Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800

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Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800

The cultural history of this three-hundred-year epoch can most easily be understood as divided into two periods: between the accession of the Tudors (1485) and the conclusion of Cromwell's campaign (1650), and between the subsequent plantation and the Act of Union (1800). The first of these periods features the gradual destruction of the cultural institutions shared by the Irish and the Anglo-Normans since the thirteenth century, and the second is characterized by the coexistence of the Anglo-Irish colonial culture of Dublin and the remains of Gaelic high culture that dwindled into folk forms.

The period can be summarily described as the time of the forcible uprooting of the intertwined Celtic and Christian civilizations that had been growing for the previous millennium, and the transplanting of Anglo-Saxon and Protestant cultural colonies from England and London into the cleared spaces. The relationship between these two cultural traditions during this epoch may be further divided into three stages: the final efflorescence of Gaelic culture during the seventeenth century (as exemplified by Geoffrey Keating's history and Aogán Ó Rathaille's poetry), the burgeoning of Dublin as a center for all the arts during the eighteenth century (as exemplified by Jonathan Swift's writings and James Gandon's architecture), and toward the end of the same century, the beginnings of a rapprochement between these cultures in the rediscovery by antiquarians and folklorists of the remains of the seemingly vanquished native culture (as exemplified by Charlotte Brooke's Reliques of Irish Poetry and Edward Bunting's collection, The Ancient Music of Ireland).

Anglo-Irish Literature

Irish writing in the English language is called Anglo-Irish literature to distinguish it from classical English literature on the one side and Gaelic literature on the other. The duality in the term Anglo-Irish reflects a tension in the changing political climate under which English-language writers functioned between William Molineux's Case of Ireland . . . Stated (1698) and Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800).

Anglo-Irish writers of this period were typically sons of English officials, educated at Irish Protestant grammar schools and Trinity College, Dublin. They usually migrated to London, the center of the literary life of the time, and soon adopted its view of the world. Thus the major Irish literary figures of the age—Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729), Edmund Burke (1729–1797), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816)—were variously active in British politics. In his Drapier's Letters (1724–1725), Swift makes his dramatic contribution to the claim of the Anglo-Irish to political distinctiveness, briefly institutionalized in the Irish parliament in 1782. Although he was the voice of eighteenth-century Protestant Ireland, he had some personal links with Gaelic Ireland that appear in some of his poetry and vestigially in Gulliver's Travels (1726). Burke, on the other hand, while more partial to Catholic Ireland's complaints, expressed himself as a representative of England's global responsibility. Similarly, the essays of Sir Richard Steele and the fiction and poetry of Oliver Goldsmith reveal little of the social origins of these authors. Goldsmith's reputation as the most distinguished poet of Irish birth during the eighteenth century rests on his celebration of rural life in the ambiguously situated Deserted Village (1770).

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was little poetry of any merit in English. Luke Wadding's Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs (1684) exhibits the influence of the English metaphysicals. Similarly, during the eighteenth century Anglo-Irish verse is barely distinguishable from English verse of the times. The satirical Irish Hudibras (1689) and Samuel Whyte's "The New Ferry" are full of Graeco-Roman references; William Dunkin's brilliant mock epic The Murphaeid (1728) and his "Parson's Revels" show the influence of English Augustinianism, just as James Orr's "The Irishman" demonstrates the sentimentality of many late-century English poems. Eighteenth-century fiction reveals a similar concern with cultural and political identity. Thus, William Chagineau's picaresque novel History of Jack Connor (1752), Thomas Amory's Rabelaisian fantasy The Life of John Buncle (1756, 1766), and Henry Brooke's sentimental The Fool of Quality (1766–1770) are various expressions of the colonial's persistent dilemma: loyal to but estranged from England, yet alien from and fearful of Gaelic Ireland. Again, as in the case of poetry, Goldsmith's genial Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and Laurence Sterne's wildly inventive Tristram Shandy (1759–1767)—neither of which engages Irish affairs—are the only novels of distinction by Irish-born writers of the eighteenth century.

