Unlike many other countries, poetry in Ireland has had a strong presence in public life for centuries. From the royal houses in the early Middle Ages to the 21st century, the role of the poet has been very important in Irish society. Similar to theater, but also narrative literature, poetry lives in dialogue with the time in which it is written. She casts a questioning look at contemporary events without losing the necessary distance to what is happening, because in poetry language has priority. A peculiarity of Irish poetry is that at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century it not only commented on various, mostly political events in its own country, but also decisively influenced or was influenced by them.
Old Irish seal
With the beginning of Christianity around AD 430, the written word also came to Ireland. The country can therefore look back on one of the oldest literary traditions. Old Irish poetry was reserved for certain people only and, before the arrival of Christianity, fulfilled other functions in society: the poet had psychic abilities and also preserved the myths and legends of his tribe. But not only that: he was also the guardian of the many laws that regulated the coexistence of people. After 430 AD. however, its role was limited to the preservation of historical traditions and poetry itself. The training for fìli , which incidentally also women(banfìli) lasted for many years and aimed at mastering various types of meters. Poetry was varied in form and content: hymn of praise for a royal family, satire on social conditions, natural poetry and heroic epic. Because of his eloquence, a fìli was honored and feared in society, because a humiliating poem could quickly push the person concerned into social marginalization. Because this tradition of poetry was based on memorization, i.e. it was an oral tradition, only a few of the verses that must have been in circulation at the time have survived in written form. The best known is probably that Epic of the Northern Irish royal family of the Ulaíd, Táin Bó Cuailnge (The theft of cattle from Cuailnge), which is recorded for the first time in writing in a manuscript from the 12th century and whose most famous modern version is THOMAS KINSELLA’s English translation The Táin, published in 1969.
Irish poetry until 1800
In the course of the Anglo-Norman immigration and conquest in the 12th century, the role of the Irish poet changed again. In order to preserve the own Irish tradition more strongly, a close alliance was established between a mostly aristocratic patron and the artist he sponsored. One speaks of the golden age of Irish culture from the 13th to 15th centuries.
At this time, however, the second line of poetry in (Middle) English was developing in Ireland. The Anglo-Norman aristocracy also wrote verses, albeit mostly under strong Irish influence.
The collapse of old Irish society in the period 1550-1700 displaced the formerly strong presence of the Irish poet. The expression for this may be the Aisling poetry, a dream vision of the return of the old Irish kings. Instead, poetry from the English-speaking tradition became more and more important.
The most important representative from the settler generation in the late 16th century is EDMUND SPENSER. His verse epic The Fairie Queene (1596, Eng. The Fairy Queen) is an expression of the ambivalent attitude of the settlers towards the Gaelic, mostly perceived as uncultivated and barbaric Irish.
JONATHAN SWIFT comes from the same tradition in the 18th century. His poetic and general literary work criticizes the imbalances on the Emerald Isle.
A generation later, OLIVER GOLDSMITH’s draft of a harmonious, Irish rural community was supposed to criticize the loss of the old order and the wealth and striving for power of the emerging merchant class.
The Celtic Revival and its aftermath
It was not until the 19th century that the old tradition of Irish poetry and the Gaelic language still spoken in many parts of Ireland were to be rediscovered by linguists from all over the world. This coincided with a time when Ireland was increasingly striving for independence from the English Empire.
So a new generation of poets and poets set out to use the old myths and verse forms to create their own national Irish poetry. Often this was done in the translation of Irish verses into English, and the use of traditional meters and images in English language poetry. This Irish past was brought back to life by poets like THOMAS MAC DONAGH, PATRICK PEARSE, PADRAIC COLUM, DOUGLAS HYDE or JAMES CLARENCE MANGAN. Often these
writers were descendants of the Ascendancy and used the Gaelic past as a form of expression for their own search for identity.
This Celtic Revival through the work of WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS was to have the greatest influence on the further development of Irish poetry up to the present day. Politics and the power of the word are symbolically combined in the Easter Rising (Easter Rising, 1916), in which mainly writers took part.
The best-known testimony to this dangerous connection is YEATS ‘poem Easter from 1916.
Irish poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries
The politicization of poets towards the Easter Rising of 1916 is only one of many other paths that Irish poetry took in search of a national identity.
In the course of the 20th century, poetry was no longer reserved for the Ascendancy. Other Irish poets spoke up, whose background lay in the predominantly rural regions. With modernity, poetic influences from Europe and America came to Ireland, so that Irish questions were expressed in new poetic forms such as the poems by SAMUEL BECKETT, DENIS DEVLIN or THOMAS MACGREEVY. However, YEATS continued to provide some sort of model for Irish poetry, and it still is today. However, a new generation of poets grew up who reformulated and illuminated the old questions. But one thing had become clear since 1916: the role of the poet was no longer in his own private world, but was always related to the political and socialCurrent affairs.
AUSTIN CLARKE’s poetry may serve as an example of dealing with the growing influence of the Catholic Church and state censorship.
PATRICK KAVANAGH’s best-known poem The Great Hunger (1942) laments the spiritual impoverishment of the rural Irish population in EAMONN DE VALERA’s identity-building Ireland.
LOUIS MACNEICE’s work, on the other hand, views events in Ireland from a critical distance by rejecting both religious and social values and regulations.
After years of reflecting on the poet’s individual “being-in-the-world”, the 1960’s and 1970’s mean especially in Northern Ireland a turning point in the poet’s relationship to society. The group around the poets JOHN MONTAGUE, MICHAEL LONGLEY, DEREK MAHON and JAMES SIMMONS began to deal increasingly with the connection between creativity and social responsibility in their works. The most important representative from the time of the so-called Troubles, which culminated in Bloody Sunday in the early 1970’s, is the later Nobel Prize winner SEAMUS HEANEY. In his work from this time he tries to connect the events in Northern Ireland with rituals from the Stone Age, and thus to shed light on the ancient, re-flared struggle for land (critically).
During this time, the Irish poets also increasingly had their say. As part of the Women’s rights movement, which found its strongest political expression with the election of MARY ROBINSON as the first female Irish president in 1990, has also created a free space in Irish poetry, which has long been dominated by men.
The work of female poets such as MÁIRE MHAC AN TSAOI and NUALA NÍ DHOMHNAILL (in Irish-Gaelic), MEBH MCGUCKIAN, EAVAN BOLAND and EILÉAN NÍ CHUIILLEAHAIN takes up old Irish and Christian motifs to illuminate the role of women in today’s society.
Other contemporary Irish poets include PAUL MULDOON, SEAMUS DEANE, PAULA MEEHAN, MICHAEL HARTNETT, BRENDAN KENNELLY, CIARAN CARSON, PAUL DURCAN, TOM PAULIN and CATHAL Ó SEARCAIGH.