The traditional lore preserved by the early Irish poets has left acolourful heritage of mythical and historical stories. Modernwriters in turn have drawn on these stories to enrich their ownwork. Irish folklore also draws on international motifs and formssuch as wonder tales and the love songs of the troubadours.
Among the better known stories are those of the legendary heroessuch as Fionn Mac Cumhaill who gained wisdom as a boy by tastingthe ‘salmon of knowledge’, Balor, who killed his grandfather andwhose horrific eye destroyed all on which it gazed, and CúChulainn, hero of the epic poem the Táin Bó Cúailgne (The CattleRaid of Cooley).
Much lore also centres on the patron saints of various localities.These saints appear in legend as miracle workers who used theirsacred powers to banish monsters, cure illnesses and provide foodfor the people in time of need. The most celebrated of these arethe national saint, Patrick, Colm Cille and Saint Brigid, who asprotectress of farming and livestock, preserves many of theattributes of an earth goddess.
Ireland is famous for its fairy-lore which is connected to earlyCeltic beliefs of the dead living on as a dazzling community intheir burial chambers. Many stories are told of humans beingbrought into fairy raths (ancient earthwork structures). Thewailing of a special female spirit, the bean sí, heralds a death.
A wide range of beliefs and practices are associated with death andburial. The ‘waking’ of the dead was an important social ritualwhich involved praying, singing, storytelling and games to paytribute to the one who had died.
The indigenous festivals of the Irish calendar such as Lá FhéileBríde (Saint Brigid’s feast - 1 February), Lúnasa (August) andOíche Shamhna (Hallowe’en) all had their own special forms ofamusements and preserved vestiges of earlier rituals.
The Irish Language
Irish is the State’s first official language. It is one of theCeltic family of languages and is closely related to Scots Gaelic,Welsh and Breton. Most people spoke Irish until the earlynineteenth century but by 1891 over 85 per cent spoke English only.The latest figures available show that 43 per cent of adults saythey have a knowledge of Irish.
The State actively encourages the use of Irish. Today it is widelyspoken in areas known as the Gaeltacht, situated mainly along thewestern seaboard. The
Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs hasresponsibility for promoting the cultural, social and economicwelfare of the Gaeltacht through Údarás na Gaeltachta (GaeltachtAuthority), a statutory board under its aegis, which serves as adevelopment authority for Gaeltacht areas with some of its membersbeing elected by the people of the Gaeltacht. The Irish LanguageAgency (Foras na Gaeilge) of the Language Body (An Foras Teanga),one of the six all-island bodies established following the GoodFriday Agreement, has responsibility for the promotion andencouragement of the use of Irish as a vernacular throughout theisland of Ireland. Irish is a core subject in primary and secondaryschools and a growing number of schools offer tuition exclusivelythrough Irish (Gaelscoileanna). There is a national radio service(Raidio na Gaeltachta) and an Irish language television service(TG4). In addition, there are two Irish Language weekly newspapers:Lá and Foinse. On 1 January 2007, the Irish language became the23rd official language of the European Union.
Literature in Irish
Written literature in Old Irish dates from the sixth century. Worksurviving from that period includes prose sagas, historical andlegal material, commentaries on biblical texts and lyrical anddevotional poetry. During the early modern period (1250-1650)secular schools trained poets (filidh) to compose elaborate verseoften in praise of their patrons. Fenian (Ossianic) literature waspopular at this time and continued to influence writers in Englishthrough to the nineteenth century. The works centre on thelegendary hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill, his son Oisín and theirfollowers, the Fianna. When the Gaelic order ended in theseventeenth century these poets lost their patrons and weredisplaced. At this point, Irish prose writers began to preserve arecord of Gaelic civilisation. Through the eighteenth andnineteenth centuries, members of the clergy, schoolteachers,artisans and some colourful poets continued to write in Irish. Oneof the best known poets of this time is Brian Merriman (1747-1805)author of the frequently translated Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (MidnightCourt).
