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Poetry Guide: Irish Poetry

A 1907 engraving of William Butler Yeats, one of Ireland's best-known poets. A 1907 engraving of William Butler Yeats, one of Ireland's best-known poets.

The history of Irish poetry includes the poetries of two languages, one in Irish and the other in English. The complex interplay between these two traditions, and between both of them and other poetries in English, has produced a body of work that is both rich in variety and difficult to categorise.

The earliest surviving poems in Irish date back to the 6th century and the first known poems in English from Ireland date from the 14th century. Although some cross-fertilization between the two language traditions has always happened, the final emergence of an English-language poetry that had absorbed themes and models from Irish did not appear until the 19th century. This culminated in the work of the poets of the Celtic Revival at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Towards the last quarter of the century, modern Irish poetry has tended to a wide range of diversity, from the poets of the Northern school to writers influenced by the modernist tradition and those facing the new questions posed by an increasingly urban and cosmopolitan society.

Early Irish poetry

Poetry in Irish represents the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. The earliest examples date from the 6th century, and are generally short lyrics on themes from religion or the world of nature. They were frequently written by their scribe authors in the margins of the illuminated manuscripts that they were copying. Another source of early Irish poetry is the poems in the tales and sagas, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Unlike many other European epic cycles, the Irish sagas were written in prose, with verse interpolations at moments of heightened tension or emotion. Although usually surviving in recensions dating from the later medieval period, these sagas and especially the poetic sections, are linguistically archaic, and afford the reader a glimpse of prechristian Ireland.

Medieval/Early modern

Bardic poetry

Irish bards formed a professional hereditary caste of highly trained, learned poets. The bards were steeped in the history and traditions of clan and country, as well as in the technical requirements of a verse technique that was syllabic and used assonance, half rhyme and alliteration. As officials of the court of king or chieftain, they performed a number of official roles. They were chroniclers and satirists whose job it was to praise their employers and damn those who crossed them. It was believed that a well-aimed bardic satire, glam dicin, could raise boils on the face of its target. However, much of their work would not strike the modern reader as being poetry at all, consisting as it does of extended genealogies and almost journalistic accounts of the deeds of their lords and ancestors.

Metrical Dindshenchus

The Metrical Dindshenchas, or Lore of Places, is probably the major surviving monument of Irish bardic verse. It is a great onomastic anthology of naming legends of significant places in the Irish landscape and comprises about 176 poems in total. The earliest of these date from the 11th century, and were probably originally compiled on a provincial basis. As a national compilation, the Metrical Dindshenchas has come down to us in two different recensions. Knowledge of the real or putative history of local places formed an important part of the education of the elite in ancient Ireland, so the Dindshenchas was probably a kind of textbook in origin.

The poems of Fionn

Verse tales of Fionn and the Fianna, sometimes known as Ossianic poetry, were extremely common in Ireland and Scotland throughout this period. They represent a move from earlier prose tales with verse interludes to stories told completely in verse. There is also a notable shift in tone, with the Fionn poems being much closer to the Romance tradition as opposed to the epic nature of the sagas. The Fionn poems form one of the key Celtic sources for the Arthurian legends.

The Kildare poems

British Library Manuscript, Harley 913, is a group of poems written in Ireland in the early 14th century. They are usually called the Kildare poems because of their association with that county. Both poems and manuscript have strong Franciscan associations and are full of ideas from the wider Western European Christian tradition. They also represent the early stages of the second tradition of Irish poetry, that of poetry in the English language, as they were written in Middle English.

Spenser and Ireland

Briton Rivière's vision of a scene from Edmund Spencer's poem The Faerie Queene Briton Rivière's vision of a scene from Edmund Spencer's poem The Faerie Queene

During the Elizabethan reconquest, two of the most significant English poets of the time saw service in the Irish colonies. Sir Walter Raleigh had little impact on the course of Irish literature, but the time spent in Munster by Edmund Spenser was to have serious consequences both for his own writings and for the future course of cultural development in Ireland. Spenser's relationship with Ireland was somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, an idealised Munster landscape forms the backdrop for much of the action for his masterpiece, The Faerie Queen. On the other, he condemned Ireland and everything Irish as barbaric in his prose polemic A View of the Present State of Ireland.

