This month, 450 first-year students of English at University College Dublin began their third-level studies with a course entitled “Contemporary Irish Writing” and assigned texts by Kevin Barry, Anne Enright, Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan and Colm Tóibín. This is a new departure for our school where, previously, students were more likely to encounter such writers in their third and final year of study.
To study, and teach, contemporary writers is richly rewarding but not without challenge, one factor being the absence of a body of established critical writings on such texts – a feature which, admittedly, hard-pressed students might term reward rather than challenge. And yet some of the most illuminating and enduring insights into literary works emerge in the immediate aftermath of their publication: in book reviews, interviews with authors, readings by authors, for example; but in forms that are often transient or, for international readers, difficult to access.
And so this month also has seen the launch by our school of a new public online resource, the Digital Platform for Contemporary Irish Writing. The pilot project, 50 Irish Books, features 50 books published by Irish writers between 2009 and 2013. Each title on the list comes with links to a wide range of reviews and author interviews, along with many other online text, audio and video resources. Our hope is that readers, students, teachers and members of book clubs will find much to explore and discover in the resources featured here.
For example, one can explore the early reviews of books by newcomers such as Eimear McBride, author of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, or Colin Barrett, winner of the Guardian first book award in 2014 for Young Skins and graduate of UCD's creative writing masters programme. The first reviews of Heaney's Human Chain, described by Eamon Grennan in his review for these pages as "Heaney's first book of old age", read especially poignantly now. Online visitors can access with ease poetry readings by Meehan or Ciarán Carson, or trace (via the PlayographyIreland database at Irish Theatre Institute) the theatrical success of Amy Conroy's I (Heart ) Alice (Heart) I and Pat Kinevane's Silent. Click on the book page for Emma Donoghue's novel to navigate eerie visualisations of the "room" or read the author's note "Writing Room: why and how".
The 50 selected books span fiction, memoir, short stories, poetry and drama, and a book about blogging. Five featured works testify to the vitality of Irish-language writing, ranging from bilingual collections by Louis de Paor and Celia de Fréine to the absorbing first novel by Dutch-born Alex Hijmans. Chosen by our international advisory board – and not without debate – they offer a representative selection of what is happening in Irish literature today and of that literature’s power and excellence. Early expressions of welcome have ranged from teachers of Irish literature courses in Nebraska, Montreal and Leuven to readers of contemporary Irish writing in Beijing, São Paulo and a bookclub in west Dublin.
A project such as this is also contentious: inevitably a list of 50 is only a beginning and, we hope, will provoke many responses of “But what about...”As our team members write on our blog, this is a “platform” and not simply a website or a resource, because we intend it to act as a springboard for interested parties – writers, publishers, academics and readers – to discuss how the richness and diversity of contemporary Irish writing can best be made known at home and abroad.
Prof Margaret Kelleher is chair of Anglo-Irish literature and drama at UCD, and of the Irish Film Institute. The Digital Platform for Contemporary Irish Writing can be accessed at contemporaryirishwriting.ie