In the twentieth century writers such as Patrick Pearse (1879-1916)and Pádraic Ó Conaire (1883-1928) opened Irish literature toEuropean influences. Distinguished writers and poets of the modernera include Liam Ó Flaithearta (1896-1984), Máirtín Ó Cadhain(1906-70), Seosamh Mac Grianna (1901-90), Máirtín Ó Direáin(1910-1988), Seán Ó Ríordáin (1916-77), Máire Mhac an tSaoi (b.1922), Seán Ó Tuama (b. 1926) and Michael Hartnett (1941-99). Somewrote in English and Irish often translating the work of theirpeers as well as early texts. Although few wrote for the stage,among those who did were Douglas Hyde (1860-1949), the firstpresident of Ireland, Brendan Behan (1923-64), Máiréad Ní Ghráda(1899-1971) and Cristóir Ó Floinn (b. 1927).
Over a hundred new titles in Irish are published every year,including books for children. Foremost among these contemporarywriters are Liam Ó Muirthile (b. 1950), Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill (b.1952), Áine Ní Ghlinn (b. 1955), Cathal Ó Searcaigh (b. 1956),Biddy Jenkinson (b. 1949) and Colm Breathnach (b. 1961).
Literature in English
Writing in English has flourished in Ireland since the eighteenthcentury. Among the first generation of these writers were thesatirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), author of Gulliver’s Travels(1726), the political essayist Edmund Burke (1729-97) and thedramatists Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan(1751-1816).
Building on that tradition of brilliant wit, Oscar Wilde(1854-1900) and George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote major worksfor the London stage. Shaw won the Nobel Prize for literature in1925. Through the nineteenth century a growing interest inIreland’s ancient Celtic culture influenced Irish writers, mostsignificantly William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) whose work inspiredthe modern renaissance in Irish writing. He was awarded the NobelPrize for literature in 1923. With his friends Lady Gregory(1852-1932) and Edward Martyn (1859-1924) he established an IrishNational Theatre (the Abbey Theatre) to create an identifiablyIrish literature in English. Some of the theatre’s early workscreated a storm of controversy but are now firm favourites in therepertoire, for example John Millington Synge’s (1871-1909) work,The Playboy of the Western World (1907) and Seán O’Casey’s(1880-1964) The Plough and the Stars (1926).
James Joyce (1882-1941), no admirer of the Yeatsian literaryrevival, left Ireland in the early years of the twentieth centurysettling ultimately in Paris. His pioneering modernist novel,Ulysses (1922) grafts the street life of his native Dublin onto theplot of Homer’s Odyssey to chronicle a single day in the lives ofits protagonists Leopold and Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.Joyce’s parodic playfulness inspired the work of Brian O’Nolan(Flann O’Brien) (1911-1966), who also wrote in Irish. AnotherDublin exile in Paris, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) wrote in aminimalist vein, often in French. His play, Waiting for Godot(1953) has become a twentieth century classic of absurdism. Hereceived the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969.
French authors provided a model for short story writers FrankO’Connor (1903-66) and Seán Ó Faoláin (1900-91) who blendedcontinental realism with the native oral tradition to create themodern Irish short story. The form expanded in Illustration showingsome of Ireland’s best known writers: James Joyce, Flann O’Brien,Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yeats & OscarWilde the hands of Liam O’Flaherty (1896-1984), Mary Lavin(1912-96), John McGahern (1934-2006), William Trevor (b. 1928) andBernard MacLaverty (b. 1942).
The generation of poets after Yeats included very different talentsin Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) and Louis MacNeice (1907-1963).Kavanagh’s example as a poet of rural realism inspired SeamusHeaney (b. 1939) whose vision of the redemptive power of poetryearned him a Nobel Prize for literature in 1995. Among hiscontemporaries, Thomas Kinsella (b. 1928), John Montague (b. 1929),Michael Longley (b. 1939) and Derek Mahon (b. 1941) have exploredthe complexities of modern Ireland in work covering historical,political and existential themes. Women poets, Eavan Boland (b.1945), Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (b. 1942), Medbh McGuckian (b. 1950)and Paula Meehan (b. 1955) challenge the traditional maledomination of Irish literature.
Likewise, in fiction, women have been to the fore. Writers such asSomerville (1858-1949) and Ross (1862-1915), Elizabeth Bowen(1899-1973) and Molly Keane (1905-1996) were born into andchronicled the fading world of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Thisworld provides the setting too for many of the novels of JenniferJohnston (b. 1930) and John Banville (b. 1945).
