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Irish Literature 101: The Romantic Era


Irish Literature 101 is a fascinating and complete guide through the significant historical events that shaped Irish culture and literature. This series also introduces major figures in every literary movement from romanticism to modernism. In addition, it is packed with numerous interesting quotes and concepts, along with easy-to-understand accounts of famous authors' works and the rationales behind the transition from one literary era to another. So, whether you are looking to refresh the memory on elemental Irish literature proceedings or enjoy learning about it for the first time, Irish Literature 101 proves beneficial. This series offers an engaging read, written in plain English with meticulous attention to historical and cultural affairs during each era.

Irish Literature 101 is divided into the following chapters:

The legacy of the Romantic Literature in Ireland

"Has Hope, like the bird in the story, That flitted from tree to tree With the talisman’s glittering glory — Has Hope been that bird to thee?" Thomas Moore - A verse from Has Sorrow Thy Young Days Shaded

Irish Romanticism

From the 1800s to the 1840s, Irish literature flourished amidst a delightful battle between idealism and realism and fought with weaponry of beauty, imagination and poetic visuals. This period sprung and nurtured the independent nationalism of modern Ireland. Though it bore its fruits of independence for the country over a century later.

The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, Watercolor painting by Frederic William Burton

Romanticism, all over Europe and Ireland, became a literary and artistic device to combine faith with the off-track social progress of different nations. Perfecting humanism that defied blind reasoning and encouraged all classes of societies to set imaginations and sensation at the liberty of idealism. While Europe mostly was entangled with social order in flamboyant political structure, religious forms and cultural limitation, Ireland was struggling with the challenges imposed by its neighboring Island.

Romantic Nationalism

Irish romanticism started around the same nucleus that was responsible for many other noble and artistic inclinations on Irish soil; Nationalism. The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was rooted in a century-long anti-Catholicism imposed by the British rulers and taunted with the political issues at the end of the Victorian era; the Irish rose against British rule over the country.

Though the political responses were rather bleakly oppressive, and resulted in the dissolution of the parliament of Ireland and its joining with that of Britain, the intellectual class of the nation welcomed Romanticism to express its disregarded morale.

The Emerald Island, seated on the ashes of cultural and political invasion, was subjected to other political and cultural anomalies in addition to its parliament. It also included the Copyright Act of 1709, which assumed every Irish intellectual property as a belonging of the UK. This meant enfeebling the Irish publishing industry.

These cultural impacts did not only affect the Irish; literary and artistic communities in London, Edinburg and American colonies, all the way to the West Indies, were driven to take part in the rather unique movement of Romanticism in Ireland.

Perhaps for the increased frequency of the cultural contacts after the union or caused by the intellectual objection to the suppression of the Irish after the Uprising- either ways, the results were phenomena in creating remarkable works in the history of English literature, and during the sentimental era of Romanticism.

Literary Romantics

To read and understand Irish literature during the romantic era, it is imperative to comprehend the historic events at the time; conflicts between political movements and cultural inclinations, progression of the society and classism, harsh reality and its sensuous, romantic idealism counterpart.

Irish literary romanticism blossomed into three areas; prose fiction, drama and poetry.

  • Prose Fiction

Romantic Irish literature welcomed several prose fiction writers who symbolised idealism in their very essence; feminism, religious critiques, middle class adversaries of the noble corruption and political reviews on other social aspects by using the devices of romantic fiction.

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) writer of Literary Ladies (1795) and Castle Rackrent (1800), the two brothers John and Michael Banim (1798-1842 and 1796-1874) collaborative writers of the famous Tales of the O’Hara Family, Gerald Griffin (1803-40) writer of Tales of the Munster Festivals (1826-27)- only to name a few.

  • Romantic Drama and Plays

Before the construction of the Abbey Theatre, which happened over a half century, Irish dramas were mostly showcased on the London stages. These plays were marked for their unique and powerful themes such as dramatic monologues, sexual jealousy, hatred, revenge, madness, love, and conspiracy- combined in a tight grip of melodramatic plays and gothic keynotes.

As a great example of the Irish romantic playwright with international fame at the time, Richard Lalor Sheil (1791-1851) was known as a flag holder of the Irish romantic drama and especially for his play Adelaide; or The Emigrants (1814). Jeffrey N. Cox, after watching his play, observes “performed in London at the very moment when it seemed as if ‘the romantics might have captured the stage.”

  • Romantic Poetry

Akin to the very essence of romanticism with poetry and the Irish literary taste for rhythmic expressions, romantic poetry in Ireland was given great attention. Themes from negating the radical politics to delightful depictions of nature to sexual tyranny and praise, and much more, were presented in perfect harmony of sound and rhythms.

Although the romantic period lasted about four decades, the legacy of romantic poetry lingered well into the midst of the Irish renaissance and W. B. Yeats.

“Yet each man kills the thing he loves, By each let this be heard, Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!” Oscar Wilde - 1854-1900

Melodic poetry of Thomas Moore (1779-1854), the national romantic poet Jeremiah Joseph Callanan (1795-1829), Henry Luttrell (1768-1851) politician and a poet, Patrick O’Kelly’s (1754–c.1835) poet and prose writer James Kevin Casey (1824–1909), and along with second generation Irish romantic poets such as Oscar Wilde and Padraic Pearse.

Thomas Moore painting by Martin Shee. Courtesy; the National Gallery of Ireland

Beloved, melancholy, hopeful and downhearted: the Ireland of the romantics was a place to both love and loathe. Irish Romanticism rose from the ashes of the political experiences of the time (post-1798 uprising). It was then accompanied by the disrupted political hopes and impose of an unwanted Union, Robert Emmet failure and execution, the great famine and more- though relentlessly loved the Land of Saints and Scholars- efforts of home left behind a great treasury of literary and the future movements that lead to a prosperous and Free Ireland.

Image Sources:

WHYTE’s History of Ireland- Another side of Thomas Moore; Thomas Moore painting by Martin Shee. (National Gallery of Ireland)

My Real Ireland; An Illustration of The 1798 Irish Rebellion – A Little bit of Irish History, Ireland's Favourite Painting is announced... and it's a romantic one; The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, Watercolor painting by Frederic William Burton


Claire Connolly, ‘Irish Romanticism, 1800-1839’, in Cambridge History of Irish Literature (Cambridge UP 2006), Vol. I [Chap. 10], p.407-48; 415ff.

Irish Literature in Transition, 1780–1830 , pp. 402 - 421, Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2020


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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