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Friday 31 March 2023 Dublin: 9°C
How a new generation of writers are changing Irish literature
‘They illustrate important issues in Irish society today’, says Maynooth University’s Michael Cronin.

JUST LAST WEEK, two Irish novelists were shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. The shortlist represents 40 different nationalities of writers and its prize value is €100,000 – the most valuable annual prize for fiction published in English.

For Michael G Cronin, lecturer and MA co-ordinator in English Literatures of Engagement at Maynooth University, it’s not a surprise that either of these writers are nominated – Mike McCormack and Eimear McBride are both a central part of a new generation of writers changing Irish literature.

Although they echo some of the traditions that have garnered Irish literature international recognition for over a century, this generation are mixing it up in some pretty fascinating ways. And Maynooth University are helping this happen by offering a number of postgraduate scholarships for their courses in English Literature.

Here, Cronin takes us through why we should be paying close attention to our homegrown literature talent.

1. They’re highlighting the most pressing issues of our era

“What a novel is really good at is capturing how individuals experience how a society changes”, Cronin says. Two books in particular have really stood out for him in this regard – Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney.

Cronin says that Solar Bones “connects the personal story with the public story”.  It takes place inside the mind of a middle aged man who works for Mayo County Council, who tells the story of his wife who is sick from some of the environmental decisions made by the council. It’s important as it “explores our relationship with the environment in which we live”.

Conversations with Friends on the other hand, Cronin says is “really insightful into the concerns of a young woman” – it explores sexuality, gender and consent: “these are questions that are so to the fore and urgent at the moment”.  For Cronin, ”both novels illustrate an important issue in Irish society today”.

2. They’re using experimental forms

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What really stands out about McCormack’s work is its very experimental form – the whole novel is actually written in one sentence, which “sounds difficult to read but flows very well – it’s a very absorbing story written in an experimental way”.

Rooney’s work too, uses unexpected forms to tell her story – “a lot of the novel are conversations that occur through social media and mobile phones”. They’re an important part of the plot and “depicts how social media changes us”:

The way in which novelists engage with how technology is changing our relationships, our consciousness and how we think of ourselves is something we will be engaging with more and more.

3. They’re using independent, Irish publishers

What is particularly important for this generation of writers is that they’re less reliant on big multinational houses. Solar Bones for example was first published by Irish independent publishing house Tramp Press who “actively promote Irish writing”:

Contemporary writers like Banville and Tóibín were published by British and American publishers. It’s very interesting that they can now be published by a small independent house in Ireland and get the readership and the recognition, that’s a very important development.

Although the fact that Irish writers have always had access to a big readership in the rest of the English-speaking world, this has been slightly problematic in the past, says Cronin. There was almost an “unconscious assumption they were spokespeople for the country”:

In the past Irish writers have felt responsible for making their work representative of Ireland. We’re experiencing a shift away from that – stories are still resonant and emblematic but don’t sum up the country.

4. They capture the psychological impact of societal problems

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Although Cronin reminds us that Ireland has always had a wealth of talented female writers like Edna O’Brien and Kate O’Brien, new writers like Eimear McBride and Louise O’Neill are ensuring that women’s viewpoints “are going to be even more prominent, which is obviously going to be hugely enriching for Irish literature”.

He takes the example of Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, whose way of experimenting with form is very complex, reflecting the wider, equally complex issue of sexual abuse in Ireland. It follows a character so traumatised by abuse that she seeks out further abuse:

It’s not only grammatically and linguistically difficult but it’s emotionally difficult to read because it deals with sexual abuse and assault. In the context of what went on in Ireland it’s very important to read things that confront the psychological impact of these issues.

Cronin says that while the Ryan Report gives us an overview of abuse, novels like these “give us an idea of the psychic repercussions on an individual” when they experience sexual abuse at the hands of an institution.

6. They’re becoming public figures

Another important figure who has used literature to explore the issue of sexual assault is Louise O’Neill, who is part of a movement of female writers that Cronin says are “progressively and consciously committed to feminist politics and are finding ways of giving expression to young women’s stories”.

Her novel Asking For It is something that teenagers can read and relate to but it also has a depth and seriousness that has triggered important attention from adults:

It addresses very important questions around the objectification of young women and how they internalise it in the context of social media and consent.

What is equally important is the public role O’Neill has taken on, according to Cronin:

She is someone who is really admirable as she’s combined the role of novelist with a public intellectual role. She does talks and writes in the media about urgent questions such as consent and sexual assault.

7. They’ll write about the evolving notion of Irishness

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What Cronin is particularly excited about is the fact that his lecture theatres are filling up with students that are more ethnically diverse than years gone by, and its impact on literature when they begin to get published:

People are having much more hybrid identities – their parents may have migrated to Ireland in the 1990s from Eastern Europe or Africa, they were born and educated here and are Irish but also have this connection to a different country.

Cronin is “interested to see how novelists and writers find ways of writing about how notions of Irishness are evolving and changing”. This was very important in British literature in the 1980s and 1990s for British people of Asian or African heritage writers like Zadie Smith.

“It will be very interesting when a new generation of Irish writers begin to write about how cultural background, gender and society intersects in Ireland”.

8. They’re bucking international trends

One of Cronin’s PhD students is looking at how literature grows out of something that starts online – considering books such as Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight. For Cronin, these series “illustrate the point that social media is changing the way that we read”.

Fifty Shades of Grey is so long – there’s no editing in it and it makes you realise how important that is. A novel can now go out into the world without any editorial participation.

Although this is a pattern with bigger international publishing houses, it is not a trend that has been reflected in Irish writing, says Cronin:

All the Irish novels we’ve discussed are done so incredibly well, they’re stylish, elegant and fluid.

Sound like something you’d be interested in? Maynooth University are offering postgraduate scholarships to study their MA in English Literature and many other postgraduate courses. Apply before 1st of May at

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