Irish written culture is the oldest vernacular writing in all of Europe. Irish law was first recorded in the Early Irish period, between 600 and 900 AD, and is comprehensive to the point of ridiculousness to the modern mind. A whole law tract on bees? Seems a bit much.
But the Irish weren't just writing law texts - they had their own mythology and history, much of which they recorded in Irish. The Anglo-Saxons have Beowulf, but the Irish have the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley. And, unlike Beowulf, the Táin survived in numerous manuscripts, so we have the complete story. Queen Medb is determined to have the bull Donn Cualinge so she leads her army into Ulster to fetch it. The only Ulsterman who is not laid low by illness is Cúchulainn, who singlehandedly holds off Medb's army. A hero in the truest sense of the word, Cúchulainn fights challenger after challenger, including his beloved foster-brother Ferdiad. The Táin is full of battles and visits from otherworldly creatures, and because it was written primarily in prose, I find it an easier read than Beowulf. A new edition was just released by Penguin, which we have in stock.
If the myths of old are less interesting to you, the Irish still have a great deal to offer. Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver's Travels everyone is familiar with, also wrote numerous short stories and essays, like "A Tale of a Tub" and "A Modest Proposal." Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, was also Irish. And of course Oscar Wilde was Irish. The Picture of Dorian Grey was his only novel, but that doesn't stop it from being just as spooky as Dracula. His plays are decidedly less creepy, full of wit and humor. Next time you're in Dublin, you can stop by and see his statue. Tell him I say "hi."
The 20th century was a heyday for Irish authors - W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney all won Nobel prizes for literature. Yeats' late 19th/early 20th century poetry paints a vivid picture of Ireland, from its natural beauty to the trauma of the Easter Uprising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War. I'm not a tremendous fan of poetry, but "Easter, 1916" captures the amazing sacrifice made by men who wanted their country to be free. The last verse is especially moving, and pays tribute to men who died in search of freedom.
Too long a sacrificeGeorge Bernard Shaw won the Nobel Prize only two years after Yeats, yet the two men could hardly be more different. Shaw was an ardent socialist who spent most of his life outside of Ireland. His play Pygmalion was the basis for the play My Fair Lady, and he is the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize for Literature and an Academy Award.
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
The intensely private Samuel Beckett is almost as interesting as the plays he wrote. Beckett went to France during the "Great Emergency" (the Irish name for World War II), where he served with the French resistance. Read more about his life in Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, by James Knowlson.
Waiting for Godot, his most famous work was described thus by Vivian Mercer, an Irish critic: Beckett "has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice."
The most recent Nobel recipient from Ireland, Seamus Heaney, is a talented poet from Northern Ireland. His verse translation of Beowulf is one of the most popular interpretations of the epic poem. You can find both Beowulf and collections of his poetry on the Irish display.
As a list of Irish authors, this is obviously incomplete - the omission of James Joyce alone makes that obvious - but hopefully this gives you an idea of the breadth of Irish literature, and perhaps gives you an idea of where to start. Anyone interested in the earlier authors (those prior to 1900) can read a bit of their work at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/publishd.html#e20c.
When St. Patrick's day rolls around this Tuesday, enjoy a cold pint of Guiness or Magners or Smithwicks, and enjoy a culture that has given us so much.
Slán agus lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh!