A Brief History of Irish Novels

Irish literature falls into two distinct categories. Written in the Irish language, the first category includes bardic poems and Celtic sagas. The second category, Irish literature written in English, includes what is often called Anglo-Irish literature because it was created by Protestants of English extraction. This phenomenon can be explained by England’s historical colonization of Ireland and the acceptance of Irish writers within the British literary tradition.

The Eighteenth Century

Although Irish writers are recognized for their contributions to poetry and drama, Irish writers beginning in the eighteenth century contributed also to the rise of the English novel. Irish writers also played a large role in the evolution of the English novel throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Very little eighteenth century Irish fiction deals with Irish subject matter. On the contrary, Irish fiction deals with humor, the sense of the grotesque and fantasy, the significance of anecdote, and the importance of the storyteller, all of which categorize the constructs of the Irish novel.

Irish long fiction took root in the eighteenth century with the writings of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). His exuberant use of humor and fantasy, as well as his expansive imagination, demonstrates the deep influence of Ireland on his psyche and firmly distinguishes him as an Irish writer. Recognized as the foremost prose satirist in the English language, Swift spent much of his life trying to escape Ireland, which was considered then as a place of exile from England. However, politics dictated that he spend the bulk of his life as dean of St. Patrick’s Anglican cathedral in Dublin.

Although Swift penned verse early in his life, his true genius did not surface until he turned to prose satire. His A Tale of a Tub, published anonymously in 1704, is a satire against religion and education. The book isolated Swift as a genius of satiric wit. His greatest novel, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), assured his permanent place in literary history. The ironic tension Swift creates prompts questions about the author’s views on humankind. In each of the novel’s four books, Lemuel Gulliver sets sail on a voyage and ends up in a strange land. In book 1, Gulliver finds himself a giant prisoner of the six-inch high Lilliputians, whom he saves from invasion from the neighboring Blefuscu. He escapes when he is charged with treason.

In book 2, the hero travels to Brobdingnag, where he finds himself as tiny as a toy in a world of giants. Although loved and pampered as a pet, in fear for his life he manages to escape in the talons of a large bird. In book 3, Gulliver visits the floating island of Laputa, where the islanders are so obsessed with scientific activity, particularly those in the Academy of Lagado (a parody of England’s Royal Society), that they are blind to commonplace hazards. Book 4 finds Gulliver in the utopian land of the admirable, enlightened, rational horses, the Houyhnhnms, and the degraded, filthy humans, the Yahoos. Although first accepted as a curiosity by the gentle creatures, Gulliver is soon ousted as despicable because of his human physical characteristics. Although, at the end of his fourth voyage, he returns to England, he finds himself no longer able to tolerate human company and lives out his days in the company of horses.

Swift’s ironic novel has no clear-cut explanation. Swift utilizes the various places his hero visits to satirize the folly of humankind. Of the human beings he encounters, the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians are impractical and mean-spirited, and the intellectuals in book 3 lack any wisdom, if they are not outright mad. The humanlike Yahoos are contemptible and powerless to express any reason whatsoever, but the Houyhnhnms, the horses, are reasonable and kind.

Swift was certainly not the only esteemed eighteenth century Irish writer. In Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), humorist Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) made a critical contribution to English literature, which secured him the reputation of a major novelist. The book is generally considered the progenitor of the psychological novel and the twentieth century stream-of-consciousness novel popularized by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

In the novel, the narrator, Tristram, sets out to do the seemingly impossible: to tell the story of his own life. Beginning at the narrator’s moment of conception, Sterne parodies the emerging novelistic form by exploring the relativity of time in human experience. Throughout, the author disorders experiences and mocks the development of narrative by providing no consistent plot or conclusion and by inserting outrageous and lengthy digressions. Ultimately, Tristram realizes the telling of his life’s story takes longer than the living of it.

Sterne also penned A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) in an attempt to teach humans to love their fellow creatures. The novel, which parodies the era’s wide range of travel books, had a major impact on the campaign toward sentimentalism prevalent in the second half of the eighteenth century. This movement associated acute sensibility and a sympathetic, tender heart with true virtue. In the novel, the narrator, Parson Yorick, who is frequently moved to tears, sets out to travel through France and Italy in search of “sentimental commerce,” or genuine human contact.

Frances Sheridan (1724-1766), mother of the famous Irish dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan and much influenced by Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) and Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748), wrote the popular sentimental Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1761), which considers the effect of extreme suffering on ideal virtue by focusing on the social role assigned to women in eighteenth century society. She also wrote the highly acclaimed and didactic Eastern-themed novel, The History of Nurjahad, by the Editor of Sidney Bidulph (1767), much in keeping with Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale by S. Johnson (1759).

