Political Fiction and Contemporary Ireland

by niamh on March 9, 2011

‘Fiction is a route to political truth’, says Gideon Rachman in the FT recently, noting in particular Hisham Matar’s moving novel In the Country of Men, set in Libya in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule, and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany, through which we may get some feeling for life in modern Cairo. Reflecting on the great Russian novels, Rachman says that literary fiction in Russia seems to have given way to crime fiction in recent times. Which makes me wonder what novels I might recommend to someone interested in gaining insight into contemporary Ireland.

In Ireland as in Russia, for whatever reason, the genre of crime thriller is flourishing. Journalists and dramatists such as Gene Kerrigan and Declan Hughes set their novels in the Dublin criminal underworld. John Banville adopts an alter ego, Benjamin Black, for his detective fiction evoking an unfamiliarly noirish 1950s Ireland. The Twelve, by Stuart Neville, is about unfinished business in the aftermath of the Northern Troubles. Alan Glynn’s fast-paced thriller Winterland dramatizes the world of politically well-connected Dublin builders and businessmen at the height of the construction frenzy of the mid-2000s.

But the Irish literary imagination doesn’t seem to engage very readily with grand socio-political issues or state-of-the-nation fiction. It is perhaps too soon to have a literary meditation on the calamitous economic crash. But even so, there has been relatively little serious fictional treatment of the rapid shifts in Irish society during the 1990s and 2000s. Why might this be?

Frank O’Connor once suggested that since Ireland lacked the sizeable middle class from which great realist novels spring, Irish writers’ natural medium was the short story. This is surely no longer the case. Yet serious literary novelists such as John Banville and John McGahern have found other seams to mine. Maybe, to paraphrase a comment by Philip Roth, political events have been so incredible that fiction itself falls short; but this can hardly satisfy us as an explanation. Journalist and political commentator Fintan O’Toole has argued that Irish writers remain fascinated with childhood (miserable or otherwise) and adolescence, without quite managing the full Bildungsroman. In a society uncertain of itself, he suggests, it’s one way of telling stories ‘without having to rely on large public narratives’. Yet coming-of-age novels can also be rich and revealing, as Hisham Matar’s novel shows. Paul Murray’s immensely readable Skippy Dies comes to mind here. His protagonists are mostly 14-year-olds who attend a boarding school in Dublin’s southern suburbs. While the plot lines are mostly about the journey from innocence to experience, there are many incidental side-lights onto the lives and mores of the comfortable middle classes at a particular moment of pre-crash prosperity.

If we want to get the measure of how much has changed in Irish society though, we probably still need to reach back to fictional representations of life before the convulsions of recent times. We might think, for example, of the Fianna Fáil backdrop to Colm Toibin’s The Heather Blazing, or the political and social intricacies of rural life in John McGahern’s fiction, such as in his wonderful  That They May Face the Rising Sun.




Eamonn McDonagh 03.09.11 at 2:37 pm

A long while since I read it but I recall the tremendous impression “The Heather Blazing” made on me, particularly the sketch of Haughey


tomslee 03.09.11 at 2:38 pm

Roddy Doyle’s Woman who Walked Into Doors followed by his decade-later follow-up Paula Spencer do address the changes pretty directly. FWIW I loved the former, and found the latter a bit of a disappointment.


Ray 03.09.11 at 2:46 pm

The absolute number of “serious Irish novelists” is pretty small, so there are a lot of things they don’t write about.


Metatone 03.09.11 at 7:42 pm

I’m not familiar enough with the literary scene of Ireland to back up this theory, but from the outside it seems that the self-confidence of the new, economically prosperous Ireland was only just getting to the point where the culture was ready to spawn self-examination and critical reappraisal. You need a while of living high on the hog before anyone is prepared to say – wait, is this all a bit much? Did we lose something along the way?[+]

And then came the financial crisis – and it’s too easy to lapse back into the old cliches of a downtrodden people…

[+] Note, I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “morality play” critique that with prosperity comes the loss of old authenticities, but it’s a typical route for cultures to start coming to terms with big changes that have been about growth and prosperity.


bos 03.09.11 at 11:24 pm

Is it possible that the creative minds that might have produced political fiction actually went into politics instead.

I mean stealing from your friend’s liver transplant fund – you couldn’t write it. But in Ireland you could do it.


mor 03.10.11 at 12:00 am

Niamh a stor,
With the misery that is surely coming Irish writers will begin to bestir themselves like the blessed fall of night causes the vampire to fidget. The great themes of exile, silence and remittances will churn in the dark vaults of bars beyond. I still have a pair of cycle clips, rusty but serviceable, I will travel the land of Erin. I will call on Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, newly elected T.D., on a turf platform, and if I talk to him nicely he might bring out the toy Irish Cottage into which a fragment of lighted peat can be placed, or whatever you’re having yourself, to watch the scented blue smoke issue from the chimney. Wahad shachta as the Arab said. Turn the little handle to play ‘Mother Machree’ if you dare.

I often went out on excursions with Joe the jobbing gardener around Galway in his white Hiace. We’re up to our tails in retail outlets and hotels already I’d say to him. ‘Hot money said Joe and worse than that they won’t pay me.’ ……..


Niamh 03.10.11 at 8:40 am

Mor, maybe it’s already being done, but in theatre rather than the novel. Your surreal urban-inflected remake of stock themes reminds me of nothing so much as Martin MacDonagh’s mash-up imagination. I saw Druid Theatre’s excellent production of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ in Dublin recently (it’s on an extensive US tour too). In your case the images are perhaps coloured more by Bing than Synge.


Maria 03.10.11 at 1:00 pm

Picking up on Ray’s comment about the small pool of Irish writers, I wonder also if the relatively small pool of Irish readers has an impact on writers’ themes & choices. Unless you’re the rare Jonathan Frantzen, most writers aren’t going to come straight out with a Big First Novel full of sociological and political themes. It’s probably something you ramp up to on, maybe, a third or fourth outing, having spent the first couple figuring out plot, structure, character, mining personal or smaller scale material, spinning out the occasional set piece, but sticking to pretty straightforward Bildungsroman stuff before attempting anything very ambitious.

In a smaller market, there are probably fewer professional, i.e. full time, novelists who can devote about a decade to develop the chops for more complex themes and structures (the two often go together). I know in daydreams of my own potential novels, the first is basically adolescence & its long aftermath, the second historic, and the third will tackle social inequality… Even in fantasy life, I wouldn’t tackle the big themes without a bit of practice, and I wonder how many writers in a smaller market get that.

Of course writing can happen without publishing, and we can all probably think of exceptions. But I do think the practical and economic considerations of Irish literary life may have at least as much bearing as cultural ones.

Then there are the generational factors. I long for the day when damp, agricultural dystopias are no longer the norm but just some occasional local colour.


jms 03.10.11 at 7:20 pm

Tana French’s crime novels are very good, and they all at least hint at the contours of recent socio-economic events in Ireland. I just read her latest, Faithful Place, for which this is particularly true — it concerns a detective who grew up very poor in the Liberties in the 70s and 80s, when it was a slum, and returns in the mid 2000s when the area is rapidly gentrifying.

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