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Why Ireland’s literary journals are brilliant stepping stones for emerging writers

Everything from poetry, short stories, essays and more esoteric forms of writing can now find a home in what has become a welcome and flourishing scene

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Many now well-known names such as Sally Rooney, above, broke through via publishing in journals

Many now well-known names such as Sally Rooney, above, broke through via publishing in journals

Danielle McLaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin

Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine

Eimear Ryan

Eimear Ryan

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

The Stinging Fly

The Stinging Fly

The Ogham Stone

The Ogham Stone

Banshee

Banshee

Winter Papers front

Winter Papers front

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Many now well-known names such as Sally Rooney, above, broke through via publishing in journals

None of us foresaw how long lockdown would last or what the outcome would be. One unexpected result has been an increase in the number of people who have used the time to tap into their creativity and get writing. And to cater for the increase in output, there has been a surge in new literary journals and online publications.

Tolka, Beir Bua, Strukturiss, Riverbed Review and Sonder are just some of the new titles being created to publish, in a variety of forms, writers’ experiences.

“The pandemic has given people permission to be creative and do something for themselves, writing about our own impressions. There has been so much experience of isolation and anxiety in lockdown, putting pen to paper helps to make sense of things, if only to express how we feel,” says Claire Hennessy of Banshee Lit, who along with writers Laura Jane Cassidy and Eimear Ryan, produce “a selection box” of mainly women’s writing.

“Irish people quote poetry,” says Danny Denton, editor of The Stinging Fly, one of the many excellent Irish literary journals that function as a springboard for aspiring writers. “You can be standing in a pub in Ireland, and someone will spout a familiar Yeats or Shaw quote; it’s not like that in other countries.”

The Stinging Fly is open to taking contributions. “The journal has always responded to societal issues,” says Denton. “In lockdown we were looking at one of the biggest events in our lifetimes so we put out a call out to write from the pandemic; the results are a tapestry of varied experience that mirror what the world is going through”.

Last year saw their poetry submissions rise significantly, while he says the number of stories has gone up too. The summer issue, just released, features stories, poems, and essays in response to Covid.

The surge in interest comes from readers as well. When bookshops were shut, says Denton, online subscriptions shot up as the public seemed to have a greater hunger for short stories, poetry and essays. “Readers had trouble concentrating in the fear and panic so short, consumable bites of writing were easier to absorb. Reading someone’s similar experience is comforting and makes us more empathetic, and we need empathy now more than ever,” he says.

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Danielle McLaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin

Online writing courses are also selling out fast. Dominic Taylor of the Limerick Writer’s Centre has seen a marked increase in demand for courses with poets and short story writers. “Our autumn creative writing course was booked out in a matter of days and the other facilitators who teach at the centre have seen their online courses snapped up in hours.”

The Irish Writers Centre also offers courses for every stage of a writer’s career and across all genres from poetry to screenplays, novel writing to creative non-fiction and self-publishing – with well-known names offering their expertise. If you want to sign up for a class, though, move now as places sell out fast. 

Joy Redmond and a gang of three other writers, Liz Quirke, Niall McArdle and Ruth McKee, connected during the John Hewitt International Summer School in July 2019 and set up Pendemic, an online collection of writings from the public at home and abroad, purely responding to lockdown.

“I went out for a walk and I thought, ‘If we don’t record it we’ll forget it,’ so I put it to the group and we went live on St Patrick’s Day 2020. Twitter was our launching pad and it just took off,” she says. “We don’t call it a literary journal as that suggests some kind of aspiration, and 70-80pc of the submissions were from new writers who might have no wish to be published further.”

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The work so captured the zeitgeist that UCD has asked to acquire it for its archive. “We were documenting social history, the everyday experience. The writing submitted followed main themes. One was in response to the news and how people were curtailed, and there were a lot of letters to family. A piece called ‘I Wrote a Note Today’ by Eamon Duffin touched the hearts of many as a man lays down his final wishes and signs off as an 18-year-old boy in the body of an elderly man.”

RTÉ Radio’s Arena invited the group to talk about their project, as did BBC News.

“We closed for submissions on August 10, 2020, as lockdown at that time ended and though we have been asked to open again, we feel it has run its course. We captured that moment, people’s moments in time.”

How effective are journals for giving new writers a platform that might lead to a book deal? Many now well-known names such as Sally Rooney, Colin Barrett, Wendy Erskine and Danielle McLaughlin broke through via publishing in journals.

As did Ireland’s enfant terrible of literature, Rob Doyle. Now back in Ireland after a bleak lockdown in Berlin, he believes that journals were the making of him as a writer. “Ireland has a thriving scene. I can’t imagine anywhere in the world with as many accessible journals like Tangerine, Winter Papers, Banshee, Crannóg, and many more.

“When you’re published you get noticed,” he says of writing for journals. “You also get used to rejection, which is essential to toughen you up as it’s part of the writer’s life.”

Doyle is particularly fond of The Dublin Review, now it its 20th year, which publishes memoir, essays, autobiography and reportage. Journals are often heavily supported by the Arts Council and this enables them to pay for submissions which, in turn helps writers to stay writing. The author says he has written about lockdown himself in this past year and points to the positive side of having time for reading and writing. “If you have a novel inside you and you don’t write it, it will twist you up inside. Use the journals to test the waters first.”

Limerick writer Kevin Barry also credits journals for getting his name out there. “I began my own publishing career in journals, with short stories in The Stinging Fly and The Dublin Review, and they’re critical for emerging writers in terms of your own confidence. At the time, in the late 1990s, early 2000s, there were very few journals here but there are loads now – it’s a very healthy ecosystem. All these brilliant new Irish writers wouldn’t be appearing all the time without the journals.”

Indeed Barry and his wife Olivia were inspired to publish their own arts anthology, now in its sixth year. The result is effectively a work of art about art. “With Winter Papers we wanted to make something that was a good read but that was also a beautiful object, a collectible thing. So it’s very carefully designed with a strong emphasis on the materials used and so forth. We want to make books that’ll furnish a room,” Barry says.

“I would say submissions are definitely up a bit during the pandemic – writers are by necessity fairly close to their desks at the minute. While the quality is as strong as ever,there’s a definite sense of underlying anxiety about a lot of the work we’re seeing. Everyone’s a bit rattled, and naturally so. This is always going to feed into the work, and your job as a writer is to make it do so in interesting ways.”  

Working on a journal can also provide valuable insights to would-be writers. Limerick University’s MA in creative writing students are responsible for publishing the annual The Ogham Stone journal.

“Submissions from home and abroad are up, as people are processing their grief and confusion through writing,” editor Carrie Griffin says. “We dedicated our 2020 issue to frontline workers and curated a series of poems and short fiction, many of which were composed in the context of the first lockdown. This act of sharing creative work was remarkable, and demonstrated that we have a very strong sense of the comfort and perspective that the written word brings in such times as well as the power and persistence of the human spirit, even in the face of huge challenges.”

The journal has a contribution from multi-award winning author Kit de Waal, who is writer in residence at the university for 2021, bringing her skills to the MA tuition.

Pippa Slattery, a writer living in Tipperary and carving a name for herself on the Irish literary scene, is one of the students working on The Ogham Stone journal. “Journals have never been so relevant, and for us, producing The Ogham Stone has been an eye-opener in terms of how submitted works are selected and considered.”

With a background in publishing, she considers it a huge responsibility to be in charge of other people’s literary works and to have an actual journal published at the end of the process. “It’s immense,” she says.

She now regularly submits to journals. “In Ireland, people are watching them; it’s your stepping stone. An agent or publisher will look at where you are in print and take you more seriously,” Slattery says.

“Some people are rediscovering what they were really meant to do,” says Claire Hennessy of Banshee Lit, “and are making changes in their lives that are here to stay.

“The pandemic has pushed life into macro focus for our examination and consideration. Remember what you enjoyed doing as a child or a teenager? That’s the key to happiness.”

So pick up a pen. Now is good.

Next generation journals

Galway Review publishes in both Irish and English, and is open to receiving multiple submissions from writers, and unlike many journals, will publish previously seen work. Publishing consistently on their website, they accept stories of up to 3,500 words, longer than many other journals or writing competitions will accept; thegalwayreview.com

Crannóg is a bi-annual, Galway-based magazine that publishes poetry and fiction of any genre, which saw participants from as far afield as Beijing for one of their launches last year. A great starting block, and like many others, it pays writers for their work;
crannogmagazine.com

The Tangerine Magazine is published three times a year and takes a more journalistic
approach. Belfast-based, it also provides a platform for new writers of poetry and short fiction, with writing on everything from art to architecture, environment to music explored through memoir, essays, poetry or fiction; thetangerinemagazine.com

Tolka, ‘a journal of formally promiscuous non-fiction’ published their first edition in May 2021. This new bi-annual seeks to test the creative boundaries in non-fiction, publishing essays on video games, reportage and auto-fiction from established and new talent; tolkajournal.org

Journals can also take the form of one-off anthologies and Queering the Green is a poetry collection curated by Paul Maddern which has received Arts Council funding. ‘Post 2000 Queer Irish Poetry’ will be one to watch, and a landmark collection for poetry lovers. It’s due out in September 2021.

Sonder Magazine publishes twice yearly and focuses on those feelings we all get when we wonder what’s going on in the head of the person sitting over there, whether that’s in the pub or anywhere else. Poems, short stories, essays and flash fiction, published in print; Dublin-based since 2019; sonderlit.com

Paper Lanterns was founded just before lockdown and publishes in print four times a year and is a platform for readers and writers of YA fiction, young adult literature. Young writers can get their stories, poems and essays and visual art in print, while adult writers of YA can also contribute; paperlanternslit.com

The Riverbed Review features poems and stories about rivers. Published in December 2020 and edited by ‘Gigi’ who has a BA in geography and loves nature, the timing was perfect for a journal about reflection, water and well, rivers; riverbedreview.wordpress.com

Deep in lockdown, June 2020, the first issue of Strukturriss made itself known. Breaking moulds and calling for ‘prototexts disseminating structures’ this journal describes itself as anti-ageist, gender bending, post-hemispheric, anti-imperialist and Dada, to use only a few adjectives. Abstract and artistic, fresh and formless, breaking away. In print and e-copy; strukturriss.net

As writing is art, so Beir Bua Journal, published in Tipperary by poet Michelle Moloney-King provides a platform for the publication of post-modern, asemic poetry and visuals. Emerging from lockdown, the journal seeks to move away from ‘toxic positivity’ and cancel culture and to embrace the avant-garde; art itself being a way to heal from trauma and so heal from lockdown; beirbuajournal.wordpress.com


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