21st Century Irish Literature

Image Credit: Johannes Jansson, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Denmark

Aoife Rooney takes a look at recent Irish literature and examines how the stories change as our society does

The works of popular and successful literature are usually tethered to issues facing society. Although this formula has remained mostly unchanged, many of the issues discussed have evolved, developed, and culminated in much of the Irish literature on bookshelves today. Several successful writers of the 20th century had the hindsight of full careers, however, there are many new Irish authors whose work has comparable effects on their readers. While it would be unfair to compare James Joyce to Sally Rooney, there are faint thematic parallels through much of the literature that has seen success in the past century. 

Literature released in the past twenty years has often dealt with issues such as money, relationships, and life in Ireland. These topics are undoubtedly echoed in other famous works, such as Joyce’s Dubliners and Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments. However, contemporary pages are more enthusiastically filled with stories of emigration, class, and the inward search for oneself. These themes can be seen running throughout novels such as Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, Dark Lies The Island by Kevin Barry and Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times. 

So much of the twentieth century in Ireland was occupied by various strife and wars, and this was directly reflected in the literature produced at that time. Unlike writing from the past two decades, there was a consciousness of the turmoil not just on the island but abroad too. It is echoed in so many Irish writers’ attempts to understand and absorb violence surrounding them, including Easter, 1916 by William Butler Yeats and the poetry collection North, by Seamus Heaney, detailing the Troubles. Irish culture and society has developed throughout the century and shifted the focus away from the country and onto the self, so too did the literature produced as a result.

Conversations on Nationalism have fallen back to make room for more relevant discussions on race, gender, sexuality, feminism and melancholy. Novels in the past two decades have been less about big, world-shattering events, and focussed more so on the every day – and the enviable monotony that accompanies it. A stark departure from bombings and Mother and Baby homes, 21st-century literature in Ireland is overwhelmed with stories of flawed individuals – the more chaotic and diffident the better. This a common theme among books from even the past five years, such as Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends and Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, stories which detail the twenty-something struggle to adjust to adulthood and their impending thirties. These novels are emotionally attainable and appeal to a large audience, a factor often lacking in some of the classic works of the previous century. Ulysses for example, masterpiece status aside, requires an understanding of a whole breadth of English literature, inevitably excluding many readers from a full understanding of the work. Whereas current literature is colloquial and uses the vernacular. This is seen evidently in Roddy Doyle's The Snapper, and in the work of Colm Tóibín.

Tóibín in particular has been an enduring figure in the literary landscape during the turn of the century. His novels deal excellently with religion, grief, emigration, sexuality, and life in Ireland, and have managed to stay relevant for more than three decades. He successfully bridged the gap between the arguably gatekept writings of the twentieth century and the more diverse and accessible literature being produced today. 

It would be incontestable to say that literature today is a more accurate reflection of Irish society and the people that call Ireland home, but the works of authors such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett have endured almost a century of criticism because they are the exception to the rule. They are universal. It will only be a fair comparison if we are still talking about Sally Rooney and Louise O’Neill at the turn of the next century.