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Contemporary Irish Writers

Irish writers, Bucknell University Press, awards, Contemporary

Contemporary Irish Writers
I recently got the opportunity to speak to John Rickard, an English professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He is the General Editor for an upcoming series of books to be published by Bucknell University Press in 2007, on Contemporary Irish Writers.

“We are reviving a series that the press did decades ago,” he told me. “It was highly regarded, both here and in Europe, and the Director, Greg Clingham, suggested that we revive and update it.”

Rickard speaks with enthusiasm about what’s been happening with Irish writing over the last few decades.

He described the Ireland after independence, noting that after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Irish Free State entered a staunch post colonial phase. “After you get your enemy out of your country, you then have to get them out of your head.” Ireland became a place where only Irish ideas and morals were considered good enough, and everything else was rejected. “Ireland was to stand on its own as a bastion of moral and intellectual superiority in those days. It was drummed into people’s heads and it created an isolationist atmosphere.” Today by contrast, people are re-examining the role of influential leaders like de Valera and Collins and speaking more openly about the flaws of that time and the downside of relying so heavily on the church to set social policy.

No one would suggest that the Irish imagination was silent during that period. Most people are familiar with George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and James Joyce, considered by many to be one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Ireland, an island of just under six million people, has made a disproportionately large contribution to world literature, including four Nobel Prize winners.

This voice today however is just as vital, and has opened the doors wide to a global marketplace. Rickard feels that current Irish writers are supporting each other and providing a great environment for continued expression. When asked why there is such an interest in what the Irish have to say these days, Rickard replied, “It’s hard to say. Ireland is just hot. In academic circles, there are a lot of great Irish studies programs fueling the interest – at Notre Dame, at NYU, at Emory. And the interest isn’t just in America, but in England and France as well. Irish writers get noticed. John Banville won the Man Booker Prize last year. Sebastian Barry was shortlisted for it. Colm Tóibin was shortlisted for it the year before. Some of the hottest plays in New York and London are by Irish playwrights. Friel has “The Faith Healer” on Broadway. Martin McDonagh is astounding people with “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”

Rickard also discussed the voice of Irish women. “One aspect of our series we really want to update has to do with the dramatic influence of Irish women writers. Women have been breaking ground in journalism, poetry and drama. They are bringing their voices to the issues of divorce and abortion and other women’s issues affecting people in what’s being called the post-Catholic Ireland. I think what we’re really seeing these days are the fruits of a non-isolationist Ireland.”

When I asked Rickard to give me a Top 5 list in poetry, fiction and drama, he just laughed. “That would be doing a disservice to the works, I think. There are some really exciting writers out there, and I would challenge your readers to get familiar with the names and read whatever they can get their hands on.”

In poetry, he recommended the Nobel Prize Winner, Seamus Heaney. “He’s definitely the big dog out there right now, he’s getting heard. But people should also be reading Ciaran Carson, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Eavan Boland and Austin Clarke. And something particularly exciting is the work of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, who writes only in Irish. Normally this would be lost to people who can’t read the language, but she has allowed her work to be translated into English, which has been done by some of the best Irish writers out there, like Paul Muldoon and others.”

During our conversation, Rickard cited in particular the work of Wake Forest University Press in Winston-Salem, as one of the strongest supporters of Irish poetry in America. “If it weren’t for Dillon Johnston who established the press specifically to bring Irish poetry to America, it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t have such a wide variety of work available.”

In fiction and drama, his suggestions include Northern Ireland’s Bernard MacLaverty, current resident Jennifer Johnston and playwright Brian Friel. He also recommends Man Booker Prize winner, John Banville. One of his favorite authors, Patrick McCabe, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and wrote The Butcher Boy, a dark novel he considers required reading in his class on contemporary literature.

Finally, we ended with a discussion of the contemporary Irish writer’s series in progress at Bucknell University Press. The first volumes, he explained, are planned for spring or summer of 2007, and are designed to be affordable and accessible to both intellectually serious and casual readers. The books will be prepared by recognized experts in Irish Studies and give the reader an introduction to the selected author's life and work. For Rickard, it was timely and appropriate that the series would be updated for new readers, and rewarding work in the bargain. “Irish writers seem excited and challenged today, not just to write in the shadows of Joyce and Yeats, but to expand on that tradition and to develop a vibrant Irish identity.”
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For more information about the Contemporary Irish Writers series, visit their Book Series page at:
http://www.bucknell.edu/News_Events/Publications/University_Press/index.html
Published: 2006-08-14
Author: L.E. Burke

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Freelance Technical Writer & Commerical Writer, with background in graphic design, training and process documentation

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