The establishment of the new state gave writers a new focus on theCatholic bourgeoisie, including Kate O’Brien (1897-1974), Edna OBrien (b.1930) and Colm Tóibín (b. 1955). The novels of JohnMcGahern focus on the difficulties and beauty of life in ruralIreland and the writing of small-town life by Pat McCabe (b. 1955)sustains the familiar note of black comedy in Irish writing. Therelative darkness of these novelists’ work is absent from theromances of Maeve Binchy, Deirdre Purcell and Marian Keyes.
In recent years, several internationally renowned Irish writershave won the prestigious Booker prize. Recent winners include AnneEnright (b. 1962) in 2007, John Banville (b. 1945) in 2005 andRoddy Doyle (b. 1958) in 1993, join Iris Murdoch (1919 – 1999) whowon the prize in 1978.
For all its experimental beginnings, Irish drama is resolutelyrealist. Its major exponents today are Brian Friel (b. 1929),author of Dancing at Lughnasa, Tom Kilroy (b. 1934), Tom Murphy (b.1935), Frank McGuinness (b.1953), Sebastian Barry (b. 1955), MarinaCarr (b. 1965), Martin McDonagh (b. 1971) and Conor McPherson (b.1971). In their work, lines of satire and dark comedy cross with alyrical sensibility to produce a disturbing vision of contemporaryIreland.
Irish theatre companies such as the Abbey, the Druid and the Gateregularly tour their productions to international venues and hostthe work of visiting theatre companies to Ireland.
The earliest Irish art consists of carvings on megalithic monumentsdating from 3500 B.C. Celtic art reached its apogee in themanuscripts of the gospels such as the books of Durrow and Kells.These feature interlaced animal and geometric forms in brightprimary colours. After the ninth century Irish art absorbed Viking,Romanesque and Gothic influences producing, for example, richlycarved stone High Crosses.
From the mid-seventeenth century decorative arts such asgoldsmithery, plasterwork and glass flourished in conjunction withthe large-scale public buildings of the time. After the Act ofUnion (1801) many artists moved to London but those who remained inIreland established organisations which today continue to supportartists such as The Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) (founded in 1823)which presents an annual exhibition of contemporary Irish paintersand sculptors. In the late nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies, Irish painters looked to the French Impressionists for anew idiom. These include William Leech (1881-1968), Walter Osborne(1859-1903), John Lavery (1856-1941) and Roderic O’Conor(1860-1940). Crossing from Impressionism to Expressionism, Jack B.Yeats (1871-1957) towers over his contemporaries much as hisbrother, the poet W.B. Yeats was pre-eminent among his peers.
Younger artists who trained under modernists in Paris include EvieHone (1894-1955), Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) and Mary Swanzy(1882-1978). In 1943 a group of younger artists founded the IrishExhibition of Living Art as a reaction to the conventionality ofthe RHA. These artists, working in an abstract expressionist mode,include Louis le Brocquy (b. 1916), Norah McGuinness (1901-80) andPatrick Scott (b. 1921). Close to them too are Tony O’Malley(1913-2003), Camille Souter (b. 1929) and Barrie Cooke (b. 1931)who experiment within the tradition of landscape painting and oftenuse tropical and desert settings for their work. A strong newexpressionist movement emerged in the late twentieth centuryincluding Brian Maguire (b. 1951), Eithne Jordan (b. 1954), MichaelMulcahy (b. 1952), Michael Cullen (b. 1946), Dorothy Cross (b.1956) and Alice Maher (b. 1956).
Sculpture in the nineteenth century was heroic and monumental asexemplified by the statues of Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke byJohn Henry Foley (1819-1974) outside Trinity College, Dublin. Thistradition continued into the twentieth century with the works ofOisin Kelly (1915-1981), Seamus Murphy (1907-74) and Hilary Heron(1923-77) pioneering the use of new casting techniques andpromoting the concept of an Irish vernacular sculpture.Contemporary sculpture is more abstract and witty as can be seen inthe diverse work of John Behan (b. 1932), Michael Warren (b. 1950),Edward Delaney (b. 1930), Eilis O’Connell (b. 1953), and KathyPrendergast (b. 1958).
The earliest examples of architecture visible in Ireland today aremegalithic tombs (3500-2000 B.C.). These include dolmens (three ormore standing stones supporting one or two capstones) and passagegraves such as Newgrange. Stone Age techniques survived into thetwelfth century and are still visible in the beehive structure ofearly churches and monasteries such as those on Skellig Michael andGallarus Oratory in County Kerry. During the Iron Age (after 500B.C.) large circular stone forts were built, usually on hilltopssuch as Dun Aengus on the Aran Islands.
