Patricia A. Lynch
University of Limerick, Ireland | Published: 15 March, 2012
ISSUE 7 | Pages: 170-200 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2012 by Patricia A. Lynch | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Reflections on Irish Writing in 2011

The year 2011 saw mixed fortunes for Ireland.  Financial austerity was imposed by the new Coalition government, which, while it hurt people, caused great hardship, and increased the forced emigration of many of our best and brightest, was approved by the EU.  Rumbles of scandals still continued to emerge from sources such as church, banks, and developers.

While the picture has not materially improved, there are streaks of light on the horizon, in the form of new international and work initiatives.  For example, while business is weak in many quarters, a number of major industries have extended their plants and employment openings.  Several towns such as Drogheda have taken part in vibrant programmes to support and develop local initiatives in matters of business and environment.  On the international scale, major events were the visit of the Queen of England, which went a long distance to heal old wounds, and of the US President, who visited the home of his ancestors and translated his message of hope and confidence “Yes, we can” into Gaelic as “Is féidir linn”.  Queen Elizabeth too, used a phrase of flawless Gaelic to introduce her speech to the Irish nation.  Their visits to a number of significant and historic places in Ireland led to an increased number of tourists to our shores. Irish sportspeople continued to perform exceptionally well for a small country in many fields, especially rugby and golf.   Later in the year, a long, sometimes bloody and colourful campaign on the part of seven candidates led to the election of a President of Ireland who is not only a politician, but also a poet, patron of the arts, and an academic, and a leader in many social initiatives.  Finally, in December, the winter did not return to the Arctic conditions of the previous two years, but was relatively mild.  A good portent, one hopes.

In the matter of literary significance, there was much activity.  Every month one could take one’s pick of festivals and schools, large and small, all over the country.  These included the Cúirt International Literary Festival in Galway, the Theatre Festival in Dublin, Listowel Writers’ Week in Kerry, the Bord Gáis Irish Book Awards, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary awards. There were also festivals in jazz, film, and dance.  Ireland once again figured on the Man Booker scene, in the form of Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (2011) in the longlist.

An artistic and cultural project in September, part of the Absolut Fringe festival, seemed to signify the state of play of the country.  Fergal McCarthy installed a manmade island in the centre of the river Liffey, the “artery of the city”, once pure and now polluted.  It was placed opposite the Irish Financial Services Centre, and also a number of ambitious luxury apartments, as signifying the causes of our present problems.  On this he installed a palm tree and a hammock, symbols of the  thinking which once saw Ireland as a type of unspoiled paradise island on the far west of Europe.  His intention to live on the island for a week did not last long! But the symbolism holds true, for it is Utopian thought which can bring about a reversal of the decadent social order, as scholars in this field would suggest (Hegarty 2011: 16).

As we head for 2016, and the centenary of the events which led to Ireland becoming an independent and sovereign nation, it is to be hoped that fresh thought, patriotism, and artistic endeavour will bring Ireland back to full political, fiscal, creative, and spiritual health.

In a year which saw this reviews editor more conversant with the state of the Irish medical profession than with its literary life, I got to review personally just a few books.  The first of these is the above-mentioned On Canaan’s Side.  Like Barry’s previous books, it is gripping though often harrowing, and beautifully told, with elements of surprise deferred.  Once again, his protagonist is an old but still beautiful and mentally vigorous woman, and like the heroine of Secret Scripture (2008), her identity has some mystery elements.  Lilly Dunne is the youngest member of the family on whom Barry has drawn for several of his previous novels and  plays.  While her childhood was exceptionally happy, in spite of the death of her mother at her birth, once the light of adulthood dawns on her she has to endure many painful experiences, until she reaches eighty-nine at the end of the book.  Forced emigration is her lot as a young woman, escaping for her life due to events beyond her control, and parting from her beloved father and sisters.  She has to endure the death of or betrayal by, the two men whom she loved, the necessity to continue fleeing from hidden enemies across the United States for almost all of her life, in ways reminiscent of Roddy Doyle’s Henry Smart (Oh Play That Thing 2004), and the destruction by war of her son and grandson.   Lilly embodies a whole century of Irish history, having taken unwitting part in the paroxysms which produced the new state, and her son and grandson are similarly destroyed in the cause of the different wars in which the United States had a part.  There are many parallels between her grandson Bill and her brother Willie who was killed in World War One, which keeps history both personal and national, alive and consequent.  In all of this heartbreak, it is her gift for friendship which gives her joy and saves her at the end.  For a woman for whom life was so dramatic, in a novel which has many elements of a crime thriller, the abiding sense at the end of the novel is conversely of warm feminine domesticity created by her and surrounding her.

The second book is Roddy Doyle’s collection of short stories, Bullfighting(2011).  The title is somewhat misleading, in that the protagonist of each story is a working-class Dublin man, undergoing mid-life crisis, and each an anti-hero to boot.  There are variations on the theme, for example one man is recovering from a heart attack, his children have left and his relationship with his wife has faded away (“Recuperating”), and another who rediscovers his bond with his elderly parents (“Funerals”). The stories are surprisingly full of pathos, of the man struggling with the futility of life and a sense of failure.  They are mostly in the form of internal monologues, in which the reader gets an Updike-like view of suburban Dublin life and scenes.  However, these stories have been published previously in other formats, and the overall impression is of repetition. I have read the vast bulk of the Doyle corpus with pleasure over the years, but this was one book which I was glad to put down.

On the other hand, finishing Dermot Healy’s novel Long Time, No See(2011) felt like parting with friends.  This is a richly-layered book, and repays multiple readings.  It is often witty, and poetic especially in the utterances of some of the characters: “Mister Thomas Feeney said that in his hospital bed he had been riding high next the sister of sorrow” (350). There are echoes of other Irish writers such as Friel in the repetition of a series of placenames by the old men, which represent the geography of their lives and emotions; the elegiac notes of McGahern’s novel That They May Face the Rising Sun (2001) may have had an influence too, though these are never obvious.  It is told from the point of view of school-leaver Philip, also called Mr Psyche.  He is a typically monosyllabic teenager in his own reported dialogue, and tells the reader little enough in describing even his nightmares, but what he does do is to describe in minute detail the day-to-day happenings of his extended family, all surnamed Feeney, in a small scenic north-western coastal area.  By doing so, a whole community comes to life, and Healy’s descriptive powers are such that we can almost draw a map as well as colourful pictures of the few miles encompassed.  Here, old and new come together smoothly.  The two men of the older generation, his granduncle and the latter’s friend, have their roots in an ancient Ireland of beliefs and rituals, his parents are busy working in general construction and nursing respectively, in today’s Ireland.  Philip finds himself surrounded by people of all nationalities, particularly Eastern European, but also more globally spread.  Search-and-Rescue helicopters pass regularly overhead, ghost estates and unfinished premises in the local small town are as much a feature on the landscape as the traditional crafts of fishing, farming and small businesses.  Power-walkers pass Philip on the coastal roads, and in a throwback to a less distant pass, a group of hippies proves to be a benign influence on the lives of people whom they meet.  But all groups come together seamlessly in ritual events such as holding the Stations (Mass said for the people of the locality in a private house), and funerals, where things take place as they have done for centuries.

Philip might seem to hold the limelight due to being not only the protagonist but to the slowly revealed fact that he is recovering from a very traumatic event in his own life.  However, the older people to whom he devotes himself quickly come to dominate the imaginative scene.  Granduncle Joejoe Feeney and his friend Tom Feeney, also called the Blackbird, are the most vividly alive of all, and the others seem to exist to care for them.  A third contemporary of the men, Miss Jilly Adams, is an eighty-nine-year old widow who lives in the Big House in which she was born, but has an old acquaintanceship with the two men.  The novel ends with the subsequent deaths of the men, and the finalising of a mauseoleum for Miss Jilly at her home, in which her ashes will be placed beside those of her late husband.  “At last, she said” (367) as the building is finished; her satisfaction is linked with her emotional farewell to the two old men as they are buried.  From such different backgrounds, with such diverse histories and social status, they are linked not only by childhood acquaintance, but also with the sense that they are each the last of their kind, in an Ireland which has outgrown them.

History underlies this novel in a less obvious and more subtle way than in the Barry novel above.  Philip finds an old wall once constructed by the monks who lived on the island out in the bay.  As he removes it he observes the farthest levels of time in the form of fossils in the stone.  In addition, as he constructs a curved wall to surround a new garden at their cliff-top home, he is very conscious of the craftsman of old:

I could even feel the sense of balance of the man who had built it.  He drew the stone from the coral beach by ass and cart to the spot I was taking them from.  As he built alongside me, I was taking his work down.  As he dropped a stone into place, I lifted it and carried it away. .. I could feel the way he carried himself. … In his wall I came across chaffs of wheat that were still dry.  The bones of coral.  White marble. One clay pipe. I was over and back with the barrow, then I began to build.  And he came with me. Fit in, stand back, put in a small stone, and follow the twine (128-9).

The poor salt-laden soil is enriched with good topsoil which comes from Miss Jilly’s home, Dromod House, which she herself refers to as “good Protestant earth” (321).  Old historical differences and ways of life are reconciled in the new life and growth of the garden, where Philip and his mother plant flowers, vegetables and herbs for the coming spring.  The regeneration will be Philip’s, but he will be strongly rooted in the past, as his granduncle reminds him when he tells him: “I’m leaving you this house, and this world, do you hear that? … I’m leaving you a quandary” (61). His father has taught him craftsmanship and his mother has inducted him into care of the elderly, but the legacy of the generation of his granduncle could prove to be a mixed blessing.

Works Cited

Barry, Sebastian. 2011. On Canaan’s Side. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

____________    2008.  The Secret Scripture. London: Faber.

Doyle, Roddy. 2011. Bullfighting. London: Jonathan Cape.

__________    2004. Oh Play That Thing.  London: Jonathan Cape.

Healy, Dermot. 2011. Long Time, No See. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Hegarty, Shane.  2011.“A Crusoe on the Liffey: a man amid the murk and mire”. The Irish Times. September 10. P. 16.

McGahern, John. 2001. That They May Face the Rising Sun. London: Faber.