Irish prose fiction

Jonathan Swift, the first Irish novelist of note.

Although the epics of Celtic Ireland were written in prose and not verse, most people would probably consider that Irish fiction proper begins in the 18th century. However, there are aspects of Early Irish prose that appear to have had some influence on the Irish novel: the use of exaggeration for humorous effect, a near obsession with lists, and a strong sense of satire. This article is concerned with the history of Irish fiction written in English. For Irish fiction written in Irish, see Modern literature in Irish. For a general overview of Irish writing in all genres, see Irish literature.

18th century

Irish fiction can be said to begin with the publication in 1726 of Jonathan Swift's masterpiece Gulliver's Travels. Though part of the work is often published as a book for children, it is one of the most savage satires in the English language and set a high standard for Irish writers to come.

The next Irish novelist of importance was Laurence Sterne (1713–1768). Stern was born in Clonmel, County Tipperary and was in his mid-forties when he published The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767). This satire on the biographical novel is one of the most innovative and influential novels in English, and its foregrounding of the authorial voice and playful refusal to accept a conventional linear time frame mark it out as a precursor of such modernist novelists as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is a moral tale based on the story of Goldsmith's own family. It is notable for rejecting the florid style of most fiction of the day in favour of a more direct, conversational mode. Although not particularly successful when published, it has become one of the most enduring works of 18th-century fiction in English.

19th century

The 19th century was a golden age of fiction in English, and Irish writers were to participate fully. Although born in Oxford, Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849) spent most of her life in Ireland and wrote what is generally considered the first novel on an Irish theme, Castle Rackrent (1800). This story of landlords and tenants on an Irish estate, and of the abuse of the latter by the former, was criticised at the time for its characters' apparent lack of religious feeling or scruples, but can be seen as a reasonably accurate representation of life on a great estate at the turn of the century, drawing, as it does, on the author's own experience of managing her father's estate. She wrote a number of other novels, the most interesting being Ormond (1817).

Lady Morgan (Sidney Owenson) (1776(?)-1859) was also a prolific writer but her most successful work was her third novel, The Wild Irish Girl (1806), which can be read as a direct response to Castle Rackrent. Morgan's novel, however, is much more explicitly political, displaying clear Jacobin feminist politics. She emphasizes the legacy of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland and uses the novel to promote an Irish view of Irish history and prehistory.

Some of the early novels of Charles Robert Maturin (1782–1824) covered ground similar to that covered by Edgeworth. However, he is now best remembered for Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). This is a Faustian tale of a man, Melmoth, who sells his soul to the devil and then wanders round Europe trying to find someone to take on his satanic bargain for him. It is told through the accounts of those he approaches to help him. The book brought a whole new dimension to the Gothic novel and is considered a cult masterpiece.

William Carleton (1794–1869) came from a large family and his father was a poor tenant farmer. Carleton was educated at hedge schools and spent much of his youth surrounded by extreme poverty. His Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, which made him an extremely popular author, showed life on the other side of the social divide from the many 19th-century Irish novels written by members of the landlord class.

John Banim (1798–1842) was born in Kilkenny into a prosperous farming family. He studied art in Dublin and then returned home to work as an art teacher. In 1820, after recovering from tuberculosis, he went back to Dublin to pursue a career in writing. He wrote plays and poetry, but is best remembered for his novels, many of them written in collaboration with his brother Michael Banim (1796–1874). Their major works in fiction were the twenty-four volumes of The Tales of the O'Hara Family. One of these, The Nowlans is among the finest of all 19th-century novels. The first Catholic Irish novelists of any note, the Banims wrote the first realistic fictional portraits of the Irish peasants and their novels spare no details of the sufferings endured by their people at the time of the Penal Laws.

Gerald Griffin (1803–1840) was born in Limerick. Like his friend John Banim, Griffin wrote poetry and plays, and like so many other Irish dramatists he moved to London in search of success. However, his reputation rests on The Collegians (1989), a novel he wrote after returning to Ireland. The Collegians is based on a real life court case in which Daniel O'Connell acted for the defence.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–1873) was born in Dublin into a literary family of Huguenot origins and lived there for most of his life. He is famous for his Gothic fiction (some of which is based on Irish folklore) and mystery novels. He was the premier ghost story writer of the nineteenth century and had a seminal influence on the development of this genre in the Victorian era. Both his grandmother, Alice Sheridan Le Fanu and great uncle, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, were playwrights. His niece, Rhoda Broughton, would become a very successful novelist.

Charles Kickham (1828–1882) was born in County Tipperary. At the age of thirteen, he was involved in a gunpowder accident, permanently injuring his sight and hearing. A Young Irelander, he was arrested in 1865 for writing 'treasonous' articles and sentenced to fourteen years penal servitude. He started writing novels in prison and his Knocknagow; or The Homes of Tipperary (1879) was the most popular Irish novel of the 19th century.

Edith Anna Somerville (1858–1949) and her cousin, Violet Florence Martin (1862–1915) published their first novel, An Irish Cousin in 1889 under the names of Somerville and Ross. They went on to enjoy enormous popularity with books like The Irish R.M. and The Real Charlotte, a novel of the first rank. Following in the footsteps of Maria Edgeworth and Lady Morgan, they popularised big house novels as an Irish genre.

Bram Stoker (1847–1912) was born in Dublin and studied Mathematics at Trinity College. Although he wrote some 18 books, he is best known as the author of Dracula. His work represents a continuation of the Irish Gothic tradition of Maturin and Le Fanu.

By the 1880s, the main outline of the Irish novel had been drawn up. Typically, the best novels of the 19th century addressed the 'national question' via the relationship between landlord and tenant and was written either by a member of the landlord class who used fiction to call for an improved relationship based on mutual respect, or by a member of the Catholic middle class who was sympathetic to the tenants. This situation may be seen as not atypical of colonial literature, the colonists attempt to absorb the colonised into a unified world picture while the colonised attempt to promote a sense of separate identity. This 19th-century novel was soon to face two challenges, one from the emergence of modernism, the other from the collapse of colonial rule and the emergence of the Irish Free State.

20th century

George Moore (1852–1933) spent much of his early career in Paris and was one of the first writers to use the techniques of the French realist novelists in English. His novels were often controversial. A Drama in Muslin (1886) was banned from public libraries because it dealt with lesbianism. Esther Waters (1894), the book that finally established his reputation as a novelist in the tradition of Zola, had as its subject extramarital sex and illegitimacy, and The Brook Kerith (1916) imagined a Christ who did not die on the cross but who was nursed back to health and then travelled to India to study mysticism. Moore was involved in the setting up of the Abbey Theatre and wrote several volumes of memoirs. His short stories helped popularise the form among Irish authors and he can be seen as one of the precursors of the most famous Irish novelist of the 20th century, James Joyce.

Joyce (1882–1941) is often regarded as the father of the literary genre "stream of consciousness" which is best exemplified in his famous work, Ulysses. Joyce also wrote Finnegans Wake, Dubliners, and the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses, often considered to be the greatest novel of the 20th century, is the story of a day in the life of a city, Dublin. Told in a dazzling array of styles, it was a landmark book in the development of literary modernism. If Ulysses is the story of a day, Finnegans Wake is a night epic, partaking in the logic of dreams and written in an invented language which parodies English, Irish and Latin and is called Joycespeak, deemed virtually unreadable at the time of its release, it became a cult classic with the emergence of the beat generation, particularly William S. Burroughs, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Joyce's high modernism had its influence on coming generations of Irish novelists, most notably Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), Brian O'Nolan (1912–1966), who published as both Flann O'Brien and Myles na Gopaleen, and Aidan Higgins (born 1927). Beckett, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, is one of the great figures in 20th-century world literature. Perhaps best known for his plays, he wrote many works of fiction including his trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable (originally written in French) and published, like Waiting for Godot, in the 1950s. Beckett is perhaps the greatest of all second generation modernist fiction.

O'Nolan was bilingual and his fiction clearly shows the mark of the native tradition, particularly in the imaginative quality of his storytelling and the biting edge of his satire. These traits are especially evident in At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), which was highly praised by Joyce, in An Béal Bocht (1941), written in Gaelic, and in The Third Policeman, published in 1967, after his death.

Cathal Ó Sándair (1922–1996), one of the most prolific Irish language authors, produced over one hundred novels, many of them westerns featuring cowboys and gun fights. Born in Weston Super Mare, England to an English father and Irish mother. His first novel appeared in 1943 and featured Réics Carló, the most famous Irish language detective. Ó Sándair is reputed to have published 160 books and sold more than 500,000 copies.

The big house novel prospered into the 20th century, and Aidan Higgins' first novel Langrishe, Go Down is an experimental example of the genre. Higgins later fiction tended towards greater disjunction and experimentation. He has also published short stories and several volumes of memoirs.

More conventional exponents of the big house novel include Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973), whose novels and short stories include Encounters (1923), The Last September (1929), and The Death of the Heart (1938) and Molly Keane (1904–1996) (writing as M.J. Farrell), author of Young Entry (1928), Conversation Piece (1932), Devoted Ladies (1934), Full House (1935), and The Loving Without Tears (1951) among others.

Francis Stuart (1902–2000) started his literary life as a protégé of W. B. Yeats and married Isuelt, daughter of Maude Gonne. He published his first novel, Women and God in 1931. Stuart was a prolific novelist, but many of his books are now long out of print. He went to work in Germany in the late 1930s, and declined to leave with the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, he broadcast anti-British talks on German radio. The controversy surrounding these actions was to stay with Stuart until his death. However, his finest and most enduring novel, Black List, Section H (1971), is a barely fictionalised account of those years.

