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Durham University

Department of English Studies


Academic Staff

Publication details for Dr Guy Woodward

Woodward, G. (2016). Post-war Irish Writing. Oxford Bibliographies

Author(s) from Durham


Though it had not suffered the devastation inflicted on much of the rest of Europe, the emerging southern Irish state faced huge challenges over the decades following the end of the Second World War. Economic growth was poor; a largely agricultural economy had been crippled during the war by tariffs imposed by its most important market and former colonial ruler Britain. The population of the Republic of Ireland declined during the 1950s due to emigration but recovered during the 1960s and 1970s. Fianna Fáil dominated the Irish political scene following independence and governed for twenty-five of the thirty-five years from 1945 to 1980. Leader of the party since its formation in 1926, Éamon de Valera had led the state through the Second World War and remained as Taoiseach until 1948, returning from 1951 to 1954 and again from 1957 to 1959, before serving two terms as president from 1959 to 1973. John A. Costello’s Fine Gael government declared Ireland a republic in 1948 and took the state out of the British Commonwealth the following year. The British government’s Ireland Act of 1949 reacted to the legal implications of these developments but was most notable for its guarantee that Northern Ireland would remain within the United Kingdom unless the Stormont Parliament decided otherwise. The southern state joined the United Nations in 1955 and the European Economic Community in 1973, concluding a process instigated by de Valera’s successor as Taoiseach, the economic reformer Seán Lemass, who took steps to remove protectionist barriers and open up Ireland to foreign direct investment. This remained a socially conservative period, however, during which the influence of the Catholic Church was strong. Irish–British relations were often tense. Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom; its devolved Parliament in Stormont, dominated by a Unionist party, was largely hostile to any kind of engagement with the southern state. Following the flaring of sectarian violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the beginning of the thirty-year-long conflict popularly known as “The Troubles,” Westminster deployed the army in 1969 and imposed direct rule in 1973. The province had benefited from some social reforms introduced by the British Labour government of 1945, however, especially the Education (Northern Ireland) Act of 1947, which introduced compulsory secondary education until the age of fifteen, enabling new postwar generations of underprivileged, often Catholic young people to continue to university; beneficiaries included Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane. The conservative social climate in the southern state proved uncongenial to radical creative expression, and most of the preeminent figures in postwar Irish writing saw their work banned at this time. Many significant foreign works of literature were also banned, restricting the flow of cultural material into Ireland. Several Irish writers migrated to England in the 1950s and 1960s, including William Trevor, John McGahern, and Edna O’Brien. However, in the postwar period, arts and literature began to receive sustained government support both north and south of the border: the Arts Council of Ireland (An Chomhairle Ealaíon) was founded in 1951, and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland grew out of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts in Northern Ireland, which had been established in 1943 to encourage public interest in the arts. This entry does not cover drama, which is addressed by the separate Oxford Bibliographies entry Post-War Irish Drama.

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