Thinking about responses (both verbal and online) to the previous post, “Modern Ireland has Nothing to Inspire Modern Writers”, I realised that I had more to say on the topic. Too much, probably, so I’ll confine myself to what seems most pertinent at the minute.
First, as stated in the comments below, it’s not writers who create elites and/or a canon … it’s commentators, reviewers and academics who do that. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget this. So, when people complain about what Irish writers are writing or not writing, the question is: which Irish writers are they talking about?
The second point, related to the first, is that I don’t accept that no interrogative or challenging novels came out in Ireland in the last ten years. I hate to do this, because any list immediately overlooks and excludes things that should have been included, but here is a random, top-of-the head naming of literary novelists and novels that definitely engage with aspects of Tiger Ireland but have NOT been mentioned in recent conversations on this topic (so far as I’m aware):
Dermot Healy: Sudden Times
Mia Gallagher: Hellfire
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: Fox Swallow Scarecrow
Kevin Power: Bad Day at Blackrock
Anne Enright: The Gathering
Molly McCloskey: Protection
Carlo Gebler: A Good Day for a Dog
William Wall: This is the Country
A lot of work is being done in areas that escape the attention of the pundits, either because they’re not interested in a particular genre or because they don’t know what’s happening there. Here’s one illustrative example: Fiacha Fola (Blood Debts), a collection of poetry written in Irish by Celia de Fréine, about the Hepatitis C scandal. I don’t pretend to be able to read poetry in Irish, but I’m lucky enough to have seen these poems in translation and to have heard them read in both languages. They are powerful and measured, and they address a critical, painful issue in our recent history. They’ve won awards, but not the kind of awards that people outside of Ireland pay attention to. News of their existence may not have reached the mainstream yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. [A selection will be published in a forthcoming bilingual Selected Poems.]1
We have a number of promising young writers who can be found in journals (eg The Stinging Fly), and let’s not forget the return of the literary essay in the pages of, for example, The Dublin Review. It’s worth mentioning that for strong writing to emerge and develop, outlets – and editors – of that calibre are required, and we’re not exactly bursting at the seams with either. We have Mark O’Halloran, Charlie McCarthy, Dave Coffey and Eugene O’Brien writing for television – against all the odds that writing for television in this country entails. We have a growing oral scene epitomised by Nighthawks and the Glór sessions and the Flat Lakes Festival. We have group blogs like the Anti-Room. We have the kids who are writing at the Fighting Words centre – who knows what they’ll pull off when they’re older?
Well. I can’t quite believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to quote from Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing. This clever, funny, heart-breaking book was published nearly 30 years ago by the University of Texas Press. I discovered it (and first quoted this passage) in 1990. And look, it’s as relevant as it ever was:
“As in cells and sprouts, growth occurs only at the edges of something. From the peripheries … But even to see the peripheries, it seems, you have to be on them, or by an act of re-vision, place yourself there. Refining and strengthening the judgements you already have will get you nowhere. You must break set. It’s either that or remain at the centre. The dead, dead centre.”
1 some of these poems are available in translation as follows:
in The New Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2004)
in Breaking the Skin (Volume 2) (Black Mountain Press, 2002)
‘ag tástáil, ag tástáil : testing, testing’ was made into a poster by Galway Arts Centre as part of ‘Poems for Patience’