Early and medieval literature
The earliest Irish literature consisted of original lyric poetry and versions of ancient prose tales. The earliest poetry, composed in the 6th century, illustrates a vivid religious faith or describe the world of nature, and was sometimes written in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. Unusually among European epic cycles, the Irish sagas (such as Táin Bó Cúailnge) were written in prose, with verse interpolations expressing heightened emotion. Although usually found in recensions of the later medieval period, these works are linguistically archaic, and thus throw light on pre-Christian Ireland. After the Old Irish period, there is a vast range of poetry from medieval and Renaissance times. By degrees the Irish created a classical tradition in their own language, though they continued to use Latin. Verse remained the main vehicle of literary expression, and by the 12th century questions of form and style had been essentially settled, with little change until the 17th century. The literary language (known in English as Classical Irish), was a sophisticated medium with elaborate verse forms, and was taught in bardic schools (i.e. academies of higher learning) both in Ireland and Scotland. These produced historians, lawyers and a professional literary class which depended on the aristocracy for patronage. Much of the writing produced in this period was conventional in character, in praise of patrons and their families, but the best of it was of exceptionally high quality and included poetry of a personal nature. Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh (14th century), Tadhg Óg Ó Huiginn (15th century) and Eochaidh Ó Heóghusa (16th century) were among the most distinguished of these poets. Every noble family possessed a body of manuscripts containing genealogical and other material, and the work of the best poets was used for teaching purposes in the bardic schools. In this hierarchical society, fully trained poets belonged to the highest stratum; they were court officials but were thought to still possess ancient magical powers. Women were largely excluded from the official literature, though female aristocrats could be formidable patrons in their own right. An example is the 15th century noblewoman Mairgréag Ní Cearbhaill, praised by the learned for her extraordinary hosptiality.At that level a certain number of women were literate, and some were contributors to an unofficial corpus of courtly love poetry known as dánta grádha. Prose continued to be cultivated in the medieval period in the form of tales. The Norman invasion of the 12th century introduced a new body of stories which influenced the Irish tradition, and in time translations were made from English.
The early modern period
The 17th century saw the tightening of English control over Ireland and the suppression of the traditional aristocracy. This meant that the literary class lost its patrons, since the new nobility were English speakers with little sympathy for the older culture. The elaborate classical metres lost their dominance and were largely replaced by more popular forms. This was an age of social and political tension, expressed with power and anguish by Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, an outstanding poet, and by the anonymous authors of Pairliment Chloinne Tomáis, a corrosive prose satire on the aspirations of the lower classes. Prose of another sort was represented by the elegant historical works of Geoffrey Keating and the great compilation known as the Annals of the Four Masters. The consequences of these changes were seen in the 18th century, when the sophistication of the old high tradition reappeared at a popular level. Poetry was still the dominant literary medium and its practitioners were poor scholars, often educated in the classics at obscure local schools and themselves often schoolmasters by trade. Such writers produced work of great refinement in popular metres for a local audience. This was particularly the...