Northern Irish Literature

Northern Irish literature refers to the literary works that are produced by people from Northern Ireland. Established in 1921, Northern Ireland is a country that comprises six counties of Ireland, while still holding a place in the United Kingdom. Due to the country's unique political background, the history of Northern Irish literature is very different to its southern counterparts. This difference is reflected in the works of contemporary Northern Irish writers.

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Table of contents

    History of Northern Irish Literature


    Before the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, there was still a strong and distinct literary tradition in the region. Many texts originating in the north of Ireland (or Ulster) during this period were written in Latin, English, Irish, and Scots. The Ulster Plantation (1609) saw Scottish people colonise Ulster (particularly Counties Antrim, Derry, and Down) which led to the great number of texts produced in this region being written in Scots.

    This region of Ireland had also produced several important texts in Irish Literature. The Ulster Cycle (or Úlaid) is a text that documents one of the four cycles of Irish mythology, here focusing on the mythology of the province of Ulster. This text was of great importance during the Gaelic Revival (1870-1910) which saw a renewed interest in Irish mysticism.

    1920-1967: establishment of Northern Ireland

    The Government of Ireland Act of 1921 established Northern Ireland as a country within the United Kingdom comprising six of the counties of Ireland (Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone). The literature of early Northern Ireland is typically defined by its focus on landscapes and everyday life. The poetry of Louis MacNeice is a good example. His work frequently used Northern Irish landscapes and examined life in towns such as Carrickfergus. One other major Northern Irish writer in this period was C.S Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956) series was a combination of his religious beliefs and interest in mythology.

    During this time, a new generation of working-class Catholic youth began to enter university, including Seamus Heaney and Stephen Rea. This group began to lead a new civil rights movement that aimed to end religious discrimination in housing, jobs, and policing. As protests and counter-protests increased across Northern Ireland, so did swift police intervention. These clashes would escalate throughout 1967-1968, leading to the outbreak of a conflict called the Troubles.

    1968-1998: Troubles narratives

    Narratives around the Troubles are at the centre of Northern Irish Literature. The conflict, which lasted from 1968 until 1998, affected all aspects of Northern Irish culture. This was then reflected in the literature that the country produced at this time, to the point that a whole genre known as Troubles Narratives was created. These narratives focused on many different aspects of the conflict, including the place of women, masculinity, violence, and class.

    Field Day Theatre Company

    In 1980, the Field Day Theatre Company was established by playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea in Derry, Northern Ireland. The company originally aimed to create a major theatre group for Northern Ireland, however, this idea quickly expanded to become more political. One of the founding ideas of Field Day was that it would serve as a cross-community project to develop relations between Catholics and Protestants across Northern Ireland. The company's first performance was Brian Friel's Translations (1981).

    Not all of the literature produced in Northern Ireland during this period focused on the Troubles. Much of poet Seamus Heaney's works instead centred around rural landscapes and life in Ireland, such as 'Digging' (1966), 'Harvest Bow' (1979), and 'Blackberry Picking' (1966). During the late twentieth century, Seamus Heaney's fame and importance grew rapidly both in Northern Ireland and the wider world, culminating with the poet winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Heaney did receive criticism from his contemporaries in Northern Ireland for not addressing the conflict other than in his 1975 poem, 'Whatever you say, say nothing'.

    Northern Irish Literature vs Southern Irish Literature

    Despite occurring on the same island, there are key differences in the literature of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. During the final thirty years of the twentieth century, writers in Northern Ireland were mainly preoccupied with writing about the Troubles and the effects that the violence had on the population such as in Seamus Heaney's 'Whatever you say, say nothing',

    This morning from a dewy motorwayI saw the new camp for the internees:A bomb had left a crater of fresh clayIn the roadside, and over in the trees"

    Meanwhile, writers in the Republic of Ireland were more focused on critiquing Irish politics and culture. Following Eamon de Valera's presidency (1959-1973), there was a resurgence in politically influenced fiction that centred around religion, gender, and looking back at Irish histories, such as in Frank McCourt's 1996 novel, Angela's Ashes:

    Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood"

    In the 1990s, Northern Irish literature developed once more as young people who were born and grew up during the conflict began to write and publish their own work. This is notably seen in Robert McLiam Wilson's Eureka Street (1996): the novel is set during a ceasefire in 1994 and followed the lives of different working-class people around Belfast. McLiam Wilson's novel criticised his contemporaries who did not use their position as writers to criticise the violence, notably seen in the novel's parody of Seamus Heaney.

    1999-present: post-Troubles narratives

    Following the creation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a new era of Northern Irish literature began, as many works began to focus on themes of sexuality, gender relations, and class. Many novels are set in contemporary Belfast, or wider Northern Ireland, and centre around the effects that the Troubles still have on Northern Irish society.

    While other novels such as Jan Carson's The Fire Starters (2019) or Anna Burns' The Milkman (2018) still focus on the Troubles, the way the conflict is presented has subtly changed to become more removed from the violence than previous works.

    Northern Irish Literature: Non-Fiction Works

    In the wake of the Troubles, there was a new interest in producing non-fiction texts to describe the conflict. Texts such as Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing (2018) and David McVea and David McKitterick's Making Sense of the Troubles (2012) have become important in recent years as they allow people to understand the general conflict, as well as specific aspects of the period.