Drama and Theater

The short-lived Werburgh Street Theatre (1637–1641) was succeeded by Smock Alley (1662–1786), the first Dublin playhouse to be built after the Restoration, and by Spranger Barry's rival Theatre Royal at Crow Street (1758–1820). The cultural programs of these theaters were exclusively from London: John Fletcher and Thomas Shadwell resided in Dublin for brief periods, and many of the most distinguished dramatists of the period were in fact Irish-born and got their start in the Dublin theater. One could go further and assert that the English comedy of manners from the Restoration to the rise of Romanticism was principally the creation of brilliant Irishmen—George Farquhar, William Congreve, Charles Macklin, Oliver Goldsmith, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Farquhar (?1677–1707), author of the blackly humorous The Beaux' Strategem (1707), began as a Smock Alley actor. Congreve (1670–1729), author of the Restoration masterpiece The Way of the World (1700), was a fellow student of Swift's at Trinity College, Dublin. Macklin (?1697–1797), who moved from Smock Alley to Drury Lane, wrote Love à la Mode (1759). These figures were followed by Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774), author of the laughing comedy She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose many plays include the sensations of the age The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1779).

As might be inferred from these names and titles, the eighteenth-century theater was predominantly Protestant and colonial, having its focus on London with its clubs, theaters, and townhouses. The only trace of their Irish roots that these writers betray is their occasional injection of the "stage Irishman" into their dramas. This hard-drinking, sentimental figure, eloquent in his thick brogue, spendthrift but generous, pugnacious though cowardly, unmannerly and illogical, was a stereotype on the English stage for two centuries. The character enabled these dramatists to ingratiate themselves with their London audiences, though some, out of patriotic sentiment, criticized the stereotype.

Not surprisingly, this lively theatrical environment produced many distinguished figures on the eighteenth-century stage: the Shakespearean actor Spranger Barry (1719–1779), Thomas Sheridan (1719–1788), actor and father of Richard Brinsley, and the actresses Peg Woffington (?1718–1760) and her rival, Mrs. Bellamy (1727–1788).

Gaelic Literature

The last phase of the early modern or classical modern period in Gaelic literature (1500–1650) is characterized by the prevalence of a standard literary language maintained by professional poets or scholars called filidh in Irish and frequently bards in English. Their verse compositions are a large part of the literature of the period, principally praise-poems to their patrons among the aristocracy, but also much religious and personal poetry. Among the more distinguished of this mainly hereditary class were Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn (1550–1591), Eochaidh Ó hEódhasa (?1560–1612), and, one of the last in the tradition, Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh (?1540–?1630). They also adapted narrative and pious matter from French and English sources, as well as love poetry in the amour courtois (courtly love) genre. A major example is the Betha Colaim Cille (Life of Saint Colum Cille), commissioned in 1532 by Maghnus Ó Domhnaill, lord of Tyrconnell, which is a stylish compilation of legend, prose, and verse about the patron saint of Donegal.

The early modern period ends with two major syntheses of the record of Gaelic civilization: Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (Annals of the kingdom of Ireland), compiled under the supervision of Micheál Ó Cléirigh (?1590–1643), and Seathrún Céitinn's narrative history Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (The basis for a knowledge of Ireland). Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating, ?1580–1644) was a vindicator of his nation's honor in the face of English colonial interpretation (from Giraldus Cambrensis to Richard Stanihurst) and a master Irish prose stylist. For poetry, the loss of aristocratic patronage and the need for a more popular audience led to the replacement of the classical syllable-count meters by stress-count meters called amhrán. The most prominent poets of the period were the Dominican priest Pádraigín Haicéad (?1600–1654), Dáibhí Ó Bruadair (?1625–1698), and perhaps the most accomplished Gaelic poet of any age, Aogán Ó Rathaille (1670–1729).

A major theme of their poetry, shared with Foras Feasa, is the lament for a glorious past unappreciated by the thugs around them, whether Irish or Cromwellian, who are deaf to the poetry of Ireland. Even after literary patronage had totally ceased in the eighteenth century, the traditional literary art was maintained by priests, cultured farmers, artisans, and hedge schoolmasters. These classes continued to make and circulate manuscripts, and to compose occasional and personal poems, sermons and pious material, and prose narratives. They were overshadowed in the popular imagination by more rakish and talented figures such as Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (?1680–1756) in southeast Ulster, and in the west Munster tradition, Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1748–1784). The most celebrated single work from the last century of this tradition is the long satirical poem by the Clare mathematics teacher Brian Merriman (?1745–1805), Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The midnight court), an Augustan parody of the Gaelic aisling (poem of vision).

As the number of poets dwindled, they were reduced to beggary. Their works remained in the folk memory, however, and influenced the style of the popular songs that finally replaced their written compositions. The tradition of folk poetry produced the classic lament Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoire (Lament for Art O'Leary) by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (?1743–?1800). The oral and manuscript traditions preserved the Fionn or Ossianic sagas from the late Middle Ages, inspiring verse and prose compositions into the eighteenth century. An outstanding example is Mícheál Ó Coimín's Laoi Oisín ar Thír na nÓg (Oisin's song about the land of youth, 1750), which later inspired Yeats. The Ossianic poems of James Mcpherson (1736–1796), partially drawn from the parallel oral tradition of Gaelic Scotland, stimulated an interest among the Anglo-Irish gentry in the culture of their tenantry. This interest resulted in English translations of Fenian and other poems from hitherto ignored sources, as in Joseph Walker's Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (1786) and Charlotte Brooke's Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789).


The rebellions and plantations of the seventeenth century resulted in the change of ownership of land and wealth and the destruction of much of the previously accumulated architectural capital. These uncivil circumstances required designers to accommodate the primary needs of defense. The most distinctive pattern found among the planters, especially in the North, therefore, was the tower house and bawn, a four-story stone dwelling surrounded by a fortified enclosure. Nearly three thousand of these were built by the rising gentry between 1400 and 1650. It was only after 1660 that nonfortified domestic houses were built in town and country, the finest surviving examples of which are Rothe House in Kilkenny city and the Anglo-Dutch Beaulieu in County Louth. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Irish people lived in stone or clay cottages, a type that remained unchanged into the twentieth century.

The period of the Restoration in England and the arrival in 1662 of the Duke of Ormond as viceroy marked the beginning of one of the greatest ages in the history of Irish civilization. The last decades of the seventeenth century saw the rise of buildings in Dublin and elsewhere in the new classical style. The first such public building was the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, in Dublin. Designed by Sir William Robinson and built between 1680 and 1684, it was a home for retired soldiers modeled on Les Invalides in Paris.

During the first quarter of the eighteenth century Palladian architecture, which aimed at a strict reading of classical convention, appeared in Ireland. Many of the larger country houses of the period, such as Castletown (1722–1732) and Russborough (1742), reflect the style. Its leading practitioner was Edward Lovett Pearce, whose Parliament House (1729) was one of the first large-scale Palladian buildings in Ireland. The German architect Richard Castle designed several Palladian mansions during this period: Leinster House (1745), the Rotunda Hospital (1751), and country houses at Westport, Powerscourt, and Carton.

The prosperity of Anglo-Ireland after 1750 allowed for the dramatic expansion of Dublin, provincial cities, and market towns. This prosperity enabled architects of style and vision to execute works of permanent distinction. At this point, Palladian style gave way to neoclassicism, looking directly to ancient Rome for inspiration. One of the earliest buildings in this style was Thomas Cooley's Royal Exchange (1770s). The great architect of this period was James Gandon (1742–1823). He designed some of the most beautiful public buildings in Dublin, including the Custom House and the Four Courts (1780s), each with a columned riverside facade and topped with a magnificent dome. Among Irish-born architects of the period, Thomas Ivory, Francis Johnston, and Richard Morrison were the most distinguished. Johnston designed many Irish Georgian castles, the General Post Office, and Nelson's Pillar. These works brought the classical tradition in Irish architecture to a close.

Plasterwork was practiced from at least the sixteenth century in Ireland, where new styles introduced by foreign stuccadores were adopted by native craftsmen. The Italian Francini brothers arrived in Ireland around 1735, bringing with them an international late baroque style. Much of their work is characterized by large-scale figure sculpture, fruit, and foliage, in complete departure from the preceding native style. They worked in some of the greatest houses of eighteenth-century Ireland, including the salon at Carton House, Co. Kildare. They were succeeded in the 1750s by the native plasterworker Robert West and later by Michael Stapelton, who returned to a sparer classical style.

