The Whole Irish Tradition Thing
“No one who likes Yeats is
capable of human intimacy.”
We have won the Booker, for the sixth time in fact. With the inclusion of four Irish novels in this year’s longlist, it makes us the country with the greatest number of nominees in relation to population size; a whopping 37 writers. Paul Lynch is the sixth Irish author to win the prize since Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea in 1978. Exactly half of Ireland’s Booker prize winners have been women, yet this year our feat of two shortlisted authors was occupied by two Pauls. This is all well and good, excluding the fact that the current Irish literary golden age is dominated by female writers. The glut of our groundbreaking writers at the moment are women, so it is all the more frustrating that only one made the longlist of four Irish writers.
The issue with the Irish writing scene is that it is one whose history is entirely male-dominated, overly revered, and untouchable. There has been a tremendous push to promote female authors being published and read, yet when authors like Anna Burns win the Booker, they are compared to Beckett - despite her opinion that she does not fit into “the whole Irish tradition thing.” Since Anna Burns won the Booker in 2018 for her sharp and experimental novel Milkman, there has been a boom in Irish women changing the world of Irish writing. Yet, despite this great drive to innovate, they still get compared to and asked how they fit into the tradition of Irish writing; if they follow in the vein of Yeats, Joyce, or Beckett? This “Irish Tradition” is a closed box, an all-boys club; unchanging and all pervading. The “Irish Tradition” seems to have no space for Irish women – from whom I think the most exciting writing is emerging. Whilst many male writers are content to sit on this tradition and write about the same old same old, women have been freely experimenting and finding new ways to present the Irish woman’s experience in writing. I believe that the “tradition” too is a cage which hinders the progression of writing through a misplaced loyalty to form and content. You can see this in how the Berlin-based writer Gough described the Irish literary writers of the Celtic Tiger,
“a priestly caste, scribbling by candlelight, cut off from the electric current of the culture. Irish literature had gotten smug and self-congratulatory during the boom; lots of novels about how terrible Ireland’s past was, with all its sexual repression and poverty.”
There is no doubt a freedom to be found writing outside the sphere of acceptance, which is undone upon achieving success and being compared to these figures of the “tradition.” Women have always been at the forefront of literary experimentation exactly because of their exclusion from the male literary world; just look at the development and dismissal of the novel before male writers co-opted it.
The reason we currently have this amazing boom is because of writers like Edna O’ Brien, Anne Enright, Maeve Binchy, and Marian Keyes – those who broke out and achieved success at a time when it was far more difficult. They created the groundwork and showed the success that Irish women could achieve in writing in the modern social landscape. Inspired by them, rather than the stale male canon, the new writers of today have germinated into an astonishing web of form, language, and subject – creating the incredibly rich world of today’s Irish writing scene. There is no doubt that we are experiencing a golden-age of Irish writing, which has absolutely been enabled by the experimentation and diligence of Irish women in the Irish literary scene. These days, we are lucky to have Lisa McInerney, Lucy Caldwell, Louise Kennedy, Elaine Feeney, Nicole Flattery, Kit de Waal, Sinéad Gleeson, Doreann Ní Ghríofa, Sara Baume, Eimear McBride, and so many more. Their efforts have altered the scene and created a far healthier ecosystem for all writers, one less indebted to the men of the past, where experimentation and writing outside of that box is far more welcome.
Tramp Press have long been a fantastic proponent of new and interesting talents, publishing many women who are producing daring writing; the likes of Sara Baume and Doireann Ní Ghríofa. They have taken the time to cultivate emerging writers who are experimenting and pushing the boundaries. With their focus on quality over quantity regarding the books they produce, they have become a highly respected figure in the contemporary Irish literary scene. I would also recommend the collection, Being Various, which was published by Faber and collated by Lucy Caldwell as a fantastic jumping off point to experience the vibrancy of the current Irish scene. Two-thirds of the authors included are women, and Caldwell uses the pieces which she chose for the collection to question Irishness and what exactly being Irish means.
The real Irish writing tradition is not about particular writers, themes, or places. It is a tradition of pushing the boundaries of what writing can do. It is regressive to linger on themes which have been explored to the bedrock and no longer reflect the Irish experience. Naturally, these aspects of our past play a strong role in colouring our contemporary writing, but it is important not to let things stagnate in the name of so-called “tradition.” The real Irish writing tradition is one of revolution, of rejecting what the status quo decrees as high art and real writing. That is the true legacy of our great writers like Joyce and Beckett. Tradition means allowing new names entering the literary scene to stand in their own respects, rather than comparing them to one of these figures. Tradition is an attitude and a response; tradition is change.