Has Irish literature ignored our colonial experience?

James Kelman claims ‘there has been nothing of note in the Irish tradition for about 100 years’. Does he have a point? Critics and historians respond

“Challenging literatures are best sustained when there is a convergence of writing talent, demanding and passionate publics, and thoughtful reviewers and critics. Have we these?”

“Challenging literatures are best sustained when there is a convergence of writing talent, demanding and passionate publics, and thoughtful reviewers and critics. Have we these?”

 

On St Patrick’s Day of all days, Scottish novelist James Kelman raised hackles in some quarters, when, in an interview with The Irish Times, he criticised Irish writers for failing to reflect on the country’s colonial experience and their unwillingness to break with convention and challenge authority, thus benefiting, he claimed, from cushy careers in London and New York. While there was undoubtedly a degree of hyperbole in his claim that “there has been nothing of note in the Irish tradition for about one hundred years”, does Kelman have a point? Are there issues or subjects that Irish fiction – or, indeed, Irish writing generally (nonficton, history) – ignores or neglects? Is there a fundamental failure to interrogate our historical inheritance? The Irish Times invited responses from critics and historians.

Claire Connolly

I read James Kelman’s comments about Irish writing during a recent orange weather alert. I had intended to be on the road to Wexford for a family lunch, but found myself instead becalmed in Cork, with leisure to browse The Irish Times online. Recently, it seems that is only during these periods of weather-enforced isolation that we find time to read and think, as we struggle to make sense of environmental change on a global scale. How has Irish literature responded to the warming of the planet, our rising waters and disappearing coastlines? Recent collections by Paula Meehan and Leanne O’Sullivan call our attention to climate change, but does the topic engage the imagination of Irish novelists and short story writers?

In Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement, the Indian novelist expresses disappointment at the inability of literary fiction to tackle climate change. Ghosh describes an “imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the current climate crisis” and suggests that we are likely to find a more serious engagement with a changing environment in the “generic outhouses” of fantasy, Gothic and science fiction than we are in the house of serious fiction. For Ghosh, these are questions of style as well as content. If, he says, “teachers of creative writing now exhort their students to ‘show and not tell’”, then how can we find a language capable of responding to the abstract problems of a warming world?

Perhaps Kelman’s comments prompt us to return to the Irish writing of the 19th century: a rich and sustainable resource that we can read anew 

Clearly Irish writers are capable of imaginative feats whose horizons extend well beyond the classroom. But does a preference for striking images over long involved stories affect our ability to understand and respond to a changing environment? It is interesting to see that Paula Meehan shares with Amitav Ghosh a suspicion of the aesthetic injunction to show rather than tell. In her Ireland Professor of Poetry Lectures, she cites the same mantra and queries its usefulness for events on a scale that seem to call for the abstractions found in epic, myth or legend. Perhaps an adherence to realism, however beautifully achieved, limits the ability of Irish fiction to imagine events occurring on a global scale?

I cannot agree with James Kelman that “there has been nothing of note in the Irish tradition for about 100 years” but I think that there is much to be said for the longer view. Irish literature of 200 years ago is often described in terms of a failed or improperly achieved realism. My suggestion is that we read the modes adopted by these writers as forms that cleave to the world that they represent. Novelists such as Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan and William Carleton depict a stratified, colonial society, energetically imagining its own existence in terms of an unstable drama of improvement, unfolding against the backdrop of a colonial scramble to exploit Irish resources. Carleton’s accounts of the dark skies that spread over the Ulster of his youth have been claimed by environmental historian Gillen D’Arcy Wood as evidence of the impact of the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1816. The acres of bogland described in Maria Edgeworth’s novels and her close interest in the realities of a subsistence economy built around turf would repay reading in this light, while the flooded fields that open the narrative of Anthony Trollope’s The Landleaguers suggest an ecological drama at the heart of Trollope’s final Irish novel.

Perhaps James Kelman’s comments prompt us to return to the Irish writing of the 19th century: a rich and sustainable resource that we can read anew from our current location at the threshold of irreversible change.

