A Conversation about Irish Literature
Why does Ireland produce so much good writing? Over the past few years I’ve been intrigued by the perennial over-representation of Irish authors on the shortlists of the more credible UK literary prizes. More generally, it seems to me that the Irish publishing industry has of late been rather better than its UK counterpart at nurturing a certain kind of literary fiction: serious, intellectually and aesthetically ambitious, relatively uncommercial. During (and after) two recent trips to Ireland, I talked to a number of Irish writers and editors about the material and institutional infrastructure that underpins the success of Irish fiction, and its unique place in the broader ecology of Anglophone literature. Martin Doyle, Books Editor at the Irish Times, told me government funding is one of a number of factors contributing to the vibrancy of the Irish literary scene:
‘State support is undoubtedly significant, whether directly via Arts Council grants or indirectly via support for literary magazines and festivals and arts centres, which in turn provide opportunities for writers to earn and learn. The influence of literary magazines such as The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Winter Papers, gorse and The Moth as a proving ground is well known by this stage, I think, and it’s an arena that is expanding and diversifying, with newcomers such as Banshee, Holy Show, Tolka, Paper Lanterns and Dig With It. The Irish Writers Centre’s Novel Fair has a very impressive strike rate for producing debut authors.
…….Creative writing programmes at the major universities have also provided a new pathway to publication for developing writers, and with tutors of the calibre of Joseph O’Connor (UL), Anne Enright (UCD); Eoin McNamee and Kevin Power (Trinity) and Mike McCormack (NUI Galway), the future is in safe hands. There is also a strong indigenous publishing scene, which complements the British publishing industry, many of whose houses also have local extensions. More broadly, or vaguely, the culture holds literature in high regard, which comes across most clearly perhaps when a major writer, such as Seamus Heaney or Eavan Boland, dies. Dare I say it – self-praise is no praise – but the attention paid to writers in the national media, be it in the review and feature pages of the Irish Times, Ryan Tubridy’s RTE radio show or elsewhere, also helps.’
I met Kevin Barry, author of the Goldsmiths Prize-winning novel Beatlebone (2015) and Booker-longlisted Nightboat to Tangier (2019), at his home in rural Sligo. He acknowledged the importance of ‘a comparatively generous dole’ in helping him stay afloat during the early days of his writing career:
‘I remember moving from Cork to London in 1994 it must have been. And in Cork, the dole was about ninety quid a week or something. Then I went to London and it was like ninety quid a fortnight, you know? And Cork city in the early mid-nineties, which is around the time I was starting to write in a serious way, in my mid-twenties, it was coming out of a long period of economic depression but it seemed to be a very happy place creatively because everyone was on this quite decent level of social welfare that you could get by on. Or at least you could get by at a kind of studenty level. You could buy little bits of hash and you could buy six-packs and you could rent your little bedsits. All that an artist in embryo needs! And there was a real kind of DIY ethos, coming largely out of the club scene, about putting on – or trying to put on – little plays and putting on music nights and putting on all sorts of stuff and people were doing things and realising you didn’t really need to be in a big city to make a vibrant cultural life around you.
……I think that’s something that’s very evident as well over the last few years in places outside of Dublin, because younger artists and writers have been priced out of the capital, and increasingly priced out of the other Irish cities as well. So you go around the country and in towns like Wexford, say, you have all these creative people who would have moved to the city in previous generations, but now they’re staying put. When I was growing up in Limerick, anyone with any sort of creative ambitions in the early nineties, the thing was, you got out of there, you moved to Dublin or London or New York, and that would be the dream, you know? But now I notice among nephews and stuff, and younger people I know who are involved in visual art or music or whatever it is, they go ‘I know, I can just stay in the smaller place’. It’s cheaper, and you know the ground, you know the terrain and you can actually start to make your work where you are. So that’s been a very kind of positive thing, I think. But there is a sense sometimes in the smaller places and in the quieter places, that there are dreary enough times of the year where you have to dig for it, you know? When you really have to search hard for the creative spark.’
Have the Covid lockdowns exacerbated that tendency?
