Every so often, a writer comes along who cheers Ireland up, not because the books are cheerful – on the contrary, indeed – but because the writing enlarges a particular sense we have of ourselves. Claire Keegan is one such writer, John McGahern is perhaps the best known, and Donal Ryan is the latest addition to this distinguished line. He writes from the rural heartland in prose that always pushes for the truth of things. Ryan’s language is colloquial and easy, but the central emotion is, for lack of a better word, dignified. His characters are large-hearted people in a small-minded world and this timeless theme is played out, not in misty boggy nowhere-land, but in a contemporary Irish space, where people talk on their mobiles and the halal meat plant has been recently closed down.
In terms of Irish writing, we must never underestimate the effect of 300 days of rain a year. We’re indoors a lot of the time, and we need to make shit up. We’d go nuts if we didn’t.
It’s common for descriptions of James Joyce’s Dubliners to label its stories portraits of Irish life. If you’d like to look at actual portraits of Irish life in 1904, however, you could do a lot worse than this series of old photos of Dublin, available online courtesy of the Google Cultural Institute.
The long healed footprints of one who arrived
From nowhere, unfamiliar and de-mobbed,
In buttoned khaki and buffed army boots,
Bruising the turned-up acres of our back field
I needed Heaney’s voice to know what a voice could sound like, and through Heaney I discovered my own voice. I learned to listen to the timbre of its echoes.
Five years removed from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, our tentative economic recovery is marred by the nagging sense that nothing has really changed, that the same people who got us into this mess are still running the show, that no one has been held accountable and, as the shock wears off, that we are back to business as usual. Worryingly, while there is no shortage of answers — journalistic accounts of the financial crisis are one of the few growth areas in publishing — it remains to be seen whether we are asking the right questions. In the face of such uncertainty, it falls to writers like Aifric Campbell and Alan Glynn to take up the challenge of representing the world of finance by reducing it to human scale.
The Irish are notoriously cynical, but the Utopia myth hit at exactly the moment when we were most open to unquestioning belief. The majority of Irish people were so desperately poor, for most of the country’s history, that when suddenly we weren’t broke any longer, the cynicism was washed away by the flood of prosperity. We needed to believe that the Celtic Tiger hadn’t simply wandered in, because that would mean it could wander out again.