Although Oliver Goldsmith (1728 or 1730-1774) achieved eminence as an essayist (The Citizen of the World, 1762), a poet (The Deserted Village, 1770), and a dramatist (She Stoops to Conquer: Or, The Mistakes of a Night, pr., pb. 1773), he is also well recognized as a novelist for his pastoral novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). Early in his life, his first calling as a physician was soon submerged by his writing talent, which gained him much literary renown. He was one of the founding members of the famous Literary Club, which included Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell.

The melodramatic The Vicar of Wakefield presents a picture of idealized rural village life and the unforgettable vicar, Dr. Charles Primrose. The family’s troubles begin when the vicar loses his income and is forced to move the family near the estate of Squire Thornhill, who abducts his daughter Olivia. Next, the vicar’s son George is imprisoned after his attempt to avenge his sister. The vicar’s troubles continue when his other daughter, Sophia, is also abducted. After the family’s house burns down, the vicar is imprisoned for debt. Despite such hardship, the vicar remains unfailingly charitable throughout. Goldsmith, who had the ability to crystallize the human personality, provides a comic look at the human predicament.

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) authentically captures eighteenth and nineteenth century rural Irish life in her popular novels and children’s stories. Deeply involved with issues of nationality and cultural identity, Edgeworth is known for presenting the first believable children in the English novel form in the collection The Parent’s Assistant: Or, Stories for Children (1796, 1800). Her actual involvement in running her father’s estate in Ireland provided her with the knowledge necessary to authentically characterize rural Irish society in her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), said to be the first fully developed regional novel and the first true historical novel in English. Edgeworth focused attention on the much-maligned practice of absentee English landowning in The Absentee (1812), said to influence Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) to finish his novel Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814). Patronage (1814) and Ormond (1817) explore the relationship between culture and politics and heightened Edgeworth’s literary reputation. During the Irish famine in 1846, Edgeworth became a spokesperson for Irish relief.

William Chaigneau (1709-1781) contributed one of the earliest Irish novels, The History of Jack Connor (1752). A picaresque novel in the tradition of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) and later Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749; commonly known as Tom Jones), The History of Jack Connor concerns the cultural identity of a young Irish man forced to become an English soldier.


The Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century saw progress from sentimentalism to sensationalism with the development of the Irish gothic tradition, which made use of gothic architecture, convoluted plot, emotional intensity, and supernatural agency. The Irish gothic was popularized by Charles Robert Maturin (1780-1824), author of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), which was set inside seventeenth century madhouses, and by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814- 1873), author of The House by the Churchyard (1863), a tale of a ghostly hand that taps on windows.

Undoubtedly, however, the most popular Irish gothic writer is Bram Stoker (1847-1912), the author of the horror tale Dracula (1897), the subject of many films. Told principally through multiple diary entries, the tale features the unforgettable undead vampire Count Dracula, who travels to England and victimizes young Lucy Westerna. Dr. Van Helsing and the young solicitor Jonathan Harker attempt to overpower Dracula and keep him from Mina, Harker’s fiancé. After his return to Transylvania, Dracula crumbles to dust after he is beheaded and stabbed through the heart by his captors. Stoker is also the author of the lesser-known The Snake’s Pass (1890), The Mystery of the Sea (1902), The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), and The Lady of the Shroud (1909).

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), another renowned Irish writer better known as a dramatist (Lady Windermere’s Fan, pr. 1892, and The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, pr. 1895) contributed to the Irish gothic tradition by creating one of the most popular nineteenth century novels. The Picture of Dorian Gray (serial 1890, expanded 1891) blends supernatural elements with French decadence. The novel caused a great deal of scandal: Wilde declared in the preface that there was no such thing as a moral or immoral book. In the novel, the beautiful youth Dorian Gray has his portrait painted before he turns to a life of vice and corruption. However, the painting has supernatural powers and grows more and more degenerate and corrupted, reflecting the actual appearance of Gray, who maintains his youthful appearance. At the end, Gray kills the artist and stabs the painting; he is discovered as the very image of depravity, a knife through his heart, while the painting depicts an innocent youth. Wilde, a leader of the aesthetic movement in England and a well-known and flamboyant social wit, was greatly influenced by Walter Pater (1839-1894), who advocated art for art’s sake.


