Ireland has a proud storytelling tradition, something that has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. One particular side effect of this age-old tradition is a fondness for the written word; Ireland has produced countless acclaimed authors, playwrights, songwriters, journalists, and of course, poets. Possibly the most difficult and most romantic of all forms of written art, becoming a successful poet is no easy task, but Ireland has produced more than one – much more than one, in fact! Although there is a vast choice on offer, we picked 10 of the best poets to explore. Here is just a brief summary of their lives and their work. If you are interested in Irish poetry you may also be interested in reading our most recent blog post on Great Irish Writers
1. William Butler Yeats
Nobel Prize winning William Butler Yeats is definitely the most well known poet to come from Irish shores, as much for his body of work as his turbulent private life. Born in 1865 in Dublin, he spent much of his childhood in Sligo which provided great inspiration for his early work. The themes of mysticism and occultism preoccupied him throughout his life and are very apparent in all of his work also. As a young poet, he was more inclined to create slow moving lyrical poems, while in his later career he delved more into realism and political commentary. He is considered to be one of the foremost writers of 20th century literature both in Ireland and the world, and was also highly involved in the Nationalist movement – the prime of his career coincided with events such as the 1916 Rising and the civil war of the early 1920s – and served two terms as a Senator for the Irish Free State. He spent most of his life infatuated with a lady by the name of Maud Gonne, an ardent Nationalist activist. He proposed marriage to her multiple times over several years, and she refused each time, opting instead to marry Yeats’ worst enemy, Major John McBride. Years later he proposed to her daughter instead, and was also refused! You may also be interested in reading our recent blog post on 150 Years of W.B. Yeat
Selected poems: Easter 1916, Lake Isle of Innisfree, The Tower
2. Seamus Heaney
Ireland’s most treasured poet of modern times is without a doubt Seamus Heaney, who died in 2013 at the age of 74. Another Nobel Prize winner, the long list of accolades and awards he received throughout his life is seemingly endless. Born and raised in rural Northern Ireland with a total of eight siblings, much of Heaney’s early life was spent on the family farm and as such, many of his poems are based on rural experiences. His poems are extremely accessible making great use of the five senses, and are still regularly taught on school curriculums all over the world. Unlike Yeats, Heaney’s private life was largely peaceful. He was happily married for over 40 years, raised three children, and divided his time between Ireland and the United States, where he spent many years as a Poet in Residence and lecturer at Harvard and other universities. On his death bed minutes before he passed away, he texted his last words to his wife: ‘Noli Timere’ – Latin for ‘do not be afraid’.
Selected poems: Mid Term Break, Requiem for the Croppies, Digging
3. Patrick Kavanagh
Born in 1904, Patrick Kavanagh was another poet to come from a rural background, this time from the somewhat disadvantaged area of Iniskeen in county Monaghan. Seamus Heaney noted Kavanagh as an influence of his work, and much of Kavanagh’s poems are also based on rural experiences, using them as a window to explore universal themes, topics and issues. In fact, the poet spent the first 27 years of life working as a farmer and shoemaker in his native town before attempting to make a living out of his writing aspirations. He worked as a journalist for The Irish Press and The Standard as a gossip columnist and film critic, but did not gain recognition for his poetry until late in his life, something which made him increasingly depressed and aggressive – and something which is also reflected in his work at times. He has received plenty of posthumous acclaim however, and is commemorated with a statue along the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin (amongst other places).
Selected poems: On Raglan Road, Canal Bank Walk, Advent
4. Samuel Beckett
Best known for his plays such as Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett was also a celebrated poet and yet another Nobel Prize winner. Born in 1906 in Dublin, he spent most of his adult life in France and wrote in both French and English. His work is widely regarded as being modernist (and in some cases postmodernist), and became increasingly more minimalist and abstract throughout his life. He was a friend of James Joyce and his work was highly influenced by him for a long time, until he actively decided to go in a different, more minimalist direction. Not much is known about Beckett’s private life as he went to great lengths to keep it just that – private. He was known to be an amiable, open person in private and was open to discussing his work and the process behind it with fellow artists who sought him out. In public interviews however, the opposite was true. He died in 1989 and was interred in Montparnasse, Paris.
Selected poems: What Would I Do Without This World, Cascando
5. Eavan Boland
Born in 1944 in Dublin, Eavan Boland is one of the few females regarded as one of Ireland’s great poets. Now in her 70s she is still working and producing acclaimed pieces of work, with her most recent collection being published in 2014. She also works as a professor of English, literature and various other writing-related subjects in colleges in Ireland, the UK and the US, dividing her time between Dublin and Palo Alto. To date she has published 35 poetry collections, and she seems to have no intention of stopping just yet. Her experiences as a wife and mother have influenced her work greatly, and she often explores the everyday and the ordinary, using it to frame bigger themes rooted in politics and history. Her father’s work as an Irish diplomat and her mother’s profession of a post-expressionist painter have also significantly influenced her.
