When it comes to Irish writing, this is a golden age
Author Olivia Kiernan argues that contemporary Irish writing is breathing new life into the tradition
Olivia Kiernan: 'There’s a new feeling of risk-taking when it comes to our mode of expression.'
In Sebastian Barry’s inaugural speech as laureate he stated that we were in an unexpected golden age of Irish fiction and I think anyone who has been tapping at keyboards over the last decade can only cheer in reply. There is an expectation of what the Irish novel should look like, the themes explored and the style in which it’s delivered. And it’s not that our present day authors are moving away from tradition but they’re doing what Irish literature does best: challenging style and subject matter. The result is a literary age that is full of possibility.
Nowadays our fiction bears a lot of the hallmarks of Irish literature of old (there’s more than a hint of a Joycean interference in Eimear McBride’s narrative-busting A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing) but the prose is glinting with a sharpness and energy that’s electrifying. Here we’ve writers like Claire Kilroy, Lisa McInerney, Tana French, John Boyne, Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan and many more either shaking up the old rhythms or carving out a revolutionary Irish literary voice with steady hands and a wild twinkle in their eyes.
For me, the first marker that change was afoot was Anne Enright’s win of the Man Booker for The Gathering. It was as if the nation had been elbowed in the ribs and collectively we lifted our heads, blinked, and thought, oh yeah, we’re good at this. In fact, we were inventive with it.
For most of my teens when it came to talking about great Irish writing, conversations always fell back to the usual suspects: Beckett, Wilde, Joyce et al. And this is fair enough, even by today’s standards Joyce’s Ulysses is a boundary-pushing beast of a head-scratcher. But if you think Irish literature is condemned to a pastiche of Joyce or Beckett, think again. Yes, we stand on our heritage but Ireland’s modern authors have opened up the floor. Their work tells us not to fear experimenting with voice and structure. If the prose doesn’t sound Joycean, don’t sweat it, it’s still Irish literature.
The subject matter of our fiction has moved away from the distant hand of symbolism of all things tortured and sorrowful about our bruised history. There’s a freshness to the Irish landscape as approached by these writers offered up with an honest, unromantic delivery. In interview, Enright talks about writing The Green Road. The novel is an unsettling depiction of a matriarch-led Irish household. She describes her desire to put on paper a feeling of “elsewhere”. The novel takes the reader to New York and Mali then back to the family home. When her characters return to Ireland, full with their own lives, they bring these places with them and the Irish household has never felt more claustrophobic.
Now our novels come with a hard bump of teeth; the humour has extra bite
In an emotional sense, Enright’s novel brings common Irish themes closer to the ground but at the same time looks outwards to a much larger setting. Similarly, in Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It, the story unravels with a bold eye on today’s fishbowl teen world where the truth is warped through social media in a house of horrors way. This is outward-looking fiction examining consent and the tightrope women walk: to live and explore today’s world with the same freedom as men, yet be found guilty by the same charge. Does this sound like Irish fiction to you? Hell, yes!
And it’s not just the view that has changed. There’s a new feeling of risk-taking when it comes to our mode of expression. Now, we can read about Ireland’s generational trauma, see it eked out in the family circle, or on a cul-de-sac in some empty estate in Cork or Dublin complete with sour language and swear-words. McInerney’s work, in particular, comes to mind here. In her novel, The Glorious Heresies, we are treated with Irish prose that’s satisfyingly authentic. And along with most modern Irish fiction this language plays with humour, a humour that is often sweetly dark or sometimes with a flick of light wit that belongs surely to the flat delivery of the Irish putdown. In Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, his character talks of his dad’s persistence in living and living still in the family home: “Every day he lives lowers the price I’ll get. He knows that too; he stays alive to spite me.”
His novel is served up with a humour that’s uniquely ours, a blitheness to our own pathetic state that immediately lends his novel a tension of sorts. There’s no greater tell in Irish discourse when there’s suffering to be dealt with; a lick of miserable laughter and it’s under the carpet with the church, the crooked politicians and the thousand hidden crimes found in Irish society and in the home. As an Irish writer, it is often as much of a surprise to me as to the reader, which elements of a dark scene rouse a smile or a chuckle. This is perhaps one of the things I appreciate most about Irish fiction and now our novels come with a hard bump of teeth; the humour has extra bite.
It has been a slow gathering over the last decade but the revolution is in full swing. There are a plethora of Irish writers leading the charge, all experimenting or simply recognising that their voice has a place on our shelves. These writers have picked up the manual, took a breath and blown the dust from the pages, with a twist of tongue and pen they’ve written new life into Irish fiction. Maybe it’s not unexpected but it’s a golden age certainly.
Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan is published by riverrun, at £12.99