20 Essential Irish Authors

Ireland's ancient background, volatile history and cultural milieu unsurprisingly render it a fertile tract where creativity and insight thrive. The tiny nation's literary canon overflows with some of the world's most haunting and provocative works — many of which have already earned a coveted spot on thousands of syllabi. Not to mention some of the most prestigious writing awards of all time! While not a comprehensive list by any means, anyone hoping to explore Irish literature should certainly consider these hugely talented, influential (and sometimes very provocative) names as a very solid start.

  1. Samuel Beckett: One of Ireland's most celebrated playwrights earned a Nobel Prize for his distinguished literary accomplishments in 1969. Though his oeuvre runneth over with modernist masterpieces such as Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett's most known for the delightfully absurd, provocative Waiting for Godot. Even Sesame Street poked gentle fun at the beautifully nonsensical classic.

  2. Brendan Behan: This highly controversial playwright's involvement with the Irish Republican Army not-so-surprisingly imbued his works with a decidedly political bent — and one can easily glean where he stood on many issues. Both The Quare Fellow and The Hostage mercilessly satirized Irish politics, particularly executions, and the struggle to recapture Northern Ireland. Most of his works, including the novel Borstal Boy, pulled from his own life, and he even wrote in the Irish language as well as English.

  3. Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating): Roman Catholicism left an indelible mark on Irish history and culture, and the priest (more commonly known by the Anglicized "Geoffrey Keating") pulled from this background to deliver his influential text. Published around 1634, Foras Feasa ar –irann compiled poetry, church literature, history, oral tradition and pseudohistory together into one interesting treatise on Ireland's past. It may not have been the most accurate work on the planet, but still provides a neat glimpse into the country's lush history and cultural memes.

  4. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill: Also known as "Dark" Eileen O'Connell, this eloquent poet penned passionate, lush works protesting The Troubles. The most famous being Caoineadh Ó Laoghaire. Written in Irish, it memorializes the 1773 murder of her husband Art Ó Laoghaire and cries out against the British politician responsible. Such raw emotion sparked other writers (not to mention the citizenry) to challenge their colonizers.

  5. Anne Enright: Enright's illustrious career comes fraught with numerous awards and recognitions, the most illustrious being the 2007 Booker Prize. Most of her novels, most notably The Gathering, The Wig My Father Wore and What Are You Like?, revolve around heavy themes of feminism, family sex and — of course — Irish politics and culture. Beyond the books, she has also published numerous short stories, essays and articles as well.

  6. Lady Augusta Gregory: The Irish Literary Revival of the 19th and 20th Centuries hinged largely upon the painstaking efforts and overwhelming talent of Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory — especially when it came to establishing the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre. Herself a playwright, this proud, strong nationalist also made a name for herself as a consummate chronicler of Ireland's bountiful folklore. Anyone even tangentially aware of traditional Celtic tales will recognize names such as Cuchulain, whose depiction by Gregory earned a glowing W.B. Yeats forward.

  7. Seamus Heaney: Former Harvard and Oxford Professor of Poetry Heaney's litany of honors includes the T.S. Eliot Prize, two Whitbread Prizes, the Nobel Prize in Literature and title of Commandeur de le'Ordre des Arts et Lettres. His distinguished career encompasses poetry, prose and plays alike, but it is the first that garners him the most recognition. Beyond his creative prolificacy, the essential author also translates Irish language works into English.

  8. James Joyce: Few (if any!) Irish writers boast the distinction of having an entire holiday revolving around their works. Bloomsday, celebrated every June 16th, brings Joyce's seminal modernist masterpiece to life through performances, lectures and strolls around Dublin hitting major points in the book — as well as The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Even individuals largely unfamiliar with Irish literature recognize his name and overarching pop culture influence.

  9. Sheridan Le Fanu: Forget those sparkly home invaders leading an entire generation of teenage girls to find abuse sexy. 1872's Carmilla, one of the first vampire novels, completely revolutionized Gothic horror a full quarter-century before Bram Stoker's Dracula scuttled along. Contemporary readers preferring mysteries with a dash of the altogether ooky over fanged femme fatales may want to try picking up Uncle Silas instead.

