The Second Coming: Not since the Days of Yeats and Joyce Has There Been Such a Golden Age for the Writing Irish

By Jones, Malcolm, Jr. | Newsweek, July 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Second Coming: Not since the Days of Yeats and Joyce Has There Been Such a Golden Age for the Writing Irish


Jones, Malcolm, Jr., Newsweek


THINKING OF THIS CENTURY'S literature without the Irish is like dreaming of the ocean without whales. What would short stories be like without the example of Joyce's "Dubliners"? Or the novel without his "Ulysses"? What would poetry be like without Yeats? Or the theater minus Synge, O'Casey, Shaw or Beckett? It is still astonishing, a half century after the Irish Renaissance, that the whole hard-nosed course of modernist writing took its cues from a country roughly equal in size and population to South Carolina. More astonishing, it looks as if it could happen all over again.

Without doubt, Irish writing is the best that's currently being done by any one country's authors. Even as violence has seethed in Northern Ireland, a new wave of Irish writers has arisen, transforming not only Irish literature but Ireland's sense of itself. This Second Renaissance is part of a larger explosion of Celtic culture, which includes everything from music (the rock band U2, the traditional but chart-topping Chieftains) to dance (Riverdance, the smash-hit revue built around traditional Irish dancing) to movies. Roddy Doyle has written screenplays from his own novels ("The Commitments," "The Snapper" and "The Van"). Shane Connaughton has written screenplays based on his own books ("The Play-boys") and one by fellow Irishman Christy Brown ("My Left Foot"). And Neil Jordan's excellent novels are routinely over-looked in the fuss made over the movies he's directed ("The Crying Game," "Interview With the Vampire").

Ireland's literary lions are led by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney and playwright Brian Friel, whose "Molly Sweeney" was a hit in New York just this year. But the new generation, born since 1950, includes a number of writers whose names are just beginning to be recognized here:

* Roddy Doyle, 38. The most commercially successful and widely read of the bunch. He writes about rock bands, latchkey kids and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Doyle jokes about not being taken seriously because of his fame ("Once the 50,000th person buys a copy of your book, that's it, you're finished"). But he hasn't pandered to his audience: as he's grown more popular, his books have grown darker, and better. "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" won England's Booker Prize in 1993, and his current novel, "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors," the confessions of a "39-year-old widow-woman with a hollow leg," is a brutal look at alcoholism and wife-beating.

* Sebastian Barry, 43. Initially a novelist and poet, he turned to playwriting in 1988 with "Boss Grady's Boys," the first of six historical plays all modeled loosely on figures from his own family. Inverting the old saw that the winners write history, Barry has endowed life's losers with eloquence and dignity. Cerebral and lyrical, he is the new crown prince of Ireland's majestic theatrical tradition.

* Paul Muldoon, 43. There are few poetic forms that this dazzling technician has not successfully attacked, from epic to lyric to a libretto for an opera about a doomed love affair of Frank Lloyd Wright's. As the poet and publisher Peter Fallon says, "I don't see how anyone can catch him."

* Patrick McCabe, 43. His third novel, "The Butcher Boy," was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 1992, and from its first sentence, you know you are in the hands of a master. "When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago," the protagonist Francie Brady begins, "I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent." For more than 200 pages, McCabe extends the loony humor and sense of dread packed in that sentence, and never once does the tension relax. A beautiful rendering of childhood self-absorption and a portrait of small-town life etched in acid, "The Butcher Boy" is one of the best stories in a long time.

No country loves its writers more than Ireland. James Joyce's portrait appears on the [pound]10 note, with a quote from "Finnegans Wake" on the back. …

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