Claire Connolly is professor of modern English at University College Cork  and Co-Principal Investigator of Deep Maps: West Cork Coastal Cultures  deepmapscork.ie

Jim Smyth

Historical revisionism, Irish-style, has long had a sort of unofficial literary wing. No writer’s imagination ever stirred to the “scientific” detachment of the TW Moody generation of historians, who considered passionlessness a virtue. Rather, some Irish novelists imbibed the broader revisionist agenda advanced by Conor Cruise O’Brien in the early 1970s. O’Brien sought to eradicate the heroic nationalist version of history which, he argued, had been weaponised by the men of violence to legitimate their campaign. No more rebel ballads on RTÉ! “My generation” recalls Dermot Bolger, “were perhaps unique in being left so quickly in the curious limbo of being taught certain songs at school one year and seeing them banned from radio the next”. In fact, in a certain strand of Troubles-related fiction, the deconstruction of the national myths we once lived by, and the cold – and lopsided – eye cast on the conflict, safely adhered to a respectable, State-censor-sanctioned, media consensus.

But perhaps James Kelman has another species of conformity in his cross-hairs. In the 20th century, unionist Scotland had a somewhat more robust left-wing politics than rebel Ireland, nurtured by one account in the rich civic loam of the Scottish “democratic intellect”. Revolutionary Ireland was instructed “Labour Must Wait” and it is waiting still. Where is the fierce indignation about social injustice, and the housing and healthcare crises, to be found amid all the neo-liberal platitudes about “business confidence” and “innovation” recycled daily on the airwaves, online and in print? I write as a keen admirer of the High Tory, Evelyn Waugh, not as an advocate of socialist realism. It seems likely too that Kelman is deprecating complacency about our present discontents, not calling for more political soapbox novels. He exaggerates to be sure, but as Waugh’s Mr Salter might say “only up to a point”.

Jim Smyth is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame

Joe Cleary

James Kelman’s provocation is salutary, but the problem cuts deeper than cushy jobs. Besides, playing the Scots and Irish off against each other is an old imperial ruse that both peoples should avoid.

Kelman suggests that Scottish writing’s more enthusiastic use of dialect means it has greater affinities with Caribbean and African postcolonial literatures. But for every Hugh MacDiarmid or Máirtín Ó Cadhain, dialect also produces a lot of Tartan and Teague kitsch, not to mention the Ulster Scots orange herring. Colonialism was constitutive to both Irish and Scottish national literatures and American and English literary institutions still arbitrate Anglophone literatures everywhere, so all lineages remain colonial to some degree.

When Kelman suggests that contemporary Irish literature is not politically challenging, he is largely correct. After the 2008 crash, we were told that Ireland’s political, banking and building elites had joined the Catholic hierarchy in disgrace, but that our writers, impeccable, ought to be vigorously marketed internationally to salvage the country’s tarnished reputation. This proposition, unchallenged, indicated that Irish writers felt little need to pause to consider how neoliberalism impresses itself on literature as on other activities. Yet writers should know better than most how hard it is to make writing anything more than the public relations wing of a corporate publishing industry; those who do not cannot begin to challenge themselves let alone a wider society.

Do we have a vision for the future or only a ‘choice’ between a populist pragmatism and a pragmatic populism?

There were more serious attempts in 20th-century Scottish than Irish writing to marry left-wing politics to high literary ambition, and Kelman is more committed to the idea of a left-wing literature than any currently high-profile contemporary Irish writer I can think of, except possibly Ronan Bennett. However, in Marx’s bicentenary year, all leftists know how hard it is to translate socialist literary aspiration into accomplishment. To wed dialect and the dialectic to mutual advantage isn’t easy.

Challenging literatures are best sustained when there is a convergence of writing talent, demanding and passionate publics, and thoughtful reviewers and critics. Have we these?

Our politics run from Leo Varadkar to Mary Lou McDonald, hardly a wide spectrum. Do we have a vision for the future or only a “choice” between a populist pragmatism and a pragmatic populism? The art of reviewing is not valued; Dublin Review of Books does a good job in bad times; our local academic literary journals are under-resourced; the stronger ones mostly US-supported. Funded for a decade by the University of Notre Dame, Field Day Review’s intellectual ambition is now sorely missed, though no Irish institution has yet seen fit to save it.

Our contemporary literature is timorous, but so is our society (and Kelman’s). The younger generation shafted in 2008 may yet think bigger and write better than its recent predecessors. Maybe, as Alice Munro has it, “the only duty of a writer is to produce a masterpiece”. But that duty presumes a capacity to challenge the conditions that shape a society, including its accepted notions of writers and literature.