Although not as popular, George Moore (1852-1933) nevertheless deserves consideration for his innovations in fiction. In his first novels, A Modern Lover (1883), set in artistic bohemian society, and A Mummer’s Wife (1884), he introduced French naturalism into English literature, coming later to utilize the realistic techniques of Gustave Flaubert and Honoré de Balzac. Moore counted among his friends Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats and played a role in the development of the Abbey Theatre. Moore is best known for Hail and Farewell: A Trilogy (1911-1914), a comic, autobiographical satire in monologue form that features Yeats and Irish dramatist Lady Augusta Gregory and records the history of the Irish Literary Revival.

The Twentieth Century

While the twentieth century Irish Literary Revival encouraged the publication of poetry, drama, and folklore, Ireland continued producing long-fiction writers. James Joyce (1882-1941), arguably one of Ireland’s best novelists, is highly celebrated for his experimental use of language. In 1904, in the company of a young girl named Nora Barnacle, Joyce left his native Dublin for the European continent to begin his writing career in earnest. His early stories, and all his later works, feature the city of Dublin—socially frozen and inanimate—and deal almost exclusively with Irish subject matter. Concerned with both the Symbolist and realist literary movements, Joyce integrated both styles, utilizing every word he composed to provide meaning. His autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (serial 1914-1915, book 1916), sketches the development of young Stephen Dedalus, who ultimately leaves Dublin for Paris to dedicate his life to art.

Joyce’s best-known novel, Ulysses (1922), parallels Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). The action in Ulysses takes place in Dublin on a single day, June 16, 1904, which has popularly come to be known as Bloomsday. The novel features Dedalus, the hero of Joyce’s earlier novel; Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman; and his wife, Molly Bloom—all modern representations of the mythic Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope. Through interior monologue, or the stream-of-consciousness technique, their myriad thoughts, impressions, and feelings— rational and irrational—are revealed as they make their way through the day in Dublin.

Finnegans Wake (1939), written in a unique and extremely difficult but comic style, features the archetypal family, about whom everyone dreams, metaphorically falling and rising. The novel characterizes a Dublin tavern-keeper, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker; his wife, Mrs. Anna Livia Plurabelle; and their children, Shem, Shaun, and Isabel in a dream sequence throughout the course of one night. In pervasive dreamlike fashion, Joyce utilizes puns throughout and merges various languages, mythic images, and literary and historical characters to show, albeit obscurely, how history predominates over human experience and relationships.

Although, like Goldsmith and Wilde, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was more popularly known as a dramatist, he also was widely recognized as a novelist. Strongly influenced by Joyce (whom he met in Paris), Beckett’s popular novel Murphy (1938) concerns an Irishman in London who becomes a nurse in a mental institution. While hiding in France during World War II, Beckett wrote Watt (1953), a highly abstract novel that deals with a servant who continues to work for a master whom he never meets until he is dismissed. Between 1946 and 1949, Beckett wrote Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958). Beckett, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, attempts to analyze people’s social relationships with one another. His work is thick with literary, historical, and philosophical allusions and draws heavily on thirteenth century Italian poet Dante Alighieri, seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes, and seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Arnold Geulincx, whose philosophy attempts to integrate both the physical and the spiritual sides of men and women. Beckett puzzled continuously over the human condition.

Like the work of Joyce, Edna O’Brien’s (born 1930) work was banned by the Catholic Church in Ireland. Her strict Catholic convent education provided the impetus to write her popular first novel, The Country Girls (1960), which concerns solitary women seeking identity and a sense of belonging. This first volume of The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue (1986) features two Irish girls who leave their strict rural convent school for a more exciting, less curtailed life in Dublin. Their lives are subsequently recorded in The Lonely Girl (1962; also known as Girl with Green Eyes, 1964) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). Disillusioned, both girls leave Dublin for London, finding neither a meaningful connection with men nor happiness in marriage.

O’Brien’s novels express despair over women’s repression and place in contemporary society. Lonely and empty, her female characters, although at times happy, continuously seek fulfillment in doomed erotic relationships. Her portrayals of her characters’ sexuality was deemed too frank for the 1960’s, and the Country Girls trilogy was banned in Ireland for a time. O’Brien’s twentieth book of fiction, The Light of Evening (2006), uses stream of consciousness to look back on the life and relationships of an elderly widow. The novel returns to O’Brien’s themes of an oppressive church and a search for female autonomy.

Although Irish writers are highly recognized for their enormous contributions to poetry and drama, the legacy of Irish long fiction is splendid and rich as well. In addition to Joyce, Beckett, and O’Brien, Forrest Reid (1875- 1947), Brinsley MacNamara (1890-1963), Peadar O’Donnell (1893-1986), Joyce Cary (1888-1957), Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), Francis MacManus (1909- 1960), Flann O’Brien (1911-1966), Mary Lavin (1912- 1996), and John McGahern (1934-2006) carried on the Irish long fiction tradition in the twentieth century.

