Irish Writing is not a qualitative statement

Calling a piece of literature Irish is not a review. Irish writer D. Joyce-Ahearne from Ireland, fights for Irishness and its right to be meaningless.


“He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth.” This is Ernest Hemingway’s description of F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast. I presume I have an Irish mouth too. I’m Irish. I don’t know of any other qualification that would do or be needed.

Most of my friends have Irish mouths. I don’t think any of us are particularly long-lipped. Maybe some are. Definitely not all, not even most. So does that mean our mouths aren’t Irish mouths? Does a mouth have to be long-lipped to be Irish or Irish to be long-lipped?

Ernest, I have to call bullshit here. What is an “Irish” mouth? I think you made that up. I think it’s just a thing you wrote because you thought “Yeah that could be a thing.” I believe that was the extent of the thinking behind it. I don’t think there’s anything inherently Irish about a mouth, long-lipped or otherwise.

“Irish” is not a helpful descriptive adjective when it comes to mouths. It doesn’t tell you what length the lips are, how many teeth a person has or give you any other information that would leave you knowing more about the mouth. It definitely doesn’t tell you how good or bad the mouth is.

“Irish”, the state of being from or of the island of Ireland, is a geographical signifier. At times it can also be a geo-political signifier. It can also be a socio-economic signifier. What it is not though, and I can’t emphasise this enough (other than using it as the headline and saying fuck) is a fucking statement of quality.

There is a grave misunderstanding of how denonyms work in Irish literary circles these days. Somehow, a large body of people have come to the conclusion that “Irish”, in relation to literature, means boring, repetitive, monotonous and, by virtue of all of the above, shit. As a result of this, “not Irish” or “un-Irish” has become a positive epithet to bestow upon contemporary Irish writers. Again, Ernest, I must call bullshit.

It’s often said about Kevin Barry. “Isn’t Kevin Barry such an un-Irish author? I love him, he’s just so not Irish.” Zadie Smith is not an Irish author. Rabelais was not an Irish author. Kevin Barry is. He’s from Sligo via Limerick. He’s an Irish author. Not a “very Irish” author, because you can’t be very from somewhere, just an Irish author. From Ireland.

Does this make his work boring, repetitive, monotonous and, by virtue of all of the above, shit? I don’t think so. I find it innovative, unique (as much as anything can be), beautifully crafted, funny and, personally, a qualitative statement: good. He happens to be Irish. Not a big deal.

Irish writer Niamh Mulvey from Ireland, in this article which is absolutely riddled with contradictory bullshit, says that Barry’s writing gave other Irish writers who were from Ireland and were Irish the freedom to “to write in a non-specifically Irish way. You can be an Irish writer but not be rural. You can be an Irish writer but have people watching TV and living in the suburbs, you can be an Irish writer and not have some kind of terrible experience of Catholicism.”

Now. Where was this woman living? Skellig Michael? John Ford’s head? Where in Ireland was she that it was specifically Irish to be without TVs? Or for it to be beyond the bounds of reality that people could live in a suburban setting?

This is the kind of thinking that is the crux of the problem. Ironically it is symptomatic of the kind of backwardness that these supposedly “non-Irish” Irish writers are trying to distance themselves from. Do people really think Ireland has a unique claim on rurality? Do they really think that the problems that come from isolated living are unique to Ireland? Do they think we’re the only country with fields?

“There is a grave misunderstanding of how denonyms work in Irish literary circles these days.”

This attitude is just as narrow-minded as the one it’s purporting to be a move away from. It is essentialism at its most basic. By this logic J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country is an Irish book. And is shit.  I assure you it’s neither.

Besides being incredibly naive, it’s spectacularly offensive to Irish people from Ireland who are Irish from Ireland. The use of “Irish” as a negative signifier means that if you choose a certain subject matter, even if it’s your lived experience and even if it’s magnificently written, if it’s considered “Irish” then a negative qualitative judgement has already been passed.

Unless it’s good. Because if you somehow pull it off and it’s good then it becomes “un-Irish”. The idea that an Irish writer has to be redefined as “not Irish” in order to assure everyone of their quality is fucking mortifying. Are we really that insecure?

A recent example is Eimear McBride. If A Girl is a Half-formed Thing had been shit it would have been panned specifically as an “Irish novel”. As it stands, it’s superb and people are lining up to commend both it and its author as being “not Irish”.

“I love Eimear McBride. She’s such a non-Irish writer.”  That sentence makes sense if you are referring to the fact that she was born in England and what you mean is “I love Eimear McBride. She is an English author.” I don’t claim to know what McBride’s internal truth of nationality is but if she self-identifies as English, and the speaker knows this, then calling her a non-Irish writer would in this instance be a factually correct statement.

It would most definitely not be a qualitative statement. And how could it be? I would say it’s at best a redundant statement and at worst a ridiculous statement because it would appear that the speaker loves McBride’s work because she is an English author. And what assurance is there of a writer’s work because they are born in a certain place? Or, for that matter, if they’re not from a certain place?

