(Martin Doyle’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 3/20.) 

The great Irish books you may never have heard of

It is all too easy for a good book to disappear into obscurity. Books slip by if critics and prize judges don’t pick up on them. Even a shortlisting might not save them as memories are even shorter and each year a tidal wave of new titles sweeps over bookshops’ shelves. Ironically the second-hand section of a bookshop often contains the most original work.

As in the scope of searchlights in a prison movie, there are always blind spots, two perhaps being writers from the North and the diaspora. (I hope the title of the brilliant What Was Lost by Birmingham-Irish writer Catherine O’Flynn, which won the 2007 Costa first novel award, is not prophetic.) There are also the works of well-known writers that don’t fit their usual mould.

Perhaps in elevating some writers on so high a pedestal, we risk unfairly overshadowing others. It would be almost a cardinal sin to let Bloomsday pass without genuflecting to the greatness of James Joyce, whereas poor old Joyce Cary is so neglected that a reviewer recently misgendered him, so unfamiliar were they with his life and work.

Just as Patrick and Brigid are not the only Irish saints, let us look beyond the usual suspects and celebrate the literary Columbas and Dympnas. Here, many of Ireland’s leading writers champion a treasure that deserves to be unburied.

SEBASTIAN BARRY:
THE HISTORY OF IRELAND BY GEOFFREY KEATING (1630)

THE HISTORY OF IRELAND BY GEOFFREY KEATING (1630)

Many people would be familiar with the influences of this work because its contents have poured out into so many tributaries that their origins maybe invisible. But Keating’s project is similar to Virgil’s in the Aeneid in respect of Rome, to create an origin myth for his country. My generation knew some of this material as stray stories and orphan histories. But reading it now in Dineen’s old translation, there is something incantatory and oddly punkish and wild in this work, written by a Catholic priest about whom less is known than Shakespeare, and whom no one in the written record ever remembers meeting.
Sebastian Barry’s latest novel is A Thousand Moons

SEÁN HEWITT:
A GARDEN DIARY BY EMILY LAWLESS (1901)

A GARDEN DIARY BY EMILY LAWLESS (1901)

Ostensibly taking the subject of a garden over a year-long period, Emily Lawless’s A Garden Diary (1901) weaves considerations of emigration, belonging, war, politics and the entrancement of the natural world. Taking native plants from the Burren and trying to cultivate them in her Surrey garden, Lawless considers the possibilities of rootedness and exile. As we move through, the prose becomes more searching, more expansive, until we meet nature “face to face”. We follow Lawless in hushed awe through the garden to meet its maker: “The air itself seemed changed; sanctified. The familiar little paths one walked along were like the approaches to some as yet invisible Temple.”
Seán Hewitt’s JM Synge: Nature, Politics, Modernism was published in January. His debut poetry collection, Tongues of Fire, came out last year

JOHN BANVILLE:
THE HORSE’S MOUTH BY JOYCE CARY (1944)

THE HORSE’S MOUTH BY JOYCE CARY (1944)

The well-nigh total neglect of the work of Derry-born Joyce Cary is inexplicable, for he is one of the finest of the 20th century’s Anglo-Irish novelists, fully the peer of Elizabeth Bowen and Iris Murdoch. His masterpiece undoubtedly is The Horse’s Mouth, featuring the rambunctious painter Gulley Jimson, partially based on Stanley Spencer. Jimson is a cadger and petty thief, whose energies are divided between his art, his old girlfriends and the pub. The novel is at once gloriously funny and deeply serious, but perhaps its finest achievement is the immediacy with which it renders the sense of what it is to be an artist.
John Banville’s latest novel is Snow

ÉILÍS NÍ DHUIBHNE:
TONN TUILE BY SÉAMUS Ó NÉILL (1947)

TONN TUILE BY SÉAMUS Ó NÉILL (1947)

Tonn Tuile (Tidal Wave) is a truly exceptional novel in the context of Irish-language literature. Groundbreaking in its day simply because it deals with what we might call “normal people” – a middle-class couple who live in Dublin during the Emergency. It explores with delicate precision the death of romantic love and youthful dreams under (mostly) everyday pressures. Ordinary urban life was not a common subject in Irish-language 20th-century fiction. Ó Néill’s style is simple, understated. He writes a lyrical, accessible prose. A little gem and my favourite novel as Gaeilge.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest collection is Little Red and Other Stories (Blackstaff). Look! It’s a Woman Writer, which she has edited, is due next month from Arlen House

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