Joe Cleary is a professor of English at Yale University. He edited the current edition of boundary 2 on the collapse of the Celtic Tiger

Louis de Paor

In September 1987, in a Glasgow nightclub, I heard the great Scots-Gaelic poet Ruaraidh Mac Thòmais/Derick Thomson (1921-2012) read a poem excoriating members of the Scottish Labour Party who had advocated a No vote in the 1979 referendum for a devolved Scottish assembly. The audience was small but included at least one of those whose names were “vomited” by the distinguished poet who was also professor of Celtic at Glasgow University and one of the principal scholars of Scots-Gaelic language and literature. It was excruciating and exhilarating in almost equal measure, the idea that poetry could breach the usual courtesies to confront power directly and challenge its authority on and off the page.

For the extraordinary generation of Scots-Gaelic writers who emerged in the middle decades of the 20th century, a sense of responsibility to history, class and politics was a defining element of a poetics that integrated aesthetic and ethical elements. In conversation with Somhairle MacGill-Eain (1911-1996), Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn/Iain Crichton Smith (1928-1998), and others, history was not another country or, indeed, another time. It was as though the Highland Clearances had only happened yesterday. Wary of Catholicism and nationalism, their sense of Ireland as a source of literature and ideas owed as much to James Connolly as it did to WB Yeats.

In conversation with James Kelman in Dún Laoghaire in the early hours of the morning after his public interview at the Mountains to the Sea Festival, I was struck by yet another Scottish writer’s deep knowledge of Irish history, politics, and philosophy, from the Irish-speaking rationalist freethinker John Toland (1670-1722) to the resistant voices of the late Dermot Healy.

Kelman’s sense that Irish writers have neglected to develop alternative forms of dissidence to those favoured by Joyce and his disciples derives from his reading of Irish history and literature as much as it does from a particular strain in Scottish writing that extends across fiction and poetry in English, Scots, and Scots Gaelic. That Kelman’s family origins are in west Cork and the Gaelic island of Lewis makes this a family argument in which silence and sulking are not permitted. Rather than citing exceptions to refute the charge against us, we might begin by (re)reading John McDougall Hay’s Gillespie (1914), Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy A Scots Quair (1934), Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies (1968) and the collected poems of Hugh McDiarmid, Somhairle MacGill-Eain, Ruaraidh MacThòmais and Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn before proceeding to William McIlvanney, Agnes Owen and the collected works of James Kelman.

Louis de Paor is an Irish-language poet and director of the Centre for Irish Studies at NUI Galway

Mary Burke

James Kelman is not the first writer on these islands to challenge literary conventions and notions of elegance with marginalised and gleefully obscene voices speaking in local dialect. Kelman’s declaration that “there has been nothing of note in the Irish tradition for about 100 years” must only refer to Irish literature in English, since both his stream-of-consciousness Scottish dialect novel, How Late it Was, How Late, and his dizzyingly multivocal Translated Accounts recall Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1949 Cré na Cille, a novel in a very particular dialect of Irish that consists entirely of the vituperative and concurrent conversations of corpses in a Connemara graveyard. Cré na Cille has recently reemerged into public consciousness with Yale’s publication of translations by Alan Titley (The Dirty Dust) and Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson (Graveyard Clay), and their astonishing difference testifies to the multivocality of the original. The emphasis on the male voice and toxic masculinity of much experimental fiction after Joyce in Ireland – and indeed, in Scotland – is challenged by the dominant voice of Ó Cadhain’s cacophony, that of the unforgettable Caitríona Pháidín, whose salty language and vindictiveness is a Connemara besting of Dublin’s Molly Bloom. (And speaking of how women are often implicitly absent from the summary of whole traditions, to dismiss so-called “Anglo-Irish” tradition as irrelevant – as Kelman does – is to discount the “Big House” genre, which Irish women writers from Edgeworth to Claire Kilroy have used to probe Ireland’s sociopolitical ills.) The decolonising State’s attitude that the avant-garde or risqué was alien to a native language associated with the supposedly isolated and pious west meant that Cré na Cille was rarely included in Ireland’s boundary-pushing modernist canon. However, Cré na Cille’s densely idiomatic dialogue, its Irish-speaking Black Connemara residents, and its numerous loan words and neologisms acknowledge linguistic and cultural exchange, explicitly suggesting that such contact arose from economically neglected Connemara’s history of emigration. Ó Cadhain’s decidedly unromanticised loudmouths wrest their language back from a mid-century, Dublin-centred education complex that sanitised the native language of any traces of blasphemy, vulgarity or foreignness. Thus, the very existence of this novel defies attempts to colonise Connemara’s culture, both before and after 1922. If Cré na Cille is given its rightful place alongside Ulysses, it becomes impossible to suggest there has been nothing notable in the Irish tradition for 100 years.

