Ireland has a rich cultural past and present. The traditional lore
preserved by the early Irish poets has left a colourful heritage of
mythical and historical stories. Modern writers in turn have drawn
on these stories to enrich their own work.
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The Irish Language
Most people spoke Irish until the early nineteenth century but by
1891 the majority spoke English only. It is one of the celtic
family of languages and is closely related to scots Gaelic, Welsh
and Breton. Since Independence the state has actively encouraged
the use of Irish and it is the first official language with english
as the second. The latest figures show that 42% of all adults
declare a knowledge of Irish. It is widely spoken in areas known as
the Gaeltacht, situated mainly along the western seaboard.
the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs has
responsibility for promoting the cultural, social and economic
welfare of the Gaeltacht through Údarás na Gaeltachta
(Gaeltacht Authority). The Irish Language Agency (Foras
na Gaeilge) has responsibility for the promotion and
encouragement of the use of Irish as a vernacular throughout the
island of Ireland. Irish is a core subject in primary and secondary
schools and a growing number of schools offer tuition exclusively
through Irish (Gaelscoileanna). There is an Irish language
national radio service (Raidio na Gaeltachta) and an Irish
language television service (TG4). On 1 January 2007, the
Irish language became the 23rd official language of the European
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Irish writers have long made a significant contribution to world
literature in both the Irish and English languages. Written
literature in the Irish language dates from the sixth century. With
the end of the Gaelic order in the seventeenth century and its
tradition of patronage of poets, Irish writers began to preserve a
record of the old civilisation. Through the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries members of the clergy, teachers and poets
continued to write in Irish. One of the best known poets of this
time is Brian Merriman (1747–1805) author of the frequently
translated Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (Midnight
court). In the twentieth century writers such as Patrick
Pearse (1879–1916) and Pádraic Ó Conaire (1882–1928)
opened Irish literature to European influences.
Distinguished writers in Irish in the modern period
include such diverse voices as Liam Ó Flaitheartaigh
(1896–1984), Mairéad Ní Ghráda (1896–1971), Máirtín Ó
Cadhain (1906–70), Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910–88), Seán Ó
Ríordáin (1916–77), Michael Hartnett (1941–99), Críostóir Ó
Floinn (b. 1927), Gabriel Rosenstock (b. 1949), Liam Ó
Muirthile (b. 1950), Cathal Ó Searcaigh (b. 1956) and
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (b. 1952). In the english language,
the satirist Jonathan swift (1667–1745) authored
Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Oscar Wilde’s
(1854–1900) plays, prose and poetry continue to be
performed and read worldwide. Irish nobel laureates
include the playwright and novelist George Bernard Shaw
(1856–1950) and the poet and dramatist William
Butler Yeats (1865–1939), whose work
inspired the modern renaissance in Irish
writing. James Joyce (1882–1941) wrote the
pioneering modernist novel, Ulysses
(1922) — widely recognised as one of the
greatest novels ever written. Joyce inspired
the work of satirist Brian O’Nolan (Flann
O’Brien) (1911–66), who also wrote in Irish.
nobel laureate Samuel Beckett (1906–89) wrote
in a minimalist vein, often in French. His
play, Waiting for Godot (1953) has
become a twentieth century classic of
The generation of poets after Yeats included very different talents
in Patrick Kavanagh (1904–67). Kavanagh’s example as a poet of
rural realism inspired Seamus Heaney whose vision of the redemptive
power ofpoetry earned him the nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
Irish fiction continues to be well received — in recent years,
several Irish writers have won the Man Booker Prize including Anne
Enright in 2007, John Banville in 2005 and Roddy Doyle in 1993.
Writers shortlisted for the prize include Colm Tóibín (1999, 2004
and 2009), Sebastian Barry (2008) and Emma Donoghue (2010). Colum
Mccann's novel, “Let the Great World Spin” won the national Book
Award in the USA in 2009.
Irish theatre companies such as the Abbey, the Druid and the Gate
regularly tour their productions to international venues and host
the work of visiting theatre companies to Ireland.
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The earliest Irish art consists of carvings on megalithic monuments
dating from 3500 B.C. Celtic art reached its apogee in the
manuscripts of the gospels such as the books of Durrow and Kells.
