Although Irish has been used as a literary language for more than 1,500 years (see Irish literature), and modern literature in Irish dates – as in most European languages – to the 16th century, modern Irish literature owes much of its popularity to the 19th century Gaelic Revival cultural movement. Writers in Irish have since produced some of the most interesting literature to come out of Ireland, supplemented by work produced in the language abroad.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Irish had been reversed from being the dominant language of Ireland to becoming a minority language, which reduced the literature being produced. The Gaelic Revival sought to reverse this decline. In the beginning, the revivalists preferred to write in Classical Irish, and were notably inspired by Geoffrey Keating's (Seathrún Céitinn) Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (History of Ireland), a much-read 17th-century work. Classical Irish, however, was soon ousted by the living dialects actually being spoken in the Gaeltacht areas, especially as championed by a native speaker from the Coolea-Muskerry area, Father Peadar Ua Laoghaire, who in the 1890s published, in a serialised form, a folkloristic novel strongly influenced by the storytelling tradition of the Gaeltacht, called Séadna. His other works include the autobiography Mo Scéal Féin and retellings of tales from Irish mythology, as well as a recently reissued adaptation of Don Quixote.
Ua Laoghaire was soon followed by Patrick Pearse, who was to be executed as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Pearse learnt Connaught Irish in Rosmuc, while continuing to write in Munster Irish. He also wrote idealised stories about the Irish-speaking countryside, as well as nationalistic poetry in a more classical, Keatingesque style.
According to Louis De Paor, Pearse's reading of the experimental free verse poetry of Walt Whitman and of the French Symbolists led him to introduce Modernist poetry into the Irish language. As a literary critic, Pearse also left behind a detailed blueprint for the Decolonization of Irish literature, through drawing not only upon Irish mythology and folklore, but also from the whole of world literature, both past and present. For these reasons, Liam De Paor has called Pearse's execution by a British Army firing squad after the defeat of the 1916 Easter Rising a catastrophic loss for Irish literature which only began to be healed during the late 1940s by the modernist poetry of Seán Ó Ríordáin, Máirtín Ó Direáin, and Máire Mhac an tSaoi.
Pádraic Ó Conaire was a pioneer in the writing of realistic short stories in Irish; he was also to the forefront of Irish-language journalism. His most important book is his only novel, Deoraíocht (Exile), which combines realism with absurdist elements. He was to die in 1928, not yet fifty years old. Ó Conaire became something of a mythical figure in Irish literary folklore because of his highly individual talent and engaging personality.
From the end of the 19th century, researchers were visiting the Gaeltacht to record the lives of native speakers in authentic dialect. This interest from outside stimulated several notable autobiographies, especially on Great Blasket Island, located off the Dingle Peninsula: Peig by Peig Sayers, An t-Oileánach ("The Islandman") by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, and Fiche Bliain ag Fás ("Twenty Years a-Growing") by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.
Although he greatly admired these Gaeltacht memoirs and particularly that of Tomás Ó Criomhthain, novelist Flann O'Brien also chose to satirize their cliches quite mercilessly in his modernist novel An Béal Bocht ("The Poor Mouth"), which is set in the fictional, desperately poor, and constantly raining Gaeltacht of (Corca Dhorcha); a parody of Irish: Corca Dhuibhne, the name in Munster Irish for the Dingle Peninsula.
Micí Mac Gabhann was the author of Rotha Mór an tSaoil ("The Great Wheel of Life"), dictated in his native Ulster Irish. The title refers to the Klondike gold rush, ruathar an óir, at the end of the 19th century, and the hardship Irish gold-seekers endured on their way to tír an óir, the gold country.
Another important figure was the prolific writer of rural novels, Séamus Ó Grianna (pen name "Máire"). Séamus Ó Grianna's most important contribution to modern literature in the language might be the fact that he persuaded his brother Seosamh (who called himself Seosamh Mac Grianna in Irish) to write in Irish. Seosamh was a less prolific and less fortunate writer than his brother. He was stricken by a severe depressive psychosis in 1935 and spent the rest of his life – more than fifty years – at a psychiatric hospital. Before his psychosis, however, he wrote an impressive novel about the difficult transition to modernity in his own Gaeltacht, called An Druma Mór ("The Big Drum" or "The Fife and Drum Band"), as well as a powerful and introspective account of his travels called Mo Bhealach Féin ("My Own Way"). His last novel, Dá mBíodh Ruball ar an Éan ("If the Bird Had a Tail"), a study of the alienation of a Gaeltacht man in Dublin, was left unfinished, a fact suggested by the title.
Both brothers were acknowledged translators. In addition to translating Walter Scott's Ivanhoe into Irish, Seosamh's work in this field includes the Irish versions of Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly, in Irish Díth Céille Almayer, as well as Peadar O'Donnell's Adrigoole, in Irish Eadarbhaile.
