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North stars: ‘The vitality of Northern Irish writing has always coincided with political upheaval’

Belfast has a vibrant literary scene despite underfunding of the arts in the North. Writers Lucy Caldwell and Jan Carson, publisher James Doyle and critic John Self share their thoughts

One of the epigraphs to my new book, Dirty Linen: The Troubles in My Home Place, an account of the conflict through the prism of my own parish, is a quotation from the late historian Eamon Phoenix. ”We have a common history, but not a common memory.” He might usefully have added: ”or a common identity”.

In a society, whose citizens identify in almost equal numbers with two different nations, it is probably safer to speak in terms of a Northern literary scene rather than an identity, or at least acknowledge that the latter is a complex one.

The Northern Ireland Office’s use of Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney’s image as part of the branding for the centenary of the statelet’s formation in 1920 was viewed by many as cultural appropriation because the very foundation of Northern Ireland was viewed by nationalists as a denial of their Irish identity. Heaney had responded to his inclusion in a 1983 anthology of British poets: ”Be advised, my passport’s green/ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast the Queen.”

Fellow poet Michael Longley said of his identity: “Some of the time I feel British and some of the time I feel Irish. But most of the time I feel neither and the marvellous thing about the Good Friday Agreement was that it allowed me to feel more of each if I wanted to.” The 1998 Good Friday Agreement recognised the right of citizens of Northern Ireland to identify as British or Irish or both. While a growing number identify as simply “Northern Irish”, most nationalists find the term problematic, seeing it as endorsing partition. I know that every time I cross the Border, I mentally cross it out.

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All of this makes defining the Northern Irish writer tricky. Just as there is in England, I believe there is a distinctive Northern voice in Ireland, although it does not map perfectly on to the six counties of Northern Ireland but rather more closely to the historic province of Ulster, whose nine counties include Brian Friel’s adopted Donegal and Patrick and Eugene McCabe’s Monaghan. This muddying of the waters is reflected in the titles of two major anthologies, The Rattle of the North: An Anthology of Ulster Prose by Patricia Craig and The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Woman Writers from the North of Ireland by Sinéad Gleeson, both of which feature writers from Donegal and Monaghan. Gleeson also includes Cavan.

When I interviewed Craig in 1992, she agreed with Patrick McCabe’s assertion that southern writers tend to “gild the lily” whereas northern writers have a sharper, more astringent style. “I do think you get this astringency, and this rather biting wit, and slight elements of bitterness in some cases, but there’s always an element of humour, I hope.” A black humour peculiar to the province is indeed a feature.

I’ve never particularly sought out writing from the North, just because it was local to me

—  John Self

It is telling that Craig’s anthology was published by Blackstaff Press in Belfast in 1992 whereas Gleeson’s was published by New Island in Dublin in 2016. Blackstaff, founded in 1971, still survives but has become more commercial and less influential since its heyday, when it published Bernard MacLaverty, Jonathan Bardon, Sam Hanna Bell, ATQ Stewart, David McKittrick, Susan McKay, Fionnuala O Connor, Frank Ormsby, John Hewitt and a particular favourite of mine, Michael Foley, whose comic novels The Road to Notown and Getting Used to Not Being Remarkable are neglected gems.

Patsy Horton, MD of Blackstaff for two decades until last April, believes “Troubles fatigue” set in, after the ceasefires, and so the publisher had to diversify its list but “we were able to find a way around that with strong personal stories, a sense of what it was like behind the headlines for ordinary people. We are still trying to understand the legacy of those years.”

Belfast has a healthy literary scene, closely connected with Queen’s University, whose creative writing tutors include poets Gail McConnell and Stephen Sexton, and author Glenn Patterson. The veteran Honest Ulsterman and Fortnight magazines cover the arts and politics well, while relative newcomers The Tangerine and Dig With It have quickly built a strong reputation for new writing. The Tangerine’s fiction editor, Michael Magee, has won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Nero Debut Fiction Award for his brilliant debut novel, Close to Home, which drags the literary world’s centre of gravity from the leafy Queen’s quarter towards his edgier west Belfast.

By contrast, while Lancashire-born, west Cork-based Sara Baume was happy to be included on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2023, such an accolade would not sit well in west Belfast.

Belfast also has a couple of small presses, No Alibis, run out of David Torrans’s bookstore of the same name in the university quarter, and Irish Pages, which describes itself as ”distinctly an all-Ireland press”, both in its cross-Border state funding and its list of authors. No Alibis’ biggest success to date is Bernie McGill’s collection This Train Is For, which last month won the Edge Hill Short Story Prize.

One aspect of the Northern Irish literary scene is undoubtedly distinctive: its lack of funding. Investment in the arts in Northern Ireland sits at £5.44 per capita, contrasting sharply with £25.90 in the Republic. When four Irish authors made the 2023 Booker longlist, Belfast writer Rosemary Jenkinson commented: “It was notable that [former DUP First Minister] Arlene Foster in her parting speech in Stormont quoted both Wilde and Beckett and yet her former party still doesn’t see the value in funding writers.”

It is striking that two of the most influential publishers of Northern Irish titles today are based in London and south of the border in Newbridge, Co Kildare. I chose Kildare-based Merrion Press to publish Dirty Linen because its publisher, Conor Graham, like me a native of Co Down, has all but cornered the market in Troubles titles (as well as publishing the autobiographies of Carl Frampton and Paul Brady, and exposés such as Trevor Birney’s Quinn and Sam McBride’s Burned, about the “cash for ash” scandal which brought down Northern Ireland’s government).

James Doyle (no relation), originally from Fermanagh but based in London since 1993, founded Turnpike Books “to publish new editions of a series of books that will build into a history of Northern Ireland’s 20th-century literature”. His impressive list features Brian Moore, Janet McNeill, Maurice Leitch, Ian Cochrane, Linda Anderson, Benedict Kiely and St John Ervine.

”The Welsh publisher Parthian has a Library of Wales project, keeping writers such as Emyr Humphreys in print, and that was an influence,” says Doyle. “Turnpike started when I was in Blackwells in Edinburgh looking around their room of Scottish writing and pointed out to the person I was with, ‘they don’t even have a Nobel Prize winner’.”

Turnpike authors, he claims, “see their distinctive Northern Irish identity as a fact, but as an identity that makes them outsiders in both Dublin and London.” Maurice Leitch, he remembers, “always said that his work was an attempt to articulate the voice of ‘his tribe”, Northern Irish Protestants. Yet, for most of the wider world who can only name one Northern Irish writer, Seamus Heaney, the Northern Irish identity is Catholic.

The Northern Irish identity for many Protestant writers, reckons Doyle, is linked to a wider world. Writers such as Cochrane and Leitch turned to a wider identity, that of the Ulster-Scots (and their novels often focus on the elements of violence and repression that they shared with writers of the American South).

“Maurice always felt that his immediate literary influences were William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and it’s striking that Benedict Kiely taught at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he felt at home. There’s a comic violence to Ian Cochrane’s novels, especially in A Streak of Madness, but it’s a violence that comes out of poverty and the hypocrisies of religion (also a dominant theme in O’Connor’s work).”

Leitch’s 1965 debut The Liberty Lad depicted the “terminal decay, sullen hatred and sour futility” of the North pre-Troubles, provoking the ire of fellow Northern writer John Hewitt, who felt that Leitch’s truth-telling “had let the side down”. Yet as Doyle observes, “the vitality of Northern Irish writing has always coincided with political upheaval because the political and cultural are so closely related. The worse the political situation, the better the writing.” He points to Leontia Flynn’s elegy for Seamus Heaney, August 30th, 2013, in which “she sees the lesson of his life and writing as ‘Be deliberate and unafraid' and that is the ethos of the writers published by Turnpike.”

The Troubles are here to stay for the next century, reckons Doyle, at least as background for Northern Irish writers, but that doesn’t have to be limiting. “In the same way that class pokes its head into virtually every English novel in some way, the Troubles will always be part of Northern Irish writing.”

Lucy Caldwell, winner of the 2021 BBC National Short Story Award and of the 2023 Walter Scott Prize for her Belfast Blitz novel These Days, is the child of a “mixed marriage” whose Catholic mother speaks with an English accent (insisted on by the nuns at her school) and whose Ulsterman father likes nothing better than a traditional music session.

Living in London gave her the distance, psychically, to address her Belfast girlhood. It was also very important for her to be with an editor, Angus Cargill, and a publishing house, Faber, with strong Irish connections. “I would say that my compass is set very definitively North, even after years of living away. There is a very strong tradition of Irish writers working abroad, and in exile. I feel great affinity with writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Louis MacNeice, who negotiated complex forms of Anglo-Irishness, and I would say that if I do belong to two traditions, they’d be Northern Irish and Irish.”

While Brian Moore ended up in Malibu, Robert McLiam Wilson in Paris and Eoin McNamee and Louise Kennedy in Sligo, the traffic is no longer one-way. Anna Burns, Booker Prize-winning author of Milkman, has moved back home as have fellow Ardoyne author Paul McVeigh and Stacey Gregg.

John Self is a literary critic from Belfast, who reviews for The Irish Times as well as several London papers. “I’ve never particularly sought out writing from the North, just because it was local to me,” he says. “One reason is that there didn’t seem to be an awful lot of it when I was starting to read. Once you’d grown out of CS Lewis and done Bernard MacLaverty and Brian Moore, there wasn’t a lot else. Of course there was more, but writers like Jennifer Johnston or Maurice Leitch had fallen out of fashion by the time I was reading in the early 1990s, and younger writers like Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson were just getting going.

“The other reason is that it often seemed to be about the Troubles, and I hated being reminded of something that was far too prevalent in my day-to-day life as it was. It wasn’t until the peace process bedded in that I started to think Troubles fiction might be approachable. I think the first Troubles-themed novel that I read and really loved was Benedict Kiely’s Proxopera, and since then I’ve been much less squeamish. But we’re spoiled now anyway compared to back then, with so many great fiction writers, especially in the short form and from my own part of Belfast – Lucy Caldwell, Wendy Erskine, Jan Carson.”

Carson is the author of two of the best recent novels from Northern Ireland, The Fire Starters and The Raptures. “I tend to see myself primarily as a writer from the North,” she says, “because my work is so tightly focused upon specific places and communities located in this part of the world, though I have no issue with being seen as an Irish writer. The Irish writing community has always been a welcoming, inclusive and inspiring space for me.”

She adds that she once felt equally comfortable being seen as a British writer but less so now. “I’ve always felt a strong affinity with the Scottish writing community in particular. I think this is slowly changing. The term British writer isn’t as nuanced as I’d like it to be. It’s primarily seen as English and often quite London-centric and I don’t really feel like that’s me.”

It’s not essential for writers from Northern Ireland to engage with the conflict, Carson says, but she finds it hard to avoid. “The past, and indeed the troubled present, has such a huge impact on everything that happens in this part of the world, my writing always feels coloured by it. This place isn’t always the easiest to love but it is endlessly fascinating.”

In my conclusion to Dirty Linen, I argue that whether Northern Ireland remains part of the UK or is reunited with the rest of Ireland as a reimagined island, it will always be a place of many shades, not just orange and/or green, no more than the sky above it is merely blue (or grey). As the teacher in Anna Burns’s Milkman demonstrates to the class, at sunset it is pink, lemon, mauve and orange-red.

Martin Doyle is books editor of The Irish Times. A version of this essay was first published in The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors