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Ireland: Patricia Craig

irish novel belfast

Irish fiction proper could be said to begin with Maria Edgeworth's sprightly Castle Rackrent of 1800, which concerns itself with ‘the manners of the Irish Squires, before the Year 1782’. As a dissection of profligacy and imprudence, satirically framed, this work stands alone; and its central emblem, the ramshackle ‘big house’ itself, sparked off an entire tradition in Irish writing which continues up to the present in the work of authors such as Jennifer Johnston and Caroline Blackwood. Edgeworth never again matched the exuberance and inventiveness of her first novel—and it wasn't until late in the century that a recognizably modern note began to be struck by other writers, like George Moore, or Somerville and Ross in their admired novel The Real Charlotte (1894). Moore's stories in The Untilled Field (1903) are constructed with great artistry, and, by analysing priestly interference in secular affairs, pinpoint a crucial social problem.

George Moore got to grips with the moral climate of the day; James Joyce, who followed him, beginning with Dubliners in 1914, and going on to further illuminate his native city in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914–15) and Ulysses (1922), revolutionized not only Irish writing, but literature in general, by turning his disenchantment with the country to a formidable literary purpose. Joyce is so colossal a presence in twentieth-century literature that it took some time before his successors in Ireland could get him into perspective. Those who were heavily influenced by him include Samuel Beckett (More Pricks Than Kicks, 1934), and Flann O'Brien (a.k.a. Brian O'Nolan and Myles na Gopaleen), whose best-known novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), with its key elements of parody, high comedy, and Celtic convolution, is distinctly Joycean. Its successor, the wonderfully satirical The Poor Mouth (written in Irish in 1941 and not translated until 1973) pokes fun at excessive Irishness. Joyce's contemporary James Stephens's best-known work, The Crock of Gold (1912), is a fantasy of considerable sophistication and charm, as well as being pointed in its social criticisms; still in a minor key, in the same year, came George A. Birmingham's ingenious and comic narrative of the Home Rule crisis, The Red Hand of Ulster.

The dramatic events of the early twentieth century—the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War—were quickly enshrined in contemporary fiction. Ex-freedom fighters like the Corkmen Sean O'Faolain and Frank O'Connor drew on their own experiences of guerrilla warfare in their earliest story collections (Midsummer Night Madness, 1932, and Guests of the Nation, 1931, respectively), before going on to epitomize the new Ireland in stories poised between comedy and poignancy (O'Connor), or abounding in grace, vigour, and complexity (O'Faolain). From A Purse of Coppers (1937) on, O'Faolain's breeziness and urbanity acted, in a sense, to subvert the provincial inertia and downbeat Catholicism of his Irish settings. With these authors, and their contemporaries O'Donnell and O'Flaherty, you're conscious of a certain disenchantment with the revolution which failed to produce a better, more progressive or just society. The Donegal novelist Peadar O'Donnell—also an ex-revolutionary—goes in for authenticity and gusto in his portrayals of remote communities of the north-west, while taking a stand against all forms of action, including republican action, not grounded in proper socialist principles. His Adrigoole (1928) is a powerful story—based on a true incident—of death by starvation, in the twentieth century; and in The Big Windows (1955) the title phrase stands for enlightenment of outlook, embodied in an island woman who, on marrying, comes to live among the mountains. Liam O'Flaherty, an Aranman, is best remembered for his novel The Informer (1925; filmed by John Ford in 1935), and for his historical trilogy beginning with Famine (1937). He writes with energy and directness.

From the other side—the Anglo-Irish side, and in the ‘Big House’ mode established by Maria Edgeworth—comes Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September (1929), a novel of the Black and Tan war, composed with striking subtlety and edginess, and ending with the burning by republicans of a great house, Danielstown (a fictional counterpart of Bowen's Court, which survived). Julia O'Faolain, in the Bowen tradition, has an ambitious novel, No Country for Young Men (1980), about political violence and the recovery of the past.

The Belfast novelist Michael McLaverty got off to an impressive start with Call My Brother Back (1939)—a child's-eye view of the disturbances of 1921, and a work of great economy and lucidity—and followed it up with Lost Fields (1942) which tells you all you want to know about Belfast street life, customs, and privations. John O'Connor's single novel, Come Day—Go Day (1948) does the same for Co. Armagh, though in a more high-spirited manner. Sam Keery's The Last Romantic Out of Belfast (1984) is a vivid, impressionistic account of a Northern Irish upbringing in the 1930s and 1940s.

The decade of the 1940s is generally held to be a rather dreary, backward-looking era in Irish life and literature; but Sean O'Faolain and Peadar O'Donnell (successive editors of the lively journal The Bell) kept the spirit of protest in fine fettle, and novels such as Patrick Kavanagh's Tarry Flynn (1948)—a pungent recreation of Co. Monaghan life—and Mervyn Wall's hilarious fantasies set in medieval, monastic Ireland, The Unfortunate Fursey (1946) and its sequel, appeared to temper the monotony. In 1955 came Brian Moore's first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, about a spinster and incipient alcoholic, in which the author's exasperation with his native city, Belfast, fuels a narrative of considerable dynamism. Moore's other Belfast novels, The Feast of Lupercal (1958), The Emperor of Ice Cream (1965), and Lies of Silence (1990) make equally compelling reading. (The last, written as comic realism, is still the most striking evocation of wartime Belfast in existence.)

Puritan Ireland, you might say, was in its last throes by the early 1960s; and writers such as John McGahern (The Dark, 1965), John Montague (in his collection of stories, Death of a Chieftain, 1964), and Edna O'Brien (The Country Girls, 1960) were responding in various heartening ways to the changing social climate. The ebullient Benedict Kiely, whose collection of stories, A Journey to the Seven Streams, came out in 1963, continued to exercise his ragbag imagination in the celebration of distinctive localities and idiosyncratic characters—though his tone turns darker with Proxopera (1977), which deals with the degradation of republicanism, as evinced by the Provisional IRA's campaign of violence. Certain old themes were appearing in new guises—the ‘big house’, for example, which gets a deadpan and very funny airing in Caroline Blackwood's Great Granny Webster (1977), is presented symbolically, and engagingly, in Jennifer Johnston's The Gates (1973), and surfaces in colourful, dense and surreal form in John Banville's Birchwood (1973). Molly Keane's Good Behaviour (1981)—her first novel for over twenty years—turns mistreatment, disappointment and entrapment (all in a big house setting) into the blackest of black comedies. Turning to provincial Ireland—this, in the hands of William Trevor, a master of the ironic and oblique, appears in its most invigorating incarnation. The title story from Trevor's 1972 collection The Ballroom of Romance has become something of a national archetype, while his later novels and stories—in particular, Fools of Fortune (1983) and The News from Ireland (1986)—engage to the full with historical and social pressures.

If Ireland, north and south, has finally caught up with the modern world, in ways both encouraging and dispiriting, this is being reflected in literature at all levels. The very popular Roddy Doyle (The Snapper, 1990) gains his effects from an onslaught of cunning and insouciance in Dublin's post-war housing estates, with an overlay of charm slapped on top of these qualities for good measure. More dispassionate than Dublin's new streetsmart fiction is Colm Tóibín's The Heather Blazing (1992), about commitment to Ireland and its history—a familiar theme, but tellingly recharged here. Jennifer Johnston's The Old Jest (1979), set in 1920 and dealing with a young girl's involvement in Ireland's business, displays the author's customary style which is beautifully balanced between delicacy and bravado. If you like a sparky tone, you might try Clare Boylan (Holy Pictures, 1983); or if you're more drawn to ‘strange, sad lives’ then Deirdre Madden (One by One in the Darkness, 1996) is the one for you. Dermot Healy's A Goat's Song (1993), which contains some crucial Irish oppositions, such as north and south, Protestant and Catholic, is intensely felt and evocative. Maurice Leitch (The Liberty Lad, 1965) and Glenn Patterson (Burning Your Own, 1988) have both contributed to the literature of communal psychic disorder. Seamus Deane's first novel, Reading in the Dark (1996), details an exceptionally pungent Derry upbringing. And with intriguing newcomers such as Anne Enright (The Wig My Father Wore, 1995) and Robert McLiam Wilson (Eureka Street, 1996) playfully extending the scope, you have to concede that the whole field of Irish fiction remains in a thriving state.

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