In A View, he describes the Irish bards as being " soe far from instructinge younge men in Morrall discipline, that they themselves doe more deserve to be sharplie decyplined; for they seldome use to chuse unto themselves the doinges of good men, for the ornamentes of theire poems, but whomesoever they finde to bee most lycentious of lief, most bolde and lawles in his doinges, most daungerous and desperate in all partes of disobedience and rebellious disposicon, him they sett up and glorifie in their rymes, him they prayse to the people, and to younge men make an example to followe." Given that the bards depended on aristocratic support to survive, and that this power and patronage was shifting towards the new English rulers, this thorough condemnation of their moral values may well have contributed to their demise as a caste.

Gaelic poetry in the 17th century

The Battle of Kinsale in 1601 resulted in the final victory of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland. One outcome of the changes that followed from this was the end of the system of education and patronage that underwrote the professional bardic schools. A new Gaelic poetry emerged, one that existed in the margins of a dispossessed Irish-speaking society.

Although some 17th century poets continued to find a degree of patronage, many, if not most, of them were part-time writers who were also engaged in working on the land, as teachers, and anywhere that they could earn their keep. The poetry they wrote also changed, with a move away from the syllabic verse of the schools to accentual metres which may reflect the oral poetry of the bardic period. A good deal of the poetry of this period deals with political and historical themes that reflect the poets' sense of a world lost.

The main poets of this period include Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (David O Bruadair) (1625?–1698), Piaras Feiritéar (1600?–1653) and Aogán Ó Rathaille (1675–1729). Ó Rathaille belongs as much to the 18th as the 17th century and his work, including the introduction of the aisling genre, marks something of a transition to a post Battle of the Boyne Ireland.

The 18th century

The 18th Century perhaps marks the point at which the two language traditions reach equal weight of importance. In Swift, the English tradition has its first writer of genius. Poetry in Irish now reflects the passing of the old Gaelic order and the patronage on which the poets depended for their livelihoods. This, then, is a period of transition writ large.

Gaelic songs: the end of an order

As the old native aristocracy suffered military and political defeat and, in many cases, exile, the world order that had supported the bardic poets disappeared. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that much Irish language poetry and song of this period laments these changes and the poet's plight. The following verse from Caoine Cill Chais (The Lament for Kilcash) serves as an example. The old house of Cill Chais stands empty, its woods gone to serve the needs of the British navy:

Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad,
tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár;
níl trácht ar Chill Chais ná a teaghlach,
is ní bainfear a cling go bráth;
an áit úd ina gcónaíodh an deighbhean
a fuair gradam is meidhir tar mhná,
bhíodh iarlaí ag tarraing tar toinn ann,
is an tAifreann binn á rá.

(What shall we do from now on without timber?
The last of the woods is gone.
No more of Kilcash and its great house
And the bells that will ring no more.
The place where that great lady waited
Who for grace put all women to shame
When earls came by sea to meet her
And the Mass was sweetly proclaimed)

(Translation by Filiocht for Wikipedia)

However, being practical professionals, the poets were not above writing poems in praise of the new English lords in the hope of finding a continuity of court patronage. This was not generally a successful tactic, and Gaelic poets tended to be folk poets until the Gaelic revival that began towards the end of the 19th century. However, many of the poems and songs written during this period of apparent decline live on and are still recited and sung today.

Cúirt An Mheán Oíche

Cúirt An Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) by Brian Merriman (1747–1805) is something of an oddity in 18th century Irish poetry in Irish. Merriman was a teacher of mathematics who lived and worked in the Munster counties of Clare and Limerick. Cúirt An Mheán Oíche, effectively his only poetic work, was written around 1780. The poem begins by using the conventions of the Aisling, or vision poem, in which the poet is out walking when he has a vision of a woman from the other world. Typically, this woman is Ireland and the poem will lament her lot and/or call on her 'sons' to rebel against foreign tyranny.

In Merriman's hands, the convention is made to take an unusual twist. The woman drags the poet to the court of the fairy queen Aoibheal. There follows a court case in which a young woman calls on Aoibheal to take action against the young men of Ireland for their refusal to marry. She is answered by an old man who first laments the infidelity of his own young wife and the dissolute lifestyles of young women in general. He then calls on the queen to end the institution of marriage completely and to replace it with a system of free love. The young woman returns to mock the old man's inability to satisfy his young wife's needs and to call for an end to the celibacy among the clergy so as to widen the pool of prospective mates.

Finally, Aoibheal rules that all men must mate by the age of 21, that older men who fail to satisfy women must be punished, that sex must be applauded, not condemned, and that priests will soon be free to marry. To his dismay, the poet discovers that he is to be the first to suffer the consequences of this new law, but then awakens to find it was just a nightmare. In its frank treatment of sexuality and of clerical celibacy, Cúirt An Mheán Oíche is a unique document in the history of Irish poetry in either language.

Swift and Goldsmith

Jonathan Swift Jonathan Swift

In Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), Irish literature in English found its first writer of real genius. Although best known for prose works like Gulliver's Travels and A Tale of a Tub, Swift was a poet of considerable talent. Technically close to his English contemporaries Pope and Dryden, Swift's poetry evinces the same tone savage satire and horror of the human body and its functions that characterises much of his prose. Interestingly, Swift also published translations of poems from the Irish.

Oliver Goldsmith Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith (1730?–1774) started his literary career as a hack writer in London, writing on any subject that would pay enough to keep his creditors at bay. He came to belong to the circle of Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke and Sir Joshua Reynolds. His reputation depends mainly on a novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, a play, She Stoops to Conquer, and two long poems, The Traveller and The Deserted Village. The last of these may be the first and best poem by an Irish poet in the English pastoral tradition. It has been variously interpreted as a lament for the death of Irish village life under British rule and a protest at the effects of agricultural reform on the English rural landscape.

The 19th century

During the course of the 19th century, political and economic factors resulted in the decline of the Irish language and the concurrent rise of English as the main language of Ireland. This fact is reflected in the poetry of the period.

Irishing English

Paradoxically, as soon as English became the dominant language of Irish poetry, the poets began to mine the Irish-language heritage as a source of themes and techniques. Probably the first significant Irish poet to write in English in a recognisably Irish fashion was Thomas Moore (1779–1852). Moore's most enduring work, Irish Melodies, was extremely popular with English audiences and the poet became the toast of London. The poems are, perhaps, somewhat overloaded with harps, bards and minstrels of Erin to suit modern tastes, but they did open up the possibility of a distinctive Irish English-language poetic tradition and served as an exemplar for Irish poets to come.

In 1842, Charles Gavan Duffy (1816–1903), Thomas Davis, (1814–1845), and John Dillon (1816–1866) founded The Nation to agitate for reform of British rule. The group of politicians and writers associated with The Nation came to be known as the Young Irelanders. The magazine published verse, including work by Duffy and Davis, whose A Nation Once Again is still popular among Irish Nationalists. However, the most significant poet associated with The Nation was undoubtedly James Clarence Mangan (1803–1849). Mangan was a true poète maudit , who threw himself into the role of bard, and even included translations of bardic poems in his publications.

Another poet who supported the Young Irelanders, although not directly connected with them, was Samuel Ferguson (1810–1886). Ferguson once wrote: 'my ambition (is) to raise the native elements of Irish history to a dignified level.' To this end, he wrote many verse retellings of the Old Irish sagas. He also wrote a moving elegy to Thomas Davis.

William Allingham (1824–1889) was an important figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. His Day and Night Songs was illustrated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Millais.

Folk songs and poems

During the 19th century, poetry in Irish became essentially a folk art. One of the few well-known figures from this period was Antoine Ó Raifteiri (Anthony Raftery) (1784–1835), who is known as the last of the wandering bards. His Mise Raifteiri an file is still learned by heart in some Irish schools.

In addition, this was one of the great periods for the composition of folk songs in both languages, and the majority of the traditional singer's repertoire is typically made up of 19th century songs.

The Celtic revival

Probably the most significant poetic movement of the second half of the 19th century was French Symbolism. This movement inevitably influenced Irish writers, not least Oscar Wilde (1845–1900). Although Wilde is best known for his plays, fiction, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he also wrote poetry in a symbolist vein and was the first Irish writer to experiment with prose poetry. However, the overtly cosmopolitan Wilde was not destined to have much influence on the future course of Irish writing.

W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) was much more influential in the long run. Yeats, too, was influenced by his French contemporaries but consciously focused on an identifiably Irish content. As such, he was responsible for the establishment of the literary movement known as the Celtic Revival. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.

Apart from Yeats, much of the impetus for the Celtic Revival came from the work of scholarly translators who were aiding in the discovery of both the ancient sagas and Ossianic poetry and the more recent folk song tradition in Irish. One of the most significant of these was Douglas Hyde (1860–1949), later the first President of Ireland, whose Love Songs of Connacht was widely admired.

The 20th century

Yeats and modernism

In the 1910s, Yeats became acquainted with the work of James Joyce, and worked closely with Ezra Pound, who served as his personal secretary for a time. Through Pound, Yeats also became familiar with the work of a range of prominent modernist poets. He undoubtedly learned from these contacts, and from his 1916 book Responsibilities and Other Poems onwards his work, while not entirely meriting the label modernist, became much more hard-edged than it had been.

The 1916 poets

Another group of early 20th century Irish poets worth noting are those associated with the Easter Rising of 1916. Three of the Republican leadership, Patrick Pearse (1879–1916), Joseph Mary Plunkett (1879–1916) and Thomas MacDonagh (1878–1916), were noted poets. Although much of the verse written by them is predictably Catholic and Nationalist in outlook, they were competent writers and their work is of considerable historical interest. Pearse, in particular, shows the influence of his contact with the work of Walt Whitman.

After Yeats: Clarke, Higgins, Colum

However, it was to be Yeats' earlier Celtic mode that was to be most influential. Amongst the most prominent followers of the early Yeats were Padric Colum (1881–1972), F. R. Higgins (1896–1941), and Austin Clarke (1896–1974). In the 1950s, Clarke, returning to poetry after a long absence, turned to a much more personal style and wrote many satires on Irish society and religious practices.

Irish Modernism

In fact, Irish poetic Modernism took its lead not from Yeats but from Joyce. The 1930s saw the emergence of a generation of writers who engaged in experimental writing as a matter of course. The best known of these is Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. Beckett's poetry, while not inconsiderable, is not what he is best known for. The most significant of the second generation Modernist Irish poets who first published in the 1920s and 1930s include Brian Coffey (1905–1995), Denis Devlin (1908–1959), Thomas MacGreevy (1893–1967), Blanaid Salkeld (1880–1959), and Mary Devenport O'Neill (1879–1967). Coffey's two late long poems Advent and Death of Hektor. are widely held to be the most important works in the canon of Irish poetic Modernism.

Poetry in De Valera's Ireland

While Yeats and his followers wrote about an essentially aristocratic Gaelic Ireland, the reality was that the actual Irish Free State of the 1930s and 1940s was a society of small farmers and shopkeepers. Inevitably, a generation of poets who rebelled against the example of Yeats, but who were not Modernist by inclination, emerged from this environment. Patrick Kavanagh (1904–1967), who came from a small farm, wrote about the narrowness and frustrations of rural life. John Hewitt (1907–1987), whom many consider to be the founding father of Northern Irish poetry, also came from a rural background but lived in Belfast and was amongst the first Irish poets to write of the sense of alienation that many at this time felt from both their original rural and new urban homes. Louis MacNeice (1907–1963), another Northern Irish poet, was associated with the left-wing politics of Michael Roberts's anthology New Signatures but was much less political a poet than W. H. Auden or Stephen Spender, for example. MacNeice's poetry was informed by his immediate interests and surroundings and is more social than political.

Poetry in Irish

With the foundation of the Irish Free State it became official government policy to promote and protect the Irish language. Although not particularly successful, this policy did help bring about a revival in Irish-language literature. Specifically, the establishment in 1926 of An Gúm ("The Project"), a Government sponsored publisher, created an outlet both for original works in Irish and for translations into the language. Since then, a number of Irish-language poets have come to prominence. These include Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910–1988), Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916–1977), Máire Mhac an tSaoi (born 1922), Gabriel Rosenstock (born 1949), and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (born 1952). While all these poets are influenced by the Irish poetic tradition, they have also shown the ability to assimilate influences from poetries in other languages.

