Kieran Beville – Proud Limerick-man and former teacher of English Literature – begins a three part series on Irish writers and notably Limerick authors, showcasing their immense contribution to Ireland’s rich literary heritage.
It seems that every other person in Ireland is a writer or an aspiring writer. This is reflected in the ever-increasing number of creative writing courses – many at advanced (Master’s) level, being hosted by universities, and the numerous literary festivals (including the Limerick Literary Festival), with their well-attended writer’s workshops, throughout the land. The country is teeming with literary talent, so much so that you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a writer on the head. It would appear that we Irish have ink in our blood.
A catalogue of Irish writers
A catalogue of Irish writers is breath-taking. In no particular order – James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Brian Nolan, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, John McGahern, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Kinsella, James Stephens, Neill Jordan, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, John Montague, Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, Brian MacMahon, John B Keane (who, incidentally, wrote a weekly column for the Limerick Leader for several years) and many more…
Over the next few weeks I will consider the huge contribution Limerick writers have made to our local, national and international literary heritage. But this week the focus is on the broader picture of the island of Ireland as a whole.
Punching above our weight
For the size of our population it is truly astonishing how many great writers this island has produced. We are certainly punching above our weight. We are globally renowned for our historical and contemporary authors – giants of the past who have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature are: W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. They have scaled the peaks of the literary Mount Everest.
Man Booker winners
Then there are the Irish writers who have won the prestigious, lucrative and coveted Man Booker Prize since its inception in 1969, and it constitutes an impressive line-up of literary talent. Several Irish writers have won the award to date, not to mention those who have made either the long list or short list. Here is the list of those Irish scribes who have entered that pantheon of fame:
The first Irish writer to win the coveted literary prize was Iris Murdoch for her novel, The Sea, the Sea (1978). She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for five other publications (The Nice and the Good (1969), Bruno’s Dream (1970), The Black Prince (1973), The Good Apprentice (1985) and The Book of the Brotherhood (1987). Her win finally came with her 1978 masterpiece, The Sea, the Sea. That was after twenty-four years of writing novels. She had been writing philosophical essays prior to that.
The Sea, the Sea is told from the point of view of Charles Arrowby, a recently retired, sixty-something actor, director and playwright. Looking to leave his former life behind, Arrowby buys a home by the sea, and uses writing as an escape. The book is infused with his memoirs – meant to be about a love affair, but turning into an account of strange events in his past life, and how they intrude on his present.
Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919, studied at Somerville College in Oxford and passed away in 1999 after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
She wrote her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, having previously published works on philosophy, including the first English study of Jean-Paul Sartre. Her work as a philosopher has been somewhat eclipsed by her success as a novelist.
The 2001 film, Iris, tells the story of the great novelist and philosopher. In the film, Murdoch is played by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench.
Roddy Doyle (1993) Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Roddy Doyle’s family background was entirely unremarkable, the legendary Irish writer has explained. His parents married in 1951, they still live in the same house they first moved in to, and hold hands when they walk down the street.
Nevertheless, Doyle has brilliantly written about alcoholic mothers and fathers, abusive fathers, unmarried pregnancies and “families imploding and exploding.”
In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, a ten-year-old Irish boy narrates his life events, including his parents’ sour marriage. In his memorable, funny, yet tragic, work, Doyle beautifully captures the speech patterns, consciousness and heart of an Irish child in that time period.
Doyle, born in 1958 is a Dublin native who studied at University College, Dublin. More of his famous novels include, The Commitments (1987) and The Snapper (1992), both made into hit films, and The Van, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991.
John Banville (2005) The Sea. Banville’s Booker win came with his extraordinary book, The Sea. Banville had his first novel, Long Lankin, published in 1970. Since then, he has produced several remarkable works, including Nightspawn, Birchwood, Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981) and The Book of Evidence (1989), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
The Sea tells the story of art critic Max Morden, who moves to the seaside village of Ballyless after losing his wife to cancer. Max had spent a summer during his childhood in the village with the Grace twins, Chloe and Myles. He recalls his exciting, yet unsettling, time with the Grace family, and the reader sees how this experience had haunted Max and shaped the rest of his life.
