Ireland's thriving literary magazine scene: space for tradition and experimentation
Both online-only formats and print journals provide vital platforms for new and developing writers
Covers from Banshee, The Moth and Poetry Ireland Review
Reading the mission statements of Irish literary journals, a common theme emerges: the desire to offer writers the space to develop ideas that may not otherwise find a platform. From the more established titles such as Dublin Review, Crannóg and The Stinging Fly, which published its first issue 20 years ago this month, to more recent outlets like The Bohemyth, Banshee and gorse, fostering talent new and old is the backbone of “the little magazine”.
A vibrant journal scene with a roots-up feel to it has developed in Ireland in the past decade. There are currently in the region of 30 publications across print and online media seeking submissions multiple times a year. This has coincided with a growing enthusiasm for creative writing in general, with all of the major colleges in Ireland and many other cultural organisations offering programmes ranging from evening courses for beginners to two-year MFAs (Master of Fine Arts).
It is also reflected in the contemporary culture of literary festivals where Irish and international authors go “on the circuit” to promote and discuss their work. Barely a month goes by in Ireland without some major literary event taking place, giving authors the chance to connect with readers and their peers.
But while festivals look for new launches and big names to draw in the crowds, literary magazines are often focused on an earlier stage of a writer’s career. Speaking to The Irish Times some years ago, the former Stinging Fly editor Thomas Morris praised Irish journals for their open submissions policy that sought out writing from new voices in contrast to the “invite-only” attitude that prevailed in the UK.
Morris’s successor at The Stinging Fly is the Mayo writer Sally Rooney, whose debut novel Conversations with Friends received rave reviews at home and abroad when it published last summer. With her first issue as editor forthcoming this summer, has she considered a change of approach for the magazine?
“For the moment I’m just excited about finding new work,” she says. “In the first few weeks of the role, I was worried I didn’t have a personal ‘vision’ for the magazine, but in the time I’ve spent reading submissions I’ve grown more comfortable with that – I think the important thing for me is not to impose any particular shape or style, but to let great writing come to the surface, and focus on supporting and developing it in whatever way I can.”
Ireland doesn’t have a rich tradition of journals for Rooney to look to, though the few titles that existed are still revered by those in the business today. Established in 1923, Seamus O’Sullivan’s The Dublin Magazine ran for 35 years and published writing from the likes of Samuel Beckett, Blanaid Salkeld and Austin Clarke. The first incarnation of Poetry Ireland Review, edited by David Marcus, was published in 1941. Seán O’Faoláin published the first issue of his seminal magazine The Bell a year earlier. A mix of literature and social commentary with an unorthodox liberal stance for the era, the list of contributors to the first edition is an editor’s dream: Elizabeth Bowen, Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, Jack B Yeats and Frank O’Connor.
Of the group, O’Brien was the emerging author – his first column as Myles na gCopaleen appeared later that same year in The Irish Times – though he was no stranger to the possibilities of literary magazines. Six years earlier he had published with his friends in UCD a magazine called Blather, which as the title suggests anticipated the style of his later writing.
Whereas O’Faoláin had his pick of authors for The Bell, the number of literary journals in operation at the moment means the homegrown talent is spread thinner. In a small country, might this mean there’s not enough to go around? Rooney believes that a strong journal culture is a positive thing for all magazines: “I’m enthusiastic about new journals springing up, exploring new perspectives, experimenting with form and contributing to the broader literary culture. I think The Stinging Fly’s reputation for finding and nurturing new talent is well-established, and as long as I can keep that up we’ll be okay. So, no pressure then.”
Dublin Review editor Brendan Barrington says that the number of “strong submissions” the quarterly publication receives seems higher than ever. “Ditto the number of new writers we’re publishing, even though there are more well-established Irish journals now than at any time since we started in 2000. It’s encouraging to see that new journals generally seem to be hanging on, rather than fading away after an issue or two.” While fiction remains fairly dominant in Irish journals, a fact that is mirrored in the wider literary landscape, he says that Dublin Review “feels a bit less alone in our commitment to writerly non-fiction”.
Barrington’s counterpart in the online literary journal The Dublin Review of Books, Enda O’Doherty, has had recent success in this area. “Two of our writers who have recently achieved very impressive figures internationally for their essays are the novelist Kevin Power, writing about Martin Amis and Oscar Wilde, and Dr Seamus O’Mahony on worrying trends in medical practice,” he says. “Both essays have done particularly well in the US.”
The online format has helped increase readership figures at drb, which has seen a consistent rise in the numbers of hits per article since their first issue in spring 2007. “If the quality is high enough a website article published here can be read in significant numbers all over the world, and not just by the Irish diaspora,” O’Doherty says. “This enables an Irish writer or critic to reach a much wider audience than would be likely in a traditional print journal.”
While a number of the older print journals are still publishing exciting new writing – among them Ireland’s longest standing journal Cyphers, The Honest Ulsterman and the Galway-based publication Crannóg, which gets more than 1000 submissions for each of its three yearly issues – the explosion of digital media in the last decade has allowed new outlets to flourish.
Though now disbanded, Elizabeth Reapy’s Wordlegs (2009 - 2014) is frequently mentioned by those involved in the scene as one of the forerunners of its time. Reapy, whose debut novel Red Dirt won the Newcomer of the Year at the 2016 Irish Book Awards, established the journal after finishing an MA in creative writing.
“Looking around at my chances for publication, I felt like there was a space for brand new writers like me, somewhere less established, less experienced, and on the new medium at the time – the internet,” she says. “It was inexpensive to set up and became a creative project for me and Cathal Sherlock. He was doing the art and tech work, I was doing the editorial and marketing side. Or, as my Dad put it, ‘If you can’t make the team, become the manager.’”
Claire Hennessy, who co-edits Banshee, credits Wordlegs as being one of the first Irish outlets to tap into the potential of online publishing. As Wordlegs was winding down, Banshee was gearing up for its first issue, which came out in autumn 2015. Top of the agenda for Hennessy and her co-editors Eimear Ryan and Laura Jane Cassidy was to pay authors for their work and make a dent in “a culture that saw mostly men in decision-making roles”. Three years since they founded the magazine, Hennessy says both concerns still exist but that there’s more attention paid to them.
“Our timing has been fortunate and zeitgeist-friendly. Gender has been a big issue for Irish literature in the last few years, prompted particularly by our Laureate Emeritus Anne Enright, Tramp Press founders Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff, and the Waking The Feminists movement. It’s become an infinitely more legitimate topic of discussion, which is very pleasing. The literary world is still terribly male and prone to dismissing women, but it’s changing, slowly.”
In an essay in the most recent issue of the The Honest Ulsterman, UCD PhD student Laura Loftus outlined how key literary periodicals in 80s and 90s Ireland contributed to the mainstream marginalisation of women poets. “My research analyses journals of the era as part of a larger thesis that looks at how the Irish literary community was built on a system of male literary inheritance and homosocial bonding,” she says. Women poets of the era found outlets through alternative networks such as writers’ workshops run by the Women’s Education Bureau, feminist presses like Attic Press and Arlen House, and Jessie Lendennie’s The Salmon poetry journal, “with the premise being that the situation improved from this period onwards, however marginally”.
The issue of representation of Irish female poets has garnered recent attention following the Fired! initiative that was set up as a response to the gender imbalance in both poetic and critical contributions in The Cambridge Companion To Irish Poets (2017) edited by Gerard Dawe.
The internet has proved a powerful tool for those looking to rectify the issue. Contemporary Irish poet Christine Murray runs a blog, Poethead, that indexes women poets from Ireland and abroad and offers a forum for their writing. “I am inundated with women poets from every country and operating a waiting list,” she says. “When I began indexing nearly 10 years ago I had to cajole poets, so it’s a huge change. If we create the platforms, they tend to submit.”
Murray notes a fairer gender balance nowadays and credits contemporary literary journals with helping to achieve this. “We have Eavan Boland editing Poetry Ireland Review, we have journals like Banshee and The Stinging Fly giving a platform to women poets,” she says. “But in terms of cultural and academic visibility this is not being rendered in the canon. The issue is largely cultural, how we perceive the authority of the poet.”
