Saturday 20 July 2019

The rise of the Irish literary magazine

A vibrant new wave of Irish literary journals are offering insights into contemporary trends as well as giving new ideas and new writers an audience

Susan Tomaselli edits gorse magazine
Susan Tomaselli edits gorse magazine
Banshee literary magazine
The Dublin Review
Gorse literary magazine
Penny Dreadful literary magazine
The Stinging Fly literary magazine
The Moth literary magazine
The Dublin Magazine from 1924 with Harry Clarke's cover
The Bell magazine from 1950

Justine Carbery

Not long ago, the book world was seized by collective panic over the uncertain future of print. Readers switched to new digital devices. Print sales nosedived. Bookstores struggled to stay open, and publishers and authors worried that cheaper e-books would bankrupt their business. But while e-books are still popular, the digital apocalypse never quite happened. Sales levelled off, with people migrating back to their beloved print editions.

Throughout this turbulent period, the presence of both online and print literary journals proved to be constant stars in a fluctuating market. Ireland, with its rich history of independent literary magazines, finds itself in rude health today with many new and innovative titles appearing on the literary scene.

These journals have been central to the flourishing of Irish literature, publishing new writers who otherwise would not have access to a wider audience. They shine the spotlight on great writing, irrespective of the author's experience level.

Many well-known international writers got their start in literary magazines: Philip Roth and TC Boyle in The Paris Review; Flannery O'Connor, Anne Sexton and Cormac McCarthy in The Sewanee Review, with most significant Irish writers, from Swift to Heaney, cutting their literary teeth in Irish journals.

The Bell, founded in 1940 by Sean O Faolain, was a monthly magazine of literature and social comment with an outspoken liberal voice which had a seminal influence on a generation. Its first edition sparkled with the wit and style of Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O'Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O'Connor, and Jack B Yeats and it continued to foster many young Irish writers and artists from the 1940s and 1950s, when contributors included Anthony Cronin (who went on to edit the magazine), John Montague, Thomas Kinsella, Val Mulkerns, Brendan Behan, Patrick Swift and Conor Cruise O'Brien.

The Dublin Magazine, another noteworthy literary publication, featured fiction, poetry, drama by more or less every significant Irish writer of the period, including Samuel Beckett, Austin Clarke, Padraic Fallon, Padraic Colum etc with the cover for the beautiful 1923 first issue designed by world-renowned artist Harry Clarke. A rich history indeed.

And today, around the world, and most importantly, here at home in Ireland, literary magazines are helping readers to discover exciting new writers. But with so many to choose from, which ones should you seek out?

A new wave of journals is taking the Irish literary world by storm, reinvigorating the national writing scene. As well as established publications like Crannog, Cyphers and The Dublin Review, a slew of vibrant, exciting new publications have appeared.

As galleries of current work they offer insight into contemporary trends, where new ideas and new writers, many of whom exist far from the mainstream, are given their first audience. Literary journals are "essential to the world of writing", says literary agent and former Zoetrope head reader April Eberhardt.

"So many wonderful writers have begun their careers there, and for those of us who love the excitement of discovering a marvellous new voice, literary journals and magazines are the gift packages in which they arrive."

Every emerging writer wants their name to appear on the content page of The Stinging Fly, a pioneering print journal and forum for the very best new Irish and international writing, which has produced a new generation of Irish writers such as Paul Murray, Emma Donoghue and Kevin Barry.

The Penny Dreadful is another one such literary magazine. Founded in Cork by writers John Keating and Mark O'Connell, it started life as a photocopied DIY 'zine, slowly but steadily evolving into one of the most exciting literary journals in the country with its own publishing arm, The Dreadful Press, and contributors ranging from John Boyne to Paul Muldoon.

Published quarterly and founded in 2010 The Moth, a beautifully produced journal, focuses equally on literature and art, and alongside this they publish an adorable children's magazine aptly titled The Caterpillar. Kudos for catering to the younger age group, ensuring the continuity of future talent.

Banshee Lit burst onto the scene in 2015, publishing contemporary writing with an emphasis, though not exclusively, on strong female writers. A great forum for new talented writers.

Across the border, the editor of A New Ulster states that their magazine "is ultimately a publication aimed at reaching as many people as possible, sharing poetry, fiction and art with everyone no matter their creed or culture". An honourable vision and commitment, proving that art and literature know no borders.

Gorse, a ground-breaking print journal edited by the visionary Susan Tomaselli, features thought-provoking long-form narrative essays, original fiction, poetry and interviews. Commenting on the contemporary literary scene, she finds "the idea of 'Irish Literature' restrictive, as it's a very narrow view of Irishness. The notion of championing a 'national' literature in these post-Brexit, Trump times is jingoistic, and more than a little worrying. It's limiting, divisive and exclusionary, gorse is keen to reflect a more nuanced crafting of Irish identity, and we encourage a broadness, and an openness to the world".

Tomaselli publishes her journal in a book format as she wants to lend permanence to it, but doesn't think print and online magazines are mutually exclusive. Rob Doyle, author of Here Are the Young Men and This Is the Ritual, has high praise for literary journals, saying: "gorse, in particular, has been exciting to me since its inception a couple of years ago because it has a more European, avant-garde sensibility, which I felt was lacking in Ireland previously."

In the US and UK there exists a long tradition of universities producing annual anthologies or literary journals.

Closer to home, the MA and MFA students of University College Dublin have launched a very slick, top-quality online literary journal, The HCE Review, the first of its kind in Ireland (

Under the able stewardship of editor Curtis Harrison, it aims to showcase cutting-edge fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction and visual art from both established and emerging writers and artists from around the world.

With an innovative podcast section, an open submission policy and a strong social media presence, this journal is bound to go far. Watch this space.

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