We started working on this issue over a year ago, and we have rarely read as widely and as deeply for any country issue as we have for this. Many things that we loved didn’t make it in – you could fill volumes with contemporary Irish writing of exceptional quality, and space, as ever, was limited.
People ask me what, if anything, defines Irish writing. We have seen some trends – one editor wrote about perceiving a sense of displacement, and the ability of our authors to capture the inflections of various dialects. Someone else talked about seeing a fraught relationship between place and self. We are conscious, of course, of Ireland’s bleak history, and Britain’s role in it, but the nature of the relationship between people and land also has a modern reincarnation in the markedly international nature of Irish writers. They are closer to America than British writers tend to be, both linguistically and geographically, but they are also closer to Europe. The authors in this issue live or have lived in many different countries, and there is an Irish diaspora vaster by far than the population of Ireland – some 80 million people around the world are said to identify as Irish.
We did worry that perhaps our photoessays might seem objectifying – the rough youth; the sectarianism in the north; the beauty of the Travellers. But Ireland is Ireland. It resists and relishes its own national images in equal measure. It’s true, also, that the oblique subject matter of most of the stories in this collection is really Ireland itself. Colm Tóibín’s story, set in Berlin, is one exception. Almost every other writer in the issue, from Kevin Barry to Roddy Doyle, from Sara Baume to Colin Barrett, engages with some degree of inner dialogue about Irishness, as though that condition itself is not a neutral, or a given, but, rather like Israeli or Russian nationhood, an existential state of being associated with certain traits and traditions.
Emma Donoghue engages with the church and rural poverty. Her nineteenth-century narrator, an English nurse, comments freely on the queasy phenomenon of a starving Irish miracle child in a poor cottage. Belinda McKeon’s story, ‘Party, Party’, can be read as an allegory of modern Ireland, with its references to the famous Arlo, who may or may not turn up for the party, and the child who learns to sing for money in ‘the old language, the lovely one’. The question of Ireland, of the church and sexuality, is there in Roddy Doyle’s description of Brother Murphy, a teacher, whose words to a boy of thirteen, ‘Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile,’ come to haunt both teacher and child – ‘he fuckin’ fancies him,’ Victor’s friend Derek Mullally whispers. Ireland is there in the references to pregnancy and abortion; to crime; to drugs; to gangs; to the green fields beyond the cities and the housing developments.
Irish writers, we hear, are tired of the question of why there are so many good Irish writers now; the question of the Irish ‘literary boom’. Editors coin these phrases of course, but we now believe it to be true: there is something about Irish writing that really is exceptional.
Why? Many reasons, but not least language – writers like to twist and turn it to see what it can do. Irish writers have a wealth of religious and revolutionary codes and cadences to draw from; they have the Gaelic of Irish, and the strange and potent Travellers’ Shelta, or the Cant, Gammon or Tarri. John Connell, in this issue, quotes the Lord’s Prayer in Gammon: ‘Our gathra, who cradgies in the manyak-norch,’ it begins. ‘We turry kerrath about your moniker.’ I think of Finnegans Wake, of A Clockwork Orange and of 1984. What does Gammon sound like? Who knows. But I like it.
We commissioned acclaimed photographer Eamonn Doyle for our author photographs. They are, I hope you agree, dramatic and interesting, giving a sense of streets and landscapes as well as characters.
Finally, I want to thank Chris Agee, Sinéad Gleeson, Lucy Luck, Declan Meade and John O’Brien – your help and support have been invaluable.