish Literary Revival defined itself in part as an abstention from the English literary tradition, and this included the 'English novel', using the term in a generic as well as national sense. The popular novel is entirely missing from standard accounts of Irish fiction between 1890 and 1940. By 1890, the popular novel catered to a complex demographic in Ireland as well as Britain. The Irish Literary Revival was to provide the literature of the new Ireland, and the culture of Anglo-Ireland was to subsume itself in an expanded and rejuvenated native culture. One kind of narrative that could swell the young Revival canon was the fictional adaptation of scholarly or popular translations and redactions of sagas and heroic romances in Irish manuscripts. Liam O'Flaherty was in some ways a child of the Revival: he wrote about the west of Ireland, and was, in Revival terms, a peasant.
  • 4 - The Irish Renaissance, 1890–1940: drama in English
    pp 181-225
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    Histories of the drama of the 'Irish Renaissance' usually begin in the summer of 1897. One place of origin for modern Irish drama was the Théâtre-Libre in Paris, 20 May 1890. There is one unsolved problem that embarrasses any historian of modern Irish drama. The plays of Oscar Wilde do not fit into the available narratives. In the English-speaking world, the greatest advocate of modern realistic drama was George Bernard Shaw. After the death of Synge in 1909, Yeats developed this sectarian theme of the great artist done down by a Catholic nationalist mob in 'J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time. The Irish National Theatre Society that had for home the Abbey Theatre was not the only patriotic theatre society in the country. The Shaw excitement caused one Dublin labouring man to read John Bull's Other Island: Sean O'Casey.
  • 5 - The Irish Renaissance, 1880–1940: literature in Irish
    pp 226-269
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    The audacity of Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language's commitment to fostering a modern literature in Irish was underscored in 1909 by the poet and scholar Tadhg Ó Donnchadha, who looking back on the Gaelic literary landscape of 1882. The paucity of Gaelic literary achievement in the modern language was a standing reproach to those who stressed the cultural continuity of the Gaelic nation, a reproach that had to be addressed at once. Writers of short fiction had accomplished much in the first half-century or so of the Revival. Given the centrality of the Gaeltacht in Revivalist ideology and the leading role played by writers who were native speakers, it is actually surprising how many novels of their period did attempt to claim new territory of various kinds for the language. The Gaeltacht autobiography became the keystone of the evolving canon of writing in Irish.
  • 6 - Contemporary prose and drama in Irish 1940–2000
    pp 270-316
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    The decades from 1960 onwards saw the emergence of literary biography and literary criticism as distinct forms of prose writing. This chapter provides a survey of Irish-language prose literature and drama written since 1940. It also focusses on key texts and movements to identify areas of continuity as well as dealing with the most significant emerging trends. Antrim author Seán Mac Maoláin was one of the most prolific fiction writers of the period. Autobiography remained an important literary genre in Irish throughout the decades, so much so that Seán Ó Tuama included autobiographical accounts in his important 1976 survey of fiction in Irish. While the period 1940-2000 was a period of consolidation and unprecedented growth for prose literature, the fate of Irish-language theatre was less fortunate. While early twentieth-century Irish-language drama may be situated in the context of the role envisaged for it in language revival, developments from the 1940s onwards have moved in two main directions.
  • 7 - Contemporary poetry in Irish: 1940–2000
    pp 317-356
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    The excitement generated by Seán Ó Tuama's 1950 anthology Nuabhéarsaíocht is evident in the publishers' claim that the collection would vindicate those who believed any worthwhile literature Ireland might produce in the future would be written in Irish. There is general consensus as to the groundbreaking significance of Coinnle Geala, the first collection of Máirtín Ó Direáin, published at his own expense in 1942. Tension between individual desire and conventional values is central to Máire Mhac an tSaoi's poetic method. There is a similar sense of incompleteness in Seán Ó Tuama's poetry considered in isolation from his prodigious achievement as dramatist, scholar and critic. Innti is a response to the changing Ireland of the late 1960s as the work of an earlier generation is to the changes of the postwar period. It is difficult to assess the extent to which Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's achievement has precipitated the work of women whose poetry has developed along parallel lines to her own.
  • 8 - Contemporary poetry in English: 1940–2000
    pp 357-420
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    A history of Irish poetry over the last six decades of the twentieth century begins with a handful of poets struggling not to succeed the great poet and chef d'école Yeats but to gain independence from his dominant influence. Eventually, many younger poets would find in the urban, democratic, multi-voiced Joyce an alternative or supplement to Yeats. John Montague guided Garech Brownin the founding of Claddagh Records, which recorded readings by Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, Thomas Kinsella, Seamus Heaney, Graves and others. In the fifteen years between the New Ireland Forum of 1983 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a second and in many ways different generation of distinguished poets from Northern Ireland came into its strength. A number of women poets, including Kerry Hardie, and Mary O'Malley, Moya Cannon and Rita Ann Higgins, are distinctive, accomplished poets who have entered the middle stretch still pursuing the fulfilment of their earlier promise.
  • 9 - Contemporary prose in English: 1940–2000
    pp 421-477
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    The international situation's constriction of the English publishing industry, on which most Irish writers depended for a living, together with the constraints placed on domestic literary activity, created an environment that was unpromising, to say the least. Although it had comparatively little effect on the Irish novel, generally speaking, World War II made a decisive impact on the two most noted Irish novelists of the post-war period, Samuel Beckett and Francis Stuart. The regular appearance of anthologies ranging, to take two representative instances, from Valentin Iremonger's Irish Short Stories to David Marcus's State of the Art, has also helped to maintain the form's public presence. One distinctive sub-genre to emerge from this activity might be entitled internal travel writing. Surprisingly, perhaps, the number of memoirs by Irish women is small, with the best known of them, Alice Taylor's To School through the Fields, belonging as much to the subgenre of childhood memoir as to women's autobiography.
  • 10 - Contemporary drama in English: 1940–2000
    pp 478-530
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    This chapter adopts a decade-by-decade approach to the sixty years of crowded dramatic activity under review. It counters the automatic centring of the history of Irish drama on Dublin. In relation to the development of Irish drama, the chapter emphasises the tension and necessary balancing between radical innovation and an inherent conservatism. Irish theatre practices, however experimental, are rooted in the act of storytelling. A decade that was to see an unprecedented degree of social change got off to a dramatic start with the staging of Sam Thompson's play about the Belfast shipyards, Over the Bridge, at the Empire Theatre. The Northern Irish play has marked dramaturgic features which may collectively constitute a new genre. Its particular stage procedures have developed in relation to the complex political and social order out of which they have emerged. Northern Irish drama moves in opposition to the well-made play, emphasising instead discontinuity, fragmentation and juxtaposition.
  • 11 - Cinema and Irish literature
    pp 531-561
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    This chapter discusses the range of adaptations confined to Irish subject plays and novels. With the exception of the one-act play Words upon the Window Pane, W. B. Yeats has been excluded from the cinema. In Irish terms, at least before the 'literary' became all pervasive, such early cinema, anchored in the popular, necessarily drew on the plays of Dion Boucicault. For his second sound film, Alfred Hitchcock adapted O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, the first Abbey Theatre play to be filmed. The post-independence world is conveyed through the surreal writings of Spike Milligan's Puckoon, which was made into a feature film by Terence Ryan in 2002. Representations of Dublin itself, though rare in the history of Irish cinema both in terms of adaptations and original scripts, emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as major elements of Irish cinematic output.
  • 12 - Literary historiography, 1890–2000
    pp 562-599
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    This chapter describes the ways in which Irish literary history has been constructed from the Revival period to the present day, and focuses initially on how the Revival formulated its sense of the literary past. It outlines the shape of Revival, and then subsequent versions of Irish literary historiography, by concentrating on key critical texts, histories and anthologies. The chapter also shows some of the major patterns of thought which have critically shaped 'Irish writing' since the Revival. Revival anthologies and criticism thus deal with the history of Irish writing by understanding it as a story which explains the moment of Revival. The postwar period was, then, one in which the study of Irish literature was initially impoverished, hampered both by a lack of publications and by the extended focus on W. B. Yeats and James Joyce. Cultural identity reinvigorates both Irish literature and the way in which it was thought of historically.

