Ireland holds a place in literature disproportionate to its small size and modest population. Four writers from this tiny country have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Inspired by the country’s unique beauty, the inequities of its political system, and its cruel legacy of poverty and struggle, Ireland’s authors, poets, and playwrights wrote about the Irish for the Irish, and to raise awareness in the rest of the world. No matter where you live, you’ve probably been reading about Ireland all your life.
One of the country’s best-known early writers was satirist Jonathan Swift, who was born in Dublin in 1667. Educated at Trinity College, he left Ireland for England in 1688 to avoid the Glorious Revolution. Though he spent much of his adult life in London, he returned to Ireland when he was over 50 years old, at which point he began to write his most famous works. Greatly moved by the suffering of the poor in Ireland, he translated his anger into dark, vicious humor. His tract A Modest Proposal is widely credited with inventing satire as we now know it. Swift’s best-known works have political undertones—even Gulliver’s Travels is a political allegory.
Best known for his novel Dracula, the novelist and theater promoter Bram Stoker was born in Clontarf, a coastal suburb of Dublin, in 1847. As a young man fresh out of Trinity College, he began reviewing theater productions for local newspapers, which is how he met the actor Henry Irving. He spent much of his time promoting and working for Irving, writing novels on the side for extra money. He lived most of his life in England, which largely inspired his work, although it is said that St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, with its ghostly crypt, and St. Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney contributed to Dracula’s creepy feel.
Born in Dublin in 1854, Oscar Wilde was a successful student at Trinity College, winning a scholarship to continue his studies in England at Oxford. After a flamboyant time there, he graduated with top honors and returned to Ireland, only to lose his girlfriend to Bram Stoker in 1878, after which he left Ireland forever. His writing—including the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, plays including The Importance of Being Earnest, and books of poetry—were often overshadowed by his scandalous personal life. Although a statue of him stands in Dublin in St. Stephen’s Green, his works were largely inspired by British and French writers, and he spent the majority of his life abroad.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 and attended school in the city, but never went to college. He developed a self-taught literary style. He moved to England as a young man, giving many of his works a distinctly English feel. His plays are known both for their sharp wit and for their sense of outrage over unfairness in society and the absurdity of the British class system. He is the only person ever to have won both the Nobel Prize and an Oscar (for Pygmalion). Born in Sandy Mount outside Dublin in 1865, William Butler Yeats attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, but his poetry and prose were heavily inspired by County Sligo (a great stop-off after a UK vacation), where he spent much of his time (and where he is buried, in Drumcliffe churchyard). One of the leading figures of the Irish literary revival in the early 20th century, he won the Nobel Prize in 1923.
James Joyce was born in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar in 1882 and educated at Jesuit boarding schools, and later at Trinity College. He wrote vividly—and sometimes impenetrably—about Dublin, despite spending much of his life as an expat living nomadically in Europe. His controversial and hugely complex novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are his most celebrated (and least understood) works. They and his collection of short stories, Dubliners, touch deeply on the character of the people of Dublin. The James Joyce Centre is a mecca for Joyce fans.