Once Irish writers had to choose between exile and conformity. Now life is too comfortable for young writers-and it showsby Philip MacCann / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Ireland has changed for the better. In roughly the same measure that Thatcher’s Britain became sullen and philistine, the Republic of Ireland has advanced artistically. More and more British writers and artists look wistfully across the Irish Sea, and unlikely comparisons have been drawn with post-Franco Spain. But these changes are not easily achieved.
Remember, to James Joyce Dublin was an inward looking, spiritually paralysed city, more Scandinavian than European or even Celtic. He considered Ireland’s culture rotten with traditionalism, reliant on extravagant memories. Joyce, Wilde, Shaw and Yeats all had to get out.
The first two decades of the 20th century were the heyday of Irish literature. But Irish independence in 1921 was followed by cultural stagnation. In a nationalistic state enforced by Irish Catholic fundamentalism and censorship, individuality was hushed. When state authoritarianism began to recede, liberated minds fought a bitter battle for their voices. They craved self-expression even before they knew how it might sound.
As little as 20 years ago, new voices still found it difficult to get published. The imaginations of some younger writers simply hardened in the mould of lip-licking autobiographical stories associated with a pack of successful fiftysomethings. John McGahern was heralded for his youthful freedom from the reflexive tics of literary gentlemen: there was no porter froth on his pages; he succeeded in avoiding shamrockery and blarney; there wasn’t that self-conscious affirmation of Irishness, all too common in the absence of a powerful culture. But John McGahern was not so young.
The new generation of dislocated urban romantics, shaped by television, cinema, rock’n’roll and drug culture as much as by the newest fiction from America and England, wanted something fresher. By comparison, McGahern’s novels were spread with Irish clich?s like symptoms of literary disease: a high priest count, farms and bogs, Catholic guilt, psychosexual beatings, these were hard to get rid of. Even in 1990 it was just such a remnant of the old Ireland, McGahern’s Amongst Women, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
One superbly fresh, artistic novelist-a writer who almost paints- sealed himself in his own Eurobubble against infection from local humbug. In a succession of lofty philosophical novels, John Banville dreamed up the lives of 16th and 17th century men of science with images that popped your eyes out. He gazed beneath local significance; he had a way of looking at objects with such clarity that they…