Irish writing is exploding with energy. So I set out to capture its power
One rainy afternoon just before St Patrick’s Day, my husband and I walked from our home in Whitechapel to see an exhibition at London City Hall.
As we took turns pushing the baby’s buggy and trailing our three-year-old on his scooter, we slipped into the grooves of a conversation we often have these days, about where we might live, if and when our accumulated drift of London years is no longer sustainable.
We talked about the sunshine in Sydney, where one of my sisters is; of my cousins in Canada. My parents considered emigrating before I was born; the ghost of my imagined Canadian self flickered in and out of vision.
Our children sing Bengali nursery rhymes and celebrate Eid, and, even without setting foot in Ireland, their own children will be eligible for Irish citizenship by dint of mine
We talked about Europe – Andalusia or Tuscany or Berlin – and I pointed out that although the children and I would be okay, with our Irish passports, my English husband would need to rely on spousal rights after Brexit.
And we talked about Belfast, of course, a conversation we’ve been having with varying degrees of intensity for years.
My phone in my pocket was abuzz with a stream of banter from my family WhatsApp group about the imminent Ireland rugby match and the Grand Slam and the Triple Crown; a separate, far more sombre conversation with my mum was about the ongoing trial of the Ulster rugby players accused of rape. I wondered aloud about the Ireland we’d be moving to, if we ever did move back (or, from my husband and children’s point of view, move).
Meanwhile, our children sing Bengali nursery rhymes and celebrate Eid, and even without ever setting foot in Ireland, their own children will be automatically eligible for Irish citizenship by dint of mine, one quarter of their grandparental make-up. One eighth, if you take into account the fact that my mum was born in England; though set against this is the fact that Belfast is the place she chose to come to, and that, besides, her own family once hailed from Cork.
I often wonder how Irish my Cockney-born children will feel, or feel entitled to be. My son at two, solemnly watching the progress of the construction site opposite our flat and admonishing his visiting Grampy: “It’s not tar, it’s taow-ah.” My daughter with her anglicised Irish name. The tug of my complicated relationship with the place I’m from, its eddies and swirls and undertows, cross-currents.
The exhibition, called I Am Irish and curated by Lorraine Maher, is a series of portraits by the Jamaican-born photographer Tracey Anderson, celebrating mixed-race Irish people aged from one to 75. It intends to address, the accompanying literature says, the lack of representation of the Black Irish experience, and to question the concept of Irishness.
For Maher, growing up in Carrick-on-Suir in Tipperary in the 1960s and 1970s, there wasn’t anyone else around who looked like her. For the best part of her life, she explains, she didn’t know that there were any other mixed-race Irish people. She grew up with folk constantly questioning her Irishness and casting doubt on whether she belonged.
Who is more Irish: a writer born in Ireland who moves and stays away, or a writer born elsewhere who chooses to come ‘here’ again?
As I moved from portrait to portrait, the patronymics – Power, Fitzpatrick, Behan, Griffin, Ní Eochaidh, Costello, Kelly, Walsh, McGowan, Keogh – were a roll-call of Irishness. A middle-aged woman was standing in front of one of them, crying. I thought about how far Ireland has come in my lifetime and how far it has to go.
What makes a writer Irish? This is a question that has enervated and energised me for the whole of my writing life. I was born and grew up on the island of Ireland, yet never called myself Irish until I’d left.
I sit at my desk in London, yet still find myself calling Belfast “here”.
I hold both UK and Irish passports and neither of them tells the full story; I feel apologetic and fraudulent to varying degrees, depending on who I’m with, or where I’m going, whichever one I use.
Who is more Irish: a writer born in Ireland who moves and stays away, or a writer born elsewhere who chooses to come “here” again. A writer born in what is technically Ireland, in the “island of” sense, but who chooses to identify with “the mainland”? A writer born outside of Ireland to parents who keep it alive through songs, St Patrick’s Day and waking up in the wee hours to watch the rugby? A writer born in Ireland to parents from elsewhere, who constantly has to answer the deathly question, “No, but where are you really from?”
All of this was to the forefront of my mind as I put together this anthology, the latest in the series begun by David Marcus. Ireland is going through a golden age of writing: that has never been more apparent.
I wanted to capture something of the energy of this explosion, in all its variousness. The crime writing that’s come from the North, the closest we’ve had to a way of questioning and dealing with the past. The new strain of magical realism coming through. Young adult fiction, where some of the thorniest questions about feminism and bodily autonomy are being addressed. The new modernism, with its linguistic pyrotechnics and emotional urgency.
Writers at the height of their powers turning the full beam of their attention to subjects that have long been unspoken or dismissed or taboo, with a ferocity and unsentimentality that’s breathtaking. Writers who are truly the inheritors of Bowen and Trevor and O’Faolain, telling 21st-century stories with effortless elegance and grace.
It will be of no surprise to anyone who knows me that the balance of the anthology is two-thirds female, one-third Northern
I wanted to look, too, at where the new ways of Irish writing might take us. The fresh narratives, perspectives and multiplicities that are coming from immigration to a place so long and persistently defined by emigration. The brilliance of the voices we have can blind us to those we’re missing. I would love to read, in future iterations of this anthology, stories by Polish-Irish, Syrian-Irish, Traveller voices.
Stories about the Venezuelan friends my parents met through Duolingo who came to Belfast after having to leave Caracas at short notice and in peril. Of my son’s friend’s grandmother, who came to Belfast in the 1950s from what was then called British Guiana.
We are all the lesser for not having these stories in our common cultural experience, and I hope we’re at the verge of such new voices beginning to come through, or at last to be heard.
After much deliberation, I took as my starting point the Belfast Agreement, deciding to focus on writers who’ve begun to publish since then. Recently celebrated and newly imperilled, the Good Friday agreement changed everything for my generation.
Suddenly, psychologically, we were free to experiment with and to embrace pluralities; contradictory ways of being. The milestones in contemporary Irish literature come thick and fast from then. The founding of the Stinging Fly magazine and its publication of Kevin Barry’s There Are Little Kingdoms, the influence of which cannot be overstated.
The #WakingTheFeminists movement, which asked, loudly, where our women’s voices were, on the national stages and in the national tapestry. The work by historians such as Catherine Corless and activists such as Colm O’Gorman, bringing buried and hidden stories into the public domain, and keeping them there.
The more recent publications of Sinéad Gleeson’s beautiful and important The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore, both published by another formidable small press, New Island. This pair of sister anthologies redefined the Irish writing landscape, restored neglected women writers to the canon, and led to more conversations about whose stories are missing not just from the pantheon, but from our lives.
All of the stories in this anthology are new, commissioned specially. It will be of no surprise to anyone who knows me that the balance is two-thirds female, one-third Northern. Two-thirds born in Ireland, two-thirds currently resident. The youngest writers are in their 20s, but it’s not just youth which is new: some of the best writers represented here are in their 40s, 50s and 60s and only just beginning to publish.
This anthology, and many of its individual stories, ask, again and again, questions about contemporary Irishness which, like those I ask on a personal level, cannot be answered, only further complicated. But I hope that most of all it is a celebration – in the words of Louis MacNeice, words which are the closest I have to an article of faith – of “the drunkenness of things being various”.