Northern Ireland’s political future remains in dispute, but its literary scene is thriving


As in politics and in society, so in literature. In Northern Ireland, male voices have always dominated. Growing up during the Troubles, it was poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon who voiced the trauma, and novelists such as Bernard MacLaverty who told the stories that sought to make sense of it all.

There were also poets, most notably Medbh McGuckian – incredibly the only woman chosen to appear in the 1986 edition of Muldoon. Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry – but it was often felt that they had a hard time being heard above the noise of the boys and the bombs. McGuckian’s work was seen to focus on purely feminine things, and not on the big themes of the time.

Things are different now. Anna Burns wins the Booker Prize for Dairy, about a young girl trying to protect herself in a Belfast riven by suspicion and bigotry, reminded readers that fiction in contested spaces is never solely about the privacy of its characters. These are products of the society that shaped them, and if that society is broken, so will they.

Burns’ victory in 2018 drew attention to what had already been called by some critics a revival of Northern Irish writing dating back a decade and more. The precarious post-Belfast peace opened up a space for reflection on the past and present that fiction was uniquely placed to explore.

Many of the women who rushed through that opening door are included in a new volume of New Island Books.

The glass bank is the pocket edition of a 2016 collection of writings by women in Northern Ireland edited by Sinéad Gleeson. She delves into Ulster’s literary legacy with stories of unfairly overlooked writers such as Janet McNeill and Polly Devlin, but she focuses on the living, not the dead. Of the 25 authors presented, 15 are still at work.

The news has proven to be particularly fruitful ground for writers in the North, and never more so than it is now.

Louise Kennedy didn’t start writing at all, unbelievably, until she was 47. His first collection, The end of the world is a dead end, came out earlier this year. It is a cliché to say of Northern Irish writers that they work on this frontier between the personal and the political; Kennedy demonstrates that they are two aspects of the same condition.

There are many even younger authors who are making their mark. Wendy Erskine’s first collection of stories, which bears the somewhat ironic title Sweet home, takes place quite in a recognizable modern Belfast, with the city’s signature caustic humor over competing identities.

Mo, the heroine of the first story in this book, remembers working on a chat line where the boss advises her to tell callers that she is Irish. “But I’m British,” she told him. “I come from the loyalist community. He looks “thoughtful” before replying: “No. It’s just too much of a niche.

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Famous novelist Lucy Caldwell has also published two short stories in the past five years, the most recent of which, Privacy, arguably includes her best-known story, “Mayday”, about a young Belfast woman forced to turn to the internet to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, an always relevant reminder of just how wrong it is. only the national question which casts a shadow over the North.

The two collections of Jan Carson Postcard stories even saw her delve into so-called ‘flash fiction’, the titles of the stories offering a checklist of familiar places in Belfast made new and unknown: Botanic Avenue, Ulster Hall, Central Station, the Market from St George, even Connswater Tesco in east Belfast.

It is an imaginative reconquest of a city whose street names have too often been marred by tragedy.

One could recite the names of other fascinating, though lesser-known northern writers, such as Linda Anderson, Dawn Watson, Caoilinn Hughes; many featured in the 2019 anthology Belfast stories.

The old pillars continue to produce incredible work. Bernard MacLaverty himself followed his Stories collected in 2015 with a new collection this year, White pages and other stories.

His prose remains graceful, allusive, haunting, but, like many of his generation, he tends to write about the past. Young writers focus on the here and now; their work has an energy and diversity that speaks of a different Northern Ireland beyond orange and green, including LGBT and non-national voices.

If there is one common thread that unites Northern Irish writers, whatever the forms in which they work, it is a vein of the darkest humor.

It also informs detective writing, a genre particularly well represented in Northern Ireland today. WH Auden once described the milieu of Raymond Chandler’s novels as “the big bad place”, by which he meant LA but also more widely the dark world painted by black.

Northern Ireland has also long been the Great Wrong Place, and its mystery writers have found imaginative new ways to give mythical and metaphorical form to the shadow of violence.

Gone are the days when writer Adrian McKinty was warned by publishers not to publish books in Northern Ireland because it was ‘box office poison’. Instead, he started his career writing about America, even writing a novel in Cuba. Journalist Peter Millar said his series about a Catholic cop living in a loyalist estate near Belfast, similar to the one in Carrickfergus where McKinty grew up, is what Chandler’s books would have been if he had grown up in Northern Ireland.

Another writer from the North, Brian McGilloway, makes a direct connection to the Troubles: “In the absence of a Truth Commission, fiction is what brings us closest to understanding the past as we chart the way forward. .

Thankfully, it’s a genre that women like Claire McGowan, Kelly Creighton, and Sharon Dempsey have also richly embraced.

The political future of Northern Ireland remains disputed, but literature still feeds on doubt rather than dogmatic uncertainty. Writers north of the border question a fragmented society, but they don’t claim to have all the answers.

A cool quartet: four vibrant northern lights

Alix o’neill

Norse writer Kerri ní Dochartaigh praised O’Neill’s sharp and witty memoir of his Andersonstown childhood, The Troubles with Us, as “leathery, cheeky, book author, full of real grain ”. Posted in June by 4th Estate, the subtitle said it all: One Belfast Girl on Boys, Bombs and Finding her Way. A former student of Trinity College Dublin and Goldsmiths College London, O’Neill works as a freelance journalist in France where she lives with her young family.

Stephen sexton

This Belfast poet’s debut album If All the World and Love were Young has been compared to Seamus Heaney and won the prestigious Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He followed it up this summer with Cheryl’s Destinies, which his editor Penguin called “a thrilling and bizarre exploration of the fantastic when the real is hard to bear.” His work has been published in leading journals such as Granta, Poetry Ireland Review and Poetry London, and has been included in various anthologies. Like the famous Seamus, Sexton teaches at Queen’s University, where Heaney was a lecturer.

Michelle gallen

Shortlisted for first novel Costa, Comedy Women in Print, Kate O’Brien Awards and Irish Book, Gallen’s debut album Big Girl, Small Town was nothing short of breathtaking. Described as Milkman meets Derry Girls, this tragicomedy gave us the unforgettable and neurodivergent Majella. Gallen grew up in Tyrone; she was 23 when she suffered a rare brain injury and had to rebuild her life. Now based in Dublin, she received a scholarship from the Arts Council, which enabled her to complete her second novel Factory Girls, which John Murray will publish in June 2022.

Séamas O’Reilly

The assured memories of this boy from Derry, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? fascinated readers and critics alike when it released Fleet in June. With a skillful and comedic hand, O’Reilly told her tender and ironic story of growing up, ninth out of 11 siblings, after her mother died untimely from breast cancer. O’Reilly currently lives in London where he works for The Fence magazine and writes a parenting column for The Observer.

Madeleine Keane


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