In search of Irish satirists

a-modest-proposalI’ve been thinking, and yes, that’s a dangerous thing.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this particular subject will become clear here over the next week or so, but for now I’d like to throw the floor open for discussion. The topic:  Irish satire and satirists.

When you think of satire among Irish writers, who springs to mind?

Jonathan Swift, of course, is the grand-daddy of them all, with works such as Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal possessing a reach far greater than the number of people who’ve actually read them. Gulliver the written work is dense and difficult in parts, but Gulliver the movie persona is famous the world over through Ted Danson, Jack Black and others.

Who else? Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen, absolutely, but I’m of a different generation than that which enjoyed a regular diet of Flann O’Brien, Donal Foley’s “Man Bites Dog” columns in the Irish Times and Hall’s Pictorial Weekly on RTÉ.

Later, as satire increasingly found a natural home in radio and TV, the likes of Dermot Morgan, Gerry Stembridge, Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan rose to prominence through the vehicle of satire.

Aprés Match (Barry Murphy, Risteard Cooper and Gary Cooke) is a staple of satirical comedy in Ireland, and Pictorial Weekly was revived by Murphy.

Mario Rosenstock took inspiration from Scrap Saturday and ran with it, and Oliver Callan crested  that wave to become a household name too; no recent satire has been as scathing as that of David McSavage’s The Savage Eye; the Rubberbandits have taken Irish satire to MTV.

But back to where I started.

Is Irish satire now restricted to the airwaves alone?

Or are there practitioners at work in written form too?

Satire, these days if not in the past, must be a little more subtle when it appears in written form. Rosenstock, Callan, McSavage et al can take a baseball bat to the mores of society and it’s a roaring success; the same approach in a short story, say, would be far too heavy-handed.

Kevin Barry is one Irish writer who readily springs to mind (well, this mind at least). His “The Fjord of Killary”, first published in The New Yorker three years ago and subsequently collected in his Dark Lies The Island last year, fitted the pigeon-hole of satire more than anything else; “Supper Club”, the opening story in the recent Silver Threads of Hope charity anthology, was an even more blatantly satirical riff on the excesses of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Barry himself described Gavin Corbett’s recent novel This Is The Way as a satire.

So past or present, who’s your favourite Irish satirical writer? And who might have been overlooked but deserves to stand on the same stage?

Let me know in the comments.


Update: I asked the question on Twitter earlier and among several interesting responses came these from “anonymous writer/director” ManintheBlackPyjamas:

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[tweet 334319009824649216 hide_thread=’true’]

Two Irish writers make the cut for Edge Hill prize

astray-dark-lies-the-island-coversKevin Barry and Emma Donoghue have been included on the shortlist for the prestigious Edge Hill Prize.

The Edge Hill prize is open to short story collections and carries a prize of £5,000 to the winner.

Barry is nominated for his collection Dark Lies The Island (Jonathan Cape), for which he is no stranger to success – its standout story, “Beer Trip to Llandudno”, claimed the £30,000 Sunday Times Short Story Award last year – while Donoghue is included for Astray, a series of snapshots from the past published in 2012 by Pan Macmillan.

There is no shortage of quality in the remainder of the Edge Hill prize shortlist, either:

Jon McGregor followed up his IMPAC award win for Even The Dogs with the short story collection “This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You” (Bloomsbury), and the Nottingham writer is quickly back on the award circuit again.

Jane Rogers, who has several well-received novels behind her, makes the list for “Hitting Trees With Sticks” and on a notable day for independent non-profit publisher Comma Press, Adam Marek is also nominated for “The Stone Thrower”.

The sextet (the quality was so high, apparently, that the organisers couldn’t manage to whittle it down to the normal five) is completed by Lucy Wood for her debut collection, “Diving Belles”, published by Bloomsbury.

Of the six I’ve read only Dark Lies The Island, and if there’s anyone out there who hasn’t yet read “Beer Trip to Llandudno”, you’re in for a treat (although it must be pointed out that as a thirtysomething taken equally with beer and books, I’m its perfect reader).

For reasons of which I’m not wholly sure – a dull title and that historical bent, perhaps (I struggled even with Wolf Hall) – Astray just didn’t catch the attention, but if I’m missing out please let me know in the comments.

Yes, of course it isn’t at all fair to judge books by their title (next mind the cover), but in an era of snap decisions, savvy marketing, abundant choice and dwindling disposable income, a title that grabs the attention must play a  significant role in the success or otherwise of any book.

The winner of the Edge Hill prize will be announced in a ceremony at Waterstones Piccadilly on July 4th. I should wish the best of luck to Kevin Barry and Emma Donoghue at this point, but forgive me for saying I’d really like to see Comma Press walk away with this particular prize. Books need brave new independents, whether that’s publishers or bookstores, and for them to prosper every award is, quite literally, vital.

Q&A: Nuala Ni Chonchúir on guest-editing The Stinging Fly

irish-writer-nuala-ni-chonchuirAward-winning Irish writer Nuala Ni Chonchúir has been appointed guest fiction editor of the Spring 2014 edition of The Stinging Fly.

Nuala is an esteemed member of our little online book club (one Irish book every month or so – find out more here), so I asked her a few questions about what exactly Stinging Fly readers can look forward to next year.

Hi Nuala. So what exactly is the “guest fiction editor” going to be responsible for?