The Northern School

The Northern Irish poets have already been mentioned in connection with John Hewitt. In the 1960s, and coincident with the rise of the Troubles in the province, a number of Ulster poets began to receive critical and public notice. Prominent amongst these were Michael Longley (born 1939), Derek Mahon (born 1941), Seamus Heaney (born 1939), and Paul Muldoon (born 1951).

Heaney is probably the best-known of these poets. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, and has served as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory and Emerson Poet in Residence at Harvard, and as Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

Derek Mahon was born in Belfast and worked as a journalist, editor, and screenwriter while publishing his first books. His slim output should not obscure the high quality of his work, which is influenced by modernist writers such as Samuel Beckett.

Muldoon has been Howard G. B. Clark '21 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. In 1999 he was also elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.

Some critics find that these poets share some formal traits (including an interest in traditional poetic forms) as well as a willingness to engage with the difficult political situation in Northern Ireland. Others (such as the Dublin poet Thomas Kinsella) have found the whole idea of a Northern school to be more hype than reality.


In the late 1960s, two young Irish poets, Michael Smith (born 1942) and Trevor Joyce (born 1947) founded the New Writers Press publishing house and a journal called The Lace Curtain. Partly this was to publish their own work and that of some like-minded friends, and partly it was to promote the work of neglected Irish modernists like Coffey and Devlin. Both Joyce and Smith have published considerable bodies of poetry in their own right.

Among the other poets published by the New Writers Press were Geoffrey Squires (born 1942), whose early work was influenced by Charles Olson, and Augustus Young (born 1943), who admired Pound and who has translated older Irish poetry, as well as work from Latin America and poems by Bertolt Brecht.

Younger poets who write what might be called experimental poetry include Maurice Scully (born 1952), and Randolph Healy (born 1956).


In addition to these two loose groupings, a number of prominent Irish poets of the second half of the 20th century could be described as outsiders. These include Thomas Kinsella (born 1928), whose early work was influenced by Auden. Kinsella's later work exhibits the influence of Pound in its looser metrical structure and use of imagery but is deeply personal in manner and matter. He is Professor of English at Temple University, Philadelphia. Kinsella also edited the poetry of Austin Clarke, who, in his later work at least, could also be included with the outsiders in Irish poetry.

Michael Hartnett (1941–1999) was unusual amongst Irish poets in that he was equally fluent in both Irish and English. As well as original work in both languages, including haiku in English, he published translations in English of bardic poetry and of the Tao Te Ching.

Eoghan Ó Tuairisc/Eugene Watters (1919–1982) was another bilingual poet. His The Weekend of Dermot and Grace (1964) is one of the most interesting Irish long poems of the second half of the 20th century and one of the few examples of the application of the lessons of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land in any work by an Irish poet.

Patrick Galvin (born 1927) worked mainly with the ballad tradition and his poetry displays his left-wing politics. He has also written several volumes of memoirs, one of which, Song for a Raggy Boy, has been made into a film.

Cathal Ó Searcaigh (born 1956) writes exclusively in Irish. Many of his poems are candidly homoerotic in their subject matter. He has also written plays, such as Oíche Ghealaí ("Moonlit Night"), whose homosexual content created controversy when it opened in Letterkenny in 2001.[1]

Women poets

The second half of the century also saw the emergence of a number of women poets of note. Two of the most successful of these are Eavan Boland (born 1944) and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (born 1942). Boland has written widely on specifically feminist themes and on the difficulties faced by women poets in a male-dominated literary world. She is professor of English at Stanford University. Ní Chuilleanáin's poetry reflects an interest in Celtic spirituality. She is a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin.

Irish poetry now

As can be seen, there has been a tendency for Irish poets to become academics and teachers of poetry. In recent years, and thanks partly to the activities of the Arts Council and of Poetry Ireland, this tendency has widened out to include a network of writers' workshops spread around the country with funding provided to employ writers to facilitate. These bodies also support and fund poetry readings. In addition, most local authorities and many schools, prisons, universities, and other institutions employ writers-in-residence.

These opportunities for employment have tended to lead to the professionalisation of poetry in Ireland and this is probably most clearly demonstrated by the establishment in recent years of an M.A. course in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin. The possible implications of these developments for the future of poetry in Ireland remain to be seen.

In contrast, contemporary poet Pat Ingoldsby makes a living exclusively from the sale of his books, both through bookshops, and on the streets of Dublin and Galway.