    Northern Irish literature: authors

    C.S Lewis (1898-1963)

    All shall be done, but it may be harder than you think."

    Clive Staples Lewis was a Northern Irish writer and academic who was born in Belfast. As a child, Lewis was extremely close with his brother and the two invented a imaginary kingdom named Boxen, this would influence Lewis in his later writing. While at Oxford University, Lewis was part of a group called the Inklings, it was here that he met his friend J.R.R Tolkien. Lewis began The Chronicles of Narnia series in 1939, with much of the series being published during the 1950s. Lewis was also a dedicated Christian, whose faith was the basis for much of his work.

    Notable Works: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Prince Caspian (1951).

    Robert McLiam Wilson (1966-present)

    All stories are love stories."

    Robert McLiam Wilson is an author and humorist who was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. McLiam Wilson grew up in Belfast during The Troubles and channelled this into his writings, much of which centred around the experiences of working-class Catholics in the city. As a teenager, McLiam Wilson became homeless after his mother discovered he was dating a Protestant girl.

    McLiam Wilson's background, therefore, left him disillusioned with Northern Irish culture, and in particular Northern Irish writing, which he viewed as being both politically evasive and indulgent in nationalism. McLiam Wilson's work, therefore, engages in the conflict in a different way to his contemporaries: he relies on humour to interrogate violence and masculinity in Northern Ireland.

    Notable Works: Ripely Bogle (1989), Manfred's Pain (1992), Eureka Street (1996).

    Anna Burns (1962-Present)

    After generation upon generation, fathers upon forefathers, mothers upon foremothers, centuries and millennia of being one colour officially and three colours unofficially, a colourful sky, just like that, could not be allowed to be."

    Anna Burns is a Northern Irish author, who was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Burns grew up in a working-class, Catholic neighbourhood in Belfast and much of her writing reflects this. Her most famous novel, The Milkman (2018) recounts the story of a teenage girl growing up in Belfast during the Troubles. In 2018 Burns won the Man Booker Prize for this novel.

    Notable Works: The Milkman (2018).

    Northern Irish playwrights

    Brian Friel (1929-2015)

    It is not the literal past, the 'facts' of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language."

    Brian Friel was a Northern Irish playwright and teacher who was born in Omagh, County Tyrone. Friel's plays examined life in Ireland and Northern Ireland through the lens of history, family, and nationality. In 1980, Friel, alongside his friend, actor Stephen Rea, established the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry, Northern Ireland. Field Day was created as a response to the political climate of Northern Ireland at the time, and Friel's play Translations (1981) was the first production of the company.

    Notable Plays: Translations (1981), Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), The Home Place (2005).

    Northern Irish poets

    Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

    "Time was away and she was here

    And live no longer what it was,"

    Louis MacNeice was a Northern Irish poet known for his relaxed tone and depiction of Irish landscapes. MacNeice was associated with a group of left-wing poets and writers known as MacSpaunday, although he himself was never a member of any political party. While he lived most of his life in England, MacNeice returned to Ireland frequently and the country is a regular feature of his poetry. His poetry often appeared on the radio and was known for its humorous tone.

    Notable Poems: 'Meeting Point' (1939).

    Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

    I'm writing just after an encounterWith an English journalist in search of 'viewsOn the Irish thing'..."

    Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet known for his depictions of Irish life and landscapes. He was widely regarded as the major Irish poet of his generation for his portrayal of 'Irishness'. Heaney's work discussed themes of history, mythology, landscape, and tradition. His work also examined the importance of place and identity. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature due to his 'works of lyrical beauty'.

    Notable Poems: 'Punishment' (1975), 'Out of the Bag' (2001), 'The Tollund Man' (1972).

    Northern Irish Literature - Key takeaways

    • Established in 1921, Northern Ireland is a country that comprises six counties of Ireland, while still holding a place in the United Kingdom.
    • Early Northern Irish literature focuses on rural life and landscapes.
    • One of the most famous Northern Irish writers is C.S Lewis.
    • Seamus Heaney was a poet and the first Northern Irish person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
    • Later Northern Irish literature focuses on Troubles narratives.
    • Playwright Brian Friel helped establish the Northern Irish theatre troupe, Field Day Theatre Company.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Northern Irish Literature

    What are examples of Northern Irish literature?

    Examples of Northern Irish literature include the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel's play Translations (1981), and Robert McLiam Wilson's novel Eureka Street (1996).

    Who is the most famous Northern Irish author?

    The most famous Northern Irish author is C.S Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia series.

    What is the literature of Northern Ireland?

    The literature of Northern Ireland includes works about rural landscapes and life, as well as themes surrounding the Troubles. 

    Why is Irish literature thriving?

    Irish literature is thriving due to an increase in risks taken by publishers as well as a new level of experimentation in the industry.  

    What is Northern Irish literature known for?

    Northern Irish literature is known for its focus on Troubles narratives as well as rural landscapes. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: Seamus Heaney's work mainly focused on the violence of the Troubles.

    What children's book series was written by C.S Lewis?

    Who founded the Field Day Theatre Company?


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