New Writers of the Celtic Wave

A brilliant crop of authors has made Ireland a world literary capital again

Published December 16, 1995 11:13AM (EST)

These are great times for Irish writing. In November, Irish poet Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature, making him the fourth Nobel winner produced by this country of four million, after Yeats, Beckett and George Bernard Shaw. According to novelist and Irish Times literary critic Mary Morrissy, the latest blossoming of Celtic creativity has to do with Irish writing moving away from the parochial. Many of today's best authors are no longer compelled by the relationship with place, a perennial theme of Irish literature, turning instead to the urban experience, undervalued in Irish writing until now despite the heritage of James Joyce's "Ulysses," the ultimate city book.

We asked Morrissy to pick her favorite Irish writers from among the current crop. Here are her selections and examples of their writing.

John Banville
"A writer who has broadened the boundary of the Irish novel. He is a superb stylist who writes beautiful prose. 'The Book of Evidence' is the story of a man whose imagination fails him. He murders a woman because he can't imagine what her life was like. A compelling 'whydunit' rather than a whodunit."

From "The Book of Evidence" (Warner):

"Is there anything as powerfully, as piercingly evocative as the smell of the house in which one's childhood was spent? I try to avoid generalizations as no doubt the court has noticed but surely this is a universal, this involuntary spasm of recognition which comes with the first whiff of that humble drab brownish smell, which is hardly a smell at all, more an emanation, a sort of sigh exhaled by the thousands of known but unacknowledged tiny things that collectively constitute what is called home."

Eoin McNamee

"His novel 'Resurrection Man,' set in Northern Ireland, is loosely based on Loyalist killing gangs of the '70s. On one level it's a thriller, but it's quite a mythic book in the way it deals with the power of violence and bloodlust. It's one of the best novels to deal with the conflict in Northern Ireland."

From "Resurrection Man" (Picador):

"James was a dock labourer. He had this deadpan look, a listener to deadpan jokes. It was like he saw himself as some hardluck figure for whom silence was a condition of survival. Bearing the name of Kelly meant that he was always suspected of being a Catholic. He protected himself by effacement. He was a quiet accomplice to the years of his fatherhood and left no detectable trace."

Patrick McCabe

"As one reads McCabe's novel, 'The Butcher Boy,' it is evident that something dreadful will come to pass but the narrator is unaware of this. The narrator's voice is chillingly disturbed."

From "The Butcher Boy" (Delta):

"I was thinking how right ma was -- Mrs. Nugent all smiles when she met us and how are you getting on Mrs. and young Francis are you both well? It was hard to believe that all the time what she was really saying was: Ah hello Mrs. Pig how are you and look Phillip do you see what coming now -- the Pig family."

Colum McCann
"Although McCann's novel 'Songdogs' has some weaknesses, he's a great writer. A New York-based Irish writer, he explores the relationship with homeland in a realistic, non-sentimental way. His excellent short story collection, 'Fishing the Sloe Black River,' will be published in the U.S. in early '96.

From "Songdogs" (Metropolitan):

"He woke up from the lawn chair, unaware I was sitting there, reached into his pocket for his packet of cigarettes. Before he lit up, he reamed from his chest and let a gob out towards the river. It landed near the bank close to where I was sitting. The spit was strung through with blood. 'Jaysus,' he said noticing me, 'I must have fallen asleep.' He saw me looking down. He was silent for a while, then he breathed deeply again through his nose. 'Too much raspberry jam on me toast this morning.' I felt a foul revulsion and love for him."

Morrissy also recommends the following writers whose work is not yet published in the U.S.:

Anne Enright

author of the novel "The Wig My Father Wore" and short story collection "Portable Virgin."

Bridget O'Connor

author of the short story collection "Here Comes John."

Eugene McCabe

author of the novel "Of Death and Nightingales."
Morrissy's own novel, "Mother of Pearl," is a wonderfully crafted story of a woman's search for home and family, for a sense of belonging. When Irene tells her impotent husband that she is pregnant, she sets in motion a train of events that changes many lives.

From "Mother of Pearl" (Scribner):

"Still in mourning he took his new bride home. Death clung to him, whereas Irene with years of it imprinted on her, shook Granitefield off with surprising ease. Or so Stanley thought. He watched fondly as she packed away her trinkets and keepsakes, not realizing that she was bringing with her the ghosts -- and spoils -- of dozens of other men."

My own personal favorite is Dermot Healy's novel, "A Goat's Song," set in the west of Ireland and in Belfast. It's part love story, part exploration of a divided country and the people on both sides of the border who try to bridge the chasm.

From "A Goat's Song" (Viking):

"Slowly his transformation into Catherine took place. Since he could not win her as himself he would become everything she loved in herself. Not that he knew that this transformation was taking place. But often he would catch himself rise off a chair as she did, lift a cigarette in the same manner. He felt his back suddenly straighten like hers. It was just these incidental intimations told him something was happening over which he had no control."

By Aingeal Conneely

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