The Round Tower is almost exclusive to Ireland and is found in manyparts of the country. Built from the tenth to the twelfth centurieson monastic sites, the most notable being at Clonmacnoise in CountyOffaly, round towers were frequently more than 30 metres high.Their primary purpose seems to have been to serve as bell towersalthough the raised level of the doorway would suggest they mayalso have had defensive uses. After this period, Romanesquearchitecture with its intricate and ornate carved stoneworkinfluenced the shape of Irish churches, the finest examples beingCormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary andClonfert Cathedral in County Galway. The arrival of theAnglo-Normans heralded the introduction of the early Gothic styleof architecture, with the two Dublin cathedrals, Christ Church andSaint Patrick’s, being the most notable. The Normans builtsubstantial castles with large rectangular keeps, many of which,like Trim in County Meath and Carrickfergus in County Antrim, stillfigure on the landscape. The fifteenth century castle at Cahir inCounty Tipperary is the most impressive of the surviving feudalstrongholds.
Classical buildings date from the late seventeenth century. At theturn of the eighteenth century Palladian mansions were emulatingItalian palazzos, but by the end of the century, this style hadgiven way to neo-classicism and Dublin became an outstandingexample of Georgian architecture. Key buildings from this periodinclude the Custom House and the Four Courts in Dublin, with theirdistinctive copper domes, designed by James Gandon (1743-1823). Bythe nineteenth century Gothic revivalism was in vogue influencingthe design of churches such as Saint Finn Barre’s Cathedral (1867)in Cork and adapted to domestic architecture in the construction ofAshford Castle (c.1870), County Mayo.
Preservation and revival of old buildings became increasinglyimportant towards the end of the last century with major projectssuch as the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, now the home of the IrishMuseum of Modern Art (IMMA), the The Custom House, Dublin Castleand the Casino at Marino, Dublin, being fine examples ofarchitectural restoration. Temple Bar, the Historic AreaRestoration Project (HARP) around Smithfield and the docklandswhere the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC) is located, arethree notable urban development initiatives in Dublin. Over thetwentieth century Irish cities have expanded rapidly and theemphasis today is on innovative high density housing.
Music has always been an important part of Irish culture, from thetraditional accompaniment to festivals and funerals in the form ofplaying and ballad singing, to Irish dancing which is very muchalive in Irish communities around the world. The harp was thedominant instrument in early historical times. One of the earliestIrish composers whose work survives is Turlough O’Carolan(1670-1738), the blind harpist and one of the last of the ancientbardic tradition.
There is also a classical tradition in the forms pioneered by otherEuropean composers. Eighteenth century Dublin was an importantmusical centre and Handel chose to premiere his Messiah there in1742. John Field (1782-1837), creator of the nocturne, influencedcomposers such as Chopin and Glinka, and himself taught music inMoscow, where he is buried. Around the turn of the twentiethcentury two composers, Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) andHamilton Harty (1879-1941), created Irish symphonies drawing onnative songs. In the twentieth century traditional Irish musicinspired modern composers such as Seán Ó Riada (1931-71), A.J.Potter (1918-80), Seoirse Bodley (b. 1933) and the crossoverartists Shaun Davey (b. 1948), Ronan Guilfoyle (b. 1958) andMícheál Ó Súilleabháin (b. 1950).
In the 1930s and 1940s Brian Boydell (1917-2000), Frederick May(1911-1985) and Aloys Fleischmann (1910-1992) brought a progressivecontinental European dimension to Irish art music. This continuesin the work of Raymond Deane (b. 1953) who studied in Germany, andGerald Barry (b. 1952) whose operas include The Intelligence Park,and John Buckley (b. 1951). Young classical composers includeGrainne Mulvey (b. 1966), Ian Wilson (b. 1964), Benjamin Dwyer (b.1965) and Elaine Agnew (b. 1967).
