Not everyone realizes it, but Ireland has an incredibly rich and diverse poetic history. Since at least the sixth century, Ireland has been home to poets who have written in both the Irish and English languages.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Irish Poems About Death and Dying
- Irish Poems About Death and Love
- Irish Poems About Death and Remembering Joy
- Irish Poems About Death and Hope
- Funny or Ironic Irish Poems About Death
Over the past several centuries, several well-known Irish poets have contributed to this literary form. Here, we explore some of our favorite Irish poems that deal with a variety of emotionally complex topics.
If you're searching for Irish poems to read at a funeral service, you might be interested in our post-loss checklist. It can help you understand all of the tasks you might encounter after losing a loved one.
Irish Poems About Death and Dying
Many Irish poets have explored dark and heavy themes like death and dying. A lot of written works out of Ireland lend themselves to being read as funeral poems. Here are some standouts in that genre.
1. “Destiny” by Lady Jane Wilde
Noted author Oscar Wilde came by his literary talent honestly. His mother, Lady Jane Wilde, was a talented poet in her own right. She was also an advocate for women’s rights and Irish nationalism. In this bittersweet poem, she writes about the pain that happens when death casts its shadow over a person you love.
2. “Requiescat” by Oscar Wilde
Lady Jane Wilde wasn’t the only poet in her family to explore the concept of death. In this poem, her son Oscar mourns the loss of his sister Isola. “Requiescat” is Latin for “May she rest in peace.” She died when they were just children and that loss would be a recurring theme in his work over the years.
This is his most direct and poignant tribute to her. In his personal journals, he expresses deep guilt over not being able to protect Isola from death. He even asserted that he felt responsible (although her death was attributed to natural causes stemming from a fever).
3. “Mid-Term Break” by Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney is perhaps the most accomplished Irish poet of the modern era. American poet Robert Lowell once described him as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” He was especially well-known for describing the local surroundings of Ireland.
During his prolific career, he wrote many poems dealing with death. But this is perhaps his most poignant. It describes the death of his four-year-old brother when Heaney himself was just fourteen. It explores the way grief can completely transform a family. It is deeply personal and moving. Vivid imagery really brings this poem to life.
Irish Poems About Death and Love
If there’s any topic that lends itself to poetry more than death, it’s love. Both bring up deep and profound feelings. Of course, that means the ultimate poem is one that combines love and death. Here are a few of our favorites.
4. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde
This was one of Wilde’s most iconic verses. It was inspired by Wilde’s time incarcerated (he served two years of hard labor for homosexuality, which was illegal at the time). But the poem wasn’t so much about his own experiences as it was about another prisoner.
Charles Woolridge, a soldier, was executed during Wilde’s time there. It was the first hanging at the prison in 18 years. Woolridge was executed because he killed his wife. Wilde refers to that often through the repeating line “each man kills the things he loves.” That line ties into Wilde’s own recurring feelings of guilt about the death of his own sister (see the earlier entry on “Requiescat.”)
5. “She Weeps Over Rahoon” by James Joyce
This poem was written by James Joyce after he witnessed his lover weeping at the grave of a man she loved before him. While the poem itself is quite melancholy, it serves as a sweet reminder that after one love dies, we can still love again.
6. “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by William Butler Yeats
Romantic love isn’t the only kind of love. Another powerful form of love is love for your country. Yeats wrote this poem in honor of the death of Major Robert Gregory, who lost his life in World War I.
Irish Poems About Death and Remembering Joy
Irish funerals aren’t just about honoring the dead. They are also about bringing the community together to grieve and heal together. These poems are ideal for people who are in mourning and need to be reminded that better times happened before.
7. “Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney
This poem isn’t overtly about death, but there is an oblique undercurrent running throughout the piece. The poem opens as Heaney remembers the tart burst of blackberries exploding on his tongue in the sultry August heat. But by the end, he paints a picture of how fleeting and ephemeral blackberry season is, as he bemoans the fruit going bad before he can eat it at all. It is a bittersweet metaphor for life, made kinder by the nostalgia it is steeped in.
8. “Normally Speaking” by Dennis O’Driscoll
This poem is also not explicitly about death, but it does celebrate the cozy comfort of a life well-lived. It’s an excellent poem to read if you want to be able to look back at your life and appreciate the little joyful things.
9. “And Soul” by Eavan Boland
Boland was probably the best known female Irish poet of the modern era. She was considered disruptive, a label that she embraced. In this poem, she exemplifies the best of Irish poetry. It’s deeply moving, with dreamy imagery.
Irish Poems About Death and Hope
Earlier we talked about poems that help you remember more joyful times in the past. Here, we talk about Irish poems that remind us of the potential for hope in the future.
10. “A Dog Was Crying To-Night in Wicklow Also” by Seamus Heaney
Heaney wrote this poem in memory of Donatus Nwoga, a Nigerian poetry professor. The resulting poem is a departure from Heaney’s usual style. It has distinctly African imagery that you wouldn’t expect from an Irish poet. But its message is universal. When death enters our life, we want to think it isn’t the end for us, so we look hopefully for more metaphysical ways to live on.
11. “Time Sharing” by Dennis O’Driscoll
This poem isn’t overtly about death. It recounts the tale of two people traveling together. It paints a cozy picture of two people facing the world together. They’re nervous about the unknown, but optimistic as long as they’re together. It can be read as a hopeful metaphor for finding a partner to travel through life with.
12. “Tomorrow” by Dennis O’Driscoll
This is another O’Driscoll poem that isn’t explicitly about death but still fits this genre well. When you’re grieving a loss, sometimes you just have to decide to start living again. From the opening lines:
Tomorrow I will start to be happy.
The morning will light up like a celebratory cigar.
This poem captures the spirit that we must keep hope even in dark times.
Funny or Ironic Irish Poems About Death
There has been a recent evolution in the funeral industry. Many people choose to have uplifting celebrations of life instead of traditional services.
Many people trace this newer practice back to more rollicking funeral traditions like Irish wakes. Funny or ironic Irish poems about death would be right at home at a more lighthearted end-of-life ceremony.
13. “Death of a Naturalist” by Seamus Heaney
One way to make sure a poem is about death is entertaining, is to have the death described be more of a metaphor. This poem tells of an aspiring naturalist. The subject isn’t his actual death, though. It is the death of his interest in nature after spending some time in it.
He describes frogs in such clever and funny ways, referring to them as “great slime kings.” He describes how sickened he is by the “farting” sounds the frogs make. It’s enough to make anyone want to stay indoors.
14. “Someone” by Dennis O’Driscoll
While this poem isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, it is an unusual twist on a funeral poem. It doesn’t deal in overwrought emotion. Instead, it paints the very ordinary last day on Earth of a very ordinary person.
These Irish Poems Deal With Intricate and Emotional Subjects
Ireland has a storied literary history. This cultural oratory facility turns up in various bits of literature, like Irish funeral songs and Irish funeral prayers. Irish poetry also exemplifies this. Even emotionally difficult subjects like death are dealt with compassionately in Irish poems.
This list just begins to scratch the surface of the beauty of the poetry that flourishes on the Emerald Isle.