The island's most widely-known literary works are undoubtedly in English. Particularly famous examples of such works are those of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Ireland's four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature; William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. Ireland's oldest literary traditions, however, are found in the Irish language, referred to simply as "Irish". Indeed, Irish has the third oldest literature in Europe (after Greek and Latin) and the most significant body of written literature (both ancient and recent) of any Celtic language. Furthermore, the historic influence of Irish language traditions, such as a strong oral tradition of legends and poetry, has helped make much English Literature in Ireland quite distinctive from that in other countries. From the older tradition, many Irish writers in English inherited a sense of wonder in the face of nature, a narrative style that tends towards the deliberately exaggerated or absurd and a keen sense of the power of satire. In addition, the interplay between the two languages has resulted in an English dialect, Hiberno-English, that lends a distinctive syntax and music to the literature written in it.
Irish poetry has a long and complex history. Ireland has one of the oldest vernacular literature and poetry traditions in Europe and represents a more or less unbroken cycle from the 6th century to the present day. In addition, since at least the 14th century, poetry in English has also been written in Ireland and by Irish writers abroad.
During the late Middle Ages, the old Gaelic order that had supported the old professional bards broke down, and Irish language poetry started to become marginalised and by the 19th century had entered the realm of folk art.
In the 19th century, Irish poets writing in English set out to reinvent the Gaelic tradition in the new language, frequently translating bardic and other early Irish poets and retelling stories from Celtic mythology in Victorian verse. This trend resulted in the early work of W. B. Yeats.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Yeats' style changed under the influence of his contact with modernism. The generation of Irish poets that followed Yeats were, to simplify, divided between those who were influenced by his early Celtic style and those who followed such modernist figures as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, both of whom wrote poetry as well as their better known fiction and drama.
During the course of the 20th century, the influence of Yeats has tended to dominate, either as a role model or as someone to rebel against. However, this period also saw the emergence of such significant figures as Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney and Brian Coffey. This period also saw a revival of poetry in Irish, at least partly as a result of government policy decisions in support of the language.
Although the epics of Medieval Ireland were written in prose and not verse, most people would probably consider that Irish fiction proper begins in the 18th century with the works of Jonathan Swift (especially Gulliver's Travels) and Oliver Goldsmith (especially The Vicar of Wakefield).
A number of Irish novelists emerged during the 19th century, including Maria Edgeworth, John Banim, Gerald Griffin, Charles Kickham, William Carleton, George Moore and Somerville and Ross. Most of these writers came from the ruling classes and they wrote what came to be termed "novels of the big house". Carleton was an exception, and his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry showed life on the other side of the social divide. Bram Stoker, the Anglican author of Dracula, was outside both traditions, as was at least the early work of Lord Dunsany.
George Moore 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. He can be seen as one of the precursors of the most famous Irish novelist of the 20th century, James Joyce. Joyce 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. Joyce's high modernist style had its influence on coming generations of Irish novelists, most notably Samuel Beckett, Brian O'Nolan, who published as Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, and Aidan Higgins. 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.
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 family moved to Ireland when he was a child. His first novel appeared in 1943 and featured Réics Carló, the most famous Irish language detective.
The big house novel prospered into the 20th century, and Aidan Higgins' first novel Langrishe, Go Down is an experimental example of the genre. More conventional exponents include Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane (writing as M.J. Farrell).
With the rise of the Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland, more novelists from the lower social classes began to emerge. Frequently, these authors wrote of the narrow, circumscribed lives of the lower-middle classes and small farmers. Exponents of this style range from Brinsley McNamara to John McGahern.
Although the documented history of Irish theatre began at least as early as 1601, the earliest Irish dramatists of note were William Congreve, one of the most interesting writers of Restoration comedies, and Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who were two of the most successful playwrights on the London stage in the 18th century.
In the 19th century, Dion Boucicault was an extremely popular writer of comedies. However, it was in the last decade of the century that the Irish theatre finally came of age with the emergence of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and the establishment in Dublin in 1899 of the Irish Literary Theatre.
This last company, later to become the Abbey Theatre, performed plays by W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge, and Sean O'Casey. Equally importantly, through the introduction by Yeats, via Ezra Pound, of elements of the Noh theatre of Japan, a tendency to mythologise quotidian situations, and a particularly strong focus on writings in dialects of Hiberno-English, the Abbey was to create a style that held a strong fascination for future Irish dramatists.
The twentieth century saw a number of Irish playwrights come to prominence. These included Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Denis Johnston, Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness, Thomas Kilroy, Tom Murphy, Hugh Leonard, and John B. Keane. There was also a rise in the writing of plays in Irish, especially after the formation, in 1928, of An Taibhdhearc, a theatre dedicated to the Irish language. The Gate Theatre, also founded in 1928 by Micheál MacLiammóir, introduced Irish audiences to many of the classics of the Irish and European stage.
Since the 1970s, a number of companies have emerged to challenge the Abbey's dominance and introduce different styles and approaches. These include Focus Theatre, The Children's T Company, the Project Theatre Company, Druid Theatre, Rough Magic, TEAM, Charabanc, and Field Day. These companies have nurtured a number of writers, actors, and directors who have since gone on to be successful in London, Broadway and Hollywood.