In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Irish Life Writing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Critical Studies
  • General Anthologies
  • Blasket Island Autobiographies
  • Counter-Revival Life Writing
  • Protestant Life Writing in the Republic
  • Childhood
  • Female Life Writing
  • Northern Irish Life Writing
  • Diaspora
  • The Autobiographical Novel
  • Journals

British and Irish Literature Irish Life Writing
Muireann Leech
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0161


Although the term life writing could encompass autobiographies, biographies, hagiographies, memoirs, diaries, journals, letters, travelogues, testimonies, and personal essays, Irish writers, especially in the modern era, tend to channel their energies into forms of formal self-examination such as autobiographies and memoirs. It is difficult to assert with confidence when Irish life writing begins: it could be traced back to ancient Irish storytellers’ (seanachaí) insertion of the self into oral narratives. Life writing could be traced back to Saint Patrick’s Confessio from the 5th century, beginning a rich vein of spiritual and religious life writing in Ireland. However, a recognizable nationalist life-writing tradition predominated in the 19th century, with writers attempting to create a story of new nation. Life writing flourished during the early 20th century, reflecting global trends, but also engaging in cultural nationalist debates in Ireland. Autobiography and memoir were key genres for the generation that inaugurated and sustained the Irish Revival, many of whom made an art of the multivolume autobiography. Life writing during these years tended to follow the tradition of activist nationalist exploration, or at least of engaging with and perhaps complicating the equating of the self with the nation, insisting on a link between psychogenesis and sociogenesis. This tendency to see Irish writing through the prism of the nation can overshadow other, just as important definitions, such as class and perceived notions of taste; those who diverged from this established tradition, and those whose overarching interest was simply not inspired by the nation, tended to be excluded from the canon. The incredible upsurge in Irish autobiographical writing since the 1990s is often read as an iteration of the intense public scrutiny of the past that occurred in Ireland. Irish writing, of course, is not bound to the island itself; diasporic voices are integral to Irish literature in general and Irish life writing in particular. Life writing abounds with generic indeterminacy, particularly in Ireland, where the Autobiographical Novel after James Joyce remains in rude good health. Broadly speaking, so much of the important Irish fiction of modern times has been to some degree autobiographical and those works often explore the nature of Irish life writing in a way that critical studies do not. The commingling of fiction and life writing is especially pertinent to the recent resurgence of life writing and its importance in a literary and social context.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

Although life writing has been at the center of Irish literary production, the emergence of major critical studies in the field is a relatively new phenomenon, reflecting global trends in scholarly engagement. Indeed, in an essential collection of essays for scholars of life writing, Harte 2007 memorably concludes that autobiography is the “Cinderella” genre of Ireland in that it is the central form of Irish literature which critics have tended to ignore. Important international theorists in autobiographical theory engaged with single author Irish autobiographers, most notably Yeats, but it was not until the 1980s that life writing began to be placed in its national context, building up a picture of a distinct tradition of Irish life writing. Kenneally 1989 led the way in this regard outlining the similarities between oral tradition, the short story genre, and Irish autobiographies in a significant contribution to critical assessments of Irish life writing. Lynch 2009 relied on this foundation in order to probe literary autobiographies from the 20th and 21st centuries. Critics of Irish cultural and literary studies have pointed out that the relationship between the nation and the self has been a virtual obsession of Irish writers, as Foster 2001 explored in its seminal study of Irish historiography and literature. The importance of Kiberd 2000 lies in its postcolonial reading of Irish literature, covering a broad range of texts and genres; this book argues that autobiographical production is central to shaping Irish literary, cultural, and national imaginaries. In his highly influential essay, Deane 1991 focuses on Ireland’s colonial history in order to make connections between a search for origin and a rejection of the father figure in Irish life writing. The analysis of class in Pierse 2018 demonstrates that reading outside the national framework opens striking new ways of reading the nation itself. This collection shows that working-class writing relies on and complicates autobiographical conventions. Hughes 2001 and O’Brien 1999 provide useful overviews in their encyclopedia entries, with the assertion in Hughes 2001 that the inability of Irish writers to ‘finish’ their autobiographies in a single volume is an indication that environment overpowers the individual’s access to self-understanding being particularly useful. In its essential collection of essays, spanning seventeen centuries, Harte 2018 is the go-to book for scholars seeking a comprehensive overview of the many facets of Irish life writing.

  • Deane, Seamus. “Autobiography and Memoirs, 1890–1988.” In The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Vol. 3. Edited by Seamus Deane, 380–383. Derry, Northern Ireland: Field Day Publications, 1991.

