It is well-documented that Irish writer James Joyce once said, “No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.” Although the automatic and unthinking response of many to such a claim would be dismissal, the long, broad narrative of Irish history only reaffirms the well-known Dubliner’s witticism: our island has long been tinged by accounts of emigration, from the days of the Great Hunger up until the present.
This inescapable and unfortunate truth has also not eluded the nation’s writers, many of whom in the past sought to publish their works abroad. Joyce himself published his works in Paris after lengthy battles with conservative publishers in Ireland and Britain, and Samuel Beckett lived in the French capital for most of his life, writing in both French and English. Women writers, in decades past, have also had their works suffocated by a male-dominated printing scene and, up until recent years, did not have access to popular outlets through which they could publish their works. Although writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien enjoyed some success, it was limited when compared to their male counterparts.
“I suppose one of the key things in the twentieth century was censorship – ‘unsuitable’ literature just wasn’t going to be published in Ireland,” says Claire Hennessy, co-editor of the literary journal Banshee. Indeed, the Irish Censorship of Publications Board was established in 1929 in order to monitor literature in various forms, effectively banning any writing deemed ‘obscene’ or ‘inappropriate.’ Its power and influence has dwindled greatly in recent decades however, and very few works are blocked in the country. Although restrictions on what can be printed are now minimal, many Irish writers still look to the UK and beyond in order to publish their major works. “I think it’s a desire to reach a larger readership,” says Eimear Ryan, one-third of the Banshee team. “Ireland has had a lively literary journal and small press scene for the last few decades – there’s no shortage of outlets – and Irish people are great readers, but it’s still a relatively small market.”
In the last six years, however, indigenous publishing has undergone a transformation, with new literary journals appearing across the country. Irish writers, too, are beginning to win more and more prizes on the international front. Many Irish writers use small quality presses and journals, such as Lilliput, The Stinging Fly, and Tramp, as a springboard before moving to bigger deals in the US and UK. She continues: “the likes of Colin Barrett, Rob Doyle and Sara Baume published first in Ireland to great acclaim, and then got picked up internationally. I think small Irish presses have gained this reputation for being brilliant talent scouts and I think that the bigger publishers are keeping a close eye on what’s coming out of the Irish publishing scene.” So what has triggered such an incredible turn around? And how has this affected the quality and themes of Irish writing?
Poetry On The Fringes
Although novelists and prose writers have enjoyed success in Ireland, the poetry scene has been met with some minor difficulties: many older presses have shut down. Jessica Traynor, poet and Literary Manager of the Abbey Theatre, believes this is indicative of an emerging new wave in poetry publishing. She says: “we’re seeing a little bit of a recovery […] I think these things go in cycles: while we’ve lost older poetry presses like Doghouse, other presses […] like Arlen House tend to be outwardly going from strength to strength.” A huge concern for Irish publishers is funding, and this is intensified for poets; when budgets are tight, poetry is somewhat impaired by its smaller audience relative to prose writing.
Michael Naghten Shanks was the editor of The Bohemyth, a former quarterly journal publishing short fiction, poetry, essays and photography. A fervent poet, Shanks has also felt the figurative pinch of tightened budgets: “when it comes to the next stage of a writer’s career […] I do think that prose writers are in a much better position. Ultimately, one has to acknowledge the economic argument for why this is the case, but I still believe more could be done to correct the balance. It is not that the talent is lacking when it comes to Irish poetry, it is more to do with how the majority of poetry publishers in Ireland are lacking the funding they need in order to be able to take the necessary risks on finding and supporting new poets. Make no mistake it is the same case for fiction publishers, but they do seem to be less reticent when it comes to the crunch.”
Before its closure on August 8th 2016, The Bohemyth operated exclusively online. The role the internet has played in the recent resurgence of Irish writing cannot be understated: writers can publish their works online without fear of interference from middlemen, network with others on Twitter and Facebook, and experience greater, worldwide exposure, the levels of which might not have been attained otherwise. “If I were to think of a reason for why things seem, outwardly at least, vibrant, I think a lot of this has to do with the new lease of life the internet has given to poets” Traynor claims. “I recognise that the internet has been instrumental in building connections for Irish poets overseas. For poets, short story writers and novelists, the internet is a wonderful thing […] and I think having the internet there as a buffer has allowed some of the smaller publishers to think, ‘I can take a risk on this person.’” The internet has also influenced the writing of those working in literature in Ireland, leading many to discover artists and works they may not have happened upon in other circumstances.
The internet cannot be credited exclusively with shaping the character of contemporary writing. It is also worth noting that the new wave of Irish talent materialised in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, so one would not be mistaken in assuming that the economic, personal and political impact of such an event permeates the very pages of the writers most affected. “Sara Baume is really interesting on this,” Eimear Ryan notes. “She points out that the lack of jobs post-2008 sort of gave young artists permission to be broke and on the dole and writing, whereas during the Celtic Tiger years, there would have been much more social pressure to be earning big money, or to at least be in a job related to your degree.” Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, published in 2012, deals with the personal fallout of the economic crash; people are left stuck in unfinished ghost estates, contemplate emigration, and attempt to make sense of what is perceived as an unprecedented catastrophe. Such a book describes accurately the environment from which modern writers have emerged.
