The Sunday Magazine

How Ireland creates writers, and writers created Ireland

From Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde to Edna O’Brien and John Banville, the Irish are a literary people. Declan Kiberd is Ireland’s most renowned cultural and literary critic. His latest book is called After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present.
From L to R: James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Edna O'Brien. (Hurston Archive/Getty Images, Brian Wharton/Getty Images)

It's hard to think of a more literary people than the Irish. There's Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, the Nobel Prize winners George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney and the contemporary masters of prose Edna O'Brien, Colm Toibin, John Banville.

It's a remarkable output for an island that, to this day, has fewer than seven million inhabitants between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. But two of Ireland's greatest exports to the world have long been people and literature. 

Writers have been a nation-building force in Ireland. Poets like Yeats articulated revolutionary dreams of Irish statehood. The 1916 Easter Rising, which sought to overthrow the British colonial masters, was led by people with romantic, literary visions of an independent Ireland. 

But Ireland has also had a vexed, tense relationship with its writers. For decades, a national parochialism and censorious culture had Ireland closing itself off to the world and tamping down the more fervent writings and imaginings of its writers. In turn, the literature wrestled with the overbearing influence of the church and a country that seemed mired in its self-imposed cloister and poverty, both in terms of its economy and its imagination.

Declan Kiberd, cultural historian, literary critic, host of "A Terrible Beauty: Culture and Revolution in Ireland" on RTÉ One ( RTÉ One)

Declan Kiberd is Ireland's most renowned cultural and literary critic. He's the Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is called After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present. 

It's the last book in a trilogy he began with Inventing Ireland and continued with Irish Classics. The new book looks at the ways in which the nation's writers, and their arguments with Irish politics, society, and culture, have helped create modern Ireland. 

Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear Michael's conversation with Declan Kiberd.