Ireland's youth revives poetry one word at a time

Viral videos and performance slams help create Ireland's poetry revival

 Ireland's youth revives poetry one word at a time

Lewis Kenny, Credit: Poetry Ireland

Irish poetry is steeped in history, with our small isle home to the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. The earliest examples of Irish poetry date from the 6th century, but how are Irish poems faring today?

A terrible beauty is born 

From pre-Christian folk poets inscribing their sagas on manuscripts and enjoying oral poetry as a means of entertainment to the more recent 'poets revolt' following 1916, prose has had an everlasting place in Irish culture.

Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ gave us the unforgettable line ‘A terrible beauty is born’, but it also portrayed leaders like Pearse and MacDonagh as cultured men of words as well as revolutionaries, something which led to a literary revival of sorts in Ireland - with many clutching onto Irish culture in their art work as a way to defy the Anglicisation of the country. 

The outbreak of The Troubles in the North provided a new theme for Irish poets. Some engaged by exploring the social and political background, while others reacted against the tensions by focusing on nature. Both styles were heavily praised.

The role of poets in Ireland was changing, and a new wave of poetry - or filíochta, as it's known as gaeilge - was hitting the country. Work by Seamus Heany and Paul Muldoon gave an air of seriousness to the notion of writing.

This birthed "the pen is mightier than the sword" as the general train of thought, and poetry in the 70's saw a radicalisation of the kind we're seeing again today - people are seeing that spoken word is a hard-hitting, direct way to get your point across.

With the emergence of more 'modern' art-forms and a view that Irish written poems were largely inaccessible, especially those written in Irish, poetry from the 1990's until the 21st century went under the radar in Ireland. Dana Gioia recognised this in her 1991 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, ‘Can Poetry Matter?’, writing that poetry was ‘no longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialised occupation of a relatively small and isolated group."

Thankfully, multi-media came along and saved poetry's neck, which brings us to...

Live poetry bringing words to the masses

Increased globalisation in Ireland has led to a younger generation of poets seeking influences as varied as post-war Polish poets and Contemporary Americans and combining them with new mediums, like video and live performances, making poetry increasingly on trend.

Although the majority of state funding goes towards 'page-poetry', most Irish people are now engaging with poetry through digital and performance mediums. Artists no longer need institutional support to reach a wide audience, and the work that's being created by Irish poets because of this revelation is a driving force behind this new poetry popularity. 

Following an international trend for performance poetry, there are now dozens of events per week to choose from in Ireland alone, and as poetry book sales fall, attendances at live poetry events are increasing.

Lingo, Ireland's largest spoken word festival, attracted 1500 paying poetry supporters in 2015. Poetry slams such as Slam Sunday in Dublin are fast becoming a popular social event for the younger generation who are enthralled by edgy poets such as John Cummins' self-described 'hippy-hop' spoken word style. 

Video plays a big part too, with anyone who has access to simple recording equipment and an internet connection able to stream their work to people around the globe. Emmet Kirwarn's poem Heartbreak, for example, about a pregnant teenager’s experience, recently went viral, and another poem of his has clocked up over a million views online.

It's important too, that we recognise the role that poetry continues to play in Irish politics. Social movements such as the anti-water charges and the Repeal the 8th movements in Ireland have provided a new audience for socially engaged art.

Sarah Clancy, a poet and community activist from Galway, performed her poem ‘Look How Our Leaders Tremble When They See Us Together’ in front of tens of thousands at anti-water charges demos. Speaking to The Journal, she explained the reason behind the use of poetry to make a political statement.

“In some ways poetry is the perfect vehicle because it can deliver a message in ways that really affect people.

There’s a reason why people who have no use for poetry in their daily lives suddenly find themselves using it at funerals, or using it to mark ceremonies or quoting it", she said. 

Recognising talent

Irish organisations are now beginning to promote new forms of poetry, and are realising that their visual and spoken power is resonating with a newer generation.

St Patrick’s Festival recently commissioned a poem by Dublin poet and playwright Stephen James Smith, 'My Ireland', which celebrates the best (and worst) things about our country in a stunning video shot by director Myles O’Reilly, arranged and mixed by Conor O’Brien (Villagers), and with music by Colm Mac Con Iomaire and Loah, Saint Sister, Eithne Ní Chatháin aka Inni-K and Ye Vagabonds. 

The poetry video quickly hit a nerve with many Irish people with sharp lines such as:

  'My Ireland is terrified of leaving the immersion on
and lamenting not having won the Eurovision
in God only knows how long!

My Ireland is a white flag
and Elizabeth O’Farrell’s feet.
My Ireland is Savita needing agency,
The Magdalene Laundries.
My Ireland is hysterical
and in denial of being patriarchal.'


Young Blood, a high-profile night of spoken word, hip hop, rap, poetry and other music at the National Concert Hall on March 18th reflects the flourishing poetry and spoken-word scene that's emerging in Ireland at the moment.

Also presented as part of The St. Patrick's day festival, the event aims to "amplify the voice of a generation through its smartest, most articulate, expressive young musicians and poets of their time", a welcome change from more traditional St. Patrick's Day events of the past. 

Young Blood represents the merging of cultures in our small island too, with poets such as Felispeaks, a spoken word artist from Longford who was raised in Nigeria and performs spoken word inspired by her diverse cultural mix.

Writing the future

As Ireland struggles with political and social issues, more and more people are turning to the spoken-word to both convey and further identify their feelings and opinions.

Take a look at any modern Irish poet - be it John Cummins, Kerrie O'Brien or 16 year-old Nathalia O’Flaherty - and you'll see a snapshot of Ireland's evolving cultural identity that you'll be hard pressed to discover elsewhere.

The Irish are exploring their strength with words, and by returning to the ancient art of live poetry, albeit performed in a modern way, Irish poets are reviving the country's love for expression via storytelling.

The recent loss of acclaimed Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney and John Montague may have left a gap in the poetry world, but it's reassuring to see that this gap is quickly being filled by a new generation who are popularising spoken word and making it a real part of everyday life in Ireland.

People are paving the way for change in the country, and the lively poetry scene in Ireland reflects that. As Sarah Clancy says:

"It changes you somehow. And I think at its best that’s what powerful poetry can do, it can leave you a little bit changed." 

And what's not to love about that? No wonder the literary revival is in full swing.


For more information about upcoming poetry events and work by new artists, see Poetry Ireland.