Selected poems: And Soul, The Lost Land, The War Horse
6. Thomas Moore
Ireland’s answer to Robert Burns, Thomas Moore is the perfect example of an Irish bard – he transformed most of his poems into songs and ballads, and travelled around the most aristocratic social circles (including British royalty) serenading everyone he met. His talent as a singer, songwriter and entertainer was renowned and some of works are still popular traditional songs today. Born in Dublin in 1779, he showed an interest in the performing arts from a very young age, and when in London studying law as a young man, made a name for himself as an effortlessly charming character who could write and sing to boot. He wrote lyrics to a series of instrumental folk songs which were published in ten volumes, later to become known as his ‘Irish Melodies’. He also dabbled in theatre, opera and novels, but poetry always remained his first love – despite times when he became disillusioned and stopped writing for stretches of time. His personal life was particularly tragic; all five of the children he had with his wife died in his lifetime, and in his later life he had a stroke which made him lose his ability to perform for the rest of his life.
Selected poems: The Meeting of the Waters, The Minstrel Boy, Enigma
7. John Montague
Another successful Irish poet who died very recently is John Montague; he published his final collection in 2012 at the venerable age of 83 and was still working up until his death. Montague was born and spent the first few years of his life in Brooklyn, New York, before being shipped back to his father’s home town of Garavaghey in county Tyrone when the great depression hit in the States. It was something of a shock to go from the bustling city to a rural Ulster farm. He returned to study at Yale, but crossed the Atlantic again after graduating to settle in Ireland and France with his first wife, and later Cork with his second wife. Montague’s poetry largely explores the topics of boyhood, love and relationships, his own personal history and Ireland’s history. He is noted for his expert use of vowel harmonies, assonance and echo. Firmly believing that each poem has its own rhythm, his lines and line breaks tend to mirror living speech.
Selected poems: White Water, The Golden Hook, There are Days
8. George William Russell
Better known by his pseudonym ‘AE’, George William Russell was a prolific writer and one of the foremost members of the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century. Born in Lurgan, county Armagh, in 1867, his family relocated to Dublin when he was 11 years old. During his school days he met WB Yeats and the two sparked up a lifelong friendship that later turned into a professional relationship too, since they had similar talents and interests. Russell earned a living as a publicist and editor, allowing him to form relationships with all of the literary greats of the day such as Joyce and Kavanagh (to name just two). In his own work he explored such themes as politics, economics and philosophy. He was also a talented painter, often painting images of spiritual beings which he claimed to be able to see as a clairvoyant. He died in 1935 in Bournemouth but was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.
Selected poems: Awakening, Age and Youth, Alter Ego
9. Cecil Day Lewis
Today his son Daniel may be better known than him, but Cecil Day Lewis was a highly distinguished poet long before his actor son was even born. Born in 1904 in Ballintubbert, County Laois, he moved to London with his father after his mother’s death in 1906, but returned to spend every summer in County Wexford. For the rest of his life Cecil identified as British, living and working there and eventually becoming Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Between 1929 and 1970 he published 10 collections of poetry, worked as a schoolmaster, the publications editor for the Ministry of Information and a university lecturer at Cambridge and Harvard. His early work was heavily influenced by his friend and fellow poet WH Auden, but later developed a more traditional style based on lyricism.
Selected poems: Two Travellers, A Hard Frost, Newsreel
10. Jane Wilde
Jane Wilde was the adoring mother of the legendary Oscar Wilde, and it is said that this is where his talent for the written word came from. Writing under the flamboyant pen name of ‘Speranza’, her nationalist views and advocacy of women’s rights occasionally caused controversy and landed her in trouble. In one case they actually led to the authorities shutting down a paper her work appeared in. Trouble also bubbled up in her personal life; she was taken to court along with her husband after a female colleague of Mr. Wilde claimed she had been seduced by him. They lost the case and with it most of their fortune. This was followed by their daughter Isola dying at the age of 9 and Mr. Wilde’s two illegitimate daughters burning to death. Jane joined her sons Oscar and William in London and scraped a living together by writing for fashionable magazines and producing books about Irish folklore, a passion of hers.
Selected poems: The Exodus, A Lament for the Potato, Sympathies with the Universal
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You may also be interested in reading our recent blog post on some of Ireland Great Writers