The writer Paula McGrath, who features in the current issue of gorse, concurs. “I was doing gender counts in poetry magazines back as far as the early 90s, and it was as bad as everything you’ve heard,” she says. “The male-female ratio is better now, but still unacceptable. I’ve reluctantly come to accept that we need quotas, everywhere: government, company boards, the media, conferences, theatre. Everywhere. Including literary magazines. When there’s parity, we can have the conversation about removing quotas.”
As someone who both subscribes to literary journals and writes for them, the poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa says the “diverse cluster” of publications around at the moment has had a significant influence on her own developing sensibility.
“Where the presence of journals like gorse encouraged me to experiment in my work, The Stinging Fly allowed me to explore fragmented prose, and The Dublin Review encouraged a rigor of style and thought,” she says. “I have always felt that my very female voice is welcomed in the pages of literary journals, although I would dearly love to see a broader range of ethnicity represented. I feel that it’s beyond time to focus on publishing more diverse Irish voices.”
The experimental ethos of journals means that they are still far ahead of mainstream publishing when it comes to diversity and gender. The writer Belinda McKeon puts this in part down to their size and scope. “There’s an awareness which maybe has been quicker to put into practice on the more microcosmic publishing enterprise that is a quarterly or yearly journal or magazine. But also, the editors, staff and interns on the smaller journals especially are themselves less usually the ‘typical publishing white person from out of Harvard’, and so the published work reflects that.”
Based in New York, McKeon regularly reads The Paris Review and Stonecutter, a magazine edited by Irishwoman Katie Raissian from her home in Brooklyn. “Online journals like Literary Hub, Electric Literature and Catapult are sites I keep an eye on most days,” she says. “But there are many others that a middle-aged person like me hasn’t even heard of because she wastes precious hours reading another New Yorker short story instead.”
Is there a noticeable difference in the journal culture in New York? “There are several bookstores which stock pretty much every literary journal and put them out on the shelves, facing forward, to be browsed through. That’s something I love about journal culture here – that it’s huge, but also accessible in that way to readers.”
While writers and others involved in literary circles are an obvious market for Irish journals, the wider reading public can have less interest or knowledge about such publications. Bob Johnston of the Gutter Book Shops in Dublin sells The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Granta and the annual Winter Papers. He says sales are steady but not amazing: “The Stinging Fly is definitely the strongest and would regularly show up in our monthly bestsellers when a new edition is published. Half of our sales are to locals interested in Irish literary fiction, with the other half selling to tourists interested in discovering new Irish writing.”
Johnston says the distribution models for many journals make them difficult to stock. “We have to make a profit on every sale so we don’t set up small direct accounts. I’d love to see more journals embracing supply via wholesalers as it really is the best way to get them into a wide range of bookshops, but I’m aware that production costs on journals can be very tight and many of them are cautious of giving the discounts necessary for a wholesale approach.”
Reaching a wide audience doesn’t seem to be the driving impulse behind most journals in operation at the moment, who exist first and foremost as a space to encourage writers. While Hennessy thinks the idea of a literary journal targeting a mass audience is “slightly mad”, the team at Banshee are always interested in “readability”. The magazine’s influences are a mix of high and popular culture, with the reader kept in mind throughout.
When it comes to spreading the word about journals, Hennessy says collaborative events work well to spark interest. “What we have found brilliant over the past few years are events where several Irish and Northern Irish journals get together and share work to an audience. It’s a wonderful way of offering a taster of what lit-journal culture has to offer and making this available to people who mightn’t be as inclined to attend a single-issue launch. There’s a camaraderie in lit-journal-land that lends itself to this. More of this kind of thing would be terrific.”
Belinda McKeon: I first read Rebecca Schiff’s stories in n+1, Ottessa Moshfegh in the The Paris Review, Kate Zambreno in Tin House. Stonecutter did an interview with Knausgaard long before he was the darling of the New York literary scene. Journals here are great for discoveries, no less than the Irish ones.
Gavin Corbett: Pretty much everything in gorse. Susan Tomaselli has great taste, casts her net widely, and is a great editor. In The Stinging Fly, an early Aiden O’Reilly story led me to his website, where I discovered much more of his excellent work. Also Sally Rooney – her talent was obvious from the beginning. The first time I read Nicole Flattery, again in The Fly, I was captivated – the voice, the word choice, the oddest dramaturgical line. I thought, my god, she could be the Irish Miranda July. Or the Irish Miranda off Miranda.
EM Reapy: North Korea by Sara Baume in The Penny Dreadful stands out in my memory. I remember reading it and being so blown away by her layering that I wrote it out by hand immediately afterwards to see how she’d done it. Another vivid and more recent piece was Frog Bookshop by Bernard O’Rourke in November’s The Bohemyth journal. I’m still reeling from it.
Sally Rooney: I first encountered Nicole Flattery’s work through The Stinging Fly, and I’m forever grateful I did. And it was through Granta and Poetry Ireland Review that I was introduced to the poetry of Stephen Sexton. I very often find writing in magazines worth getting excited about.
Bob Johnston: I loved the special New Irish Writing edition of Granta published in 2016, not least because we sold it by the bucketful, but it’s also where I first read work by Lucy Caldwell and Sally Rooney. Also The Stinging Fly where I first read a story by Kevin Barry and was completely blown away.
Paula McGrath: My favourite discovery was neither a piece nor an author, but an editor: Susan Tomaselli, whom I happened upon online in 3:AM Magazine, pre gorse. I was wowed by how well-read she was and by her thoughtful and original writing, and I more or less stalked her until she let me write a review for gorse blog.
Doireann Ní Ghíofa: I was deeply struck by Sarah Byrne’s poem Gin in Poetry Ireland Review, and Dawn Watson’s Bird on the School Path in The Moth. In terms of prose, I admired both Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision in The Dublin Review and Darragh McCausland’s Two Gromits in gorse.
1. Banshee http://bansheelit.tumblr.com/
2. Crannog http://www.crannogmagazine.com/
3. Cyphers https://www.cyphers.ie/
4. The Dublin Review https://thedublinreview.com/
5. The Dublin Review of Books https://www.drb.ie/
6. Gorse http://gorse.ie/
7. The Honest Ulsterman http://humag.co/
8. Irish Pages https://irishpages.org/
9. The Moth http://www.themothmagazine.com/
10. The Penny Dreadful http://thepennydreadful.org/
11. Poetry Bus Magazine http://thepoetrybusmag.wixsite.com/change
12. Poetry Ireland Review http://www.poetryireland.ie/
13. Skylight 47 https://skylight47poetry.wordpress.com/
14. The Stinging Fly https://stingingfly.org/
15. Tangerine https://thetangerinemagazine.com/
16. The Well Review http://www.thewellreview.com/
17. Winter Papers http://winterpapers.com/
1. A New Ulster https://sites.google.com/site/anewulster/
2. Bare Hands Poetry http://barehandspoetry.tumblr.com/
3. The Bohemyth https://thebohemyth.com/
4. Crossways https://crosswaysmagazine.com/
5. The Galway Review https://thegalwayreview.com/
6. Irish Literary Review http://irishliteraryreview.com/
7. Number Eleven Magazine http://numberelevenmagazine.com/
8. Silver Streams https://www.silverstreamsjournal.com/
9. The South Circular http://www.thesouthcircular.com/
10. Southword http://www.munsterlit.ie/Southword/swhome.html
11. Tales from the Forest https://talesfromtheforest.net/
12. The Weary Blues http://thewearyblues.org/
1. The HCE Review (UCD) https://hcereview.com/
2. The Ogham Stone (UL) https://theoghamstoneul.com/
3. The Quarryman (UCC) https://www.facebook.com/quarrymanjournal/
4. Icarus (Trinity) http://www.icarusmagazine.com/
5. Ropes (NUI Galway) https://ropesgalway.wordpress.com/
LITERARY JOURNAL EVENT
The James Joyce Centre presents The Legacy of the Little Magazine with Susan Tomaselli (gorse), Declan Meade (The Stinging Fly), Tara McEvoy (The Tangerine) and Laura Cassidy (Banshee). June 14th at 6:30pm, €15 , Belvedere House, Great Denmark Street. Supported by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature