John Conlan
Maynooth University

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It might seem difficult for a young person to imagine the bizarre popular culture of the Irish economic boom. No strangers to hyper-consumerist values themselves, most university undergraduates (born after 9/11) would not have been as immersed in the zany phantasmagoria of money and status that shapes the world of Claire Kilroy’s novels, for example. This was a bizarre period in which national newspapers became daily-administered vehicles for distracting us from the inequities that underlay the speculative bubble of the Celtic Tiger. It was an era in which broadsheet lifestyle magazines mocked us with illusions of attainable grandeur, where photoshoots advertised a newly-minted cabal of B-listers who swigged champagne with lawyers and property magnates, enticing us to magical venues with names like “Rénards” or “Lillie’s”, garish Hybrasils where, it seemed, we could all enjoy the pursuits of the moneyed, professional classes. Indeed, it would be hard for the average, rent-oppressed student to imagine the sheer malignancy of the Stockholm Syndrome that permeated culture-at-large in the lead-up to the economic crash. In the rapidly neoliberalising mediascape, the most visible canaries in the coalmine were wealthy suburban economists who acted as condescending field-anthropologists, fascinated by the working class and their penchant for breakfast rolls. In this circus-mirror of national self-awareness, it was therefore unsurprising that more disturbing goings-on in the Department of Finance or the Central Bank flew under the radar.

Such was the bread-and-butter of everyday culture during the boom. The aftermath which we inhabit −the trial of Anglo bankers, the economic self-reckoning of the Nyberg report − is a more sober existence altogether. It seems appropriate, therefore, that a recent essay collection, Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland and Contemporary Women’s Writing manages to reinvigorate what often feels like an exhausted market in rear-view assessments of Ireland’s boom-bust escapades. Here, editors Claire Bracken and Tara Harney-Mahajan maintain a distinct awareness of the disturbing underside of our neoliberal moment, as it is best captured in the work of contemporary women writers.

The volume was originally published as a special issue of the journal LIT (Literature, Interpretation, Theory) back in 2017, and the editors deliver a thought-provoking introduction, providing a comprehensive overview of the philosophical significance of the project and the writers who have been included. The book features critical essays on Kilroy, Emma Donoghue, Louise O’Neill, Marian Keyes, Belinda McKeown, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Eimear McBride, and Melatu Uche Okorie. As well as the critical essays (which go beyond mere single-author critical studies, as Emer O’Toole’s essay on “Waking the Feminists” makes clear), the collection is bolstered by interviews with two of the authors. Mary Burke’s interview with Kilroy opens the collection, and in what is perhaps the centrepiece of the book, Melatu Uche Okorie is featured in a critical introduction/ conversation with Sara Martín-Ruiz, as well as in her short story “This Hostel Life.” Mindful of issues of inclusivity, the editors are also cognizant of the space-constraints of their project, as they are keen to highlight many other writers who have not been included (Sara Baume, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Danielle McLaughlin, and Laoisa Sexton all receive honourable mention). With this inclusive scope and mindset, Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland is an effective exercise in archive-building, tracing feminist connections and solidarities across different genres and mediums.

Working at the intersection of theories of gender, neoliberal precarity, and posthumanism, the writers included in this volume speak to the delayed awareness of the excesses of the economic boom. The critical essays are therefore an important intervention to the extent that they show how Irish women writers have been immersed in the ethical quandaries of the Celtic Tiger from an early stage, questioning “gendered constructions of late capitalism” and “the ways in which Irish recessionary culture locates the feminine as a site of blame for the excesses of the Tiger period” (2). In the introduction to her interview with Kilroy, Mary Burke presents us with the image of “the frivolous woman laden down with Brown Thomas bags” (29). Intolerable as this mirror to our own shabby genteel culture may be, it is precisely the fraught entanglement of gender and socio-economics that is addressed by the volume throughout, as it explores the contest between masculine-coded discourses of neoliberal austerity and the voice of a feminist writing that is inimical to such values. As the introduction argues, “the Celtic Tiger era’s fetishization of female excess deflected attention from the macho politicians, builders, and developers hustling the economy away; a disordered male capacity for dangerous risk-taking” (29).

Burke’s interview with Kilroy leads nicely into a comparative study of her novel, The Devil I Know, which is read alongside Anne Enright’s The Green Road, and Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Lives of Women. Exploring the idea of the “neoliberal present” (54), Mary McGlynn notes how the “ghostly home” and the “globalized non-place” (57) are symptoms of an extenuated spatio-temporal predicament across these novels about the Celtic Tiger written by women. McGlynn points to what Diane Negra calls “idealized, cosmopolitan mobilities” (57) as recurrent tropes in the writers under consideration, and the queer temporality which she sees at work in either author is exemplary of a “neoliberal logic [that] re-insinuates itself via a vernacular, unofficial rhetoric of inevitability, assuming a guise of ‘always and everywhere’” (57).

Rachael Lynch continues the theme of queer temporalities with her essay on “Gina and the Kryptonite: Mortgage Shagging in Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz”, which offers a theoretically ground-breaking reading of Enright’s 2011 novel. Here, the child-figure of Evie in Enright’s novel is read as a futuristic emblem of feminist kinship, where the unconventional relationship between Evie and the narrator, Gina, projects the posthuman ideal of non-heteronormative kinship. In Lynch’s analysis, Enright emerges as a sort of tech-utopian feminist, and she detects “the figurative possibility of a post-human world that privileges connection and relationality” (130) in the Irish novelist’s descriptions of the electronic communications that mediate Evie and Gina’s interactions.

In her convincing assertion of Enright’s posthumanist credentials, Lynch places the Irish novelist’s work in the context of feminist posthumanism, from Cary Wolfe to Rosi Braidotti. The Deleuzian aspects of Braidotti’s programme for imagining new forms of posthuman kinship is manifested, according to Lynch, in the “non-normative bonds” that are central to Enrights’s novel (131), a vision of community that speaks to current theories of the “xenofamilial” (Hester 65). Perhaps the most convincing part of Lynch’s vision of posthuman solidarity in the novel is her framing of Enright’s book within the network of media reviews that occasioned its release back in 2011. Here, the rather lukewarm critical response that the novel first elicited is revised to give a recuperative reading of Enright as a novelist deeply engaged in questions of identity than her early critics (who were irked by the “emotionally flattened” cast of the novel [117]) might have been alert to. Lynch thus manages to achieve a successful remediation of Enright, restoring her place in the vanguard of post-recession writers.

Margaret O’Neill’s essay on Emma Donoghue and Marian Keyes deals explicitly with the topic of the economic recession. O’Neill reads the authors’ respective novels, Room and Brightest Star, as illustrating “the violence inflicted by neoliberal systems of economic and social repression” (75). Situating the two writers with respect to the social impact of the banking bailout and austerity, O’Neill sees the characters of Room as subject to a regime of “biopolitical control” that, following Sara Ahmed’s theory of “migrant orientation” (75), calls for a queer re-orientation of the neoliberal subject. Whilst a contemporary writer like Donoghue “opens the possibility of discovering other life paths” (76), Keyes portrays a similar “linguistic violence” (80), whereby corporate media language insinuates itself into everyday existence, leading to the entrapment of vulnerable characters in a consumerist dystopia.

This critique of the hyper-consumerist overtones of Tiger-era culture is expanded in Susan Cahill’s essay “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing?: Girlhood, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Tiger Irish Literature”, where the novels of Eimear McBride and Louise O’Neill are placed within the context of discourses of the “Celtic Kitten” that tend to commodify adolescent femininity. Cahill distils a powerful sense of the exploitative nature of Tiger-era culture, and the way in which “Femininity became increasingly constructed in postfeminist neoliberal terms such that female empowerment became coded as the freedom to consume” (156). Along these lines, the stream of consciousness style of McBride becomes a medium for expressing vulnerability, and the “immediate porousness” (160) of the young girl’s consciousness becomes a facet of the trauma of abuse. O’Neill’s novels are likewise read as a reaction to trauma and loss, and Cahill is attentive to the complex dynamic by means of which “we are forced to examine our own complicity” in the kinds of misogyny and rape culture that inform the world of her characters. The role of affect and what Sara Ahmed terms the “cultural politics of emotion” are persuasively emphasised as the abiding themes of both authors.

