Ireland of course has a long and rich history of mythology, fairy tales, and folklore. That is the best place to start with Irish literature. Some of the earliest texts referring to St. Patrick date back to the 9th century and most early Irish writing was poetic and lyrical. I’ve discussed how the Russians are perpetually depressed and usually end up in killing themselves or in mental hospitals in the realm of Russian literature. The Irish continually seem to be writing about the bleaker aspects of life as well, but somehow…someway they make it funny.
Start with the obvious; James Joyce.
Dubliners is my favorite from Joyce. It was published in 1914 and it chronicles the middle class lifestyle in and around Dublin during the early 20th century. It is actually 15 short stories with characters that show up later in other works by Joyce. I highly recommend this as an entry point to Joyce. These are very simplistic and realistically written.
Ulysses was originally published in Paris in 1922 by Sylvia Beach owner of the original Shakespeare and Company. This is much more linguistically advanced than Dubliners, it’s full of puns and plays on words. The name Ulysses is the Latin version of the name Odysseus and there are obvious parallels to The Odyssey by Homer. Ulysses follows the character Leopold Bloom around Dublin on the day of June 16th, 1904. It is an ordinary day in Dublin as Bloom goes about his daily activities. In 1920 this was banned in the USA mostly for obscenity. The US Post Office was ordered to burn copies of the book that were found being shipped in from other countries.
Ahem. Fuck. This. Fucking. Book. Ok, now that I got that out of the way, this book has defeated me. I want to get it, I want to revel in it, I want to love it the way the very few who have finished it love it, but I can’t. I only believe a handful of people when they say they have finished this book. There are whole groups and blogs dedicated to how this is a lifetime of reading and it has stumped some of the most profound literary scholars in the world. It is a true work of art from what I understand. If you have finished this book please contact me we need to talk.
Moving on to Jonathan Swift. While he spent a lot of time in England he is of Irish descent. He dabbled in a few literary ventures such as essays, poetry, novels, and political pamphleteers. My two favorites are the most well known, but well known for a reason.
A Modest Proposal
The original title of A Modest Proposal is actually; A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick…yup, that’s it. Basically this is satire which is what Swift does best, the idea is that the poor and suffering people of Ireland might do well to make some money by selling their children to the rich to be used as food. This is wry and deadpan and this is what I mean when I say the Irish make even the most morbid topics slightly amusing. It’s kind of alarming how much detail he gets into at some points, even pointing out recipe suggestions, but it is also alarmingly readable considering the topic at hand.
I love this one! I love using it in classrooms as well. Originally published in 1726 this is another one with an alternate title; Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. This is seafaring novel, an adventure novel, a fantasy, commentary, comedy, it’s all there. After being shipwrecked Gulliver finds himself on an island surrounded by the little people of Lilliput where he is taken in mostly hospitably, but eventually angers the court by not using his size and strength to help them take out their neighboring tribe, he is sentenced to punishment but is able to escape just in time to catch a ship which takes him back home. Later on another journey he finds himself washed ashore the land of Brobdingnag where he is surrounded by giants. He is given special treatment as a little person, but he is eventually picked up by a bird and dropped back into the sea where he is rescued by a passing ship that brings him back to England. Two more journeys land him in two more strange lands where he meets all sorts of characters and goes on many adventures. Meanwhile Swift is using these adventures to make commentary on things such as war, royalty, weapons, and society in general. The language in this one is a lot of fun as well.
I don’t like poetry and I can’t say I make an exception for Yeats but if we are talking about Irish wordsmiths he must make the list so…ummm…yeah; Yeats!
Oscar Wilde was born in Ireland, he was a playwright, essayist, novelist, and poet. His two most popular works;
The Importance of Being Earnest
Like most Irish authors, Wilde uses this chance to make satirical and societal commentary. This is a play that was first preformed in 1895 in London. I suppose it could be described as a love story in a way, but mostly it seeks to mock the rigid set of Victorian Era values that were put in place with hopes of reforming the lower class; earnestness being one of the most important values at the time. I don’t love this one, but it is thought to be his most important in many circles.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
This was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in July 1890. Prior to publishing it the editors removed a lot of words without even telling Wilde first. They were worried about obscenities and offending morality. Of course even with the excessive editing some were offended and called for Wilde to face legal repercussions. I love this one. Dorian Gray is thought to be quite handsome and has a full length oil painting of himself rendered. The artist of the painting introduces Gray to a hedonistic aristocrat who believes that beauty and physical pleasures are all that life is about and Gray adopts a libertine lifestyle. However his actions are recorded on the picture. When he treats a young actress with a certain degree of coldness the portrait all the sudden looks a bit more cruel than before. Gray decides to lock up the painting and then spends years living carelessly and partaking in debauchery left and right. After years of treating the world and others without care he brings the artist of the painting over and they look at the painting for the first time in years to find it has transformed from a beautiful work of art into a hideous image best hidden from the world. Some deaths later the book ends, but the moral of the story is prevalent. Doria Gray endures….so much so that he had a spot in the 2003 movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.