Irish Literature into the Twenty-first Century

Prizewinning novelists Roddy Doyle (born 1958) and Patrick McCabe (born 1955) are two of Ireland’s finest contemporary novelists, following in the footprints of earlier Irish literary giants. Doyle’s humorous The Barrytown Trilogy (1992; includes The Commitments, 1987; The Snapper, 1990; and The Van, 1991) centers on the irrepressible working-class Rabbitte family in Dublin.

Doyle’s first novel, The Commitments, traces the everyday life of the Rabbitte family and their uproarious encounters with a group of working-class Irish teenagers who form a soul band, the Commitments. The Snapper deals hilariously with pregnancy. When nineteen-yearold Sharon Rabbitte becomes pregnant, she refuses to name the father of her “snapper.” Her father, Jimmy, Sr., at first feels embarrassed and blames his daughter but eventually takes an active part in Sharon’s pregnancy, coming to wonder at the marvels of life and loving. The Van examines male friendship. When Jimmy, Sr., loses his job, what he misses most are his evenings out at the pub with his friends. Although he joins the library and cares for his baby granddaughter, it is not until he and his best pal, Bimbo, buy a beat-up fish-and-chips van that he gains back his enthusiasm for life. All sections of the trilogy were made into successful films.

One of Doyle’s strengths is his ability to give voice to a range of characters. In his Booker Prize-winning comic novel, Paddy Clarke, Ha-Ha-Ha (1993), Doyle captures the wonder and carefree days of youth through the speech patterns of childhood. Ten-year-old Padraic Clarke, or Paddy, runs wild through the streets of Barrytown with his gang of bullying friends, setting fires, playing “cowboys and Indians,” and generally having a good time. The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996) and its sequel, Paula Spencer (2006), concern a battered wife who uses her wits and a sharp tongue to deal with substance abuse and economic hardship.

McCabe has been compared to Joyce and Beckett, yet he could easily be classified within the Irish gothic tradition. McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992), acclaimed as a masterpiece of literary ventriloquism, was shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize. This finely crafted novel tells the story of a young adolescent’s descent into madness and murder. Although Francie Brady, a schoolboy in a small town in 1960’s Ireland, has a drunken father and careless mother, his buddy Joe Purcell keeps him on track.Whenthe boys con Philip Nugent out of his comic book collection, Philip’s mother calls Francie’s family “pigs.” Francie the “pig boy” internalizes this insult and comes to hate the socially aspiring Mrs. Nugent. After his own mother enters a mental hospital, Francie runs away to Dublin. He discovers upon his return that she has committed suicide. Feeling extreme guilt, he breaks into Mrs. Nugent’s house and is then sent to reform school: His best friend, Joe, befriends Francie’s nemesis Philip Nugent, and Francie is lost. He continues his descent into darkness.

McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto (1998), part of the author’s preferred humorous-macabre genre, is another tale of a youngster unable to come to terms with the conflicts of life. The emotionally overwrought Patrick “Pussy” Braden writes his outrageous memoirs for his psychiatrist, Dr. Terence. Aproduct of the Tyreelin parish priest and his housekeeper, Patrick is abandoned and placed in a foster home with an alcoholic, Hairy Braden. The youngster finds deliverance in dreams of stardom and female fashion, winding up with a new name, Pussy, and a new life as a cross-dressing hooker in London. The protagonist soon finds himself overwhelmed, however, when he starts working for Irish Republican Army terrorists. McCabe is also known for his novels Music on Clinton Street (1986), Carn (1989), The Dead School (1995), Call Me Breeze (2004), Winterwood (2007), and The Holy City (2009).

Other important Irish writers of the early twenty-first century include Anne Enright (born 1962), whose novel The Gathering (2007) won the Booker Prize, Sebastian Barry (born 1955), Joseph O’Connor (born 1963), and Antonia Logue (born 1972). Novelist Eoin Colfer (born 1965) reached a massive worldwide audience with his Artemis Fowl fantasy series, intended for young adults but enjoyed by adults for their humor and wit. The series, about a ruthless teenage criminal mastermind, began in 2001 with Artemis Fowl. Throughout the book, the third-person narration switches from following the human characters to following the fairy characters to present underlying themes of greed and conflict. A film adaptation titled Artemis Fowl was released on Disney+ on 12 June 2020.

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