Modernist literature was developed further by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a schoolmaster from Connemara, who was the Irish-language littérateur engagé par excellence. He was active in the IRA, and spent The Emergency years (i.e. the years of the Second World War) at the Curragh Camp, County Kildare, together with other IRA men and interned Allied and Axis airmen. At the camp he began his modernist masterpiece, the novel Cré na Cille ("The Churchyard Clay"). Reminiscent of some Latin American novels (notably Redoble por Rancas by Manuel Scorza, or Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo), this novel is a chain of voices of the dead speaking from the churchyard, where they go on forever quarrelling about their bygone life in their village. Similarly to those of Flann O'Brien, Ó Cadhain's novel lampoons the romanticised depiction of life in the Gaeltachtaí by the writers of the Gaelic revival.
In addition to Cré na Cille, Máirtín Ó Cadhain wrote several collections of short stories (one 'short' story, "Fuíoll Fuine" in the collection An tSraith dhá Tógáil, can count as a novella). An important part of his writings is his journalism, essays, and pamphlets, found in such collections as Ó Cadhain i bhFeasta, Caiscín, and Caithfear Éisteacht.
Máirtín Ó Cadhain's prose is dense, powerful and (especially in his early work) difficult for the novice. His style changed and became simpler with time, in part reflecting the urban world in which he settled. Like the poet Liam Gógan, Ó Cadhain was a linguistic moderniser and wrote in an experimental form of the Irish language, even in contexts where a less obscure style would have been appropriate. He enriched his own Connemara Irish with neologisms and loanwords from other dialects, including Scottish Gaelic.
Modernism and renewal are also represented by several writers not of Gaeltacht background, such as Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Diarmaid Ó Súilleabháin, and Breandán Ó Doibhlin (the last influenced by French literary theory). Ó Tuairisc, a stylistic innovator, wrote poetry and plays as well as two novels on historical themes: L'Attaque, and Dé Luain. Diarmaid Ó Súilleabháin sought to adapt Irish to the urban world: An Uain Bheo and Caoin Thú Féin offered a depiction of a middle-class environment and its problems. Ó Doibhlin's Néal Maidine agus Tine Oíche is an example of introspective modernism.
Among the outstanding Irish-language poets of the first half of the 20th century were Seán Ó Ríordáin, Máirtín Ó Direáin and Máire Mhac an tSaoi. Ó Ríordáin was born in the Cork Gaeltacht: his poetry is conventional in form but intensely personal in content. He was also a notable prose writer, as evidenced by his published diaries. Ó Direáin, born on the Aran Islands, began as the poet of nostalgia and ended in austerity. Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who is also a scholar of note, has published several collections of lyric verse in which the classical and colloquial are fused.
Among modern Gaeltacht writers, Pádraig Breathnach, Micheál Ó Conghaile and Pádraig Ó Cíobháin are three of the most important. They adhere in general to the realist tradition, as does Dara Ó Conaola. The work of Joe Steve Ó Neachtain, from the Conamara Gaeltacht, has proved consistently popular.
Caitlín Maude (d. 1982), a native speaker from Conamara, wrote fluent and elegant verse with a distinctively modern sensibility. One of the best known poets is Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who was raised in the Munster Gaeltacht and was part of the new wave of the sixties and seventies. She is particularly interested in the mythic element in reality. Biddy Jenkinson (a pseudonym) is representative of an urban tradition: she is a poet and a writer of witty detective stories.
Others of Ní Dhomhnaill's generation were the mordant Michael Hartnett (who wrote both in Irish and English) and Michael Davitt (d.2005), a lyric poet whose work is both whimsical and melancholy. Others of his generation are Liam Ó Muirthile and Gabriel Rosenstock. Among those who followed are Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Tomás Mac Síomóin, Diarmuid Johnson and Louis de Paor. Ó Searcaigh, a lyric poet, is also a traveller: this bore fruit in his engaging travelogue about Nepal, Seal i Neipeal. A younger generation is represented by such poets as Doireann Ní Ghríofa (b.1981).
There is now more emphasis on popular writing in Irish, and among the writers who have had considerable success with lighter genres is Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, novelist, playwright and short story writer. Lorcán S. Ó Treasaigh has written a popular autobiography called Céard é English? (What is English?) about growing up as a native Irish speaker in the predominantly English-speaking city of Dublin. Colm Ó Snodaigh's novella, Pat the Pipe - Píobaire, describes a busker's adventures in Dublin's streets in the nineties.
The short story remains a popular genre. Donncha Ó Céileachair and Síle Ní Chéileachair, brother and sister, published the influential collection Bullaí Mhártain in 1955, dealing with both urban and rural themes. In 1953 Liam O'Flaherty (Liam Ó Flaithearta) published the collection Dúil. O'Flaherty was raised for the first twelve years of his life with Irish on the Aran Islands, but Dúil was his only work in Irish. One of the best known of contemporary practitioners is Seán Mac Mathúna (who also writes in English). His work is characterised by humour and a poetic realism and has been praised for its originality. A writer of a more recent generation is Daithí Ó Muirí. The drive, black humour and absurdist quality of his work distinguish it from the realism of much modern writing in Irish.