Break From Tradition
There is a sense in modern literature that Irish writers no longer subscribe to a mandate to write ‘in tradition,’ as Eimear Ryan elaborates: “In the work of Kevin Barry, Claire Kilroy, Paul Murray and others, the settings and characters are often Irish, but the influences aren’t. Contemporary Irish writers are being inspired by European and American fiction, comic books, video games, HBO shows, the internet.” Irish writing has traditionally been unified by overlapping themes and ideas: James Joyce wrote about Catholicism and sexual repression in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist decades before Patrick Kavanagh touched on similar subjects in his poetry, and the pastiche of staunch republicanism in Ulysses’ ‘Cyclops’ chapter is not entirely dissimilar to Martin McDonagh’s caricature of militant nationalism in plays like The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Joseph O’Connor, in Star of the Sea, reminds us of our history of emigration, while Kate O’Brien and Jamie O’Neill both deal with gay characters living in a new but wholly-suffocating Ireland, despite writing decades apart. As has been described previously, in recent years indigenous publishing has undergone a plethora of changes, but has this altered the common signifiers of what makes an ‘Irish’ text? “There are still some very traditional stories,” states Hennessy. “Disapproving mothers! Dead fathers! Abusive priests! The nuns! Funerals! Emigration! […] Often these appeal to an international audience, tying in to a certain notion of ‘Irishness’. But there are fresh themes and topics too – in Young Adult, for example, we’ve had a number of dystopias recently [such as] Eilis Barrett’s Oasis, Cecelia Ahern’s Flawed, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, which was not something many Irish writers did previously.”
Young Adult fiction has experienced a resurgence in popularity, with many adults now reading from the genre. Claire Hennessy has recently published Nothing Tastes as Good, a young adult novel that pushes the important issue of eating disorders to the fore. The writer states: “Annabel [one of the novel’s primary voices] came very much from reading several Young Adult novels which featured the same trope about the protagonist losing a friend to an eating disorder while in hospital, and this serving as the catalyst for their own recovery – how angry would you be, to be just a catalyst in someone else’s story?”
As such, the established canon of Irish writing has been altered and, in select cases, challenged, and so have the inherent biases of a male-centred publishing scene. The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s writing, was published last year to mass acclaim. The anthology’s editor, Sinéad Gleeson, aimed to fill a gap within the large narrative of Irish writing left by the exclusion of prominent female voices. The women writers that feature in the collection are wide-ranging and span decades – the gap between the oldest and youngest writer in the collection is 218 years. “There’s always been Irish women’s writing but it’s about what gets paid attention to,” states Hennessy. “Anne Enright published her first short story collection in 1991 and got critical acclaim […] but it wasn’t until winning the Booker sixteen years later that she became a household name. Emma Donoghue’s debut was in 1993, long before Room exploded onto the literary scene […] Irish women’s writing has always been there. It’s about what we take seriously – and what we dismiss.”
Hennessy, alongside Eimear Ryan and Laura Jane Cassidy, established Banshee, a literary journal whose output is evenly split down the gender divide, an unusual occurrence in the Irish literary scene. “We’ve tended to publish more female writers than male” Hennessy explains, “but it’s not our intention to have the journal as a women-only publication that somehow provides a ‘safe space’ for female writers. The women writers we’re publishing don’t need that – they deserve to be read widely, as indeed do the men we’re publishing.” Eimear Ryan adds: “[alongside women writers] we’ve also published really brilliant work by the likes of Dylan Brennan, Dean Browne and Andrew Meehan. Issue #3 is shaping up really well and should hopefully be out in early September.”
Despite emerging liberal views regarding female voices within the male-dominated environment of fiction and poetry writing, women writers still experience certain gender-influenced difficulties in their line of work, as Hennessy explains: “Rob Doyle is lauded for writing about angry violent men, but when Louise O’Neill writes about the impact of male violence on women she gets hate mail […] Men are praised for subject matter that is more typically undertaken by women – Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is basically a Maeve Binchy novel, in so many ways – not a criticism, I love her work – and it’s gotten infinitely more respect than anything she ever wrote.”
Gender bias is not the only issue contemporary writers must overcome: although externally the new Irish writing scene seems a safe haven for new talent, many minority writers – those within the LGBTQ+, travelling or immigrant communities, for example – will be quick to find that certain social biases still pervade the indigenous publishing scene. There is also a blatant lack of narratives that deal with issues of disability and mental illness. Michael Naghten Shanks discusses how to address such erasure: “As a straight, white male, my position in the literary community is undoubtedly one of privilege, whether desired for or not, and the least I, and others in my position, can do is to be conscious of that privilege, so that we can, whenever possible, readdress the balance.”
All scenes, movements and trends come and go – they enjoy their time in the spotlight before fading into memory. With little government support for literature, it’s uncertain how long the literary boom will last, or what shape Irish writing will take in the future. There are precautions, however, we can take to help ensure that there is a future for our literature: “It’s lovely that there’s a perception that there’s a groundswell of new work,” Jessica Traynor states, “it’s something that we need to try and protect, even in terms of buying books. If there’s an imprint you like, buy their books, go to their launches, get to know the people involved.”
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