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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Vic Merriman, ‘Staging Contemporary Ireland: Heartsickness and Hopes Deferred’, in Shaun Richards, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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Kevin Rockett , ‘(Mis) Representing the Irish Urban Landscape’, in Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice, eds. Cinema and the City (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).

Kevin Rockett , ‘Protecting the Family and the Nation: the Official Censorship of American Cinema in Ireland, 1923–1954’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 20, 3 (2000).

Kevin Whelan , ‘The Memories of ‘“The Dead”’, Yale Journal of Criticism 15, 1 (2002).

George Bornstein , ‘Last Romantic or Last Victorian: Yeats, Tennyson, and Browning’, in Richard J. Finneran, ed. The Yeats Annual (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1982).

Conor Carville , ‘Becoming Minor: Daniel Corkery and the Expatriated Nation’, Irish Studies Review 6, 2 (1998).

Gregory Castle , Modernism and the Celtic Revival (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), and Emer Nolan, ‘Modernism and the Irish Revival’, in Joe Cleary and Claire Connolly, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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Margaret Kelleher , ‘Writing Irish Women’s Literary History’, Irish Studies Review 9, 1 (2001).

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Sinéad Garrigan Mattar , Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival (Oxford: Clarendon, 2004) and Michael McAteer, ‘“Kindness in Your Unkindness”: Lady Gregory and History’, Irish University Review: Special Issue–Lady Gregory, 34, 1 (2004).

W. J. McCormack , Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), revised and enlarged in From Burke to Beckett: Ascendancy, Tradition and Betrayal in Literary History (Cork: Cork University Press, 1994).

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Sarah McKibben , ‘ The Poor Mouth: A Parody of (Post) Colonial Irish Manhood’, Research in African Literatures 34, 4 (Winter 2003).