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Irish Literature 101: Transition and Migration in the Post-War 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:

“A city built upon mud;

A culture built upon profit;

Free speech nipped in the bud,

The minority always guilty.

Why should I want to go back

To you, Ireland, my Ireland?"

Autumn Journal - Louis MacNeice

Emigrants Leave Ireland by Henry Doyle, oil on canvas, 1868.

Ireland did not suffer the unpleasant consequences of WWII as much as the Continent, though it was not altogether free from its brutal burdens. Besides losing many blooming soldiers at the front line of the fight against Nazi Germany, the newly formed southern Irish state and Northern Ireland both fell under the same spell as most other European countries. For decades after the war, political unrest, poverty, and famine overshadowed society.

Post-War Economy and Agricultural Downfall

As always, poverty breeds poverty. The country’s agricultural economy, as the Irish financial pillar, was weakened by impossible tariffs that were imposed by Britain and neighboring markets - not from a place of enmity, but also from a crippled economy after two terrible wars. After the great famine, this period marks the second massive wave of migration for over two decades; starting in the 1950s and ending towards the beginning of the 1970s. Ever since, traveling as a means of continuity, whether for intellectualism or merely for making a living, has become the metaphor of “the Irish way”.

I showed my appreciation of my native land in the usual Irish way: by getting out of it as soon as I possibly could. - George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Political History of Ireland after WWII

From a political perspective, the Emerald Isle was then in turmoil. The Fianna Fáil party dominated the southern state from 1945 to 1980. The party came into power as the country was just declared an independent state after centuries-long colonial oppression. Ireland became a republic in 1948 and separated from Britain by taking the state out of the British Commonwealth in 1949. While the southern state had realized the long-standing dream of independence, Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom. In 1955, Ireland also joined the United Nations and became a part of the European Economic Community by lifting the political barriers in 1973.

Countless factors contributed to the country’s instability; the impact of war, schemes to abolish the poverty from the rural areas, and the cultural shifts following the separation from Northern Ireland and joining political hands with the Continent. This period marks the most notable events that play an important part in the construction of modernized Ireland today. However, a few elements never changed. The love for the Irish identity, the poetic soul of society emerging, now and then, inside and outside the border of the country, and the Catholic Church. The land of scholars and saints has preserved its regard for the church - especially within the conservative façade of the society.

Sectarian Strife and Three Decades of Division

The long-lasting antipathy between the Irish and British was still a palpable concern from the 1950s until the 1970s. In that period, Northern Ireland and its parliament were mostly dominated by an extremely conservative group known as The Ulster Unionist Party. Hostilities grew worse until they manifested into the 30-year-long sectarian strife, otherwise labeled “The Troubles”; brother against brother, Unionists against Loyalists, Catholic against Protestant. The period was characterized by several car bombings, riots, and cold-blooded vengeance killings. This was a war in which every side lost. The Catholics were running against nationalistic beliefs that Ireland was united and belonged to the Irish, while the royalists - primarily the Ulster Protestants - wanted to remain under the Queen’s rule.

Street fighting against British soldiers in 1971 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

In 1969, Westminster called upon the army to take control of the situation, which led to imposing direct rule over the northern territory in 1973. On 31 August 1994, the IRA announced a unilateral ceasefire. This treaty was made in order to admit their associated political party, Sinn Féin, into the Northern Ireland peace process. Though the party ended its ceasefire in February 1996, it called for another in July 1997.

Education Act of 1947 and Northern Ireland Literature

Like many other areas under a colonial power, education was used as an element of rule and influence. In contrast with the southern state, the province was uplifted by social reforms such as the introduction of the Education (Northern Ireland) Act of 1947. This Act imposed obligatory education until the age of fifteen. Hence, Northern Irish students could continue higher education in university even if their families belonged to Catholic sects or the poverty-ridden postwar generations.

A photo of a classroom in Belfast after The Education Act of 1947

Some of the notable personas in Ireland’s post-war literature pursued their academic training in Northern Ireland. Among these figures are the world-famous Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane.

“Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted and endured…

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme."

- A passage from The Cure at Troy poem by Seamus Heaney.

Meanwhile, the conservative climate in the southern regions had tightened its grip on radical and creative expression. After the war, numerous works of Irish writers were banned. Therefore, if poverty hadn’t pushed them out of their homeland, the extreme social conservatism now forced many artists and writers to leave Ireland; self-imposed exiles in return for the freedom of expression and disclosure. Several of these writers sought refuge in England, while some parents sent their offspring across the sea to America in hope of a better future. In the melancholy and nostalgia of their yearning for home, several outstanding Irish writers studied and lived in England, producing some of the most remarkable works in English literature. Esteemed Irish writers who resided in England include William Trevor, John McGahern, Edna O’Brien, and Louis MacNeice.

The Arts Council of Ireland

In the post-war period, arts and literature received increasing support from the government both in the north and south. Established in 1951, the Arts Council of Ireland (An Chomhairle Ealaíon) joined efforts to obtain autonomy and freedom for artistic expressions. Though the existing conservationism made the process slow, it was, nonetheless, steady and fruitful in the end. Consequently, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland separated from the Arts Council for the public expansion and encouragement of Music and the Arts in Northern Ireland.


Barry Hazley, Life history and the Irish migrant experience in post-war England, Manchester University Press, 2020

Guy Woodward, Irish Literature in Transition, 1940–1980, Published online by Cambridge University Press, 2020

Sara Martín Alegre, Post-War English Literature 1945-1990, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, 2015

Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal, Faber and Faber, 1939

Image Sources

The New York Times, Street fighting against British soldiers in 1971 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

The Belfast Telegraph, A photo of a classroom in Belfast after The Education Act of 1947

Wiki Commons, Emigrants Leave Ireland by Henry Doyle, oil on canvas, 1868.

1 Comment

Unknown member
Jan 30, 2022

Thank you for this insightful exploration of the topic.

Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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