Traditional Irish music is now popular in many countries throughthe influence of groups as diverse as Clannad, the Chieftains,Altan, Dervish, Lunasa and Anuna, all of whom perform in a moderncontext without compromising the integrity of the original sound.Reflecting this versatility is the phenomenon of Riverdance, withmusic composed by Bill Whelan, combining the best of Irish song,music and dance. Siamsa Tíre, based in Tralee, County Kerry, is aworld-renowned folk dance company while Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireannplay a prominent part in the development and preservation of Irishtraditional music and dance. On the jazz scene guitarist LouisStewart has played with leading international musicians. Popularbands such as U2, Ash, Snow Patrol and Westlife top the charts athome and abroad, as do individual singers Van Morrison, SinéadO’Connor, Damien Rice and Enya.
There are three full-time professional orchestras and three mainopera companies performing in Ireland. There is also a wealth ofindividual classical musical talent such as the well known pianistsJohn O’Conor, and the up and coming Finghin Collins. Wellestablished on the international concert circuit are BernadetteGreevy, Ann Murray and Suzanne Murphy.
Films have been made in and about Ireland since the LumiéreBrothers filmed in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street in 1897. In1910 the American, Sidney Olcott, filmed The Lad from Old Irelandin New York and Kerry, the first film ever made on two continents.Ireland has since played host to many international directors -Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, John Huston andStephen Spielberg.
Throughout the last century Irish film makers were prolific intheir production of amateur films, newsreels, documentaries andinformational films. It was not until the 1970s however that a newwave of indigenously produced fiction films began to provide astriking alternative to foreign produced representations ofIreland.
Irish film makers Bob Quinn, Joe Comerford, Cathal Black, PatMurphy and Thaddeus O’Sullivan produced work that dealt withpreviously unexplored issues of culture, class, gender andnationality. Their work and that of subsequent producers, directorsand screen writers is facilitated by the Irish Film Board who fundproduction and distribution of feature films, shorts, animatedfilms and Irish language productions.
Irish films have enjoyed international acclaim such as MichaelCollins (Neil Jordan 1996), I Went Down (Paddy Breathnach 1997),The General (John Boorman 1998), Nora (Pat Murphy 2000), About Adam(Gerry Stembridge 2001), When Brendan met Trudy (Kieron J. Walsh2001) and Disco Pigs (Kirsten Sheridan 2001).
Annual film festivals in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Belfast showcaseIrish and international films while a year-round venue for arthouse cinema is provided at the Irish Film Centre in Dublin, theKino in Cork and the Town Hall in Galway.
Among the most popular sports are Ireland’s traditional games,Gaelic football, hurling and camogie, which are played almostexclusively in Ireland and in Irish communities abroad. Gamesin the All-Ireland hurling and football championships attract largeattendances throughout the summer months culminating in the finals,the highlight of Ireland’s sporting year, which are held in CrokePark in Dublin.
The Irish bloodstock industry is considered one of the finest inthe world.
Soccer is popular at all ages from school to senior level indomestic competitions with many players performing with distinctionin clubs in Britain. The Irish International team, whichplays as the Republic of Ireland, has over the past number of yearsenjoyed some success and is well supported by enthusiastic andfriendly fans.
Rugby football is popular at club and schools level with the IrishRugby Football Union (IRFU) fielding teams in the annual SixNations championship. Irish rugby players have participatedin the British and Irish Lions tours as players, coaches andmanagers.
Ireland has a strong reputation for field sports such as shooting,fishing and also for equestrian events, show jumping and horseracing. The Irish bloodstock industry is considered one of thefinest in the world. As Ireland has over 3,000 kilometres ofcoastline and numerous inland waterways, sailing and boating arelong-established sports. A wide range of marine leisure activitiessuch as fishing, water-skiing, canoeing, wind-surfing, diving andswimming are also pursued.
Over 400 golf courses offer facilities through the country.All-Ireland teams compete in international amateur golfingcompetitions with the major Irish tournaments on the internationalprofessional circuit being the Irish Open and the Smurfit EuropeanOpen.
The Ryder Cup was held in Ireland in 2006, with top Irish golfersPádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley contributing tothe European team’s victory over the United States.Harrington later went on to win the British Open Championship, oneof golf’s four “Majors”, in Carnoustie, Scotland in July 2007.
Ireland has a history of successfully hosting prestigious sportingevents and hosted the Special Olympics in June 2003. This wasthe largest sporting event ever to take place in Ireland.Over 7,000 special athletes from 160 countries came to Ireland toparticipate in this unique sporting achievement.