‘It’s interesting, isn’t it? I think it’s something that’s been happening for quite a while anyway but it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. We spent a year in Montreal a few years ago, and I noticed that going to gigs there and talking to people in bands and stuff, previously they would have moved to Toronto to find the big break and then they’d either move to L.A. or New York. But increasingly they were going, ‘We’re staying in Montreal because rents are cheap. Yeah, it’s minus 25 for six months of the year, but we know the town, we can put out our music, we don’t have to work a dozen horrible jobs just to get by’. And of course, you know, there is the fact of the internet. Essentially, you don’t need to be in the big cities anymore.’
Monetary questions loom large in the fiction of Caoilinn Hughes, who won The London Magazine Collyer Bristow Prize for her debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp (2018); her follow-up, 2020’s The Wild Laughter, a stylish novel about two brothers from a farming family in the west of Ireland whose futures are plunged into uncertainty after the 2008 crash, won the Encore Award last year. She explained to me the mechanics of state funding for literature and the arts:
‘In Ireland – as far as I understand it – the funding bodies that literature falls under at a national level include the Irish Arts Council, Culture Ireland and Literature Ireland. The Arts Council is the government agency that works with artists, organisations and policy makers to support and develop the arts. They’re involved in funding, government consultations, R&D [Research and Development] to do with arts information and advocacy, developing strategic partnerships, all that sort of stuff – though most individual artists might think of it in terms of the magazines supported by the Arts Council that they submit to, the festivals they attend or are invited to and, importantly, the grants, bursaries, residencies and training opportunities they might apply for.
…….Culture Ireland has to do with outreach, in supporting Irish artists and organisations to bring their work outside Ireland. Literature Ireland is funded by the Arts Council and by Culture Ireland, and I think it’s a much smaller institution. It promotes Irish literature abroad. It helps to bring contemporary Irish books into other languages – dealing with translations (though not exclusively) – and it fosters the networks involved in those cross-language projects, including having relationships with foreign publishers and translators. It presents Irish literature in contexts like Frankfurt Book Fair.
…….It was important for me to gain some understanding of these institutes. When I found out that my book would come out in German, it was a lovely surprise to find out that Literature Ireland had something to do with that. I didn’t know such champions existed for our books before then. And knowing that the development of work can be supported by a different body to the promotion of that work… that separation gives a certain freedom to the artist, I believe – a freedom not to lean into work that might be easier to pitch for its promotability. For example, if the funding of an artist’s play is coming from the same institute funding that play’s international tour, then it might – negatively, to my eye – affect how that artist pitches that work or even conceives of it to begin with. You’d end up with a lot of elevator pitch, ready-framed art.’
Earlier in her career, Hughes received a Literature Bursary Award from the Arts Council, which gave her the space to develop her craft. What was the application process like?
‘I had applied several times for funding before being successful, and finally I asked for feedback. The feedback given helped me to realise that I was trying to fulfil the sort of pitchable criteria that I fundamentally don’t believe in or subscribe to, and that that was coming across. That’s not how I work. I write into the dark. I don’t write with a plan. I have no idea what my books will be, usually until the last page. I felt that every time I wrote an application, it was killing various sparks for books by virtue of trying to describe them. I explained this to the Arts Council officer, and they kindly said that I should describe my process and explain this in my next application, rather than contriving a whole book summary, at the expense of that book. That was hugely reassuring, to know that the application process could accommodate artists who write better books than applications!’
Hughes echoed Barry’s point about the dole:
‘I know artists who have been on the dole as a means of survival – perhaps the advance they received for their last book six years ago was under 10,000 euro (minus 20 per cent agent fees minus some percentage of tax, split usually over four payments across two years), and their alternative would be to take up an adjunct position at a university where they would teach three or four courses a year and still fail to make minimum wage. I think that’s a very difficult context in which to make art. To make art is to explore uncertainty, and fears of not being able to make ends meet on a basic level of food, shelter, utilities, healthcare prohibit that exploration. I’ve experienced the stress of not making minimum wage and how that alters your view on the work you’re trying to make and, of course, your ability to make it.’
