British and Irish Literature Children's Literature and Young Adult Literature in Ireland
Jane Suzanne Carroll
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0201


Irish children’s and young adult literature is a rich and complex field of inquiry. While the history of Irish children’s publishing can be traced to the eighteenth century, the emergence of a robust, independent, and definably Irish publishing market—and the emergence of a distinct critical discussion around these books—is relatively recent. By the late 1990s, there were a growing number of Irish presses specializing in material for young readers producing a wide range of work in Irish and in English. The increase in output is echoed by the rise of professional networks dedicated to the promotion and study of Irish children’s and young adult literature. The Children’s Literature Association of Ireland (established 1986) and the Irish Children’s Book Trust (established 1989) merged to form Children’s Books Ireland in 1997. IBBY Ireland was formed in 1998. With the formation of research societies such as the Irish Society for the Study of Children’s Literature (established 2002) and the creation of specialist undergraduate and postgraduate courses in a number of Irish universities and third-level institutions, there is now a sense that Irish youth literature is a robust and generative field of critical interest. The key areas of critical interest reflect the key themes of children’s and young adult fiction. Just as Irish writers for children have focused on ideas of space and place, on concerns with history and historical fiction, on stories that engage with and develop images from mythology, so too have critical discussions of Irish children’s and young adult literature developed around these same themes. Critical studies of Irish children’s literature have also opened up new and ambitious conversations about gender and on the representation of minorities: this critical interest reflects and responds to changing ideas about gender and sexuality, and to changes in the island’s racial and cultural population. More recently, a renewed interest in archival studies has created fresh insight into the origins and development of Irish children’s literature, asserted the central value of children’s literature in heritage collections and special collections, and generated new critical discussion into the history and the future of children’s and young adult literature across the island.

General Overviews

While critical discussions of Irish children’s and young adult literature may be said to begin with Reddin 1946, it is really in the late 1990s, following a huge increase in the quantity of books published for young readers in Ireland, that there is any sustained critical attention to the field. Efforts to characterize and categorize Irish children’s literature in Kiberd 2007 are hampered by what Dunbar 1997 terms the “tangle of complexities, most of them deriving from questions of definition and origin” (p. 309). Dunbar 2001 notes the formal and narratological innovation and flexibility of contemporary Irish fiction—in both Irish and English—for young readers. Luddy and Smith 2014 offers an overview of Irish childhood that embeds children’s literature within a broader history of Irish childhood. A more literature-focused overview is offered in Donlon 2011. Coghlan and O’Sullivan 2011 and Markey and Clements 2016 provide invaluable overviews of the critical responses to children’s and YA literature, especially when taking in conjunction the excellent bibliography Clements and Markey 2016. Though Fahy 1996 notes that Irish fiction for young adult readers was still in something of an “embryo state” in the late twentieth century, there has been an exponential increase in YA fiction and poetry and, with it, increasing critical interest in these areas.

  • Clements, Aedín, and Anne Markey. “Critical Writing on Irish Children’s Literature since 2000.” Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies (25 August 2016).

    An invaluable bibliography showcasing the richness and breadth of the critical work done on Irish children’s and young adult literature, in both Irish and English, produced on the island of Ireland and further afield.

  • Coghlan, Valerie, and Keith O’Sullivan, eds. Irish Children’s Literature and Culture: New Perspectives on Contemporary Writing. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Collection of essays examining developments in Irish writing and illustrating for children from 1980 to 2010. The primary texts explored here are all in English but the definition of “Irish children’s literature” encompasses authors and illustrators born in Ireland, those living in Ireland, and those non-Irish authors living abroad who make meaningful use of Ireland as setting or subject in their work. Most major critics of Irish children’s literature are contributing authors.

  • Donlon, Pat. “Books for Irish Children.” In The Oxford History of the Irish Book. Vol. 5, The Irish Book in English, 1891–2000. Edited by Clare Hutton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199249114.003.0016

    Survey of Irish children’s books in English from 1800 onwards. Pays special attention to Patricia Lynch, Eilís Dillon, and contributions from Northern Irish writers including C. S. Lewis. Argues that the period from 1971 to 1991 saw the arrival of a “golden age” in Irish children’s publishing when children’s books were recognized as both culturally and economically valuable.

  • Dunbar, Robert. “Rarely Pure and Never Simple: The World of Irish Children’s Literature.” The Lion and the Unicorn 21.3 (1997): 309–321.

    DOI: 10.1353/uni.1997.0020

    Highlights the challenges of identifying “Irish” children’s literature as a distinctive genre, noting the acknowledged difficulties of defining “childhood” and “literature.” Identifies some defining characteristics of Irish children’s and young adult literature—an interest in landscape, in history, in mythology—and suggests these give rise, in turn, to key elements in the critical discourse around this literature.

  • Dunbar, Robert. “Ireland and Its Children’s Literature.” In Children’s Literature and National Identity. Edited by Margaret Meek, 79–88. London: Trentham Books, 2001.

    Explores characteristics, challenges, and contradictions of Irish children’s literature and highlights Eilís Dillon’s contribution to the development of a distinctive Irish voice in children’s literature: one that is engaged with the past but ready to embrace change.

  • Fahy, Frank. “Teen Fiction.” In The Big Guide to Irish Children’s Books. Edited by Valerie Coghlan and Celia Keenan, 50–59. Dublin: Irish Children’s Book Trust, 1996.

    Overview of Irish publications for young adult readers in the late twentieth century; highlights some trends in the market.

  • Kiberd, Declan. “Literature, Childhood and Ireland.” In Expectations and Experiences: Children, Childhood and Children’s Literature. Edited by Clare Bradford and Valerie Coghlan, 13–26. Lichfield, UK: Pied Piper, 2007.

    Kiberd’s keynote lecture for the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) conference held in Dublin in 2005. Discusses images of childhood in Irish literature including Swift, Yeats, Joyce, and O’Brien. Refutes the concept that modern childhood developed alongside print culture, emphasizing the orality of children’s play, songs, and stories and the essential qualities of spontaneity and “boldness” that resist imperial constructions of childhood. Difficult to get in print.

  • Luddy, Maria, and James M. Smith, eds. Children, Childhood and Irish Society, 1500 to the Present. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014.

    A wide-ranging volume including material on childhood as well as children’s literature. Sections include “The Child and History,” “Charity, Welfare and Child Care,” “Shaping Childhood Cultures,” “Literary Imaginings,” and “Cultural Representations.” While the collection reprints eleven essays that were previously published in Éire/Ireland (2009), there are many new essays that highlight changing attitudes to children and children’s culture in Ireland.

  • Markey, Anne, and Aedín Clements. “Preface to Children’s Literature: Changing Paradigms and Critical Perspectives in Ireland and Beyond.” Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies (25 August 2016).

    Preface to a special issue of Breac that spotlights major contributions to scholarship on Irish children’s and young adult literature since the turn of the twenty-first century. It includes material on work by Irish authors and illustrators as well as work set in Ireland and includes articles that cover both Irish- and English-language material.

  • Reddin, Kenneth. “Children’s Books in Ireland.” Irish Library Bulletin 7 (1946): 74.

    Short piece deploring the state of Irish children’s literature. Reddin calls out the many stereotypical and racist portrayals of Ireland and the Irish in children’s fiction and suggests that Irish writers who publish abroad are forced to appeal to a foreign audience who expected books about Ireland to play into—and further—“stage Irish” stereotypes rather than anything that authentically reflects Irish children’s lived experiences.

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