Teaching Irish literature in a time of Brexit
A portrait of the Republic as a modern nation, the sort of education only fiction can provide
Important imports: some of the modern Irish novels taught by Dr Val Nolan at Aberystwyth University
One of the most exciting parts of being a university lecturer is designing new modules. It’s a process that’s one part responsibility to students, one part divining institutional requirements, and one part willingness to swing hard at sharing a topic you are passionate about. You start with a pitch – in this case, contemporary fiction from the Republic of Ireland – and then you narrow it down: you define contemporary as the last 10 years; you prioritise the voices of women and younger writers; you add a dollop of socio-economic context (the Celtic Tiger, the recession, the declining power of the church); and finally you realise that, as much as an academic module, you are building a rebuttal to Brexiter ignorance about Ireland.
The moment I recognised this was when I noticed that most of the novelists I have selected for the new module – Sally Rooney, Lisa McInerney, and so on – were those whose books I had bought at the airport on my back-and-forths to the small university town of Aberystwyth, where I teach. These are the novels that have seen me through the last three years of Brexit chicanery. I have read them on planes, my teeth gritted as people alongside me discuss why Ireland “doesn’t just rejoin the UK?” I have read them in frigid train-station waiting rooms as television Tories sneer that “Irish people should know their place!” I have found in them the accents and the comforts of home.
Which is to say that the best writing coming out of Ireland right now is so recognisably true to the lived experience of the mainland – that being how I insist on referring to home when in Britain – that it presents a natural corrective to constantly being gaslit about one’s own history and identity. Moreover, the unwillingness of the Eimear McBrides and the Mike McCormacks to play by the rules, the way they revel in upsetting the formal certainties of speech and structure, are not just comforting, not just familiar, they are object lessons in how, as I once said to a senior colleague, “Irish people don’t like being told what to do”. In that way they offer the perfect illustrative content for a module that’s not merely about how the Irish write, but about the distinctive ways in which the Irish see the world.
That said, such a class was perhaps an easy sell in Wales (or, as I joked in the staffroom last week, “Ireland’s Ancient East”). Tucked between dragons and drowned kingdoms in the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains, Aberystwyth’s Department of English and Creative Writing has long had a Hibernophiliac tendency. Joyce’s books are, as you would imagine, a fixture of our curricula and reading groups. The short stories of Claire Keegan and John McGahern present touchstones for our novice scribblers. I have even snuck Old Irish voyage tales – Echtrai, via Éilís Ní Dhuibhne – into a module I designed about “Shaping Plots”.
It helps too that Ceredigion, the county in which Aberystwyth lies, voted remain in the Brexit referendum, and that Wales more generally has always regarded Ireland with a neighbourly interest. Stand atop Cadair Idris on a clear enough day and you can literally see home. Watch a Six Nations match and you are witnessing a modern continuation of the Mabinogion. Make a stop at Holyhead and you can load up on soda bread and Taytos (Irish expats being the original stockpilers in Britain). Yet while our students know the work of Yeats and Beckett, they are less familiar with the likes of, say, Rob Doyle or Sarah Baume.
The new contemporary Irish fiction module aims to change all that and, in the process, forge something positive out of frustration with Brexiters’ portrayal of the Republic as an upstart or a spoilsport. Hence a module designed to create, as pedagogist John Cowan put it, “situations from which motivated learners will not be able to escape without learning or development”. Some may think that sounds like a backstop with a word count, but I prefer to see it as creating a means for British students to share in the best writing Ireland has to offer.
Thus participants on the module will read Rooney’s Costa-winning Normal People as a millennial coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of downturn Ireland. They will read McInerney’s Baileys Prize-winning The Glorious Heresies as an energetic depiction of post-crash urban life, one very far from, as Joseph O’Connor put it, “the conveniently out-of-focus watercolour Ireland”. Then, as a counterpoint to both, they will read Doyle’s Here Are the Young Men as an account of masculine insecurity and generational upheaval at the moment the previous half century’s absolutes crumbled into hedonism and despair.
In the second part of the module students will focus on the artistic experience. They will consider how Baume’s A Line Made by Walking explores the curse at the heart of the Irish creativity – “all this stupid sadness is chewing at my intellect” – and also the manner by which it interrogates impostor syndrome on both the personal and the national level. Finally they will read McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and McCormack’s Solar Bones as contemporary descendants of the Irish experimental tradition, a pair of Goldsmiths Prize-winners in conversation with the generations of Irish artists who refused to be bound by formal constraints.
Further reading from the likes of Colin Barrett and the nation-blurring Claire-Louise Bennett will be combined with critical work by Claire Bracken, Susan Cahill and Declan Kiberd to allow students locate recent writing from the Republic in terms of its historical, social and cultural context. But, beyond experiencing the vast power of literature to reflect social transformation, I hope participants will come away with a more nuanced sense of Ireland than they currently receive from the broad-stroke generalisations of British social and mainstream media. Less a collection of stereotypes than a cross-section of the Republic’s rich and complex here-and-now.
Dr Val Nolan lectures in the Department of English and Creative Writing in Aberystwyth University