With the rise of the Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland, the terms of the 'national question' shifted. The issue of land ownership had been more or less resolved and the real question now was how to build a nation state. Inevitably, novelists from the so-called lower social classes began to dominate. Frequently, these authors wrote of the narrow, circumscribed lives of the lower-middle classes and small farmers. Exponents of this style range from Brinsley MacNamara (1890–1963) (real name John Weldon), whose 1918 The Valley of the Squinting Windows could be said to have created the genre, to John McGahern (born 1934), whose first novel, The Dark (1965), a portrayal of child abuse in a rural community, cost him his job as a teacher.

Brian Moore (1921–1999) was born in Belfast but became a citizen of Canada in 1953. He wrote a series of scrupulously written novels examining the Catholic conscience in the modern world.

In the 1960s, Ann Moray returned to her Irish roots in Rising of the Lark (1964), A Fair Stream of Silver (1965), and Gervase (1970), as well as by turning to traditional Irish song in her concerts.

J. G. Farrell (1935–79) was born in Liverpool of Anglo-Irish parents, but after World War II, the Farrells moved to Dublin, and from this point on Farrell lived at times in Ireland: this, perhaps combined with the popularity of Troubles, leads many to treat him as an Irish writer. Troubles is set in an Irish hotel, in the midst of the political upheaval during the Irish War of Independence (1919 – 1921). Farrell is now recognised as a major novelist, twice winning the Booker Prize, for Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur (published in 1970 and 1973, respectively). Alongside The Singapore Grip, published in 1978, one year before Farrell was swept to his death in a storm on the coast of Bantry Bay, Ireland, they are now recognised as the work of a genius and are regarded as among the finest novels of the second half of the twentieth century.[1] “Had he not sadly died so young,” Salman Rushdie said in 2008, “there is no question that he would today be one of the really major novelists of the English language. The three novels that he did leave are all in their different way extraordinary.”[2]

The short story has also proven popular with Irish fiction writers. Well known short story writers include Frank O'Connor (1903–1966) and Seán Ó Faoláin (1900–1991).

21st century

Contemporary Irish fiction has moved to reflect the changes in the society that produces it. There are fewer novels set in the countryside and more urban fiction is being written.

Notable names straddling the late 20th and early 21st-century include John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Gerard Beirne, Dermot Bolger, Seamus Deane, Dermot Healy, Jennifer Johnston, Eugene McCabe, Patrick McCabe, John McGahern, Edna O'Brien, Colm Tóibín, William Trevor and William Wall. Writers to have emerged in the 21st-century include Claire Keegan, Philip Ó Ceallaigh, Cónal Creedon, Jamie O'Neill and Keith Ridgway.

Recent fiction by Irish writers has attracted considerable acclaim from the purveyors of taste in the neighbouring United Kingdom, with some writers becoming overnight successes by winning the Booker Prize, an award only open to long fiction, specifically in the form of the novel. A string of others, including Colm Tóibín, Patrick McCabe, and Sebastian Barry, have twice been shortlisted for that prize. Barry's The Secret Scripture lost out on the 2008 Booker Prize but it was awarded the 2009 Costa Book Prize instead. Among Ireland's Booker winners are Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and The Gathering by Anne Enright. John Banville's acclaimed The Sea won in 2005 to howls of derision from England's London literary circle which Banville shuns and continues to shun.[3] Since this breakthrough into public consciousness, Banville has collected several more international awards, including the Franz Kafka Prize and the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and is often cited as Irish literature's next contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.[4][5][6][7]

A contrast to the polished approach to his art of John Banville has been the rise in the volume of popular fiction being published across a range of genres from romantic novels to hardboiled detective stories set in New York. The 21st-century has also brought an increased emphasis on writing by women, which found concrete expression in the founding of the Arlen House publishing venture. Irish writers whose work is targeted at more commercial audiences, among them Cecilia Ahern (PS, I Love You), Maeve Binchy (Tara Road), John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), Marian Keyes (Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married) and Joseph O'Connor (Cowboys and Indians, Desperadoes), have had considerable commercial success internationally. Ireland's recent crop of children's writers, among them Eoin Colfer, Derek Landy and Darren Shan, have also enjoyed international success.

See also


  1. "Lost and found: why JG Farrell's Troubles deserved its belated Booker win hands-down". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. 21 May 2010. Retrieved 21 May 2010.
  2. Greacen, Lavinia (ed.). "JG Farrell in His Own Words Selected Letters and Diaries". Cork University Press.
  3. Brockes, Emma (12 October 2005). "14th time lucky". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 12 October 2005.
  4. "John Banville awarded Franz Kafka Prize". CBS News. 26 May 2011. Retrieved 26 May 2011.
  5. "Irish novelist wins Kafka prize". The Chronicle Herald. 27 May 2011. Retrieved 27 May 2011.
  6. Flood, Alison (26 May 2011). "John Banville wins Kafka prize: Irish novelist given honour thought by some to be a Nobel prize augury". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 26 May 2011.
  7. "There is no better man than Banville for Nobel Prize". Irish Independent. Independent News & Media. 8 October 2011. Retrieved 8 October 2011.

External links

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