In my experience, when Irish people express their appreciation of McBride’s work and mention how “un-Irish” it is they are, bizarrely, first explicitly claiming that she’s Irish and then saying she’s not, and that that is, qualitatively, a good thing about her writing.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is, without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years. It deals with a “kind of terrible experience of Catholicism”. By the lazy essentialism of the current negative definition of “Irish writing” it is thus a very Irish book. It also touches on rural isolation, tea (on more than one occasion), moving to the big city, guilt and raging sessions. It’s a spectacular novel. None of the above subjects are inherently Irish or non-Irish. They’re things and experiences that exist everywhere.

As I said I don’t know how McBride identifies (Irish, English, Irish-English, English-Irish, none of the above, European) but that’s not the point. It’s why she’s a good example. The quality of her work doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter where she’s from.

McBride is a superb writer, whether she’s an Irish writer or a non-Irish writer is immaterial and meaningless. The latter adjectives have no bearing on the former. If an Irish writer (or a French writer or Eimear McBride) writes about living in Ireland, the quality of the finished product is a non sequitur.

Kavanagh, wipe the shit off your shoes and put on your French hat, I need you. Here’s a poem by Irish writer from Ireland who’s Irish from Ireland, Patrick Kavanagh:Scan

Fact: It’s a poem by an Irish writer. Qualitative statement: I think it’s good. Is it an “Irish” poem because it’s about a plough-horse? Is it an “Irish” poem because there’s no mention of TVs? Are all poems about plough-horses “Irish” poems? Now he doesn’t say where the field is. There are horses in fields in other countries. There are horses in fields in Haiti for example. I’ve seen them. I’ve brought a picture to prove it:

DSCF0732DSCF0732 DSCF0732 (800x600)


“And the bushes! What are they doing?! Tell them to stop being so Irish! We’re the only country with a countryside and people who live there and who thus have a lived experience resulting from that life!”

I personally think that Kevin Barry and Eimear McBride are great writers and that they’ve really gotten away from the Irish tradition of Haitian writing.

Here’s a poem by Irish writer from Ireland who’s Irish, Patrick Chapman from Ireland, about artificial intelligence. By the current prescriptive definition of what “Irish” writing is this is very “un-Irish”.

“That’s a very un-Irish poem, with the robots and no chickens.”

“We wouldn’t be knowing anything about the robots.”

Those writer and critics who choose to use “Irish” as a descriptive phrase that precludes the actual choice of theme or worse, the quality of the work, are projecting shit-kickery and muck-savagery at the rate of Gerald of Wales.

“I personally think that Kevin Barry and Eimear McBride are great writers and that they’ve really gotten away from the Irish tradition of Haitian writing.”

Using “Irish writing” as a label that encompasses both a specific choice of subject (fields, no TVs, etc) and a predetermined quality of execution (shite) establishes an opposing and equally unjustified term of praise. By virtue of Irish authors not writing about fields they become “un-Irish” authors and, in relation to the denigrated term “Irish” writing, this becomes a positive qualitative statement. By not writing about fields they’re “good”.

When an Irish writer identifies themselves as “not an Irish writer” they mean to say “I am progressive and thus, qualitatively, ‘good’.” An author’s self-proclamation of “non-Irishness” is a cowardly way of saying “I think I’m great and different”. More power to you, confidence is key, but why the need to wrongly put down an entire body of literature in order to think it?

The idea that anyone can claim the title “non-Irish” by being different or experimental is particularly outrageous. That “Irish” writing implies monotony is criminal considering some of the most innovative writers of the last hundred years have been Irish.

Possibly the most nonsensical piece from the Telegraph article reads: “Edna O’Brien describes James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as ‘the giants that hovered over every would-be poet and penman’: she captures a sense that Ireland’s rich literary tradition is potentially stifling for the giants’ contemporary counterparts, who often live outside Ireland, and whose influences are often assumed to be Irish when they are really American or European.”

This new generation of “un-Irish” Irish writers want to get away from Joyce and Beckett and “Irish” writing. They often live outside of Ireland and their influences aren’t Irish. You mean like Joyce and Beckett? Who, according to the stereotypes of what “Irish” writing is, aren’t even “Irish” writers? If Joyce and Beckett aren’t Irish writers then why worry about their shadows? What the fuck are these people talking about?

Is Joyce an “Irish” author? Or Swiss? Or French? He’s Irish. Is Beckett a French writer? No, he’s Irish. “But maybe…” no he’s an Irish writer from Ireland who was Irish because that’s what that word means. And that’s all that word means. It’s not a comment on their worth as authors or people.

And maybe Joyce would say, you know what, Ulysses is a Swiss book. That’s grand for all the fucking difference it would make. It has no bearing whatsoever on the quality of the work. Whether he’s an Irish author or a French author or whatever it’s makes no difference. But he’s an Irish author because he’s from Ireland.

And there’s a word for that.


Sin é.