Countries other than Ireland have produced several contributors to literature in Irish, reflecting the existence globally of a group who have learned or who cultivate the language. It is worthy of note that these writers and their readers do not always form part of the traditional diaspora. It has been argued that the use of the language by non-Irish writers has nothing to do with a specifically Irish identity. Instead, its importance lies in its use value as a language of work, personal relationships and creativity. A number of such writers, both Irish and foreign-born, are to be found in North America, Australia and various European countries.
Dutch-born Alex Hijmans (formerly resident in Ireland and now living in Brazil) has published three books in Irish: an account of his life in Brazil, Favela (2009); a novel, Aiséirí (2011); and a collection of short stories, Gonta (2012).
Panu Petteri Höglund, a linguist, writer and translator, belongs to Finland's Swedish-speaking minority. He uses Irish as a creative medium, and has set himself the goal of producing entertaining and modern writing in an Irish up to Gaeltacht standards. For a long time he experimented with Ulster Irish on the Web, but he published his first book in standard Irish, albeit strongly influenced by native folklore and dialects. He has published several novels, none of them set in Ireland.
Torlach Mac Con Midhe was born in Dublin and now lives in Switzerland. He has published journalism in Irish, German and Romansh. He has published three non-fiction books in Irish: Iarsmaí na Teanga: Na Teangacha Ceilteacha i Stair Smaointeachas na hEorpa (Coiscéim 2005), Muintir Sléibhe agus a Teanga (Coiscéim 2009), Aistí Eorpacha (Coiscéim 2015); and a novel, Crothla agus Cnámha (Coiscéim 2018).
Dublin-born writer Tomás Mac Síomóin, who died in 2022, had been living in Barcelona since 1997. He published over a dozen works in Irish in this period, as well as translations from Spanish and Catalan.
Seán Ó Muirgheasa, an American resident in California, is the author of An Dola a Íoc, a detective novel set in New York City and published by Coiscéim in 2017.
Séamas Ó Neachtain is a fifth-generation Irish American who has published poetry, fiction and journalism in Irish. He is also the founding editor of An Gael, an international literary journal in the Irish language.
Muiris (Mossie) Ó Scanláin, a native speaker of Munster Irish from the Kerry Gaeltacht who lived in Melbourne for many years, is the author of an autobiography, An Mám ó Dheas, published when he resided in Australia and describing his life in Ireland, England and Australia.
Derry-born Pádraig Ó Siadhail (b. 1968) has been living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, since 1987. In this period, he has published ten works in Irish, including a collection of short stories and two novels.
Bantry-born Derry O'Sullivan has been living in Paris since 1969, apart from an interlude in Stockholm. He has published four collections of poetry in Irish.
Colin Ryan is an Australian whose short stories, set mostly in Australia and Europe, have appeared in the journals Feasta, Comhar and An Gael. He has also published poetry. Cló Iar-Chonnacht has published two collections of short stories by him: Teachtaireacht (2015) and Ceo Bruithne (2019). Two collections of his poetry have been published by Coiscéim: Corraí na Nathrach (2017) and Rogha (2022)
Julie Breathnach-Banwait is an Australian citizen of Irish origin living in Western Australia. She is the author of a collection called Dánta Póca (Pocket Poems), published by Coiscéim in 2020 and Ar Thóir Gach Ní, published by Coiscéim in 2022. She has also regularly published her poetry in The Irish Scene magazine in Western Australia. Her poetry has been published in Comhar (Ireland) and An Gael (New York) as well as on idler.ie. She is a native of Ceantar na nOileán in Connemara, County Galway.
The oldest Irish-language literary magazines responsible for the encouragement of poetry and short fiction are Comhar (founded in 1942) and Feasta (founded in 1948). The latter, presently edited by Cormac Ó hAodha, is the journal of the Gaelic League, though it has an independent editorial policy. Both magazines publish short fiction and poetry: the manifesto of Feasta also declares that one of its objects is to encourage students to write in Irish. Feasta has enjoyed more stability than Comhar, which suffered from a declining readership and has now been reconstituted. The withdrawal of support by Foras na Gaeilge, a major source of subsidies, may affect their future. Both magazines have had as contributors some of the most notable figures in modern Irish-language literature, and continue to encourage new writing.
They have since been joined by An Gael, an international literary magazine established in North America but publishing prose and poetry in Irish by writers from a number of different countries, including Ireland, Australia and Finland.
Oghma was a literary journal in the Irish language published from 1989 to 1998.
There are presently over 2,500 works of various kinds in print in Irish, of which the largest proportion is literature (over 2,000, including novels, short stories and poetry), children's books and educational material.
It has been remarked that the average print run for a book of poetry or prose is probably 500, though a popular work of detective fiction might have a print run of 2,000.
Among the genres least cultivated in Irish is science fiction (a fact possible related to the dearth of popular science writing in the language, despite a wealth of available terminology). The American-based magazine An Gael has, however, published serials with elements of fantasy and the surreal.
A number of publishers specialise in Irish-language material. They include the following.
A number of English language publishers provide some Irish-language material too. They include the following.