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Will Irish Literature Survive Prosperity?

* Now that the nation is not starving or oppressed, its writing may lose some of its richness, authors and critics say.

March 14, 2001|BERNADETTE MURPHY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Nobody writes like the Irish," my father, a native Dubliner, says whenever we discuss literature. Naming great Irish writers of the past and present--Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Synge, Heaney--he identifies the sufferings, personal and cultural, that have fueled the work. He sighs when he comes to Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" to add an afterthought: "Sure, nobody suffers like the Irish."

Suffering and Irish writing, he intimates, are hopelessly intertwined.

His is not an uncommon position, given how forcefully the tragic history of Ireland has made itself known. The small island nation has produced an array of literary jewels quite disproportionate to the size and population of the country. This gift is a topic of continuing note to scholars and critics, as is the literature's often-troubled subject matter. Famine, foreign occupation, the ravages of alcoholism, poverty, the loss of kinfolk to emigration, together with the entrenched guilt of a doctrinal national religion--this is the stuff out of which Irish literature, even amid the comic strain, has traditionally been wrought.

That Irish writers have turned tragedy into literature is noteworthy; still, many cultures could make similar claims. What's fascinating to consider, however, is what's going to happen now that there's so little to whinge about.

At the moment, Ireland is undergoing an identity crisis. The country known for having raised suffering to an art form is experiencing the unthinkable: good times. The powerful Irish economy, dubbed the Celtic Tiger, is the envy of other European nations; industry is thriving and domestic production is soaring. At the same time, the Catholic Church's centuries-long grasp is weakening, freeing many from idiosyncratic Irish guilt, especially regarding sex.

The peace process is finally taking hold in the north, interest in Gaelic language and the cultural history of Ireland are burgeoning, and repatriation is occurring at an extraordinary rate, as is a wholly new phenomenon--immigration to Ireland. For the first time in its ragged, tormented history, Ireland is the cool place to be.

But if Irish writers have risen to such prominence as a result of their cultural suffering, what will become of the literature now that mini-malls are sprouting on the landscape and the country's self-image undergoes a new-money face lift? Conversations with many in the literary field find that, for now at least, the new Ireland isn't hurting its writers but may be altering their tone. Irish writing, particularly in novels, has taken on grittier urban themes but nonetheless is enjoying more popularity in America than ever. The voices of Irish women and playwrights are also being heard in greater numbers.

So the question is complex, one that seems to open layers of responses, yet no definitive answer. Perspective on the issue shifts noticeably between critics and authors, and shifts again depending on the side of the Atlantic from which the response originates. While U.S. scholars speak of a continuing renaissance in Irish literature, for instance, the Irish themselves, both writers and critics, see the current day in less glowing, if more constant, terms.

"There's a whole different way of viewing Irish life as it's lived at the moment," says writer Dermot Healy ("The Bend for Home," Little Brown, 1997). The effects of the robust economy, he says, are being reflected in the nation's art--and not always in a positive light. There has already been a falling off in architecture, he says, a visual landscape being ruined, and many writers are becoming quite cynical of the Celtic Tiger.

Healy's most recent novel, "Sudden Times" (Harcourt, 1999), may be illustrative of how literature is reflecting these changes. The novel has at its core the age-old dilemmas of crippling poverty, the influence of drugs and alcohol, and of Irish young men searching for work outside the country's shores, as well as the dynamics of sin and guilt. As such, the tale treads familiar territory, but it does so in a way that is less than traditional. Relying on the poetry of daily language and short, snappy chapters to build a narrative mosaic, Healy creates a novel that is part Joyce, part Beckett, yet his contemporary take mixes irony and sincerity to produce something new altogether.

New Breed of Irish Writers Has Emerged

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