The 16th and 17th cent. saw a great poetic revival and the rise of modern Irish prose. Gaelic Ireland was now fighting a losing battle with England, and as the English conquered, Gaelic literature became more passionately patriotic and more militantly Catholic. Prose of the 16th and 17th cent. in Ireland is transitional; it begins with some delightful tales in Middle Irish and comes to its fruition with Geoffrey Keating, whose religious works and monumental historical study of Ireland are the foundation of modern Irish literature. The greatest Irish scholar of the time was Michael O'Clery; among other students of Gaelic culture were some English-speaking Protestants, notably Bedell, bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, translator of the Old Testament.
The penal age of Ireland may be dated from Cromwell's arrival (1649). During this time Gaelic literature served to keep alive the old culture of the submerged Catholics. From Paris and Louvain came a stream of religious books in Gaelic, probably published by the Franciscans, who at this time became the chief guardians of the Irish language. Even before Cromwell and the intense hardships suffered under English rule, however, bardic poetry had begun to decline. The early 17th cent. was an age of transition from the strict verse of the bardic schools to the less formal meters of untrained poets. Chief among the poets were Aodhagán Ó Raithille, Eóghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháin, Brian Merriman, and Anthony Raftery.
That period was hardly over before Irish Gaelic received another great blow, following the potato famine of 1847. With the terrible depopulation of Ireland, Gaelic literature began to fade, and the proportion of Gaelic speakers in Ireland dropped in three years from more than three-fourths to one-quarter. Later in the 19th cent., Irish scholarship came into its own again and resulted, through the efforts of John O'Donovan, Eugene O'Curry, Douglas Hyde, and Standish Hayes O'Grady, in a Gaelic literary revival. The principal figures in this new Gaelic literature were Canon Peter O'Leary, Patrick O'Connor, Patrick Henry Pearse, and Maurice O'Sullivan.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.