Ireland’s literary history is rooted in Celtic mythology, a tradition that flourished across Europe from the 7th century BC, and which survived in Ireland longer than anywhere else. Irish writers have been able to reach back to this deep reservoir of stories, while simultaneously responding to the shifting, frequently tortuous politics of the present. Janus-like, the literature of Ireland is both an exuberant celebration of the past and a passionate vision for the future of the Emerald Isle. Here is a selection of ten extraordinary Penguin Classics texts that span the history of Irish literature.
Although written down in Ireland in the 8th century, the stories in this volume are the remnants of far older oral traditions. Tales include ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, ‘The Cattle Raid of Fróech’ and ‘Macc Da Thó’s Pig’. The stories are both graphically violent and achingly beautiful, weaving history, romance and magic into narratives that have inspired writers including Yeats, Synge and Flann O’Brien.
The Táin Bó Cúailnge, the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, is the central text of the Ulster Cycle, set in the 1st century around the royal court of Emain Macha, now Armargh. It describes the battle between the teenage hero Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, and Medb of Connaught, an unscrupulous queen who craves the phenomenally fertile Bull of Cooney. Cú Chulainn defeats hundreds of men in single combat at a ford, and at one point ‘revolves’ within his own skin, becoming a monstrous killing machine.
Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, was a ferocious pacifist, who strove to improve the political situation in Ireland through satirical pamphlets and frequent, irascible visits to London. His ‘Modest Proposal’, a pamphlet published in 1729, was presented as a grisly solution to the Irish poverty crisis: he suggests that children, at the age of one, should be turned into ‘most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled’.
John Millington Synge was a director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and a major proponent of the Irish Literary Revival. After Yeats suggested the idea of living with the Aran Islanders and writing about ‘a life that has never found expression’, Synge spent a few weeks every year on these remote west coast islands, from 1898 to 1902. The experience inspired several of his plays and in 1907 he published this elegiac prose portrait of the islanders’ vanishing way of life, a celebration of savagely beautiful landscapes and ancestral traditions.
The controversial, enormously influential James Joyce lived in voluntary exile for most of his life, in Zurich, Trieste and Paris. Nonetheless, the fifteen stories in his first major work collectively paint a portrait of middle-class Dublin on the eve of nationalist reform. The characters grow older over the course of Dubliners and the final story, which is also the longest, is called ‘The Dead’. A conflicted academic has a revelatory moment of epiphany, in which he sees how the dead are present in the memory of those still living; T. S. Eliot considered it one of the best short stories ever written.
William Butler Yeats sought to recover a distinctively Irish voice and became deeply involved in Irish nationalism through his infatuation with the revolutionary Maud Gonne, to whom he proposed unsuccessfully many times throughout his life. In 1923, he was appointed a senator of the new Irish Free State, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He owned a Norman stone tower in Ballylee, County Galway, which became the focus of his 1928 collection, The Tower, considered by many to be his greatest poetic achievement. This Penguin Classics selection presents the best of Yeats’s poetry across his career.
‘Yeats famously saw Ireland as soft wax, ready to take the imprint of his grand literary and cultural design,’ writes Seamus Heaney; ‘[. . .] this anthology reveals the depth and riches of the tradition which the arch-poet’s intervention helped to retrieve and which his successors have so thoroughly and variously consolidated.’ This magisterial anthology stretches from the medieval monks of the western monasteries to the 20th-century Nobel Laureates, Yeats, Beckett and Heaney himself, with dozens of others in between.