Mary Burke is associate professor of English at University of Connecticut

Breandán Mac Suibhne

James Kelman’s comments cannot have shocked anybody who has been paying attention: we have been here before – and not just with regards to fiction. Thirty years ago, in 1988, an inquisitive economist, Cormac Ó Gráda, peeked over the garden wall into history and reported back that Irish historians were “a rather conservative bunch. There are no Irish EP Thompsons or Eugene Genoveses.” Harsh, maybe, but his curiosity about his neighbours had been piqued by the realisation that the Great Famine – the event that defined modern Ireland – had, in half a century, been the focus of only half a dozen articles in Irish Historical Studies and, in 14 years, of not a single essay in Irish Economic and Social History. One reason for that neglect, Ó Gráda argued, was politics: and because “correcting populist nationalist misconceptions about historical grievances” had been Revisionism’s “unifying theme”, what little historical writing there was on the Famine rarely engaged with issues in the wider field of Famine studies. Ó Gráda did not say Irish history writing was “at best a third-rate player in the international arena” – as one fine historian, Guy Beiner of Ben Gurion University, would do in 2007 – but he gave the distinct impression that it was, to borrow a phrase from Kelman, “mildly disappointing”.

One cannot imagine the French Revolution being so neglected by France’s historical profession or the American Civil War by that in the United States

Our understanding of the Famine has deepened significantly since Ó Gráda took the measure of the historians, due in no small part to his own work in economics and the work of others in criticism and geography. But it remains bafflingly neglected by Irish historians. There are 10 third-level history programmes in Ireland; only one boasts a historian who has written a research-based book on the Famine – Queen’s University Belfast. One cannot imagine the French Revolution being so neglected by France’s historical profession or the American Civil War by that in the United States. For sure, the Troubles do not explain this neglect – for they are now history. And so, given that the Famine holds particular interest for our diaspora and that the study of famine, being a thoroughly interdisciplinary field, is open to disparate funding streams, historians’ neglect of it may now be proclaimed a Mystery of Faith that it is not our destiny to understand.

Moreover, much as Kelman describes Irish fiction, the problem with Irish history goes beyond the neglect of issues to the manner in which issues are addressed. Westminster kept a very close eye on Ireland; there is a superabundance of social book-keeping sources in state archives. And cultural nationalism has bequeathed us one of the finest oral history repositories in the world in the National Folklore Collection. So historians can peer at 19th-century Ireland through the barred windows of the barracks and the turf smoke of the mud cabin. Angela Bourke, in The Burning of Bridget Cleary (1999), demonstrated what can be achieved when historians listen to the policed as well as to the policemen. Yet few social and cultural historians have followed her lead, the monoglot majority preferring to go about its business as if Ireland were as British as Finchley.

In this age of the troll – a type with nothing to contribute – we should be grateful to Kelman for a fine demonstration of the venerable art of coat-trailing, for some rows are worth having. But, again, we have been here before.

Breandán Mac Suibhne is author of The End of Outrage (2017), Irish Times Irish Nonfiction Book of the Year 2017

Katherine O’Callaghan

To consider the literary innovations of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien and Máirtín Ó Cadhain, to name just a tiny handful of 20th-century Irish novelists, as amounting to “nothing of note” is frankly puzzling. Furthermore, contrary to James Kelman’s odd assessment, Irish authors have been deeply preoccupied with the issue of writing an Irish literature in the English language. However, I suspect Kelman is not thinking about language and stylistic innovation, but rather the absence of an overt transnational solidarity in the content of Irish novels, and, here, he may have a point. On balance, the practice in the Irish literary tradition has been to use language itself as the primary site of resistance. This may have resulted in a neglect of some of the social justice issues that would resonate with the work of international contemporaries. Is there, for example, an Irish novel which succeeds in radically re-envisioning Irish society? In a very broad sense Irish writers are a part of a greater anti-imperial tradition. However, contemporary concerns of race, migration and international post-colonial politics that are central to other anti-imperial traditions (African, Caribbean etc) have not made as significant an impact on Irish literary production.

Irish writing might also be accused of having a tendency towards lamenting after the event. It is not that Irish authors ignore the ills of society, but that they see their function as bearing witness rather than being part of political movements. There may, of course, be a naive optimism in the belief that seeing our flaws mirrored in our national literature might actually provoke change. The deeply impoverished nature of a society which permitted atrocities such as the Magdalene Laundries, the cover-up of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, endemic domestic and institutional violence, is starkly described in Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), where all of these issues are alluded to, but which the greater society allowed metastasise for much of the century to follow. The debate concerning the duties and responsibilities of the writer, which may lie anywhere on a scale from principled agitator to exiled artist, is also present in Joyce’s The Dead, when Molly Ivors attempts to shake Gabriel Conroy out of his political apathy, although the text remains a masterpiece in ambivalence on the subject.

Some of the best and most exciting Irish writing today is emerging from independent publishers based in Ireland, such as Tramp Press. I am hoping for the emergence of novels that imagine the century ahead. It seems that politics refuses, and science tries but fails, to shake our cognitive dissonance regarding the impending effects of climate change. Novels, including novels from Ireland, may have to perform this function, imagining change, migration and adaptation on enormous scales.

Katherine O’Callaghan lectures at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, specialising in Irish literature. She is the editor of Essays on Music and Language in Modernist Literature: Musical Modernism (Routledge, 2018)

Alan Titley

There is a sense in which Kelman is entirely correct, and another in which he doesn’t even get to boil the plot. Much of contemporary Irish writing is smug and safe and bourgeoisified, or else harks back to rural idylliotics which never existed. When it doesn’t, it often rails against windmills which have long since lost their puff, or reburies corpses which have been interred for yonks.

On the other hand, there is a wonderful manic energy about contemporary novelists, sometimes hilarious, occasionally half-mad, always freshly stylish, but never less than engaged with what is, or might be going on. If you only read Lisa McInerney, Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan and Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, you would know more about the country than all the headlines and editorials of all the newspapers that are still read.

The point is, unless you are writing historical fiction, you do not owe any debt to the past. The next point is that we have done it already: through the savage social criticism of Liam O’Flatherty, or the gritty realism of Frank O’Connor, or even the whiny Bell-clanging of Seán O’Faolain. The next point is, because we won the greater part of our historical political anti-colonial struggle, it is not an issue any more; we don’t have to bang on about it, like the Scots who have only barely begun to wake up to the bum deal they have swallowed and internalised. Why should we have to moan because our own little state is far more successful than that of our colonial masters, despite those many wounds of cultural cringe?

To write in Irish is the most emphatic statement that you have not been colonised. More importantly, you will not be. Like the Brexiteers, it is a link to the entire world

One point he misses is a riposte to that colonial cringe. Those who write in Irish do so for many reasons: for many it is just that Irish is their first and normal language; for others it is a cultural choice, a choice which is the ultimate answer to Kelman’s point. To write in Irish is the most emphatic statement that you have not been colonised. More importantly, you will not be. Like the Brexiteers, it is a link to the entire world, but in the opposite way. You are part of the rosary of the unvoiced, and yet you sing your own soul.

There have been lashings of novels in Irish which wrestle with our situation now, then, and in the future. Breandán Ó Doibhlin’s Néal Maidne agus Tine Oíche, or Tomás Mac Síomóin’s An Tionscadal, if you want two names. We have both joy and anger in spades, only just ask.

Alan Titley is professor of modern Irish at University College Cork

Lauren Arrington

It would be easy enough to disprove James Kelman’s assertions about “Irish writers” by referring him to Molly McCloskey’s searing first-hand depiction of Guantánamo or Rita Ann Higgins’s Black Dog in My Docs Day about the grief wrought by suicide – one of Ireland’s last taboos. But Kelman seems to be referring to novelists like – or, in his view, rather unlike – himself. So let’s answer him in kind.

We could start in latte-swilling south Dublin, dissected in Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Kevin Power’s Bad Day at Blackrock, which lay bare the seething violence of the country’s rugby culture. Or there is Tana French’s gripping crime novels that expose the dark underbelly of Ireland after the Crash, from Broken Harbour’s ghost estates to her most recent book, The Trespasser, which is set in impoverished central Dublin and gives the lie to mythologies of gentrification.

