Irish Literature

The primary texts covered in this section are Seamus Heaney’s North, Brian Friel’s Translations and Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark.

Irish literature is almost inevitably influenced by the political and sectarian history of Ireland, so an overview of that history is very important.

Ireland: A Brief History

1155: English involvement with Ireland most clearly begins, with Henry II’s invasion.
1366: The Statutes of Kilkenny are passed, laws which restrict the Gaelic language and culture.
1535: Henry VIII assumes the title King of Ireland.
1540s: While the Protestant Reformation takes place in England, Ireland remains Roman Catholic.
1556: First English settlers in Ireland.
1572-3: English settlers in Ulster.
1601: Revolt by the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnel.
1603: Gaelic Ireland is finally conquered by England.
1607: Flight of the Earls.
1608-9: More settlement of Ulster under James I.
1641: Catholic revolt against the settlers.
1649-50: Cromwell subdues rebellion in Ireland. Massacres in Drogheda and Wexford.
1690: The Battle of the Boyne takes place on 12th July. The Protestant King William of Orange defeats Catholic James II.
1691: Treaty of Limerick and the Flight of the Wild Geese.
1690s-1820s: Suppression of Irish Catholics through the Penal Laws.
1791: United Irishmen founded by Wolfe Tone.
1798: Rebellion by the United Irishmen put down.
1800: Act of Union. Irish Parliament suspended; Irish MPs have to take their seats in Westminster.
1803: Robert Emmet leads a rebellion, which fails.
1829: Catholic emancipation; Catholics can stand for Parliament. Daniel O’Connell, referred to in Translations, is the first Catholic to become an MP.
1833: Translations set.
1840s: The Great Famine following the potato blight. Steep decline in population due to starvation and emigration.
1848: Members of the Young Ireland movement revolt, and the Fenians are formed.
1867: Fenian uprising and the formation of the Protestant Orange Order in response.
1858: Formation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
1912: Home Rule Bill for Ireland is finally passed. In response 470,000 Protestants sign a covenant of defence of the Union with England. Formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
1914: World War One. Irish Home Rule suspended.
1916: Republican Easter Rising, which is unsuccessful. Its leaders are executed.
1919-21: The War of Independence against Britain.
1921: Treaty ends the war. The result is that 26 counties form the independent Irish Free State. 6 counties with a Protestant majority remain within the UK, forming Northern Ireland.
1921-22: Civil War in Southern Ireland caused by a disagreement over the Treaty and Partition.
1937: Irish Free State becomes the Republic of Ireland.
1945: Start of Reading in the Dark.
1967: Formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
1969: Arrival of British troops in Nothern Ireland, to protect the Catholic minority.
1970: The formation of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
1971: The start of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) offensive and the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland. End of Reading in the Dark.
1972: Bloody Sunday occurs on 20th January. 13 Catholic civil rights marchers killed by British paratroopers. Stormont Government suspended. Direct rule of Northern Ireland from Westminster.
1973-4: The Sunningdale Agreement sets up power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants; brought down by a loyalist strike.
1975: Internment is ended. North published.
1980: Translations first performed.
1981: IRA prisoners campaign for political status by going on hunger strike; 10 die.
1997: Reading in the Dark published.
1998: The Good Friday Peace Agreement brings tentative peace to Northern Ireland as the IRA and Loyalist terrorist groups commit themselves to political means.
1999: The Northern Ireland Assembly is established at Stormont.
2000: Arguments over the IRA’s decommissioning of weapons leads to the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly for a time and the reimposition of direct rule by Westminster.
2002: Northern Ireland Assembly suspended again in October. Northern Ireland is again ruled directly by Westminster.
2005: Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, challenges the IRA to embrace democratic efforts and give up its arms. The IRA claims that its armed campaign is over and the inspectors confirm that all the IRA’s weapons have been put beyond use.
2006: The Stormont assembly sits for first time since its suspension in 2002. However, hopes of a political breakthrough are problematic with disputes over policing and power-sharing.
2007: The Democratic Unionist party wins in the assembly elections but comes under intense pressure to enter a power-sharing government with Sinn Féin. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams hold their first face-to-face meeting and agree to start sharing power, with Paisley as first minister and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy.
2008: Though it is announced that the IRA’s army council has disbanded, IRA dissidents conduct a series of attacks, the most since 2004.
2009: Dissident attacks continue, including the deaths of British soldiers and a police officer.
2011: Queen Elizabeth II visits Ireland, the first visit by a British monarch since independence. It symbolises the new relationship since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
2014: President Michael D Higgins makes official visit to Britain, the first ever by an Irish head of state.
2020: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael form a coalition with the Green Party, after the closely-fought February election put the left-wing republican Sinn Féin party in second place.

For a more detailed exploration of Ireland’s history, refer to the comprehensive BBC site.