Ireland’s writer-to-overall population ratio has always been impressive. The little isle known for shamrocks and Guinness has been home to some of the most influential writers of the past couple of centuries. In poetry, there was William Butler Yeats. In drama, Samuel Beckett confused generations of English students with Waiting for Godot. Edna O’Brien brought women’s emotional and sexual politics to the fore. Bram Stoker introduced the world to Dracula! And of course there’s one of my all time favourites: the inimitable, infinitely quotable Oscar Wilde.
Twenty-first century Irish writers have some big shoes to fill, and so far they’ve been easily meeting the challenge. One of the most buzzworthy books this season is Normal People by Sally Rooney, which has catapulted the 28-year-old writer into the general literary consciousness. Less intensely millennial than her previous work Conversations with Friends (but only by a little), Normal People is the type of book you burn through in one sitting—a book The Guardian called “a future classic”. Rooney’s writing is difficult to explain; there’s nothing flashy or unearned in her prose, and yet with a few simple, well-constructed sentences she can take down everything from author readings (please see: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”) to capitalism. Maybe this quality is what makes The Atlantic compare her (in a weirdly spot-on way) to Jane Austen; she is simultaneously participating in and sending up the conventions she is clearly skeptical of. In Austen’s case, it was the role of women, love, and class under the rigid rules of Regency society. In Rooney’s case, it’s the existence of art, love, and class under capitalism. So even though reading Rooney is very much like listening to your cool 20-something artsy friend talk about her life, her work feels like a natural progression of radical writers before her.
To celebrate the literary vibrancy of the Emerald Isle, here are five other modern Irish writers to check out:
Lisa McInerney smashed her way onto the publishing scene with her 2016 knockout debut The Glorious Heresies. It’s not an easy read by any means; McInerney wields her stream-of-consciousness style wildly, creating a chaotic landscape of working class Ireland. It’s very rough, a little dense, and more than a bit scummy, but wow is she good! Like Sally Rooney, McInerney’s work uses the financial crash of 2008 as a touchstone to inform the lives of her characters, representing youth in a post-crash Ireland. Apparently McInerney used to run a blog called “Arse End of Ireland”, which is really all you need to know about her style. Heresies won her the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016, an honour that has gone to the likes of Ali Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Zadie Smith in the past. The Blood Miracles was released in 2017 as a follow-up to Heresies, following the same troublesome Ryan Cusack on his Cork adventures.
I was first introduced to Murray when I stumbled into a reading he was doing at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris for his book The Mark and the Void, which is a sentence that might appear in a Sally Rooney novel. Murray has a sharp eye for the tragicomic, as demonstrated in his earlier novel Skippy Dies where the main character literally dies in the opening chapter. It’s not as sad as it sounds though, because Skippy dies in a donut-eating competition and Murray spends his (long—over 600 pages) novel taking us through the lead-up to the donut incident. It’s a campus novel, which I am very partial to; a coming of age story that is full of absurd and sympathetic characters, funny with an undercurrent of real-world darkness. Murray’s writing encapsulates what I love most about Irish writers: that ability to spot the uglier side of life, and with a sense of ironic self-awareness, twist it into something funny and poignant.
John Boyne is an interesting writer to me because his writing isn’t as artistically sophisticated as some of his Irish peers, but he always manages to strike some sort of chord—emotionally, politically, what have you. His most well-known work is probably The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a gut-wrenching WW2-set story, but his other work is so different from it that a lot of people don’t realize he’s the same person who wrote The Heart’s Invisible Furies, for example. He’s at his best when he’s working through quintessentially Irish subjects, like the Catholic Church’s legacy in the increasingly secular country. Though his subjects vary widely from novel to novel, you can trace the theme of loneliness through his work as something like the Irish condition in such a rapidly changing society. His most recent novel, A Ladder to the Sky, is Boyne at his most Wilde-like, and shows that he still has plenty left to say.
Technically French is American-born, but she has resided in Ireland since 1990 and considers it her home, so I’m including her here. If you like detective fiction, her Dublin Murder Squad series is definitely worth checking out (yes, it’s really called Dublin Murder Squad). What could be just another generic detective series is transformed into an intriguing literary-thriller hybrid thanks to French’s confident prose. I’m not even a huge thriller fan, but she and Gillian Flynn are two mystery writers who I will always look forward to reading. Her latest work The Witch Elm wasn’t quite as successful as her Murder Squad books, but she’s proven herself to be a skilled storyteller already so we can forgive her a weaker offering. Start with In the Woods and work your way through the various magnetic mysteries French spins through her popular series.
As far as I can tell, Jamie O’Neill dropped his masterpiece At Swim, Two Boys in 2001 and then disappeared off the face of the earth. Maybe he thought he couldn’t top it and it was best to quit while he was ahead? If that’s the case, it’s understandable, because I’m not exaggerating when I say his writing might be the most beautiful use of language I have ever come across in my life. If you can push through the dense, dialect–heavy first chapter, the prose opens up into more accessible English and carries you away on what is technically a love story set around the 1916 Easter Rising, but is also somewhat of a love letter to Ireland itself; one that is so imbued with Irish history as to have the weight of a major historical novel. We unfortunately don’t have O’Neill’s work in the VPL catalogue, but if you can get your hands on this ambitious, gorgeous tome (another one sitting at about 600 pages) please do! Come for the love story (between two teenage boys, Doyler and Jim) and stay for the language, or come for the language and stay for the love story—either way, it’s a worthwhile read.
“He saw the black water and the declining sun and the swan dipping down, its white wings flashing, and slowing and slowing till silver ripples carried it home. It was a scene which seemed the heart of this land. The lowing sun and the one star waking, white wings on a black water, and the smell of rain, and the long lane fading where a voice comes in the falling night.
–Ireland, said Scrotes.
–Yes, this is Ireland.”
-Jamie O’Neill, At Swim, Two Boys