Idiolect

Open the covers of New Irish Writing and you’ll find a mossy dampness. You’ll hear the notes of Ireland, aye, though keyed to Cork, Belfast and County Clare. Poets, fiction writers and photographers work in their individual idiolect. The words that survive the car crash of generation, family, nation or non-nation, ethnicity, day job and lived experience. From the famous (Roddy Doyle) to (in 2016) up-and-coming (Stephen Sexton), these writers properly fear the power of idiolectic words.

If cities are sexed, as Jan Morris believes, then Cork is a male place. Personified further, I could cast him as low-sized, disputatious and stoutly built, a hard-to-kn0ck-over type. […] He is given to surreal flights and to an antic humour and he is blessed with pleasingly musical speech patterns. […] He is fairly cool, usually quite relaxed, and head over heels in love with himself.

Kevin Barry, “The Raingod’s Green, Dark as Passion” in New Irish Writing, Granta Issue 135: Spring 2016.

Longing

Amanda is a college student whose estranged father is dying. She has lived most of her life in the care of Nathan, a distant relative, 15 years her senior and the man she longs for.

Nathan looked at me then as I knew he would. We were predictable to each other, like two halves of the same brain. Outside the restaurant window it had started to sleet, and under the orange street lights the wet flakes looked like punctuation marks.

Sally Rooney, “Mr Salary”

In the Irish context, forbidden love can also be homophobic. Covert as in the case of Brother Murphy in “Smile” by Roddy Doyle who professes to his student: Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile.

In the Belfast of “Here We Are,” Irish homophobia is overt and the first love between two schoolgirls doomed to fail.

‘Look at me,’ she said, and when I finally did, she leaned in and kissed me. It was brief, only barely a kiss, her lips just grazing mine. Then she stepped back and I took a step back, too, and stumbled against the roughcast side of the mobile. She put out a quick hand to steady me, then stopped.
‘Oh God, am I wrong?’ she said, ‘I’m not wrong, am I?’

Lucy Caldwell, “Here We Are”

Men writing women

It shouldn’t be worthy of notice, in this day and age, when a male writer voices a female character well. And yet, in this day and age of male buffoonery, it feels important to praise the few male writers who get it right.

Melody Shee is pregnant by her 17 year old student, the son of a famous Irish Traveler. She tells her husband about the pregnancy and he walks out the door as she knew he would. Now Melody contemplates her options as her country burns.

At seven weeks or so a foetus starts to move. Imperceptibly, they say, but I swear I felt a stirring yesterday, a tiny shifting, a shadow-weight. I’ve been still and silent all these weeks, listening for him. I sit here with the curtains drawn and the TV muted, waiting for a hint of something in the soft flow of things detonating, people bleeding, corpses being carried swathed in flags by dark-eyed men, people arguing and kissing and driving in cars, people opening and closing their mouths.

Donal Ryan, “All We Shall Know”

Cáit Deane is the other woman. Her married lover, James Casey, has just driven his car off Rally Pier with his two daughters strapped into the back seat. The family knows of the affair and how Cáit, in the end, turned James away. Soon, the whole Irish village will know, too.

It was how crows always knew there was bread out. First came a single bird, a scout. There was always one. Then they gather. Before long they’re fighting each other over crusts. You can knock fun out of watching them and their comical battles in the backyard. […] If you dropped dead on your own lawn they’d be down for your eyes.

William Wall, “The Mountain Road”

Outcast

I will confess to a weakness for Irish writing. Colin McCann, Joseph O’Neill, Colm Toíbín. In this Granta issue of new Irish writing, the common thread seems to be ostracism. For being gay or merely thought to be gay. For having a child out of wedlock or pretending to be a mother.

A woman flees her West Coast job for the Irish town where she was raised. She agrees to befriend a refugee child. The woman and child share no language, not even each other’s name. A neighbor dubs the child Kiddio.

Kiddio was between shoe sizes when we went to my cousin’s wedding in a superannuated church that smelled of cooked dust. All day he tottered like a sandpiper to cope with his Pumas’ constriction. Before we lit out for the journey he walloped my hand away when I tried to slacken his laces, and the sharp retort rustled up tears. They brimmed so quickly I had to tilt my head back.

Mary O’Donoghue, “Kiddio at the Wedding”

No form of ostracism punctures the soul so deeply as the loss of a child. Your grief is incommunicable, even to your spouse. Yet, it must be displayed at the local church. It is time-limited, too, for you are the village butcher duty-bound to hand out sausages and patties.

And what can be left to say about the snow globe
in which all this happens without taking away from the butcher
who must get to work grief or no grief if his neighbours are to eat
who must begin his work of opening up the way he will the newspaper
the coldest winter in twenty years
goes the headline and somewhere under the canopy
of the woods go deer shattering themselves against one another
with an architecture of golden blood and a rage they can’t express.

Stephen Sexton, “The Butcher”
6 Dec 2021 | Karen Kao