By Lena Hunter
You do not have to drink ten pints at your local Irish bar to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
You could just stay in and read a book and still evoke a wave of national pride by familiarizing yourself with this selection of ten must-know literary figures from Emerald Isle.
Doing both on the same night can be foolhardy, though a pint or three of the black stuff has helped readers navigate like ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, while champagne is the perfect accompaniment to ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ .
It can, of course, be debated whether the latter is a worthy entry in this best Irish literature, as Wilde was largely an English gentleman raised in an Ireland under British rule.
For the same reason, other Anglo-Irish writers such as Bernhard Shaw, Jonathan Swift and CS Lewis have failed to reach our top ten as they are not known for their contribution to the Irish voice.
So ten pints or ten Irish writers? It’s your choice. No doubt the main characters in ‘Normal People’ would choose both.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde – to use his full and exemplary Irish name – became prominent in the 1880s and 90s on the wings of his ingenious wit and style. But the beloved poet, playwright, and novelist behind such icons of the written word as ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ has only risen to greater heights in the century since his death. He is the poster boy for the aesthetic movement of the 19th century, who believes that the pursuit of beauty and good taste is the main purpose of art. Aesthetics like Wilde avoided didactics and instead raised the weapon. If he were alive today, he would probably be an Instagram influencer. As it happens, his great-grandson (who by the way is a death-ringer) is a computer programmer living in London.
Samuel Beckett’s plays from the Cold War era are half-hearted, half-wildly blunt reflections on the global trauma of the nuclear age and the meaninglessness of human existence. But do not rush all to the ticket office at once. If you can stand it, watching a Beckett play is a valuable experience. Prominent in his oeuvre include Waiting for Godot (1952) and Happy Days (1961). He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, but – however tempting it may be to say that his pieces are appropriate mirrors of our uncertain times – Beckett’s absurdist nihilism will never go out of style.
The novelist, poet and critic James Joyce is considered one of the most influential literary figures of the 20th century. His modernist fever-dream masterpiece ‘Ulysses’ (1920) is perhaps his most famous work, but ‘Dubliners’ (1914), ‘Finnegans Wake’ (1939) and ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ (1916) are all pioneering in their own rights. Head to Dublin and you will find an impressive number of memorial plaques at pubs that he visited. Davy Byrnes at 21 Duke Street, a favorite, even gets a mention in ‘Ulysses’ as Leopold Bloom looks in for a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy.
William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats is undeniably one of the greatest poets of the last century. He belonged to the Protestant Anglo-Irish minority in Ireland – most of whom considered themselves English – but Yeats defended his Irish nationality vigorously, with Irish folklore and heroes in many of his works. Two of his great personal influences were the famous patriot John O’Leary – when he returned to Ireland after serving 20 years in prison for revolutionary nationalist activities, he encouraged Yeats to honor his cultural roots in his writing – and the English heir Maude Gonne, a fervent Irish nationalist with whom Yeats developed an obsessive infatuation.
Seamus Heaney’s poetry has been conveyed into the collective consciousness by being studied in English teaching all over the world – which may have taken the shine off for many, but not diminished its brilliance. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 for his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt the miracles of everyday life and the living past”. Particularly well known is ‘Death of a Naturalist’ – his first major published volume. As a Catholic in Protestant Northern Ireland, Heaney described herself as a person who “came out of a hidden, buried life and entered the field of education”. His poems revolve largely around Northern Ireland’s civil strife, local culture and language flooded by English rule.
Dublin-born Roddy Doyle’s raw accounts of the working class have earned him a place as one of Ireland’s fictional favorites. Several of his books have been successful film adaptations: ‘The Commitments’ (1987), ‘The Snapper’ (1990) and ‘The Van’ (1991), which include ‘The Barrytown Trilogy’. He is also a prolific playwright who has composed four plays and two screenplays. His work is dialogue-heavy, with little accompanying description. It is mainly set in working class Dublin and removes domestic and personal concerns as well as broader Irish history.
During her lifetime, author and journalist Maeve Binchy blew the roost of international sales of Irish literature, selling over 40 million book copies in 37 languages. Her novels have been joined by Oprah Winfrey, turned into films and won her Lifetime Achievement Awards at both the British Book Awards and the Irish Pen / AT Cross Literary Awards. Binchy was born in Dalkey, County Dublin, and later returned to settle in an ‘unpretentious Georgian cottage’. Nevertheless, her depictions of betrayal, child-parent relationships, rural and urban life, and cultural and religious transformations in Ireland resonated with readers far beyond Ireland’s borders.
Sally Rooney is the buzzword contemporary contemporary Irish writer from the last five years. Her first two novels, ‘Conversations with Friends’ (2017) and ‘Normal People’ (2018), became word-of-mouth success stories at hand. ‘Normal People’ jumped to the top of the US bestseller list in the first four months after release, selling nearly 64,000 copies. It was promptly adapted for an Emmy-nominated TV series in the UK, which spawned a viral trend – and even a dedicated Instagram page (@connellschain) – for the ‘Argos-chic’ necklace worn by one of the central characters .
The Northern Irish writer Anna Burns is another modern literary heavyweight. Her novel ‘Milkman’ received three major awards in three years: the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award. In fact, she is the first Irish author to win Booker. ‘Milkman’ explores the trials and complexities of growing up during Troubles in 1970s Belfast. Despite the setting, the book turns into a universal narrative. “I would like to think that it could be seen as any kind of totalitarian, closed society that exists under similar oppressive conditions,” Burns explained to the Guardian. “I see it as a fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, where prolonged violence is seen as the norm.”
McBride wrote his debut novel – ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’, a stream of consciousness narrative set in 80s Ireland – in six months, but it took nine years to get it published. When the novel was first out in nature, it gained momentum and was hailed by critics as “blatantly original” and “unshakable”. McBride explores themes including the ubiquity of porn, the performative nature of feminism, sex and the body, shame, disgust, and gender stereotypes. Much of McBride’s success is grounded in the way she translates her own personal experience into prose. “As an Irish Catholic, I belong to a long tradition of shame,” McBride said, explaining the roots of her work.
Source: The Nordic Page