    Deane argues that as a result of colonialism, Irish selfhood is already permanently estranged from itself and the concept of a unified selfhood. Being defined through conflict and failure, the self that emerges in Irish life writing, according to Deane’s influential thesis, is relational rather than autonomous: an engagement with a sense of the ‘other’ creates a restricted subjectivity that paradoxically seems generative and autonomous.

  • Foster, R. F. The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making it Up in Ireland. London, UK: Allen Lane, 2001.

    Foster memorably argues that stories people tell themselves and each other in Ireland revolve around different political interpretations and manipulations of history. Criticized for its Ascendency-related, Anglo-Irish bias, nevertheless this lucid account of how in Ireland biography becomes history and vice versa remains a standard-bearer for examining Irish narratives.

  • Harte, Liam, ed. Modern Irish Autobiography: Self, Nation and Society. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    In bringing together a diverse range of theoretical approaches to life writing from the mid-19th century to the present day, and in his general introduction, Harte emphasizes that life writing brings to the fore the plurality of experience and the importance of memory in recounting a life. The essays range in style and focus, offering subtle and thought-provoking interpretations of the state of life writing in Ireland.

  • Harte, Liam, ed. A History of Irish Autobiography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    Spanning seventeen centuries of life writing, this is a wonderful, wide-ranging introduction to the field, with twenty-five chapters covering oral narratives, letters, folklore, diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, and autobiographical novels. Harte’s introduction clearly delineates the main trends in the scholarship of Irish life writing. With a helpful select chronology at the beginning of the book and a comprehensive introduction outlining major theoretical trends, this is essential reading for any life-writing scholar.

  • Hughes, Eamon. “Ireland.” In Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. Vol. 1. Edited by Margaretta Jolly, 472–474. London, UK: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishing, 2001.

    General overview of the major works and theoretical strands in auto/biographical writing in Ireland. Hughes asserts that meta-autobiography, such as Tristram Shandy, Gulliver’s Travels, Ulysses, and Beckett’s oeuvre, abounds in Ireland, “suggesting that autobiography (and life-writing more generally) is intrinsic to Irish culture” (p. 473). Good starting point for students to consult. Also offers a brief but useful suggested bibliography for further reading.

  • Kenneally, Michael. “The Autobiographical Imagination and Irish Literary Autobiography.” In Critical Approaches to Anglo-Irish Literature. Edited by Michael Allen and Angela Wilcox, 111–131. Gerrards Cross, UK: Colin Smythe, 1989.

    In identifying the anecdotal nature of Irish literary autobiographies, Kenneally offers a new way of analyzing Irish autobiographies as a subcategory. Being one of the first to identify a pattern of idealistic nationalism, followed by active participation and subsequent disillusionment, Kenneally argues that Irish autobiographies are less concerned with the psychology of the self than with the readers’ appreciation of the story they tell.

  • Kiberd, Declan. Irish Classics. London, UK: Granta Books, 2000.

    This lucid discussion of Irish texts covers a broad range of genres, with some chapters such as “Synge’s Tristes Tropiques: The Aran Islands,” (pp. 420–439) “Republican Self-Fashioning: The Journal of Wolfe Tone,” (pp. 221–243) and “The Blasket Autobiographies” (pp. 520–542) specifically examining Irish life writing.

  • Lynch, Claire. Irish Autobiography: Stories of Self in the Narrative of a Nation. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-3-0353-0077-2

    Through analysis of major figures in Irish life writing Lynch charts the relationship of the self and the nation and asserts that the centrality of group identification leads Irish autobiographers to view the self as a pluralized entity. Draws on Kenneally 1989 by arguing that the anecdotal nature of Irish autobiographies aligns them closely to the short story genre, therefore eliding a completed sense of selfhood.

  • O’Brien, George. “Autobiography.” In The Blackwell Companion to Modern Irish Culture. Edited by W. J. McCormack, 45–47. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999.

    Dating Irish autobiography to 1800, O’Brien divides it into three main periods: 1) 19th-century revolutionary narratives of opposition and recuperation, which explore themes of legitimacy, empowerment, agency, and integrity; 2) a period of separation at turn of the 20th century, marking a movement away from self-aggrandizement and toward self-awareness; 3) the Irish language island autobiographies of the mid-20th century, which rejected personas in favor of recuperation of the community.

  • Pierse, Michael, ed. A History of Irish Working-Class Writing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    The importance of oral narratives, folk songs, and the generic conventions of autobiography to working-class writing is explored in this wonderful collection of essays. Important interventions include Andrew Carpenter’s chapter on gallows narratives, John Moulden’s analysis of autobiographical fragments in folk songs, and James Moran’s exploration of the voices of working-class British soldiers stationed in Ireland.

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