Tuesday 17 July 2018

We need the arts now more than ever

We can do without jeeps and SSIAs in bad times, but poetry and music tell us about who we are, writes Joseph O'Connor

A nation is a story, a collective work of imaginative fiction. In recent times, we in Ireland have had to start the process of reading ourselves differently, finding new stories, new characters, new metaphors and symbols, often in the evasions of our past.

It's perhaps in the field of fiction that the topography of this new Ireland is going to be mapped. In the mid-Eighties in Ireland, when I was a bookish kid, I could have counted all the living Irish writers I cared about on the fingers of one hand. But that's all changed, in astonishing ways. The playwright Frank McGuinness has written that the current crop of younger Irish novelists is "the most exciting ever". Irish fiction is becoming far less insular, less preoccupied with navel-gazing; less embarrassingly adolescent. Exciting Irish fiction set outside Ireland is appearing. There are more women writing in Ireland now than at any time in living memory, implicitly challenging their male colleagues to think again -- and again -- about how their own writing portrays women. The Shan Van Vocht would appear obsolete. You know what? We're better without her.

But you sometimes get the feeling, when a downturn comes, that the arts are regarded as a luxury. Something we don't need when times get tough -- like SSIAs or jeeps. But we never needed them more than we need them right now. Because everything we were told as fact during the years of the boom has turned out to be the worst kind of fiction.

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