The Seemingly Endless List of Irish Writer Pioneers
What is it about Ireland that produces so many ground-breaking, memorable and unique writers of such exceptional calibre? Nobel Prize winners like Yeats, best-sellers like Rooney, and iconic personalities like Wilde and Stoker; they all had in common their Irish background. Perhaps it’s the mythicism of the green land, its complicated past or the value its inhabitants ascribe to art and intellectualism. In any case, there seems to be no end or limitations to Irish writing talent, and the following writers prove precisely how diverse that talent can be.
Naturally, we must start with the author whose 1922 modernist novel is regarded as one of the greatest of all times. Ambitious, complex, and famously difficult to get through (even Virginia Woolfe had a hard time, for goodness’ sake), ‘Ulysses’ takes the reader on a devastating and at times delirious journey through the viewpoint of its main character, Leopard Bloom, during an ordinary June day in 1904 Dublin. Joyce is said to have pioneered a stream-of-consciousness technique in the novel, while combining this narrative form with experimental prose, puns and parodies. In this sense, it is considered a homage to British Literature, and critics tend to characterize it as humorous, rich, and deeply intellectual. But Joyce didn’t manage to enchant everyone, and the controversial subject matters examined in the book drew wide-spread criticism and accusations of obscenity. ‘Ulysses’ was censored and banned on many occasions after its initial publication - but then again, which great author hasn’t had at least one book censored or banned? Besides ‘Ulysseus’, which was published on Joyce’s fortieth birthday, the writer has authored the novels ‘The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, ‘Dubliners’, and ‘Finnegans Wake’.
Just as Mary Shelley achieved the great feat of bringing alive the culturally enduring and literary significant monster in Frankenstein, so too did Bram Stoker create an iconic and unforgettable Gothic beast by the name of Dracula. Whilst Stoker was raised in Ireland, and more acquainted with the mossy moors of Ireland than he was the brooding landscape of Transylvania, the author happened to cross paths with the Hungarian writer and traveller Ármin Vámbéry, who hailed from what is current day Slovakia. Stoker became fascinated by East European culture, and spent years researching Slavic mythology and folklore before writing ‘Dracula’. By that time, Stoker had already authored four books, and he would author seven more after his most famous Gothic tale.
If you were unaware that famously witty writer Oscar Wilde hailed from Dublin, you'd be forgiven. With accounts of high society and posh socialite parties in his novels and plays, one might have reasonably assumed Wilde was born to an upper-class London family. He was born, however, in Ireland - Anglo-Irish academic parents. After going from Trinity College to Oxford, Wilde began socializing in the aforementioned socialite circles, and quickly gained recognition for the humour and wit that characterized his poems and plays. He remains one of the most popular playwrights of all time. A self-proclaimed aestheticist, Wilde was inspired by style and beauty, and the interior of his house was famously stunning. The house, where Wilde spent some of his most formative years, is open to visitors as a museum in Dublin.
Eoin Colfer stands apart from other Irish writers on this list in part because his novels are aimed toward children, and because of the unique way his stories blend science fiction with Irish mythology. Artemis Fowl, the eight-book anthology about a criminal mastermind, has captivated young audiences around the world. Irish mythological creatures like fairies and leprechauns have worked their way into all kinds of movies, books and games, from the 1993 horror movie ‘Leprechaun’ to the popular slot machine game Rainbow Riches Megaways - but in ‘Artemis Fowl’, Colfer gives this classics myths a sci-fi twist. LEPRecon, for example, refers to the Lower Elements Police, a flying squad that seeks out fairies wandering where they shouldn’t. Sounds weird? It’s Colfer’s special brand of Irish weirdness that has seen a Disney film adaptation released this year, directed by none other than Northern Irish director Kenneth Branagh himself.
William Butler Yeats
As one of the foremost figures of 20th English Literature, Yeats had a remarkable ability to romanticize the most tragic subject matters, and dramatize the most mundane. His poetry often centered around themes that fascinated Yeats, including Irish legend and occultism. Yeats, who was born in Sandymount, is often accredited as a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1923, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
For those for whom GCSE English hasn’t ruined the great writer, there’s immense joy to be found in reading Heany’s humble, melancholic and naturalistic poetry. There is a consensus around the world, far beyond Ireland, that the poet possessed a special kind of genius, and The Independent even went as far as to describe him as ‘probably the best known-poet in the world’. It came as no surprise when Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. Typical subjects in Heaney’s poems include the Northern Irish countryside, the troubles, his relationship with his father and the plight of the working man.
Ireland is still producing its impressive share of globally successful writers, and the most recent addition to the list of acclaimed authors is the young Sally Rooney, who in 2018 wrote the bestseller ‘Normal People’. The story was quickly adapted to a Netflix TV series, which has garnered equally positive reviews. Rooney was only twenty-six when her well-received debut, ‘Conversations with Friends’, was published. The future seems bright for this Irish author who has already established herself as a household name in the Canon of Irish literature.
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