Some of the most powerful challenges to the status quo have come from novels by women: Sara Baume’s demanding portrayal of depression in A Line Made by Walking and Eimear McBride’s gut-wrenching A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Novels by men – and here we are getting closer to Kelman’s grievance – have also brought the unspeakable to the dinner table: Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors and Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy are now iconic texts, but their radical interventions in the violence endemic in ordinary institutions, from marriage to the church, cannot be taken for granted.

Honing in on Kelman’s thinly veiled targets: Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist examines personal loyalty and political belief amid the taut setting of a decolonising Congo, in a powerful evocation of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. Sebastian Barry’s elegant, heart-breaking prose in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and A Long Long Way shows the struggles of the individual conscience to explain and justify loyalties and atrocities, addressing the complexities of Ireland’s entanglement with empire and the repressed narratives of the 26 counties’ journey to independence. Finally, where would Ireland’s legislation on marriage equality be without Colm Tóibín’s The Story of the Night, which criticised “mad patriotism” and, more to the point, unflinchingly portrayed the courtship and love between two men? And that’s just to speak of the past 25 years, never mind the last century.

Lauren Arrington is senior lecturer at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool

Frank Shovlin

Kelman’s claims hold no water whatsoever. How do novels like Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing; John McGahern’s The Dark; Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy; or Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls fit into his claim that Irish writers are unwilling or unable to tackle the hard subjects, that they have it cushy or are politically disengaged? It is too easy to prove that Kelman is just plain wrong, and it is hard not to suspect that he said what he said to attract a bit of attention to himself – and it worked.

 But, all that aside, there’s an ugly assumption in what he says that it is somehow the duty of the artist to be socially engaged. In this position, I think he is entirely wrongheaded. The artist owes nothing to society or to anyone in it. The artist has no duties. He or she should be trying to achieve literary greatness by producing lasting and truthful visions that bring into the light a dramatization of their inner worlds. If those inner worlds happen to display a social conscience, then well and good. But if they don’t, that’s just fine. Is Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’ a more valuable poem because of its political valency than something like ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ – that magnificent meditation on the victory of the inner over the outer man -- from the same period? No, is the answer.

 As to what Kelman means when arguing that most Irish writers “without knowing it… seem to take on the Anglo-Irish perspective”, your guess is as good as mine. It’s like reheated, uninformed, outmoded Daniel Corkery. To insist on the writer having to wear a particular political position on his or her sleeve is fascism, and were all writers to have to sit down with Kelman’s strictures in mind it would be the end of artistic autonomy and of art itself. 
Frank Shovlin is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool 

Barry McCrea

It is so obviously untrue that Irish literature has produced “nothing of note” in the past hundred years that the remark hardly merits a response. Especially not a counter-claim that contemporary Irish literature is one of “the best” in the world, as one sometimes hears Irish writers and journalists assert. As a novelist and critic I see no value in a debate in those terms. A national literature is not like a national rugby squad, that you loyally talk up and hope that they will go out and beat other teams. Literature is not produced within the confines of a nation or even of a language, but is always part of a big, complex, international ecology of forms, styles, affinities, influences. Great literature is always some compound of the international and the intensely local. That is what is so interesting about observing evolving national literary traditions, the ways in which broad, transnational trends are adopted and transformed when called on to recount the particular realities of a specific place. One of the exhilarating things about Joyce, for example, is the way in which his application of modernist ideas he took from Norwegian, French, Italian, and German writers to narrate the Ireland of his youth produced an entirely new form of modernism.

Every type of life is worth telling, and every generation sooner or later decides to lay a claim in world literature for its particular life-experience

In some respects, generation is as important as nationality as a site of literary innovation. Every type of life is worth telling, and every generation sooner or later decides to lay a claim in world literature for its particular life-experience. I feel that the experience of my generation, those born in and around the 1970s, who came of age in the EU, has still not been given full voice to in contemporary European fiction, including in Ireland. There are plenty of signs now (such as the success of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novels) that the European “Generation X” is suddenly, belatedly, developing a discernible style of its own, identifiable in places as different as Norway, France and Italy, yet inflected in each case by their own local literary worlds. I can’t wait to see what this generational flourishing will look like in Ireland. There are many talented writers born in the 1970s who have yet to produce their best work – it will be shaped, I think, by their European contemporaries as much as by the senior members of our national literary XV.
Barry McCrea is a novelist and professor of literature at the University of Notre Dame

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