The prevalence of Irish voices in Anglophone fiction can throw up difficulties for non-Irish reviewers, who don’t always have a firm handle on the nuances of Irish culture. Barry Pierce, a London-based book critic who hails from Cork, believes US and UK readers have a tendency to idealise Ireland:
‘I think a lot of these questions have been answered incredibly eloquently by Sean O’Neill’s Gawker piece from the end of last year, ‘Sally Rooney is Irish’, in which he looks at how non-Irish outlets discuss and review Sally Rooney’s books and why her Irishness is intrinsic to how anyone should analyse her work. To writers covering Rooney’s work, her books are often set in “Ireland”, as if the island is some homogenous state without regions, counties, accents, dialects and political divides. This is something I’ve often seen when reading reviews of Irish books by non-Irish readers. A British writer setting a book in Birmingham or Wolverhampton instantly signals something to the reader that we’re likely going to witness a working-class tale in which the not-London-ness of the work is a major factor. If an Irish writer tried to do something similar – setting a book in Limerick for example, or, as Sally does, making Mayo the focus – such a location is usually lost on non-Irish critics.’
As the author of a trilogy of critically acclaimed novels set in Cork’s criminal underworld – The Glorious Heresies (2015), The Blood Miracles (2017) and The Rules of Revelation (2021) – Lisa McInerney is well placed to comment on this. We met at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway, an annual festival jointly co-sponsored by NUI Galway, the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, the Arts Council and several other government agencies including the Irish tourist board. She told me her experience has been largely positive:
‘I find that readers and reviewers tend to be a fairly open-minded lot, happy to read stories set in communities they’re not familiar with, or happy to trust context when deciphering a vernacular that’s new to them. Which is probably a prerequisite if you’re going to read one of my books, considering how deeply set they are in Cork City, which has a vernacular very particular even within Ireland. My conviction is that language can’t be separated from authentic setting; I can’t write Irish characters who don’t follow Irish speech patterns or don’t have Irish cultural references.
…….I’ve come across small blips in terms of how the books were written about, just moments where I felt the reviewer missed something or made an incorrect assumption, but nothing too awful. Usually it’s a tone thing: Irish people don’t take anything too seriously and at the same time we can be very, very guarded, so there’s a lot of irony and sarcasm and implication and saying one thing but meaning another. That in itself is painfully fascinating because it’s probably a twentieth century Catholic/civil war/Troubles hangover.
…….The other slight blind spot, I think, is in non-Irish readers or reviewers underestimating how garrulous we are, how expressive and articulate, or how much capital is to be gained in a good bout of piss-taking or argument. Mind you, it’s usually the case that there’s very little of import said in long, playful, eloquent speeches, and conversely, an awful lot said in shifty non-words and shrugs.’
A sense of place is similarly integral to Darran Anderson’s latest book, Inventory (2020), a memoir of
his childhood in eighties and nineties Derry. He told me Northern Irish writers face a double barrier:
‘One of the things I tried to do in Inventory was to write a book that reached not simply across the sectarian divide where I grew up but across the divides between Northern Ireland and Britain, and the north of Ireland and the Republic. We’ve had many decades of Northern Ireland being wilfully alienated and othered by both states, and this has fed into the culture that is chosen to represent our part of the world. We are either feared or sentimentalised, with both being used to distance a place that has, at best, been treated as a blood-soaked inconvenience. The UK and the Republic are more alike than they would like to think in that regard. It’s notable that almost all of those who received Inventory with enthusiasm either already had family connections to the north of Ireland, like David Keenan, or had profound experiences themselves in other colonised and conflict-riven societies, like Taran Khan [author of Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul]. That meant a lot to me. And I take great encouragement from the success of Northern Irish writers like Wendy Erskine and Lucy Caldwell in managing to reach out, escape the man-made confines, and pluralise, brilliantly, what it means to be a writer from back home.’
Anderson lives in London, which is home to a not inconsiderable community of Irish literary expats. Is that a source of solace?
‘There’s definitely a feeling of being part of an Irish diaspora, though it’s a scattered one. If you were feeling especially poetic, you could see it like an archipelago or a constellation but really it’s just people living all over the place, engaged in an absurdly solitary activity. Occasionally, the dots are joined, encounters happen, allies and friends made. It feels not quite underground but a little secretive, which I like. I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else but, regardless of where I am, I’ll always be an Irish writer from Derry. I could no more change that than I could my genetics.
…….Yet I feel more of a stranger in Dublin than I do in London, which is partly due to the Republic’s attitudes towards the north and partly my affinity, or lack thereof, with each city. I’ve come to realise with time that perhaps that is a useful position to be in. It may be an advantage from a writing point of view to be an outsider. I suspect there’s probably not much choice either way. It could well be a question of psychology rather than geography. When I lived in Ireland, I was never fully there, always daydreaming. Now that I’ve lived away for a long time, I realise I never quite left the place. It’s a strange state to be in but maybe being outside has its uses, especially when you read what the insiders are producing.
