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Northern Ireland’s political future remains contested but its literary scene is thriving

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Anna Burns

Anna Burns

Louise Kennedy

Louise Kennedy

Bernard MacLaverty

Bernard MacLaverty

Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine

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Anna Burns

As in politics and society, so in literature. In Northern Ireland, male voices always dominated. Growing up during the Troubles, it was poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon who gave voice to the trauma, and male novelists such as Bernard MacLaverty who told the stories that sought to make sense of it all.

There were female poets, too, most notably Medbh McGuckian – incredibly the only woman chosen for inclusion in the 1986 Muldoon-edited Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry – but it often felt as if they struggled to be heard above the booming sound of boys and bombs. McGuckian’s work was seen to focus on merely feminine things, not the grand themes of the time.

Things are different now. Anna Burns winning the Booker Prize for Milkman, about a young girl trying to keep herself safe in a Belfast riven with suspicion and sectarianism, reminded readers that fiction in contested spaces is never just about the private life of its characters. They are products of the society which moulded them, and if that society happens to be broken then so they will be too.

Burns’s victory in 2018 drew attention to what had already been tagged by some critics as a revival in Northern Irish writing going back a decade and more. The uneasy post-Belfast Agreement peace opened up a space for reflection on the past and present which fiction was uniquely positioned to explore.

Many of the women who rushed through that opening door are included in a new volume from New Island Books.

The Glass Shore is the paperback issue of a 2016 collection of writing by women in Northern Ireland edited by Sinéad Gleeson. She delves into Ulster’s literary heritage with stories from unjustly neglected writers such as Janet McNeill and Polly Devlin, but her focus is on the living not the dead. Of the 25 authors featured, 15 are still at work.

The short story has proved particularly fruitful ground for female writers in the North, and never more so than right now.

Louise Kennedy didn’t start writing at all, incredibly, until she was 47. Her debut collection, The End of the World is a Cul De Sac, came out earlier this year. It’s a cliché to say of Northern Irish writers that they work on that borderland between the personal and the political; Kennedy demonstrates they’re both aspects of the same condition.  

There are plenty of still younger authors making their mark. Wendy Erskine’s first collection of stories, which bears the somewhat ironic title Sweet Home, is set very much in a recognisable modern-day Belfast, with the city’s characteristic caustic humour about competing identities.

Mo, the heroine of that book’s first story, recalls working on a chatline where the boss advises her to tell callers she’s Irish. “But I’m British,” she tells him. “I’m from the loyalist community.” He looks “thoughtful” before replying: “No. That’s just too niche.”

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Celebrated novelist Lucy Caldwell has also published two short story collections in the last five years, the most recent of which, Intimacies, includes arguably her most well known story, ‘Mayday’, about a young woman in Belfast forced to turn to the internet to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, an ever-relevant reminder how it’s not only the national question which casts a shadow on the North.

Jan Carson’s two collections of Postcard Stories even saw her delve into so-called “flash fiction”, the stories’ titles offering a checklist of familiar Belfast locations made new and unfamiliar: Botanic Avenue, the Ulster Hall, Central Station, St George’s Market, even Connswater Tesco in east Belfast.

It’s an imaginative reclamation of a city whose street names have too often been tainted by tragedy.

One could reel off the names of other exciting, if less well known, Northern writers such as Linda Anderson, Dawn Watson, Caoilinn Hughes; many featured in the 2019 anthology Belfast Stories.

The old stalwarts continue to produce amazing work. Bernard MacLaverty himself followed up his Collected Stories in 2015 with a new collection this year, Blank Pages and Other Stories.

His prose remains graceful, allusive, haunting, but, like many of his generation, he tends to write about the past. The younger writers are focused on the here-and-now; their work has an energy and diversity that speaks of a different Northern Ireland beyond orange and green, including LGBT and non-national voices. 

If there’s one thread that unites Northern Irish writers, whatever forms they’re working in, it’s a vein of the blackest humour.

That informs crime writing, too, a genre that is especially well represented in Northern Ireland these days. WH Auden once described the milieu of Raymond Chandler’s novels as “the great wrong place”, by which he meant LA but also more broadly the shadowy world painted by noir.

Northern Ireland has been the Great Wrong Place for a long time too, and its crime writers have found imaginative new ways to give a mythic, metaphoric shape to the shadow of violence.

Gone are the days when writer Adrian McKinty was warned by publishers not to set books in Northern Ireland as it was “box office poison”. He began his career by writing about America instead, even setting one novel in Cuba. The journalist Peter Millar has said his series about a Catholic cop living on a loyalist estate near Belfast, similar to the one in Carrickfergus where McKinty grew up, are what Chandler’s books would have been like had he grown up in Northern Ireland.

Fellow Northern crime writer Brian McGilloway draws a direct link with the Troubles: “In the absence of a Truth Commission, fiction is the closest we will come to an understanding of the past as we chart our way forward.”

Pleasingly, it’s a genre that women such as Claire McGowan, Kelly Creighton and Sharon Dempsey have also richly made their own.

Northern Ireland’s political future remains contested, but literature always thrives on doubt rather than dogmatic uncertainty. Writers north of the border are interrogating a fragmented society, but they don’t pretend to have all the answers.

A cool quartet: four vibrant Northern lights

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Alix O'Neill

Alix O'Neill

Alix O'Neill

Alix O’Neill

Fellow Northern writer Kerri ní Dochartaigh praised O’Neill’s sharp, witty memoir about growing up in Andersonstown, The Troubles with Us, as a “brassy, ballsy, belter of a book, full of real grit”. Published in June by 4th Estate, the subtitle said it all: One Belfast Girl on Boys, Bombs and Finding her Way. An alumnus of Trinity College Dublin and Goldsmiths College, London, O’Neill works as a freelance journalist in France where she lives with her young family.

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Stephen Sexton

Stephen Sexton

Stephen Sexton

Stephen Sexton

This Belfast-based poet’s debut If All the World and Love were Young was compared to Seamus Heaney and won the prestigious Forward Prize for best first collection. He followed it this summer with Cheryl’s Destinies, which his publisher Penguin called a “thrillingly strange exploration of the fantastical when the real is hard to bear”. His work has been published in leading journals such as Granta, Poetry Ireland Review and Poetry London, and has been included in various anthologies. Like famous Seamus, Sexton teaches at Queen’s University, where Heaney was a lecturer.

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Michelle Gallen

Michelle Gallen

Michelle Gallen

Michelle Gallen

Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel, Comedy Women in Print, the Kate O’Brien and Irish Book awards, Gallen’s debut Big Girl, Small Town was nothing short of breathtaking. Described as Milkman meets Derry Girls, this tragicomedy gave us the unforgettable, neurodivergent Majella. Gallen grew up in Tyrone; she was 23 when she suffered a rare brain injury and had to rebuild her life. Now based in Dublin, she received an Arts Council bursary, which afforded her the time to finish her second novel Factory Girls, which John Murray is publishing next June 2022.

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Séamas O'Reilly

Séamas O'Reilly

Séamas O'Reilly

Séamas O’Reilly

This Derry boy’s assured memoir Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? entranced readers and critics when it appeared from Fleet in June. With a deft, comic hand, O’Reilly told his wry, tender tale of growing up, ninth of 11 siblings, after the early death of his mother from breast cancer. O’Reilly currentlylives in London where he works at The Fence magazine and writes a parenting column for The Observer.

Madeleine Keane


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