Centuries before the introduction of writing, The Celts of Ireland were composing stories and poems in Gaelic that were committed to memory and passed down from generation to generation.
The earliest script, known as Ogham, was used on monuments of stone, and was evidently developed through contacts with Roman Britain, since it was based on twenty letters of the Roman alphabet and is believed to have been current from the 3rd century AD. Each letter was represented by a series of notches along or across the edge of the stone, giving the inscription of a code-like appearance.
Ogham was the earliest Irish writing, but it was not literature; the stones merely record a man's name and his family. The first Irish literature was written by monks from the 5th or 6th century who copied and composed not only in Latin but in Gaelic; their achievement, still not widely realized, was to create the first vernacular literature in Europe. Thanks to them, the great cycles of Irish myths have survived, along with many poems, stories and reflections that were composed by the monks themselves.
The professional poets attached to the courts of kings and chiefs rapidly became literate and began to set down their own works and the traditions - especially the elaborate genealogies - which it was their task to preserve. These poets were either fili or, less aristocratic and less steeped in ancient lore, bards; but both are now commonly referred to as bards (one of an ancient Celtic order of composers and reciters of poetry). As well as preserving the memory of great men and great deeds of the past, the bard was expected to write 'praise-poems' that would raise his master to a similarly heroic level. Such bardic verse, produced in vast quantities, was notable for its skill in handling well-worn themes and its extraordinary intricacy.
Bards wrote for an aristocratic audience, and the collapse of the old Gaelic order in the 17th century doomed them; with their patrons dispossessed, they became impoverished and often ended as proud, embittered vagabonds. Gaelic poetry continued to be written for a popular audience, often by poor 'hedge' schoolmasters whose classes were held out of doors. In the 18th century, the aisling, or vision-poem, expressed the hope against hope that the exiled Stuarts would come again and liberate Ireland.
Gaelic was still widely spoken in 1800, although English was already the language of the cities and of all who aspired to office or influence. The spread of elementary education (in English) and the effects of the Famine, which struck hardest in Gaelic-speaking areas, turned a decline into a disaster. Gaelic seemed about to die out, but the foundation of the Gaelic League (1893), and the work of Douglas Hyde (1860-1949) in particular, re-created interest in the language and sponsored new writing in it. The Irish Free State put its authority behind the revival, and many fine Gaelic works have been published. But despite the official status of Gaelic, English remains the first language of most Irish people, and that situation seems unlikely to change. Since Irish attachment to Gaelic remains very strong, the Republic seems certain to be bilingual for the foreseeable future.