  10. Frank McCourt: Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Angela's Ashes introduced the world to Limerick's horrific squalor and poverty, which earned author Frank McCourt a right fair amount of scorn from his mother's native city. 'Tis and Teacher Man followed, both of which reflected different stages of his life's narrative.

  11. Dáibhí Ó Bruadair: Active in the 17th Century, — Bruadair captured the nation's then-current cultural and political upheaval in his native tongue. History, religion, societal norms, economic hierarchies and more all filtered into this essential poet's oeuvre, which also includes elegies and epithalmia. His works grew increasingly bitterer until Ó Bruadair met his tragic, penniless end, and D'Aithle Na Bhfileadh continues as one of the era's most evocative, accurate poems.

  12. Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh: This medieval poet and Chief Ollam of Ireland attended a summit held by King Uilliam Buide O'Ceallaigh honoring the nation's top academic and creative minds. He penned Filidh –ireann go haointeach to praise the momentous occasion, but his entire body of work stretches much further than that and encompasses many more Irish themes. He actually hailed from a particularly poetic family, too.

  13. Sean O'Casey: Because of his socialist leaning, one of the country's most fiercely patriotic playwrights and memoirists dedicated much of his talents to the working class plight. His "Dublin Trilogy," consisting of the plays The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, remain some of Ireland's most popular performances. As with others involved in the Irish Literary Revival, O'Casey found his works promoted and nurtured by Lady Gregory and her Abbey Theatre.

  14. Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin Eoghan Rua's poetry is considered some of the best ever penned in the Irish language, if not the last of its kind by the late 18th Century. He provides literary aficionados with some of the greatest examples of the aisling subgenre, which utilized oneiric female imagery to symbolize Ireland's political and social struggles. Interestingly enough, though, most of his works ended up published posthumously.

  15. Bram Stoker: Not everyone knows the name Bram Stoker, but his immortal creation Dracula continues to permeate and influence "Western" (and sometimes "Eastern") pop culture. Beyond his most famous work, the author furthered the Gothic horror genre with The Lair of the White Worm and other tales of the macabre. Hardly surprising, considering his association with Sheridan La Fanu, the owner of the newspaper for whom he penned theatre reviews.

  16. Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels proved itself an enduring addition to the literary canon, but from a broader perspective he stands as one of the English language's greatest satirists. If not one of the all-time best. Few writers but Swift could so deftly discuss the complexities of selling and eating Irish babies to the point people actually question whether or not he genuinely meant it.

  17. John Millington Synge: J.M. Synge co-founded the Abbey Theatre along with Lady Gregory, and he used the venue as a springboard to launching his own playwriting career. Beyond that particular medium, though, he also excelled at poetry, prose and folklore — though most people tend to emphasize his dramatic works. Especially considering how The Playboy of the Western World incited riots at its premiere.

  18. Colm Toibin: Literary critics, professionals and fans have decorated this prestigious Princeton lecturer with an impressive litany of honors and awards. Homosexual identity and Irish politics and culture typify his body of work, as do stories of peoples abroad. In February 2011, University of Manchester named him Martin Amis' successor to their professor of creative writing position.

  19. Oscar Wilde: Like Jonathan Swift before him, Oscar Wilde enjoyed a reputation as one of Ireland's most gifted wits. Although he lent his considerable, enviable literary talents to a wide variety of formats, the majority know him for poetry and plays — most famously Salome and The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, left an especially hearty impact on popular culture.

  20. William Butler Yeats: Another pillar of the Irish Literary Revival, W.B. Yeats made a name for himself as both a playwright and a poet, though the latter remains the most popular facet of his works. Both the author and his wife Georgie held an interest in the occult, with many relevant themes and techniques (including automatic writing) explored as his career progressed. The Celtic Twilight especially reflects this. A blend of poetry and prose, it infused traditional Irish tales and beliefs in with broader supernatural elements.

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