Snootiness goes against the native grain. Try it, and see how quickly you get pulled back down to what the communal spirit level deems to be your rightful place. An exception is made, however, for artistic accomplishments. The national culture allows a smidgen of snootiness, as exemplified by the multitudes who claim to have read Ulysses right to the end, all of whose names could not possibly squeeze into all the letterboxes in the land.

Snootiness is extra tempting this year. Ireland’s truckloads of world-class creativity and critical thought has been so utterly phenomenal as to inspire its own version of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It might go like this:

“Five golden rings ...

Four longlisted Booker Prize novelists,

Three Golden Globe best actor nominees,

Two authors shortlisted for Waterstones debut fiction prize,

And a leader of the Elders at the top of the tree.”

The Irish may be incapable of ever winning another Eurovision Song Contest or hitting a winning ball into a soccer net but our writers, thespians and thinkers are having a renaissance. The New York Times has recommended A Thread of Violence, Mark O’Connell’s psychoanalytical tome about the double murderer Malcolm Macarthur, as one of the best books of the year. Poor Things, a film produced by Dublin company Element Pictures, has seven Golden Globe nominations. Corkonian Cillian Murphy and Dubliners Barry Keoghan and Andrew Scott are in the running for the best actor accolade. These follow last year’s Oscars citations for The Banshees of Inisherin and An Cailín Ciúin, the first Irish-language film selected by the Academy.

[ Golden Globes: Irish actors Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan and Andrew Scott nominated ]

Ireland’s novelists keep on beguiling the critics too. They have hailed Claire Keegan as “the new Chekhov” and Galwegian Colin Walsh as one to watch on the strength of his first novel, Kala. Belfast’s Michael Magee deservedly won the debut fiction prize for his post-Troubles novel Close to Home, and Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting is flying off bookshop shelves.

Is it something in the water, I asked Paul Lynch, who landed the Booker for his discomfiting novel Prophet Song, set in a totalitarian Ireland. He said he has been pondering the same question and has come to the conclusion that what we are seeing are the creative fruits of social turmoil. It is no coincidence, Lynch said, that James Joyce and WB Yeats rose to the top of the pile at a time when Ireland was undergoing seismic reinvention as a nascent independent state.

Author Paul Lynch, whose novel Prophet Song has won the Booker Prize

In the past couple of decades, Ireland has remade itself as a new country again. In the aftermath of the Troubles and the dominance of the Catholic Church, as immigration has broadened our horizons and failures in banking, 2½-party politics and regulatory bodies have undermined collective trust, there is a wide and deep canvas for artists to explore.

The moving of Ireland’s own tectonic plates cannot fully explain it, however, as much of the creativity that is emerging is distinctly international in its themes and outlooks. Sally Rooney’s Normal People could as easily have been set in small-town United States as it was in rural Ireland, requiring only a costume swap of Connell’s GAA jersey for a baseball cap. John Banville’s eponymous Dr Quirke could double as Columbo or Kojak without the lollipop in his crime mystery series of novels.

Yet the Irishness of their writing environment is intrinsic to their working lives. This is a country where being a writer or a musician or a painter is regarded as a proper occupation. That attitude has been fostered by various politicians who put measures in place to sustain the arts, including Charles Haughey, Michael D Higgins and, currently, Catherine Martin. Without the latter’s introduction of a basic income for artists, some of those who are producing exceptional work might have to follow in Joyce’s footsteps and emigrate.

[ Paul Lynch wins Booker Prize for Prophet Song ]

Unlike France, for instance, Ireland has never claimed to be a hotbed of public intellectuals. That would be snootiness gone mad. But this is a country that appreciates deep thinkers, sufficiently so to elect them as presidents of the country. Doubters may suspect that Mary Robinson’s intercessions on the world stage for planetary safeguards are only heeded in her homeland, despite her knack for making global leaders listen. Even if the doubters were right, is it not something to celebrate that this country admires one of its great thinkers sufficiently to hark her words?

Sinéad O'Connor performing in the National Concert Hall in Dublin in August 2014. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

In the past year, Ireland has lost some of its most loved singers and songwriters. Christy Dignam had the talent to conquer the world stage but his human susceptibilities made the dream impossible. In another country, he might have been considered a failure. Here, he was loved all the more for overcoming heroin addiction, making Crazy world an anthem for generations.

Sinéad O’Connor and Shane MacGowan were part of the same tradition of musicians whose fragile lives were inherent to their work and, in equal measure, to the affection and respect they generated. As a mourner at the Pogues singer’s funeral said: “He embodied the soul and spirit of this country [and] expressed it magnificently”. The duet recorded by O’Connor and MacGowan of a song called Haunted needs no other word to describe it.

[ Ireland has lost ‘one of music’s greatest lyricists’: Tributes paid to Shane MacGowan ]

In our age of mass communications, instant news, propaganda, disinformation, X and TikTok, it seems the more platforms that are available for speech, the less that is said to deepen our understanding of the world. That remains the primary task of our artists.

Ireland is certainly having a moment but, before we start getting too snooty, we should remember that this is just a moment. These things wax and wane with the wind.

Less likely to change is the appetite for artistic expression. Ireland has traditionally enjoyed high levels of readership and cinema-going; visiting bands, with a dose of sugary flattery, say our concertgoers are among the most enthusiastic in the world.

Sure, who doesn’t love a good story? We’ve been telling them and hearing them since ever before the advent of the seanchaí. Margaret Atwood, the superlative Canadian novelist, got to the nub of it when she said: “You’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built in to the human plan.”

QOSHE - It’s okay to gloat a little about our artistic accomplishments. They are the creative fruits of a period of social turmoil - Justine Mccarthy
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It’s okay to gloat a little about our artistic accomplishments. They are the creative fruits of a period of social turmoil

13 1
22.12.2023

Snootiness goes against the native grain. Try it, and see how quickly you get pulled back down to what the communal spirit level deems to be your rightful place. An exception is made, however, for artistic accomplishments. The national culture allows a smidgen of snootiness, as exemplified by the multitudes who claim to have read Ulysses right to the end, all of whose names could not possibly squeeze into all the letterboxes in the land.

Snootiness is extra tempting this year. Ireland’s truckloads of world-class creativity and critical thought has been so utterly phenomenal as to inspire its own version of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It might go like this:

“Five golden rings ...

Four longlisted Booker Prize novelists,

Three Golden Globe best actor nominees,

Two authors shortlisted for Waterstones debut fiction prize,

And a leader of the Elders at the top of the tree.”

The Irish may be incapable of ever winning another Eurovision Song Contest or hitting a winning ball into a soccer net but our writers, thespians and thinkers are having a renaissance. The New York Times has recommended A Thread of Violence, Mark O’Connell’s psychoanalytical tome about the double murderer Malcolm Macarthur, as one of the best books of the year. Poor Things, a film produced by Dublin company Element Pictures, has seven Golden Globe nominations. Corkonian Cillian Murphy and Dubliners Barry Keoghan and Andrew Scott are in the running for the best actor accolade. These follow last year’s Oscars citations for The Banshees of Inisherin and An Cailín Ciúin, the first Irish-language film selected by the Academy.

[ Golden Globes: Irish actors........

© The Irish Times


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