British and Irish Literature Irish Literature and the Union with Britain, 1801–1921
Raphaël Ingelbien
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0197


Studies of Romantic and Victorian literary culture often sideline Irish writing—not always out of Anglocentric prejudice, but also because Irish literature in those periods was frequently informed by very specific concerns. Throughout the long 19th century and until Irish independence in 1921, Irish authors grappled with the far-reaching consequences that the controversial 1801 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland had on all aspects of Irish society. Ireland had long been subject to British rule, but in the 1780s the Irish Parliament had gained unprecedented autonomy. In 1798, Irish radicals inspired by French revolutionary ideals staged a rebellion to overthrow British domination altogether. London responded to Irish turmoil by trying to tie Ireland to Britain through a complete union of both kingdoms. The dissolution of the Irish parliament and the transfer of Irish MPs to Westminster expanded the definition of the United Kingdom, but also heralded a period of prolonged instability within the new polity, as the goal of Irish assimilation proved problematic from the outset. The promise of Catholic emancipation was not fulfilled until 1829; beyond that date, institutional anomalies and the stationing of British troops in the country betrayed the fact that Ireland was both a region of the United Kingdom and a colony of the British Empire. Irish discontent with the Union never subsided, as campaigns for the repeal of the Union, abortive rebellions, and critiques of British mismanagement (particularly after the Irish Famine of 1845–1851) all illustrate. Attempts to advance, complete, redefine, or sever the Union often gave the “Irish question” a prominent place in public debates in Britain and Ireland (for pragmatic reasons, the persistence of the Union in Northern Ireland until this day will not be considered here). The Union impacted Irish literature on several counts. The removal of the Dublin Parliament dealt a blow to the Irish capital’s status as a cultural center at a time when much literary activity still depended on elite patronage. The Irish educated classes increasingly spent time moving between the British Isles. The end of Irish legislative autonomy extended British copyright laws to Ireland, with devastating consequences for Irish printing that had thrived on cheap reprints of English books in the 18th century. In the longer term, the Union would accelerate the linguistic and cultural anglicization of Ireland, but also produce backlashes against those very tendencies. The very terms on which the Union was realized, the expectations and reactions it produced, and the debates that had surrounded the passing of the Act kept echoing through decades of Irish writing, spawning themes, tropes, and whole genres that gave a distinctive coloring to Irish literature. But the Union also influenced British writing itself, as writers from the larger island delved into the “Irish question.” This bibliography on Irish literature therefore includes forays into 19th-century British writing, as both literary traditions were unsettled by the reverberations of a Union that failed to merge them, but still questioned their very contours.

General Overviews

None of the surveys mentioned here deal with the impact of the Union on Irish literature at large in the exact period between 1800 and 1921, as they either focus on shorter periods (especially the decades that followed the Union) or take a longer view, spanning into the eighteenth and/or twentieth centuries. In some case, their thematic remit is also broader than the Union. Kelly 2018 limits itself to the Romantic period, but provides an accessible, clear and thorough introduction to the topic within that framework. A comparable synthesis will be found in Connolly 2006. Dunne 1989 remains a seminal essay on the political underpinnings of Romantic-Era Irish writing. Leerssen 1997 is a wide-ranging account of the persistence throughout the nineteenth century of historical themes that were forged around the time of the Union. Moynahan 1995 focuses on key Anglo-Irish writers identified with the ‘Ascendancy’ class in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Stewart 2002 is a collection of essays that spans the period of the Union; many contributions go beyond literature, but the student of Irish culture will find the volume generally useful. Among book-length histories of Irish literature, Vance 2002 is the one that will be most directly relevant both in terms of chronological coverage and the explicit attention given to the Union. In a much shorter compass, Vance 2001 untypically attempts a brief sketch of 19th-century writing that tried to promote the Union. Connolly and Howes 2020 is a multivolume history of Irish literature that both synthesizes and questions the state of the art; the volumes spanning the nineteenth century contain much of interest. Denvir 2006 charts the evolution of literature in the Irish language from the Act of Union to the rise of the Gaelic League. The Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature article “Celtic and Irish Revival” by Michael McAteer lists general overviews that are relevant to the study of literature of the end of the Union period. Not all of that writing actively prepared for the eventual overthrow of the Union, as some forms of Revivalism have been analyzed as pro-Union. Whatever its forms of engagement with the Union, the Revival is a specific phenomenon that is treated elsewhere: this article will therefore avoid duplication and will not focus on Revivalist writing.

