Irish literature thrived long before the Booker Prize was established in 1969, yet since the turn of the century a new generation of writers have cemented their place in the Booker canon
The 21st century has witnessed a new golden age for Irish fiction that has been reflected by the Booker Prize, in its longlists and shortlists, as well as in the three winners to come from the island of Ireland in that time. Starting with The Deposition of Father McGreevy by Brian O’Doherty, which made the shortlist in 2000, and continuing up to Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These in 2022, the Irish novels that have met with Booker judges’ approval have reflected the immediate concerns and enduring preoccupations of writers from a rapidly-changing country.
While reviewing fiction on the British side of the Irish Sea for the past decade or so, I have been struck repeatedly by the volume, range and quality of new Irish writing. Ireland continues to produce fresh and sophisticated literary voices at an astonishing rate – and UK agents and publishers are eager to snap them up.
Indeed, so many good writers have come out of Ireland of late that Paul Murray, Booker longlisted for Skippy Dies (2010), Donal Ryan (longlisted in 2013 for The Spinning Heart and five years later for From A Low and Quiet Sea) and Kevin Barry (longlisted for Night Boat to Tangier in 2019) almost seem like old hands now. Sally Rooney, who made the longlist with Normal People in 2018, has become a literary superstar.
Decades before this new generation, the Dublin-born Iris Murdoch won the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea. Roddy Doyle triumphed in 1993 with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and John Banville was the first Irish winner this century for The Sea (2005), seeing off competition from, among others, his compatriot Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. Anne Enright won in 2007 for The Gathering and, in 2018, the Belfast-born writer Anna Burns was a surprise winner with her formally-experimental, politically-engaged and laugh-out-loud Milkman.
A repeated refrain, when I have asked writers, critics and publishers why they thought there were so many excellent Irish novelists is: ‘It’s their culture’— Max Liu
Then there are the Irish novelists who have repeatedly been in contention for the Booker without actually winning. William Trevor was shortlisted five times and Colm Toibin has been shortlisted on three occasions, most recently in 2013 for The Testament of Mary. His unforgettable Brooklyn (longlisted in 2009), in which a young woman from Wexford follows the path trodden by millions of Irish people when she migrates to New York in the 1950s, is in my view the best novel this century not to win the Booker Prize. It had the bad luck to be up against Wolf Hall.
All this from an island which is home to fewer than seven million people. It is, admittedly, larger than the other Celtic nations, but there have been only two Booker winners from Scotland and just one from Wales.
Of course, Irish literature thrived long before the Booker Prize was established in 1969. A repeated refrain, when I have asked writers, critics and publishers why they thought there were so many excellent Irish novelists is: ‘It’s their culture.’ Meaning, writing fiction is central to life there in a way that it isn’t in the UK and participation is not limited by class boundaries; Irish writers seem to come from all social backgrounds.
A famous literary past could have been inhibiting for contemporary Irish authors, a possibility Sally Rooney mocks in Conversations with Friends, when a character says: ‘No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.’ Burns, who grew up in a Catholic family in Belfast, meanwhile, said after winning the Booker Prize that, while she was flattered by comparisons to Samuel Beckett, she was not convinced she fit into ‘the whole Irish tradition thing’.
When I visit Dublin, with its literary landmarks, mosaics of playwrights on pub walls and statues of modernist giants, I do wonder how emerging writers coped growing up with Samuel Beckett, Yeats and, more than anyone else, James Joyce towering over them. As the Irish critic Mark O’Connell wrote in an essay on 21st-century Dublin’s relationship with Joyce: ‘There can’t be many cities that are presided over so thoroughly and so minutely by a single artist.’
Joyce was, I hear, an unpredictable man, but hopefully he would have approved of the integrity and internationalism of Irish fiction that has appeared a century after he was writing. Keegan’s Booker Prize shortlisting last year, and Audrey Magee’s longlisting for The Colony, came in the centenary of Ulysses. Small Things Like These contains whispers of Joyce’s long story ‘The Dead’ in its Christmas setting and its concern with the Catholic Church, in this case the brutality of the horrific Magdalene Laundries.
Ireland has a supportive literary community with lots of journals and events, which makes writers feel it’s possible to succeed— Lisa McInerney
Irish writers’ commitment to using the novel to distill into individual stories the major subjects that face their country may have impressed Booker Prize judges. It was there in Milkman, Burns’ comic stream-of-consciousness masterpiece about an 18-year-old woman living in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. That novel conveyed the absurdity of ingrained divisions and was an ingenious testament to the power of reading in the most challenging circumstances; the narrator’s neighbours distrusted her because she had a habit of reading classic literature while walking through town.
In her 2007 Booker Prize winner The Gathering, Enright depicted a large family, who came together following the suicide of the narrator’s brother, as a way to examine the legacies of sexual abuse. The story of the Hegarty family is, in Enright’s telling, the story of Ireland at a particular moment, or as the narrator says when venting her fury at how abuses continued for decades in plain sight: ‘This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family – a whole fucking country – drowning in shame.’
Later in The Gathering, the narrator makes a passing observation at her brother’s wake which feels more significant today than it did in 2007: ‘Tom my professional husband engages Mossie my professional brother in some political talk about the way the country is on the up and up. Ha bloody ha says the corpse next door.’
Reading this scene recently, I imagined that ‘the corpse next door’ was laughing because it had a premonition that the period of economic growth in Ireland, that was dubbed The Celtic Tiger, would end abruptly with the 2008 global financial crash. The crisis caused devastating unemployment and was a before-and-after moment, so the term ‘post-Celtic Tiger writers’ has been used to categorise the new generation of Irish novelists. Inevitably, they shrug it off but, looking back at some of the interviews I conducted in the past decade, I notice I repeatedly asked Irish writers about the impact of the crisis.
In 2014, Donal Ryan told me: ‘Tragedy has reattached itself to emigration, with people going abroad for work. There are ghost estates where companies sold houses then folded. When we had storms recently, fences started flying around, because they’d just been placed between crooked concrete posts and left.’
Three years later, when Ireland’s economy was growing again and its new wave of writing in full swing, Lisa McInerney, who won the Women’s Prize with her first novel The Glorious Heresies (2016), told me: ‘Possibly some younger writers lost their jobs and thought, “Fuck it, I might as well give writing a proper go.” Maybe the lack of economic opportunities created artistic opportunities. The unhappier Ireland is, the better its writing.’
She also mentioned more positive factors: ‘Ireland has a supportive literary community with lots of journals and events, which makes writers feel it’s possible to succeed.’
McInerney’s point about the journals is important. Last year, she became the editor of The Stinging Fly, the influential Dublin-based magazine, which first published Rooney, Colin Barrett, Wendy Erskine, Sara Baume and many more who have gone on to write acclaimed books. Other literary magazines, such as Gorse and Banshee Lit, have become part of the Irish writing ecosystem, and many of them receive funding from the Irish Arts Council. Last year, meanwhile, the Irish government announced the three-year Basic Income for the Arts pilot scheme providing 2000 artists and creative arts workers with €325 a week.
It is tempting to look across from the UK, where for over a decade the government has done everything it can to ensure that fewer people have time and money to engage with the arts, with envy. A more constructive response would be to keep reading new Irish fiction and consider its social diversity, the energy and inventiveness that pulses through it as a result, and how widespread participation enriches literary culture for all. It has created the conditions for ambitious and surprising works to emerge consistently and is likely to produce more Booker Prize contenders in the next few years.
Max Liu is a freelance journalist. @maxjliu