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In praise of the pen, and our writers who can lift the gloom with sparkling words


Author Sebastian Barry REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Author Sebastian Barry REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Author Sebastian Barry REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

In troubled times we must seize, more than ever, upon the good in life - those rare things that bring us joy and pride in a complex world.

During a week when yet more immigration chaos and global dissent dominated our wearisome headlines, the success of Sebastian Barry brought early rays of springtime glory as it stole into our darkened world like an overdue Santa delivering a forgotten satchel of Christmas goodies.

When the Dublin-born writer won the Costa Book of the Year award for his novel, 'Days Without End', he gained membership of an ultra-exclusive club of writers who managed that triumph twice.

Barry now joins Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes in doing the double at this most prestigious literary gong - a fraternity of the pen where the Irish will always carry the casting vote.

Even more than the instant joy felt by all of us in seeing an Irish name dominate world headlines during an otherwise miserable week was the sense of pride Barry's win evoked deep within our national consciousness - this was 'one of our own' proving to the world that the art for which we have been lauded through the ages remains alive and well in an uncertain world.

While the list of Irish failures is as woeful as it is undeniable - hospital management, State economics and geriatric respect being just a few - here was a victory to remind us of what we are good at, unsurpassed even.

In a line stretching back centuries, the names John Millington Synge, Jonathan Swift, John McGahern, Brian Friel, Oliver St John Gogarty, Oliver Goldsmith, William Trevor, Edna O'Brien, Iris Murdoch and Seán Ó Faoláin stand proud as our Pen Premiership heroes - with quill and typewriter replacing Adidas and Nike as the brands that define them.

To spice this literary stew even further, you can add Iona's monks for the Book of Kells and, God help us, even Peig Sayers' luckless legends of island life.

"You might be poor and your shoes be broken, but your mind is a palace," observed Frank McCourt, a sentiment neatly embracing this Celtic art that has thrived more often in adversity than adulation.

But regardless of the enduring and inspiring appeal of Irish writing down the ages, it has been the ribald and ruthless rivalry between our esteemed scribes which often overshadowed even their greatest works.

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"He hasn't an enemy in the world, but none of his friends likes him," intoned George Bernard Shaw on Oscar Wilde. Meow.

Or how about WB Yeats' pithy portrayal of George Moore: "He looks like an umbrella left behind at a picnic."

In a game where surface civility masked a barely concealed envy and begrudgery, our literary icons could teach us all a thing or two about how to throw mud with devastating aim.

"(William) Wordsworth was a half-witted sheep who bleated articulate monotony," declared James Stephens, clearly little taken with the notion of wandering lonely as a cloud.

"(James) Joyce talked to himself in his sleep - hence Finnegan's Wake," was Oliver St John Gogarty's puckish review of the great man's output.

Brendan Behan had a style all of his own when it came to erudite criticism, as levelled at Lennox Robinson: "The play's impact was like the banging together of two damp dishcloths."

Sebastian Barry stands as a chronological pivot in the pantheon of Irish literary life - following close in the footsteps of JP Donleavy, Jennifer Johnston, Seán Ó Faoláin, Brian Cleeve and John B Keane.

Behind him come a new wave of young guns flexing their literary muscles for a generation of readers who'll likely scoff their words from the glimmering screens of a mobile phone or tablet.

Emerging names like Donal Ryan, Colin Barrett, Eimear McBride and Kevin Barry won't worry too much about how their output is consumed - as long as the treasure they mine from solitary imagination flutters the heart of the engrossed lady on the 46A on a dreary Tuesday evening.

We love our writers for myriad reasons, not least in offering us visions of an alternative world, an escape from the plodding toil of daily existence.

Even at life's final hurdle, their words reassure us that, really, nobody has the answers.

In a literary epitaph to his lifelong friend, John Montague recalled visiting Samuel Beckett in Paris for the last time.

"Though I am loath to say goodbye to an old friend of over a quarter of a century's standing, I feel brave enough for a direct question, even without the ritual glass before me: 'And now that it's nearly over, Sam, can I ask you, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?'

"The blue eyes briefly ignite. 'Precious little'. And in case I did not hear or comprehend, he repeats it with redoubled force, 'Precious little!'"

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