British and Irish Literature Post-war Irish Writing
Guy Woodward
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0072


Though it had not suffered the devastation inflicted on much of the rest of Europe, the emerging southern Irish state faced huge challenges over the decades following the end of the Second World War. Economic growth was poor; a largely agricultural economy had been crippled during the war by tariffs imposed by its most important market and former colonial ruler Britain. The population of the Republic of Ireland declined during the 1950s due to emigration but recovered during the 1960s and 1970s. Fianna Fáil dominated the Irish political scene following independence and governed for twenty-five of the thirty-five years from 1945 to 1980. Leader of the party since its formation in 1926, Éamon de Valera had led the state through the Second World War and remained as Taoiseach until 1948, returning from 1951 to 1954 and again from 1957 to 1959, before serving two terms as president from 1959 to 1973. John A. Costello’s Fine Gael government declared Ireland a republic in 1948 and took the state out of the British Commonwealth the following year. The British government’s Ireland Act of 1949 reacted to the legal implications of these developments but was most notable for its guarantee that Northern Ireland would remain within the United Kingdom unless the Stormont Parliament decided otherwise. The southern state joined the United Nations in 1955 and the European Economic Community in 1973, concluding a process instigated by de Valera’s successor as Taoiseach, the economic reformer Seán Lemass, who took steps to remove protectionist barriers and open up Ireland to foreign direct investment. This remained a socially conservative period, however, during which the influence of the Catholic Church was strong. Irish–British relations were often tense. Northern Ireland’s devolved Parliament in Stormont, dominated by a Unionist party, was largely hostile to any kind of engagement with the southern state. Following the flaring of sectarian violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the beginning of the thirty-year-long conflict popularly known as “The Troubles,” Westminster deployed the army in 1969 and imposed direct rule in 1973. The province had benefited from some social reforms introduced by the British Labour government of 1945, however, especially the Education (Northern Ireland) Act of 1947, which introduced compulsory secondary education until the age of fifteen, enabling new postwar generations of underprivileged, often Catholic young people to continue to university; beneficiaries included Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane. The conservative social climate in the southern state proved uncongenial to radical creative expression, and most of the preeminent figures in postwar Irish writing saw their work banned at this time. Many significant foreign works of literature were also banned, restricting the flow of cultural material into Ireland. Several Irish writers migrated to England in the 1950s and 1960s, including William Trevor, John McGahern, and Edna O’Brien. However, in the postwar period, arts and literature began to receive sustained government support both north and south of the border: the Arts Council of Ireland (An Chomhairle Ealaíon) was founded in 1951, and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland grew out of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts in Northern Ireland, which had been established in 1943 to encourage public interest in the arts. This article does not cover drama, which is addressed in the separate Oxford Bibliographies entry Post-War Irish Drama.

Cultural Histories and Historical Background

Brown 2004 is probably the most useful of these works, but Ferriter 2004 is an engaging guide to social change in the years following the Second World War, while Lee 1989 offers the most comprehensive overview of the political history of this period, and Whitaker 1958 is the central historical document of postwar Ireland. Foster 1988 is perhaps most significant in this context for the connections the author draws between modern history and past events. Fallon 1998 challenges notions that the prewar, wartime, and postwar years were culturally barren, as does Wills 2014 and Woodward 2015. Kiberd 1995 is a postcolonial account of the development of modern Irish literature that is both provocative and essential reading.

  • Brown, Terence. Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922–2002. 3d rev. ed. London: Harper Perennial, 2004.

    Magisterial survey of 20th-century Irish social and cultural history, drawing on a wide variety of documents and creative works. Chapters 7 to 10 cover the period from 1945 to 1980, and Brown argues that social change during the 1960s and 1970s fundamentally altered the relationships between artists and writers and Irish society: “the new Ireland . . . put paid to the artist as cultural hero” (p. 299). Originally published in 1981.

  • Fallon, Brian. An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture, 1930–1960. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1998.

    Fallon challenges notions that the prewar, wartime, and postwar years were culturally barren, examining literary works by Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, Frank O’Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, and Liam O’Flaherty, together with figures from the visual arts, including Evie Hone, Mainie Jellett, Louis le Brocquy, and Norah McGuinness.

  • Ferriter, Diarmaid. The Transformation of Ireland, 1900–2000. London: Profile, 2004.

    Chapters 6, 7, and 8 of this expansive social and cultural history cover the years 1945–2000. Ferriter draws on literary texts and journalism alongside official documents.

  • Foster, Roy. Modern Ireland, 1600–1972. London: Penguin, 1988.

    Chapters 22 and 23 make up a small proportion of this accessible and engaging volume, but Foster’s revisionist identification of recurring themes in Irish history is essential reading. Some attitudes expressed toward the legitimacy of Irish Republicanism have proved controversial.

  • Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.

    Lengthy study addressing the period from the late 19th to late 20th centuries: later chapters examine Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan, and Brian Friel. Draws ambitious connections between the Irish experience and those of other postcolonial societies and cultures, while a series of “interchapters” sketches the sociocultural context from which the texts emerged.

  • Lee, J. J. Ireland, 1912–1985: Politics and Society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Controversial in some quarters due to its promotion of a technocratic idea of development, this book focuses on political and administrative history, but Lee is also attuned to cultural and intellectual matters.

  • Whitaker, T. K. Programme for Economic Expansion: Laid by the Government before Each House of the Oireachtas, November, 1958. Dublin: Stationery Office, 1958.

    Described by Fintan O’Toole as the “seminal work” of the “most important author of the contemporary Irish canon” (“Island of Saints and Silicon: Literature and Social Change in Contemporary Ireland, in Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature, edited by Michael Kenneally, 11–35 [Gerrards Cross, UK: Colin Smythe, 1988, p. 13]), the ideas in Whitaker’s report, commonly known as the “Grey Book,” drove the subsequent technocratic program of agricultural, economic, and industrial modernization pursued by the governments of Seán Lemass during the 1960s.

  • Wills, Clair. The Best Are Leaving: Emigration and Post-war Irish Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    Following Wills’s groundbreaking cultural history of Ireland and the Second World War, That Neutral Island (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), this study of postwar Irish emigrant culture examines representations of emigrants from Ireland and of Irish immigrants in Britain in official documents, sociological texts, clerical literature, journalism, drama, literary fiction, and popular literature and film. Wills addresses writers including M. J. Molloy, John B. Keane, Tom Murphy, and Edna O’Brien.

  • Woodward, Guy. Culture, Northern Ireland, and the Second World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198716853.001.0001

    Cultural history describing the effects of the war on artists and writers in Northern Ireland. Chapters on autobiographical fiction and on political writing draw on underexamined creative and nonliterary works to trace the pressures and influences on writers in the province from the 1940s to the 1960s.

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