Picture for category Ireland's Classic Texts

Ireland's Classic Texts

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.


Early Irish Myths and Sagas

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

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.


A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift

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’.


The Aran Islands, J. M. Synge

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.


Dubliners, James Joyce

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.


Selected Poems, W. B. Yeats

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.


The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry

‘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.

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A collection of modernist short stories which create a picture of the day-to-day experience of Dublin life. The author stories are rooted in the rich detail of Dublin life, portraying ordinary, often defeated lives with unflinching realism.

Early Irish Myths and Sagas

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First written down in the eighth century AD, these early Irish stories depict a far older world - part myth, part legend and part history. Rich with magic and achingly beautiful, they speak of a land of heroic battles, intense love and warrior ideals, in which the otherworld is explored and men mingle freely with the gods.

The Aran Islands

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Records the author's visits to the Aran Islands in 1898-1901, when he was gathering the folklore and anecdotes out of which he forged "The Playboy of the Western World" and his other major dramas.

The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry: From Ancient Bards to Modern Poets

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Features the work of the greatest Irish poets, from the monks of the ancient monasteries to the Nobel laureates along with a profusion of lyrics, love poems, satires, ballads and songs. This title explores the traditions of poetry in Ireland, and relates the variety of the poems to the frequently troubled history of the island.

The Tain: a New Translation of the Tain Bo Cuailnge

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Tells the story of a great cattle-raid, the invasion of Ulster by the armies of Medb and Ailill, Queen and King of Connacht, and their allies, seeking to carry off the great Brown Bull of Cualige.

A Modest Proposal and Other Writings

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Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was born in Dublin. He is considered the foremost prose satirist in the English language, which stemmed from his criticism of Britain's repressive colonial policies in Ireland. This book discusses Swift's life and turbulent times, his political views and his powers as a writer of complex irony and intricate word play.

Castle Rackrent and Ennui

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Thady Quirk, steward to the decaying estate of the Rackrent family, narrates a story of four generations of a dying dynasty in Castle Rackrent. This volume also includes Ennui, the entertaining confessions of the Earl of Glenthorn, a bored aristocrat. Both novels offer a darkly comic and satirical expose of the Irish class system.

De Profundis and Other Prison Writings

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An account of Oscar Wilde's spiritual journey while in prison, and describes his new, shocking conviction that 'the supreme vice is shallowness'. It also includes further letters to his wife, his friends, the Home Secretary, himself, as well as "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", the poem about a man sentenced to hang for the murder of woman he loved.

Melmoth The Wanderer

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In a satanic bargain, Melmoth exchanges his soul for immortality. This book tells the story of his tortured wanderings through the centuries.

Selected Poems

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Features a selection of the works of W B Yeats, which includes the narrative poem "The Wanderings of Oisin". This title also includes poems in alternative versions; and in many other cases it provides significant variants, so that Yeats' struggle to revise his poetry can be experienced with unusual immediacy.