…….The problems arise when dealing with mainstream publishers here, who are often from very different environments. It doesn’t matter that you come from less than 400 miles away, you may as well have arrived from Andromeda. And that becomes a major and completely unnecessary obstacle, something that chimes with the experiences of friends I have spoken to who are working class and/or from ethnic minority backgrounds. The way in which the democratic deficit in the publishing world is accepted is frankly a disgrace. Worse still is the fact that even mentioning it has a cost, in terms of ever working in this town again. But continuing to write is such a close-run thing anyway that it is worth speaking up about. I continue to place hope in those in the industry, or in indie circles, who are open to voices that we simply cannot afford to lose.’
These sentiments are echoed by poet Luke McMullan, another Northern Irish writer living in London:
‘I didn’t spend much time as a poet in Northern Ireland, though I’m from a working-class part of Belfast and grew up there. I moved to England when I was eighteen, then to New York for some years, then to London where I live now. When I used to go back to Belfast for longer stretches (ten years ago now), it seemed most things stopped during the university holidays, so I never fully worked out what was going on there. So I’m always excited to meet other Northern writers when our paths do cross. It’ll raise a groan, but I suppose this experience of home is typically Irish. Though under ‘typically’ I’d want to add a squiggly line. It’s not a relation to home that belongs to the Irish.
…….It’s only my impression, but I think in the last few years England’s public appetite for things Northern Irish has grown massively. You hear more of our voices on the TV. That’s down to phenomena like Derry Girls and Jamie Dornan and, of course, the standoff over the Irish border after Brexit. Fittingly, that’s a standoff started by the impatience of this government and the last one with the fact of Northern Ireland. ‘Standoff’ is a quintessentially Northern Irish word. When we would drive over the Ormeau Bridge into the city centre in the nineties and noughties, we’d see a big mural with ‘STANDOFF/TRADE OFF’ on it. It was on Artana Street. I see it’s still there. This word standoff had a big presence in my early life. I saw that mural five days a week, going with my dad and brother to collect my mum from work, long before I knew what it was about. Standoff took on a talismanic quality: a fierce sound, without content. A word that refused to give ground, and stood apart. I think the mural’s longevity (it went up in ’98) comes down to how it expresses the central tension of politics in Northern Ireland. Do you stick to your guns, or do you compromise? The unionist and nationalist communities each have an internal division between a zero-sum vision of politics and a vision that is more collaborative. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma writ large across a whole country. That’s what the last episode of Derry Girls is about.
…….Northern Ireland is also a talismanic word. That’s how it functions in England. The first question I got asked about Belfast in England – this was during my first week at a university that’s supposed to be pretty good – was what was I doing at this university in England given that Belfast is in Ireland. There’s that, and there are the moments where your home gets hoisted aloft on someone’s banner. A few months ago I got chatting to a writer at some literary do who had a fairly strong opinion on how our constitutional issues should be settled but was surprised to discover that most people in Northern Ireland don’t want to join the Republic (though, personally, I wouldn’t mind the improved funding environment).’
Amid the ongoing Brexit fallout, I wondered whether the uncertainty around the border question is being keenly felt in the books world: does the literary scene on the island of Ireland feel like a single contiguous entity, or is it palpably split along geographical lines? ‘I don’t think it would be helpful or accurate to partition Irish literature, which has always been a broad church,’ says Martin Doyle:
‘The idea of a Northern writer being ineligible for an Irish literary prize, would be shocking. Happily that is not the case. Belfast poet Gail McConnell, for example, won the 2022 John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize, at Trinity College Dublin last month for The Sun is Open, her debut collection, about the life and death of her father, who was murdered by the IRA. There is, of course, literature that by its dialect, themes or setting is identifiably Northern but not in an exclusive, separatist way. Some Northern writers who identify as Irish might also identify as Northern Irish or British but, if appearing at a festival in Dublin, find it othering to be described as such. Jan Carson and Lucy Caldwell both have interesting things to say about this. Perhaps, though, there is less of a flow of writers travelling North. That said, I spent a few days at Paul Maddern’s wonderful writing retreat in County Down recently and every other guest was from Dublin.’
And yet, there does seem to be an informal partitioning of sorts at the funding level, as Caoilinn Hughes suggests:
‘I saw a stat recently (at a ‘Do the Arts Matter to Stormont’ panel held at the MAC in Belfast) given by a video designer, Eoin Robinson, saying that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has been given over £10 million in funding for 2021-22, as opposed to €130 million that the Irish Arts Council (in the Republic) have assigned. Figures from the “Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Response to the NI Executive 2021-22 Draft Budget” describe a per capita spending of £5.38 in the North compared to £28.52 in the Republic. (A Covid-era funding boost in the Republic widens the gap considerably, but a gap is always there.) It’s very weird to be able to compare this disparity of investment on the same tiny island, and galling. If it’s the case that fewer Northern Irish writers historically have found international audiences and been published outside the UK and Ireland, surely such funding and supports would have a large part to do with it.’
Lisa McInerney, who was recently appointed editor of The Stinging Fly journal, believes the funding is more generous today than it was when she started out in the early 2010s:
‘The unfortunate, or maybe ironic thing is that I wasn’t really aware of the amount of state support that was available to me at the early stages of my career. I came to writing from outside of the more formal routes, like bachelors or masters courses, so I was a bit clueless. I think too that funding for the arts seems to have improved even since I was first published. It might have been a post-Crash thing.
…….Now, there seems to be more types of award available to emerging writers – the Next Generation Award, the Agility Award – not to mention the pilot scheme to provide basic income to all artists, and our well-established income tax exemption (up to €50,000) on creative earnings. So while I stumbled into the creative community and only realised afterwards how much professional support was available to me, I think it’s more common now that people are aware of the work the Arts Council does, and other bodies like the Irish Writers Centre, Aosdána, Literature Ireland and so on. I’ve sat on award panels for the Arts Council and it’s heartening to see how much funding is available for projects. The fact that the Arts Council exists at all is heartening; it is proof that making art is seen as legitimate work, culturally valuable and celebrated at state level. I suppose we do a fine trade off our cultural history here, though!’
It’s an interesting moment to be reflecting on all of this from a British perspective. Amid global economic uncertainty, the philanthropic support structures that help sustain UK literary culture are threatening to unravel: earlier this year the Costa Book Awards were scrapped after its sponsor pulled funding; the prestigious Sunday Times Short Story Award is in danger of folding after its sponsor, Audible, withdrew its backing; next year’s Desmond Elliott Prize is being paused due to a lack of funding, and The London Magazine’s own annual prize for debut fiction is likewise on hiatus. Against this backdrop, the need for state support has arguably never been greater. And yet, at the time of writing, the UK government has just announced its intention to conduct a review of arm’s length bodies, including Arts Council England, with a view to assessing whether they should be ‘abolished or retained’. This initiative is being led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has invoked the budgetary pressures brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic by way of justification. McMullan thinks this bodes ill:
‘It looks like the end result will be more civil servants hired into government departments to oversee those bodies more closely, which will inevitably reduce their independence. The rhetoric is about cost efficiency and risk management. The guidance published states that the government’s reviewers need to find an average cost saving of 5 per cent at each arm’s length body, to be achieved within one to three years. Reviewers will also examine each arm’s length body’s ‘contribution to the government’s objectives, and the processes in place for making such assessments’. Meanwhile, Arts Council England has already changed the way it works with the organisations it funds, as a result of ministers’ directions about funding priorities.
…….Arts organisations turn to Arts Council England because it offers long-term funding that allows those organisations to focus on their long-term needs. It seems foolish that Arts Council England and other arm’s length bodies should be required to change their priorities to meet ‘the government’s objectives’ – that is, the whims of every changing government – not least because those bodies also need to do long-term planning of their own. The guidance for the review states that reviewers will evaluate whether a given arm’s length body remains ‘useful and necessary’, but it seems that the changes hinted at risk making them much less useful indeed.
It’s a worrying development, to put it mildly. If implemented, the proposed reforms could effectively usher in a kind of soft totalitarianism, with writers and artists being required to demonstrate ideological fealty to the government in order to compete for an ever diminishing pot of cash. This would be a catastrophe for British culture. The contrast between the UK government’s cynical philistinism and the picture on the other side of the Irish Sea – a thriving arts scene, backed by generous government support – is stark indeed.
Houman Barekat is a literary critic based in London. He reviews for various publications including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Financial Times and The Spectator.
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