Patrick Mullen has similar concerns, as he looks to Lauren Berlant in his essay “Queer Possession and the Celtic Tiger: Affect and Economics in Belinda McKeown’s Tender.” Exploring the “complex relations between affects and economics” (96), Mullen sees an epistemology of the closet at work in the trajectory of Ireland’s passage from boom-time to crash. The way in which McKeown’s character Catherine develops a complex relationship with her queer friend James shows a type of person who “violently defends re-fabricated closets in order to reproduce her own social and psychic value” (96). Key to this complex psychodynamic is the notion of “possession,” a multivalent term, as Mullen reminds us, and one that operates in both an affective and an economic frame of reference. Mullen’s close-reading of McKeown’s novel is illuminating in this regard, and in keeping with the style of the critical works which inspire him (like Berlant’s Cruel Optimism). As a critical essay about a woman writer’s engagement with the fraught gender relations of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath, Mullen deepens our appreciation of the “queer pleasure taken in language” by McKeown, as well as her attunement to a queer perspective that is best equipped to interrogate the psychic cost of economic circumstance, “the pride and the paranoia … liberation and control” (105).

The most explicitly polemical piece of the collection is Emer O’Toole’s essay on “Waking the Feminists: Reimagining the Space of the National Theatre in the Era of the Celtic Phoenix.” Here, O’Toole directly addresses any lingering scepticism there might be about the necessity for a coordinated feminist response to underrepresentation of women’s voices in Irish arts and letters. She focuses on the controversial way in which Abbey Theatre director, Fiach Mac Chongail, defended its 2016 centenary program, entitled “Waking the Nation.” The program, which included only one woman playwright, inspired a collective backlash from arts practitioners under the hashtag #WakingtheFeminists (or WTF, coined by Maeve Stone of Pan Pan Theatre Company). O’Toole reads the concerted activism which followed as an example of political dramaturgy, what Baz Kershaw calls the “knowing performativity” of subversive political spectacles (138), as well as an example of the kind of “performative assembly” that Judith Butler makes central to her work on gender and power.

O’Toole sees the ethos of collaborative performance which inspired the WTF movement as continuous with the existing (although marginalised) history of politically committed dramaturgy on the Irish stage. Grace Dyas’ Heroin (2010) and ANU Production’s Laundry (2011) are taken as recent examples of an inclusive vision of feminist solidarity and an antidote to masculinist discourses of neoliberal austerity. As O’Toole writes, the meeting that was staged at the Abbey in the wake of the centenary program’s announcement “emphasized collectivity and barriers to inclusion, countering faux-meritocratic claims of austerity and neoliberalism. It temporarily materialized an intersectional feminist space within the national theatre” (149). O’Toole is most astute when she points to the too-easy dismissal of such intersectional activism as “identity politics” (143), reminding us of the blind-spots internal to many socialist movements, and how the solidarity and community-building of an intersectional, feminist dramaturgy might offer us a more sophisticated and inclusive programme for change.

The capstone of the collection is undoubtedly Melatu Uche Okorie’s story “This Hostel Life,”, originally published as party of a collection of short stories of the same name by Skein Press in 2018. Sara Martín-Ruiz gives a critical introduction to Okorie as well as an interview with the author that addresses topics ranging from the challenges faced by non-white authors during the Celtic Tiger to the difficulties involved in achieving publication in Ireland. In Okorie’s own words, “I think for every writer, publication is a sort of affirmation, a form though which you know someone thinks what you have to say is worth hearing” (180). In this light, Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland is a powerful contribution to efforts at redressing the unequal distribution of platforms for minority voices, a lingering problem in Irish publishing. Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland reminds us that there is much work left to be done.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Butler, Judith (2015). Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Hester, Helen. (2018). Xenofeminism. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.