From the outset, the nature and function of Irish literature has always been political or used for political ends. However, it is a mistake to bind Irish Literature to nationalism to the exclusion of Protestant culture, identity and politics.
The role of art in Irish culture, and in particular Irish literature, is best summarized by James Joyce in the Scylla and Charybdis episode of Ulysses. He writes, “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the essential wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys”.
It is not just the voice of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, but also the voice of the poor and dispossessed. O’Casey writes similarly in Juno and the Paycock: “What was the pain I suffered, Johnny, bringing you into the world to carry you to the cradle to the pains I’ll suffer carryin‘ you out o’ the world to bring you to your grave! Mother o’ God, Mother o’ God, have pity on us all! Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin‘ hate an’ give us Thine own eternal love!”
Yet the role of Irish Literature has not changed during its long history, as identified by Seamus Heaney, who outlined his understanding of literature in his 1988 The Government of the Tongue. In that text, Heaney writes, “In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and the accused are left speechless and renewed.”
The birth of Irish literature was in ancient religious texts, not only Christian monastic texts, but also those born of mythology from the three main sagas: Mythological cycle, which tells of Tuatha Dé Danaan, the Ulster cycle, which tells of the Tain bo Cuailnge, the Fenian cycle, which tells of Fionn mac Cumhaill, and the Historical cycle, which tells of the Buile Shuibne. During the dark ages, the literary output of the country declined due to invasion.
Many believe that the apex of Irish Literature is to be found in Anglo-Irish Literature, which began in the 18th century and continues today. However, there is also a rich oral tradition that has inspired and produced great works of literature, such as the oral tradition of the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Kerry. Of this, G. Thomson writes, “The conversation of those ragged peasants, as soon as I learned to follow it, electrified me. It was as though Homer had come alive. Its vitality was inexhaustible, yet it was rhythmical, alliterative, formal, artificial, always on the point of bursting into poetry.”