Banville, born in Co. Wexford in 1945, was also nominated for the Booker International Prize in 2007.
Anne Enright (2007) The Gathering. Enright shot to fame in Ireland when she won the Booker Prize in 2007 for her novel The Gathering. Up until that point, the writer had published a number of critically acclaimed but only moderately commercially successful novels.
Her celebrated novel, The Gathering, tells the tale of a sister mourning the suicide of her alcoholic brother. In the novel, Enright grapples with the issues that arise in a big Irish family, intensely explores death and dying and contemplates the dangerous allure of the sea.
Her material is often described as “dark.” She has commented that because she is a woman, “People want me to be nice…they never asked Beckett to be nice. So why are they asking me to be nice?” Nice, perhaps not, but Dubliner Enright certainly demonstrates her formidable intellect and wit in her work.
An honourable Mention must be made of William Trevor who was shortlisted four times: Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel (1970); The Children of Dynmouth (1976); Reading Turgenev (1991); The Story of Lucy Gault (2002).
William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1928 and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. The novelist and short story writer focuses on the Catholic-Protestant dynamic in some of his works, and sexual deviants in others. Trevor’s brilliant stories, mostly set in Ireland and England, are characterized by their wry, and sometimes morbid, tone. He has won many literary awards. A statue of the famous Irish writer stands in his birthplace, Mitchelstown.
Limerick literary talent
Limerick authors have made a huge contribution to our rich literary heritage too. Over the next few weeks this series will honour and showcase both Limerick novelists and poets, past and present. Many of these authors have also written short stories and plays. The range of these authors’ works is truly remarkable in both quality and quantity. One cannot fail to feel a sense of immense pride to belong to the community that is this little Island and in particular to the Shannon-side scribes and bards who enrich our lives and challenge our perceptions with their imaginative and creative works.
Apologies in advance for leaving some novelists off the list of notables – especially Donal Ryan and Daren Shan, who, though not born in Limerick, have resided here for many years and deserve an honourable mention. Space does not allow me to include everyone. Again I hope no great offense will be taken if I should unwittingly omit some poet of renown who hails from the Treaty City.
Who am I kidding? Considering the artistic temperament I will probably have to look over my shoulder on dark nights from now on. No doubt I will encounter people in various watering holes who will emerge from the shadows to correct, amend or otherwise reproach me for any potential oversights. I could end up buying pints to appease them for some time to come – I hope I have not incentivised them now to trawl through the annals of literary greats from Limerick.
That list of novelists is as follows: Kevin Barry, Dan Binchy, Michael Curtin, Gerald Griffin, Maeve Kelly, Marian Keyes, Martine Madden, Frank McCourt, Malachy McCourt, Kate O’Brien, Clairr O’Connor and Jerry O’Neill.
The list of poets will be as follows: Máire Bradshaw, Mary Coll, Tim Cunningham, Michael Hartnett, Tom Henihan, President, Michael D. Higgins, Michael Hogan, the Bard of Thomond, Ger Killeen, Mae Leonard, John Liddy, Seán Lysaght, Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Maighread Medbh, Terri Murray, Ciarán O’Driscoll, Desmond O’Grady, Jo Slade and Mark Whelan.
Some of these novelists and poets I know and others I have not had the good pleasure to meet…yet. I am however, familiar with some of their works and feel so privileged and proud to share a common sense of identity and belonging to Limerick – my native place and my kindred people.
There are some boundaries and intentional exclusions – I will not be including those whose ancestral forebears came from this city or county – such as Robert Graves…No doubt he could have played for the Irish soccer team if he was so inclined and skilled.
Neither do I intend to profile other Limerick legends from various spheres of life – so please don’t mention Terry Wogan etc. or you will have to buy me a pint!