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A Sunday Miscellany essay by Lisa McInerney: 'Setting the scene'

The essay is one of those featured in the new book, Miscellany 50.

Lisa McInerney

IT’S VERY OFTEN on my travels I’m told that we’re experiencing a golden age of Irish writing and asked, then, why that is?

The answer is obvious to me. Writers seek to document, to understand what’s going on in their communities and to translate that into prose, or poetry, or drama.

To reflect on what it means to be a particular person in a particular society and tell that story, to find the truth in it, the beauty in it, the madness in it. Even the most determined practitioner of auto-fiction knows none of us exists without the rest.

And so, when Ireland is at her most troublesome, the Irish writers are at their most alert. Who can resist the urge to document their country when their country keeps redefining herself?

In 2008, after a few years of our thinking we were very sophisticated altogether – a few years of notions and hot air – the Celtic Tiger deflated, lay down in a ditch, and let the weeds grow over him. That property bubble popped and we were left with a film covering
the country, the fatty skin of a bad idea. It was desperate. We were desperate, not least because we were forced to redefine ourselves again.

We had been poor cousins to the rest of Europe for so long, up there in the North Atlantic with our mouths gaping, and now it seemed we’d failed to fledge, that despite all those years training for it, psyching ourselves up, we were on the ground under the eave with both wings broken. So much for the SSIAs and the rental properties on the continent.

A number of my colleagues have pointed out that the dole was fertiliser for this golden age of Irish writing, that if the country hadn’t experienced that economic crash we’d all be working as mortgage advisers for online banks, that the combination of free time to write with a feeling of there being nothing left to lose inspired a generation not just to make art, but to take risks with form and content.

I think, too, it was a sense of alienation from the idea of Ireland, we’d been fed in the previous decade, which provoked a desire to challenge notions about Irishness. Not being able to get a grip on who we were triggered a mad desire to get a grip on who we were.

I started this past decade writing short, sarcastic pieces online about the state of the place. I did so because the SSIA and continental-rental property picture seemed so cartoonish, a kind of cover version of Bel Air created by spoofers and chancers, full of socialites and celebrity solicitors (I’m still not sure how we managed that).

I tried to make these short pieces funny, but the humour was spiked with fury: I was angry, as a lot of working-class people were angry, about how we were excluded from this glossy national image, about how our reality was deemed unnecessary when composing the country’s character and assessing her needs. These short pieces struck a chord.

A shared sense of unease, a bone to pick with the country. I was working in Cork when the roof caved in. For years I looked after the front desk for a construction company. When I started there, the place buzzed with Irish and Polish accents. By the time I left, the factory was manned only sparsely, and a number of the offices had been closed to save on heat and electricity, the remaining staff members clustered on the ground floor. We went through a number of rounds of redundancies and pay cuts. Don’t worry, my boss told me. I promise we won’t cut your pay. This was not a noble declaration: I was on the minimum wage.

A general election was called in 2011, just when things seemed at their worst. Turnout was low among my friends. We were most of us young parents, too broke to emigrate, and too sure of what was coming to try to head it off. Even seven years ago it was a different Ireland, characterised by resignation. Even the anger felt beige.

But we’ve been busy. In the past three years alone we’ve fought for and won marriage equality and reproductive rights, in a country we were once sure was far too Catholic to entertain either. We’ve watched the rise of the far right from our left-leaning enclave, considered it as an ugly response to desperate migration, seen European integrity threatened by the reckless chauvinism of the crowd next door, been asked to think again about the possibility of a United Ireland.

We’ve gawped across the Atlantic in horror. We’ve flatly refused to pay water charges. We’ve woken the feminists. We’ve marched in response to an appalling housing crisis. The only constant we have is Michael D. Higgins and Michael D. Higgins is a passionate advocate for progression; in 2018 you can hardly get a handle on the status quo.

Imagine the writing we’re going to get out of that.

From Miscellany50, edited by Clíodhna Ní Anluain and published by New Island Books, is available in bookshops now. Featuring writers like Kevin Barry, Nuala O’Connor, Jessica Trayner, martina Devlin and John Bowman, the anthology looks at 50 years of essays featured on the RTÉ Radio One show.

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About the author:

Lisa McInerney

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