  • Connolly, Claire. “Irish Romanticism, 1800–1830.” In The Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Vol. 1, To 1890. Edited by Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’Leary, 407–448. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Provides a survey of recurrent themes in post-Union writing and also addresses changes to literary infrastructure. A central concern is with how the Union caused Irish authors to travel and relocate, affecting both the circumstances and the very themes of literary production. Available online by subscription.

  • Connolly, Claire, and Marjorie Howes, eds. Irish Literature in Transition. 6 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

    The series partly aims to make cultural historiography less subservient to Irish political history, but the Union remains a major topic in the relevant volumes. Volume 2 covers the period 1780–1830. The range makes the moment of Union in 1800 appear less seminal, but the Act still looms large in several chapters. Volumes 3 (1830–1880) and 4 (1880–1940) will also be of interest. Available online by subscription.

  • Denvir, Gearóid. “Literature in Irish, 1800–1890: From the Act of Union to the Gaelic League.” In The Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Vol. 1. Edited by Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’Leary, 544–598. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Shows that literary activity in the Irish language in the nineteenth century was more resilient than is suggested by accounts that see the Union as a having accelerated an all but terminal decline that was only stopped by Revivalism. Available online by subscription.

  • Dunne, Tom. “Haunted by History: Irish Romantic Writing 1800–1850.” In Romanticism in National Context. Edited by Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich, 68–91. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Published at a time when early-19th-century Irish writing was still neglected by literary historiography, the essay draws a contrast between the philosophical preoccupations of major European Romantics and Irish writers’ partisan focus on recent historical wrongs, compounded by a Union that prompted authors to explain Ireland to an English audience.

  • Kelly, Jim. “Ireland and Union.” In The Oxford Handbook of British Romanticism. Edited by David Duff, 137–153. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    Usefully synthesizes recent work on various aspects of Irish Romanticism. Focuses on the political obsessions and historical upheavals that made Irish Romantic writing appear generically and formally unstable, and uses them to explain its marginalization in canonical accounts of British Romanticism. Available online by subscription.

  • Leerssen, Joep. Remembrance and Imagination: Patterns in the Historical and Literary Representation of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century. Notre Dame, IN: Field Day, 1997.

    This broad and erudite study opens with a chapter “Around the Union,” but the repercussions of the Union debates are a recurrent thread in later chapters on fiction, poetry, translations, and historiography.

  • Moynahan, Julian. Anglo-Irish: The Literary Imagination in a Hyphenated Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    Focuses on Anglo-Irish, mostly Protestant and Ascendancy authors who wrote between the Act of Union and the decade that followed Irish independence. Traces continuities that are presented as a tradition. The tone is sometimes essayistic or partisan, but the argument reflects an influential view of the complexities of Anglo-Irish mindsets under the Union.

  • Stewart, Bruce, ed. Hearts and Minds: Irish Culture and Society under the Act of Union. Gerrards Cross, UK: Colin Smythe, 2002.

    The essays deal with a broad range of social and cultural aspects of Irish life between 1800 and 1922. The extent to which the Union is addressed as such varies, but it is emerges as a clear thread in the collection. Various essays focus on literature, from the canonical (Yeats) to figures that have only started to emerge from obscurity since then (e.g., Katharine Tynan, Margaret Cusack).

  • Vance, Norman. “The Problems of Unionist Literature. Macaulay, Froude and Lawless.” In Defenders of the Union: A Survey of British and Irish Unionism Since 1801. Edited by D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day, 176–187. London: Routledge, 2001.

    Argues that Unionist writing is a patchier and more neglected tradition than Irish cultural nationalism, and illustrates this by discussing a motley crew of British and Irish writers. The list goes beyond those mentioned in the title, but the focus is on the nineteenth century.

  • Vance, Norman. Irish literature since 1800. London: Longman, 2002.

    1800 is a milestone in many European literary histories; this one is informed throughout by an awareness of the date’s special significance in Irish history. This survey also benefits from Vance’s longstanding interest in the literary consequences of the Union, which is also illustrated in, for example, Vance 2001.

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