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Irish poetry

Irish poetry includes poetry in two languages, Irish and English. The complex interplay between these two traditions, and between both of them and other poetries in English and Scottish Gaelic, has produced a body of work that is both rich in variety and difficult to categorise.

The earliest surviving poems in Irish date back to the 6th century, while the first known poems in English from Ireland date to the 14th century. Although there has always been some cross-fertilization between the two language traditions, an English-language poetry that had absorbed themes and models from Irish did not finally emerge until the 19th century. This culminated in the work of the poets of the Irish Literary Revival in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Towards the last quarter of the 20th century, modern Irish poetry tended to a wide range of diversity, from the poets of the Northern school to writers influenced by the modernist tradition and those facing the new questions posed by an increasingly urban and cosmopolitan society.

Poetry in Irish represents the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. The earliest examples date from the 6th century, and are generally short lyrics on themes from religion or the world of nature. They were frequently written by their scribe authors in the margins of the illuminated manuscripts that they were copying. The best known example is Pangur Bán.

It was practical for poems to be short because the Irish recognized that it was necessary to use any means necessary to make the poems lasting in their oral culture. To accomplish such a feat as well as they have, they used complicated rhyme schemes that would render a poem nonsensical if any of the key words were changed from the original version.

In an oral culture, Irish poetry had many uses. A poem could be used to immortalize both the poet and the subject of the poem; oftentimes kings would commission poets to create a piece about them. Such poems would be passed on to descendants so they would remember the great deeds of past generations. Kings would also commission poets to write poems of advertisement, speaking of the king's greatness and worthiness, to attract young men to be warriors on behalf of their kingdom. Oral poetry, because it was in the vernacular, was often used for entertainment. Poems that were entertaining could also be informative, teaching people lessons or offering them wisdom of experience for dealing with situations they would encounter in their everyday lives. Finally, poems, especially those featured in the sagas, were thought to be an instrument of the supernatural: certain poems could enchant people or objects.