The second half of the eighteenth century saw a new interest in town planning, particularly in the cities of Dublin, Cork, and Limerick, where wide streets and residential and market squares and diamonds were created. Elegant townhouses were erected, many decorated with fanlights over their doorways and fine plaster-work interiors. Led by local landlords, commissioners planned many smaller estate towns with visas, treelined walks, or village greens. The growing discontent of Catholics, increasing sectarian tensions, the1798 rebellion, and the Act of Union brought this period of prosperity to an abrupt end.


John Derricke's Image of Irelande (1581)—a famous set of twelve woodcuts of events during the rule of Sir Henry Sidney—is one of the first visual records of Irish life and landscape. These colonial images are a dramatic indication of a seismic shift: The dissolution of the monasteries, for a millennium the principal patrons of the visual arts in Ireland, had occurred some sixty years before. Art became a Protestant preserve. At first, guilds of urban craftworkers emerged, influenced by England and continental Europe to serve the new order and its ruling class, who sought images of itself from painters and sculptors. Thus, by the mid-seventeenth century the decorative arts of goldsmithery, plasterwork, silver, glass, and furniture flourished under the auspices of such guilds as the Goldsmiths' Company of Dublin. As easel painting replaced tapestry and wall painting, family pride rather than aesthetic interest dictated that early paintings were either portraits or maps. A "painters guild," formed in 1670, included in its number such artists as Garrett Morphey (fl. 1680–1716) and James Latham (1696–1747), whose styles derived from contemporary Dutch painters. Morphey was the first Irish painter of quality, and Latham was the best and most influential portrait painter in the first half of the eighteenth century (his most famous work depicted Bishop Berkeley). Other subsequent notable portrait painters were Charles Jervas (?1675–1739), portraitist of Swift and principal painter to the king in 1723, Nathaniel Hone (1718–1784), the fine miniaturist Horace Hone (1756–1825), and Robert Healy (fl.1765–71), whose masterpiece is the group portrait of the Connolly family at Casteltown House (1768).

The foundation of the Dublin Society (1731) for the purpose of "improving husbandry, manufacture, and the useful arts and sciences" and the foundation of its art schools in the mid-1740s mark a great advance in artistic life in Ireland: For the first time, there was professional training for portrait and landscape painters, sculptors, silversmiths, stuccodores, and so on. Consequently, the third quarter of the century was the greatest period for the visual arts since the Middle Ages. Although heavily inflected by other cultures, a distinctive Irish style, seen in the applied arts such as stucco, silver, and furniture, appeared in the 1760s and 1770s. Simultaneously, artists and intellectuals debated one of the century's most influential works on aesthetics, Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756). Two major figures of the period, the landscape artist George Barret (1732–1784) and historical painter James Barry (1741–1806), were both protégés of Burke. Expressing the excitement of pain or danger (the sublime) or love (the beautiful), the subject matter of painting broadened to include historical and some landscape work, often with classical or mythological allusions.

The precedents for the landscape tradition were the occasional watercolors accompanying mapmaking and some unknown primitives in the 1740s (e.g., at Stradbally and Westport House). Significant examples in this genre are the widely influential landscapes of the Dutchman William Van der Hagen (d. 1745), the illustrations of Waterford and Cork by Anthony Chearnley (fl. 1740–1785), the topographical views of Gabrielle Ricciardelli (fl. 1748–1777), the landscapes of Susannah Drury (fl. 1733–1770), "Powerscourt Waterfall" by George Barret, the brilliant and influential lakes and mountains of Thomas Roberts (1748–1778), and the cultivated scenery of William Ashford (1746–1824). A truly indigenous and rich Irish landscape style was thus developed by a group of painters who thrived on the robust commercial movement between Dublin, Cork, and London; the leading figures of this group were George Mullins (fl.1763–1775) and Nathaniel Grogan (1740–1807). Of particular historical note for his major canvasses on contemporary Irish affairs (1779–1783) is Francis Wheatley (1747–1801). His example encouraged the engravers Thomas Malton and Jonathan Fisher, the products of a school of engravers that had been established between 1730 and 1750. Thomas Malton's Views of Dublin (1793) are the finest ever done, and Jonathan Fisher's Scenery of Ireland (1796) were immensely popular.

