Culture Shock: Irish writers don’t hate Ireland. It’s just tough love

Our novelists have taken on themselves the job of evoking the place as it is rather than as it wishes to be

Baileys winner: Eimear McBride. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Baileys winner: Eimear McBride. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

Recently, when Eimear McBride won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the eminent English critic John Sutherland wrote a typically perceptive and provocative piece in the Guardian about her wonderful novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. In the course of it, though, he made some rather sweeping statements about Irish writing: “McBride’s book poses a number of big questions. One is: why does Irish fiction so hate Ireland? She was raised in Co Sligo, but now lives in Norwich. When asked why not her ‘home’ country, she blandly replies: ‘Ireland is a difficult place.’ Difficult, that is, in the same way that Sudan is a difficult place for pregnant women contemplating conversion to Christianity.”

Sutherland went on to quote James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus on Ireland as the old sow that eats its farrow and added: “Exile was the only relationship one could have with the awful place. Beckett agreed. John Banville is currently depicting Dublin as one of the circles of hell in Quirke. His ‘seaside’ novel, The Sea, won a Booker, but will have done nothing for Ireland’s tourist industry. Problem: come up with a novel about Ireland that loves Ireland.”

Sutherland’s reflections are useful because they sum up with great brio a widespread notion about Irish writing: that it “hates Ireland”. But they also illustrate how lazy and unsubtle that notion is.

It is striking, for example, that Sutherland has to go back to Joyce and Beckett for his evidence that exile is the only relationship Irish writers can have with “the awful place” that gave them birth. Some Irish writers, like many Irish people, live in other countries, but the days of Stephen Dedalus’s “silence, cunning and exile” have been gone since the 1970s. McBride and Keith Ridgway live in England and to that extent can be seen as following in the tradition of Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien or William Trevor. Emma Donoghue lives in Canada and Colum McCann in the US.

But Mary Lavin, John McGahern and John Banville stayed in Ireland. Aidan Higgins and Francis Stuart came back to live here. The vast majority of the established novelists of the current generation – Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle, Claire Keegan, Joseph O’Connor, Sebastian Barry and so on – are based in Ireland. So are almost all of the younger generation.

As for Sutherland’s references to Banville, they seem, in the context of his argument, decidedly dodgy. The Dublin of Quirke (and of the Benjamin Black novels on which it is based) may indeed be a circle of hell – and the Scandinavia of The Killing, The Bridge, Wallander and all the noir novelists is what? A paradise?

To say that detective novels show the places in which they are set as dark pools of violence and despair is like saying that pastoral poetry features happy shepherds and shepherdesses: it’s the convention. And citing The Sea as a novel that “hates Ireland” is bizarre. It is unusually tender in its glowing evocation of time and place.

To say Irish novelists have an antagonistic relationship to their home country is not, in any case, to say very much. Do Charles Dickens and George Eliot “love England” in their books? Does Martin Amis? Does Irving Welsh “love Scotland”? Does Michel Houellebecq “love France”? Where are all the happy, patriotic novels by contemporary American or Russian writers?

There is in Sutherland’s claims a confusion between the writer and the citizen. Novelists as citizens may or may not love their countries – or, perhaps, like everybody else, they love some things and loathe others. But as writers they are in the anatomy business – and anatomists have to dig through guts and blood and mess. All writers, everywhere, have to do this. Sutherland perpetuates an Irish exceptionalism that borders on cliche.

What, then, of his challenge to “come up with a novel about Ireland that loves Ireland”? It depends on what “love” might mean in the context of serious artistic fiction. It means surely to “care about”. The business of artists is to take care of and with their materials; to weigh them with sensitivity and evoke them with precision. In this sense what is extraordinary is the degree to which Irish novelists have lavished care on the old sow. However bitter, angry, alienated and, indeed, exiled they might be, they have taken infinite pains to construe the place and its people as accurately as they can.

The speech, the landscape, the contours of internal and external realities have been more carefully, indeed more obsessively, calibrated by Irish novelists than by Irish social scientists. There are first-class Irish novels that ignore Ireland altogether (Brian Moore’s Black Robe, Kate O’Brien’s That Lady, Donoghue’s Room, Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, to name a few). But they are remarkably rare. Irish novelists (including McBride) find it very hard to turn their backs on damnable, infuriating Ireland.

The point about Irish writing since the early 20th century is that it has consistently stood up for a notion of what it means to “love” one’s country that is at odds with the blather and denial of official patriotism. Writers have taken on themselves the job of evoking the place as it is rather than as it wishes to be. That’s not hatred. It’s a tough love the old sow needs now as much as ever. fotoole@irishtimes.com

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