After the ninth century Irish art absorbed Viking, Romanesque and
Gothic influences producing, for example, richly carved stone High
From the mid-seventeenth century decorative arts such as
goldsmithery, plasterwork and glass flourished in conjunction with
the large-scale public buildings of the time. In the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Irish painters looked to
the French Impressionists for a new idiom. These include William
Leech(1881–1968), Walter osborne (1859–1903), John Lavery
(1856–1941) and Roderic O’Conor (1860–1940). Crossing from
Impressionism to Expressionism, Jack B. Yeats (1871–1957) towers
over his contemporaries much as his brother, the poet W.B. Yeats,
was pre-eminent among his peers.
Other artists, working in an abstract expressionist mode, include
Louis le Brocquy, Norah McGuinness (1901–80) and Patrick Scott. A
strong new expressionist movement emerged in the late twentieth
century including Brian Maguire, Eithne Jordan, Michael Mulcahy,
Michael Cullen, Dorothy Cross and Alice Maher.
Sculpture in the nineteenth century was heroic and monumental as
exemplified by the statues of Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke by
John Henry Foley (1819–1974) outside Trinity College, Dublin. This
tradition continued into the twentieth century with the works of
Oisin Kelly (1915–81), Seamus Murphy (1907–74) and Hilary Heron
(1923–77) pioneering the use of new casting techniques and
promoting the concept of an Irish vernacular sculpture.
Contemporary sculpture is more abstract and witty as can be seen in
the diverse work of Edward Delany (1930–2009), John Behan, Michael
Warren, Eilis O’Connell, Kathy Prendergast and Eileen MacDonagh.
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The earliest examples of architecture visible in Ireland today are
megalithic tombs (3500–2000 B.c.). these include dolmens (three
or more standing stones supporting
one or two capstones) and passage graves such as Newgrange.
Stone Age techniques survived into the twelfth century and are
still visible in the beehive structure of early churches and
monasteries such as those on Skellig Michael and Gallarus
Oratory in County Kerry. During the Iron Age (after 500 B.c.)
large circular stone forts were built, usually on hilltops such
as Dun Aengus on the Aran Islands.
The Round tower is almost exclusive to Ireland and is found in many
parts of the country. Built from the tenth to the twelfth centuries
on monastic sites, the most notable being at Clonmacnoise in County
Offaly, round towers were frequently more than 30 metres high.
Their primary purpose seems to have been to serve as bell towers
although the raised level of the doorway would suggest they may
also have had defensive uses.
After this period, Romanesque architecture with its intricate
andornate carved stonework influenced the shape of Irish churches,
the finest examples being Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel in
County Tipperary and Clonfert Cathedral in County Galway. The
arrival of the Anglo-Normans heralded the introduction of the early
Gothic style of architecture, with the two Dublin cathedrals,
Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s, being the most notable. The
Normans built substantial castles with large rectangular keeps,
many of which, like Trim in County Meath and Carrickfergus in
County Antrim, still figure on the landscape. The fifteenth century
castle at Cahir in County Tipperary is the most impressive of the
surviving feudal strongholds.
Classical buildings date from the late seventeenth century. At the
turn of the eighteenth century Palladian mansions were emulating
Italian palazzos, but by the end of the century, this style had
given way to neo-classicism and Dublin became an outstanding
example of Georgian architecture. Key buildings from this period
include the Custom House and the Four Courts in Dublin, with their
distinctive copper domes, designed by James Gandon (1743–1823). By
the nineteenth century Gothic revivalism was in vogue influencing
the design of churches such as Saint Finn Barre’s Cathedral (1867)
in Cork and adapted to domestic architecture in the construction of
Ashford Castle (c.1870), County Mayo.
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Music has always been an important part of Irish culture, from the
traditional accompaniment to festivals and funerals in the form of
playing and ballad singing, to Irish dancing which is very much
alive in Irish communities around the world. The harp was the
dominant instrument in early historical times. One of the earliest
Irish composers whose work survives is Turlough O’Carolan
(1670–1738), the blind harpist and one of the last of the ancient
There is also a classical tradition in the forms pioneered by
other European composers. Eighteenth
century Dublin was an important musical centre and Handel chose
to premiere his Messiah there in 1742. In the twentieth
century traditional Irish music inspired modern composers such
as Seán Ó Riada (1931–71). Count John McCormack (1884–1945) was
a world famous Irish tenor.
Traditional Irish music is now popular in many countries through
the influence of groups as diverse as Clannad, the Chieftains,
Altan, Dervish, Lúnasa and Anúna, all of whom perform in a modern
context without compromising the integrity of the original sound.
Reflecting this versatility is the phenomenon of Riverdance,
with music composed by Bill Whelan, combining the best of Irish
song, music and dance. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann plays a
prominent part in the development and preservation of Irish
traditional music and dance.
On the jazz scene guitarist Louis Stewart has played with leading
international musicians. Bands such as U2 and Westlife are famous
at home and abroad, as are individual singers such as Van Morrison,
Sinéad O’Connor and Enya.
There are three full–time professional orchestras performing in
Ireland. The national opera company was founded in 2010 forged from
two state-funded companies, Opera Ireland and Opera Theatre
Company. There is also a wealth of individual classical musical
talent such as the well known pianist John O’Conor and singers Ann
Murray and Suzanne Murphy.
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Films have been made in and about Ireland since the Lumiére
Brothers filmed in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street in 1897.
In 1910 the American, Sidney Olcott, filmed The Lad from Old
Ireland in New York and Kerry, the first film ever made on two
continents. Ireland has since played host to many international
directors — Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, John
Huston and Steven Spielberg.
Throughout the last century Irish film makers were prolific in
their production of amateur films, newsreels, documentaries
and informational films. It was not until the 1970s however that a
new wave of indigenously produced fiction films began to provide a
striking alternative to foreign produced representations of
The work of Irish producers, directors and screen writers is
facilitated by the Irish Film Board who fund production and
distribution of feature films, shorts, animated films and Irish
language productions. Irish films have enjoyed international
acclaim such as Michael Collins (Neil Jordan 1996), I
Went Down (Paddy Breathnach 1997), The General (John
Boorman 1998), The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Ken Loach
2006) winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Once (John
Carney 2006), winner of an Academy Award for best original song.
Annual film festivals in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Belfast showcase
Irish and international films while a year–round venue for art
house cinema is provided at the Irish Film Centre in Dublin, the
Kino in Cork and the town Hall in Galway. The Irish animator,
Richard Baneham, won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and a
BAFTA Award for special Visual effects for his work on Avatar,
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Among the most popular sports are Ireland’s traditional games,
gaelic football, hurling and camogie, which are played almost
exclusively in Ireland and in Irish communities abroad. Games in
the All-Ireland hurling and football championships attract large
attendances throughout the summer months culminating in the finals,
the highlight of Ireland’s sporting year, which are held in Croke
Park in Dublin.
Soccer is popular at all ages from school to senior level in
domestic competitions. the Irish International team, which plays as
the Republic of Ireland, has over the past number of years enjoyed
some success and is well supported by enthusiastic and friendly
Rugby football is popular in Ireland at international, club and
schools level. The sport is managed by the Irish Rugby Football
Union (IRFU). Ireland competes in the international annual Six
Nations Championship, winning the tournament in 2009.
Ireland has a strong reputation for field sports such as shooting,
fishing and also for equestrian events, show jumping and horse
racing. The Irish bloodstock industry is considered one of the
finest in the world.
As Ireland has over 3,000 kilometres of coastline and numerous
inland waterways, sailing and boating are long-established sports.
A wide range of marine leisure activities such as fishing,
water-skiing, canoeing, wind-surfing, diving and swimming are also
Over 400 golf courses offer facilities through the country.
All-Ireland teams compete in international amateur golfing
competitions with the major Irish tournaments on the international
professional circuit being the Irish Open and the Smurfit European
Open. The Ryder Cup was held in Ireland in 2006, with top
Irish golfers Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley
contributing to the European team’s victory over the United States.
Harrington later went on to become a three times ‘Majors’ winner,
winning the British open championship in July 2007 and in 2008, and
the US PGA in 2008.
Ireland has a history of successfully hosting prestigious sporting
events and hosted the special olympics in June 2003. This was the
largest sporting event ever to take place in Ireland. Over 7,000
special athletes from 160 countries came to Ireland to participate
in this unique sporting achievement.
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