In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Irish Poetry of the First World War

  • Introduction
  • General Overview and Literary Studies
  • Local Studies

British and Irish Literature Irish Poetry of the First World War
Gerald Dawe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0160


In his poem “On Being Asked for a War Poem” (1915), the Nobel laureate W. B. Yeats (b. 1865–d. 1939) expressed the view that “in times like these” he thought “it better” that “A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth| We have no gift to set a statesman right.” In the introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 (1936), which he edited, Yeats rejected many of those poets associated with the Great War, chief among them Wilfred Owen, because he considered “passive suffering” unsuitable for poetry. “In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced,” he affirmed. The truth is that many thousands of Yeats’s fellow Irishmen fought and died in World War I. Kathleen Tynan, one of Yeats’s early supporters and friends and a well-known poet and writer of the time, had two sons who fought in the war. Her poem and collection titled Flower of Youth (1915) was hugely popular in both Ireland and the United Kingdom, while other Irish poets who were well known to Yeats fought in the war, such as Thomas MacGreevy, who was twice wounded. The presence of the war and its widespread impact on the lives of so many families from all classes and religious backgrounds became ensnared in the politics and military struggle for national independence that eventually led, after the war, to two separate and somewhat mutually hostile jurisdictions on the island with two competing “master” narratives, those of Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism. In the fifty or so years that followed Irish independence (1922), that is, up to the early 1970s, the experience of World War I proved hugely problematic, particularly in regard to civic commemoration, and it divided public recognition in the Irish Free State—later the Irish Republic—between those who had suffered the loss of family and those who survived and whose stories were considered to have no place in the new Irish state. There were Irish writers, however, who had left behind a poetic legacy based upon their time fighting (and dying) in regiments of the British army, among them, Thomas Kettle and Francis Ledwidge; others, such as Patrick McGill, C. S. Lewis, and Monk Gibbon, suffered both physical and mental scars. Still others, including Winifred Letts, witnessed firsthand as a nurse the tragedy as it unfolded. Generally speaking, in Ireland the subject of World War I and its impact within the country became taboo, except for Remembrance Sunday, which was commemorated in Northern Ireland. From the soldiers who were published poets before they joined up in the early days of the Great War to those reimagining the conflict and its personal meanings long after, and notwithstanding Yeats’s undoubted opposition and disfavor toward war as a befitting subject of tragedy, Irish literature produced its own powerful tradition. World War I and Irish poetry was no longer the self-excluding subject it once had been.

General Overview and Literary Studies

The influence of World War I on Irish poetry started to emerge within critical circles in Ireland only during the later decades of the 20th century. While the subject had been well established in several important memoirs and occasional studies published since the 1930s, such as in MacGreevy 1931a (cited under Thomas MacGreevy, 1893–1967: Editions), a portrait of the author’s friend and fellow soldier, the artistic and cultural influence of the war itself remained problematical and contentious. The very issues it raised in the wider Irish communities tended to be eclipsed by the immediate pressures of the Northern Ireland conflict (The “Troubles”) until various literary critics (Brown 1993 and Longley 1994) and historians (Jeffery 2000 [cited under World War I Legacies]) wrote about the public silence and the realities of Irish involvement in World War I.

  • Brearton, Fran. The Great War in Irish Poetry: W. B. Yeats to Michael Longley. Oxford University Press, 2000.

    The most important volume to date on the subject of Irish poetry and World War I, this study is a valuable and lasting introduction to the central figures from the period to the present. Students should also consult the author’s essay: “‘All the Strains/Criss-cross’: Irish Memory and the First World War,” Caliban: French Journal of English Studies 33 (2013): 105–122.

  • Brown, Terence. “‘Who Dares to Speak?’ Ireland and the Great War.” In English Studies in Transition: Essays from the ESSE Inaugural Conference. Edited by Robert Clark and Piero Boitani, 226–237. London: Routledge, 1993.

    Papers from the conference held at the University of East Anglia in 1991. One of the early pioneering essays that opened up the discourse on the subject of Irish writers and the impact and influence of World War I.

  • Brown, Terence. The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511760662

    Chapter 6, “Irish Literature and the Great War,” engages directly with the legacy “issues” of the Great War in terms of literary representation in contemporary Irish writing.

  • Dawe, Gerald. Of War and War’s Alarms. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2015.

    Explores the legacy of World War I in relation to key Irish war poets, including Francis Ledwidge and Thomas MacGreevy, and the wider impact of “war” and political violence in general in modern Irish writing.

  • Devine, Kathleen, ed. Modern Irish Writers and the Wars. Gerrards Cross, Ireland: Colin Smythe, 1999.

    A substantial, groundbreaking volume of essays dealing with a range of poets, writers, and dramatists spanning the period from World War I to the years after World War II.

  • Foster, John Wilson. Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture. Foreword by Edna Longley. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009.

    See chapter 1, “Emblems of Diversity: Yeats and the Great War,” and chapter 16, “Between Two Shadows: Kettle, Lynd and the Great War.” This collection of essays scopes out the historical and factual sources of much neglected and/or forgotten writing by Irish writers while examining the position and arguments of leading figures of the 1910s and 1920s.

  • Haughey, Jim. The First World War in Irish Poetry. London: Associated University Presses, 2002.

    Along with Brearton 2000, this is an essential guide to the subject and crucially explores many of the lesser-known poets, particularly those who returned to civilian life in the north of Ireland as the political crisis unfolded.

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

    An omnibus review of Irish writing in general, this study contains an important chapter on the subject of Irish literature and World War I.

  • Longley, Edna. “The Rising, the Somme and Irish Memory.” In The Living Stream: Literature & Revisionism in Ireland. By Edna Longley, 69–85. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Bloodaxe, 1994.

    An important critical text that connects the two key historical moments of early-20th-century Ireland within Irish social, political, and literary consciousness in the later part of the 20th century.

  • Longley, Edna. “‘Monstrous Familiar Images’: Poetry and War, 1914–1923.” In Yeats and Modern Poetry. By Edna Longley, 106–144. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    This chapter forensically examines the imaginative relationship in Yeats between the ongoing matter of conflict of his time and the art of his poetry.

  • MacDonagh, John. “Let Ireland Weep: Poetry of Loss in the First World War.” Journal of Franco-Irish Studies 4.1 (2015): 1–11.

    A useful critical overview of the subject of “loss” in the work of leading Irish ports of war.

  • O’Toole, Tina, Gillian MacIntosh, and Muireann O’Cinneide. Women Writing War: Ireland, 1880–1922. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2016.

    An important collection of essays that includes Lucy Collins on “Winifred Letts and the Great War: A Poetics of Witness” (pp. 53–66).

  • Phillips, Terry. Irish Literature and the First World War: Culture, Identity and Memory. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2015.

    A comprehensive and thorough history of the subject covering all the main poets and also lesser-known figures such as Winifred Letts.

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