Irish delftware was manufactured in Belfast from the seventeenth century, in Dublin from the early eighteenth century, and subsequently in Limerick and Rostrevor, Co. Down. Thomas Frye (1710–1762) founded a Bow porcelain factory in Dublin, and the most distinguished maker in mid-century was Henry Delamain, whose designs parallel those of Chinese, Dutch, and English examples. The ancient craft of silverware was revived with the establishment of the Dublin Goldsmiths' Company in 1637, and it thrived to the end of the eighteenth century. Similarly, Irish furniture-making was closely allied in style to English fashions. For a brief period (1735–1775), however, it was distinctive: It was made of very dark mahogany and heavily carved. It was subsequently replaced by straight lines and inlaid satinwood after the Adam fashion. Lead glass-making dates from 1690; it flourished in Belfast, Cork, and Waterford until 1825, when new taxes killed it.


As with the other native arts, the Flight of the Earls in 1607 meant the demise of the patronage upon which professional Gaelic musicians depended. Nevertheless, an impoverished remnant of the class of harpers and composers continued to the end of the eighteenth century. The most distinguished of these was the blind harper, composer, and poet Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin (Turlough Carolan, 1670–1738). Patronized equally by those of native and planter stock, his songs, dance tunes, laments, and religious pieces drew on native tradition as well as the on European baroque composers Vivaldi, Corelli, and Geminiani.

Shortly after Carolan's death, collections of Irish music began to appear in print, but none had greater scope or impact on Anglo Ireland than Edward Bunting's General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (3 vols., 1796, 1809, 1840). This collection began with Bunting's transcriptions from the Belfast Harp Festival (1792), where he heard from the surviving exponents of an ancient performance tradition, ten aged men. The massive work documented the centrality of music to Gaelic culture, its poetry, dance, and antiquities, and provided the airs for the famous Irish Melodies (10 volumes, 1808–1834) to which Thomas Moore matched his patriotic verses. Thousands of popular songs in Irish that were not collected remained in use by the common people, conveying into the eighteenth century some of the formal qualities of classic Gaelic poetry. But as the use of the language declined, street ballads in English replaced them. These ballads celebrated political and topical issues—such as the 1798 rebellion—and were set to traditional airs, exhibiting some of the verbal decorations of Gaelic verse. Meanwhile, the traditional dances—jigs, reels, and hornpipes—were more formally arranged after 1750.

On the other side of the cultural divide, the aristocracy of the Pale cultivated a taste for continental musical culture. Ballad operas and oratorios were especially popular, drawing on the resident choirs of Saint Patrick's and Christ Church cathedrals. This hospitable climate drew George Frideric Handel for an extended visit in 1741 and 1742, leading to the celebrated premiere of the Messiah on 13 April 1742 in the Fishamble Street music hall.

SEE ALSO Carolan, Turlough; Country Houses and the Arts; English Writing on Ireland before 1800; Georgian Dublin, Art and Architecture of; Hiberno-English; Literacy and Popular Culture; Literature: Anglo-Irish Literary Tradition, Beginnings of; Literature: Early Modern Literature before the Stuarts (1500–1603); Literature: Gaelic Writing from 1607 to 1800; Music: Early Modern Music; Swift, Jonathan


Craig, Maurice. The Architecture of Ireland. 1982.

Deane, Seamus, et al., eds. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Vol. 1. 1991.

Flood, W. H. Grattan. A History of Irish Music. 1905.

Kiberd, Declan. Irish Classics. 2000.

McHugh, Roger, and Maurice Harmon. A Short History of Anglo-Irish Literature. 1982.

Potterton, Homan. "The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries." In Irish Art and Architecture: From Prehistory to the Present, edited by Peter Harbison, Homan Potterton, and Jeanne Sheehy. 1978.

Cóilín Owens

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