Basically I am responsible for all the fiction aspects of this issue: so I get to read all the submissions that come in this June and from them I pick pieces to publish. I am having a special Flash Fiction Showcase (stories up to 500 words) as part of the issue and I am interviewing a very fabulous American woman writer for it too.

Will you be taking an open-ended approach or look for specific themes/commonalities between pieces?

No, I don’t need the fiction submitted to be on any theme, they won’t be linked (except by accident). I am looking for writing that is attentive to language and that shuns the mundane.

What do you think of the current state of Irish fiction? Is there a danger that there are some/many excellent Irish writers out there who are going undiscovered, or are you satisfied that something/somebody good enough will inevitably make a breakthrough?

Irish fiction is healthy in that there are plenty of people writing and plenty of books being published. Whether all those who write will publish is another thing. There is no quick fix in writing and no end to the work. And it’s a very up-and-down life. Only the determined few stick with it. More than talent writers need stay-with-it-ability.

I assume it will be mostly short stories? If so, what are the short stories you keep going back to? Who’s the short story practitioner(s) that you’d advise emerging or aspiring writers to study?

Yes, The Stinging Fly is one of the consistent promoters/champions of the short story among Irish literary magazines – I am looking for stories, long and short.

I read so widely I rarely get to re-visit writers I love. But among the short stories I return to are Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” and James Joyce’s “The Dead”. I also read my contemporaries, here, in the UK and in America, and beyond. European fiction is fascinating to me – we don’t get enough of it in translation.

Anyone who wants to write short fiction should be reading it. Read everything from Chekhov to Ron Rash to Caitlin Horrocks. The site The Short Review reviews new and older collections. Go there for inspiration.

Is there such thing as the perfect short story?

Yes, of course, but mine won’t be yours and vice versa. Try Manuel Munoz, try Elizabeth Strout, try Wells Tower, try John McGahern. All write fabulous, perfect stories in different ways.

Nuala Ni Chonchúir’s latest short story collection Mother America is published by New Island.

She also blogs regularly over here, and she’s giving a one-day course on Flash Fiction at the Big Smoke Writing Factory tomorrow (May 11th).

Find out more about The Stinging Fly here.

Four on Friday: Walking Ulysses, The New York Times on Tóibín and O’Brien and The Gallery Press on YouTube

Here’s the start of the blurb, by Joycean scholar Joseph Nugent, of what must be a unique new project about Ulysses undertaken by Boston College in the US:

Eighteen chapters, six hundred and forty-four pages, a quarter of a million words, and seven years in the writing.  Over a hundred characters, more idioms, neologisms, and colloquialisms than you can count. Add plots, sub-plots, mini-plots, allusions, correspondences, every rhetorical device listed by Quintillian and then some, a potted history (by example) of the English language since the second century A.D. One single sentence containing 4,930 words … Ulysses is not for the faint hearted.

Walking Ulysses sets out to reconstruct the Dublin of June 16th, 1904, the one experienced by Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses.

Using digital mapping and multimedia, overlaying modern maps with contemporary, recommending easily walkable chapters and taking you footstep by footstep through Bloomsday, it is a phenomenal achievement.

Click here to view the project, or for some further reading here’s Matthew Battles’s piece from Boston College Magazine in late 2010:

The goal is to produce at once a map and a catalogue of Joycean detail—to make it possible for an individual to step out onto the streets of 21st-century Dublin with a laptop or smart phone and follow the skein of ways, the lattice of coincidences and synchronicities, raveled by Joyce’s characters.

Edna-OBrienEdna O’Brien, now into her 80s, made an appearance at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature last week, when she was interviewed by Vincent Woods about last year’s memoir, Country Girl.

But it’s a piece from overseas that I’m including here, a review of that book by Dwight Garner in the New York Times last weekend.

With references to Paul McCartney, Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum, Norman Mailer, Samuel Beckett, Marianne Faithfull, Sean Connery, Princess Margaret, Jane Fonda, Philip Roth, Gunter Grass, Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, there’s no doubt she had, as Garner writes:

an outsize life to match her outsize talent

Read Dwight Garner’s review of Country Girl here

Returning to the New York Times again (unfortunately, whereas the New York Times  has been bringing readers plenty of interesting stuff about Irish writers, the seventh most recent piece on is a news item from two weeks ago on Dan Brown’s impending visit to the Dublin Writers’ Festival), there was an insightful little interview this week with Colm Tóibín, who learned that his Broadway play had been nominated for a Tony award – an hour before he learned that the play was being cut due to poor ticket sales.

Asked how he took the news, he said:

[D]ark laughter might be the best way to put it. And when in doubt, consult Oscar Wilde … He has a quote – success is merely a preparation for failure. Anyone who works in the arts knows, if you’re writing a novel or a play or anything, you have to be ready for someone to say, [your] time is up.

Read Patrick Healy’s Q&A interview with Colm Tóibín here

The Gallery Press in rural Co Meath (website here, Facebook page here) has long been recognised as one of Ireland’s leading publishers of poetry. On the blog this week they pointed readers in the direction of their Poem of the Month, which is, rather suitably, “May” by Kerrie Hardie.

I’m also enjoying their series of low-tech but very worthwhile YouTube videos of some of their poets reading their work.

The latest one is of Tom French, who daylights as executive librarian of the Meath library service, reading a poem from his 2009 collection The Fire Step, namely “Gogarty’s Printers, Kilmainhamwood”: