Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


“in these uncertain times”: Twenty-First-Century Irish Writing, Performance, and Criticism

Paige Reynolds

The New Irish Studies powerfully demonstrates how thoughtful close readings and diverse critical approaches enhance our understanding of twenty-first-century Irish writing. Across recent decades, the Republic and Northern Ireland have experienced monumental cultural, economic, and political transformations. Amid these, Irish literature has flourished, drawing international audiences and accolades for a wide array of writers publishing across genres and modes. Our essays explore works by well-known contemporary authors, ranging from Seamus Heaney to Sally Rooney, as well as by those currently less familiar to the general public, such as Ifedinma Dimbo and Mirjana Rendulic, whose writing reflects the increasing ethnic and racial diversity of contemporary Ireland.

To edit any scholarly collection on contemporary writing and culture is uniquely stressful: the timeline for academic publishing is by necessity gradual, and events in the world – and how artists respond to them – move ahead at a dizzying pace.

As I scripted the proposal for The New Irish Studies in 2017, abortion was a crime and largely unavailable across the island, but when page proofs arrived in early 2020, the Republic and Northern Ireland both had legalized the procedure. Several essays thus consider how contemporary Irish performance and writing represent concerns relevant to women’s bodies and health, but carefully avoid the cardinal sin of presentism. When the volume went to press, I fretted about the untold consequences of Brexit as the UK moved to withdraw from the European Union. What would its implementation mean for the relationship between north and south, for the wary and uneven gestures toward affiliation and openness that our contributors identify in their assessments of post-Troubles literature? 

Today, I have new worries. As I watch the vast global devastation wrought by Covid-19, the organizing principles for The New Irish Studies – flux, acceleration, and mobility – seem unbearably apt. This deadly virus has heightened many of the long-standing problems addressed by the literature represented in our collection – particularly the lack of care for vulnerable populations including the poor, the elderly, and individuals seeking asylum. 

In this dark moment, Irish artists are attempting to help us better understand the crisis in our midst. In April 2020, for example, the Abbey Theatre quickly organized a program entitled “Dear Ireland” as a response to the pandemic and lock down. This series of 50 virtual monologues was scripted by an array of writers, performed by artists in isolation, and streamed on YouTube to audience members across the globe. The short narratives consider age-old themes, including nature, family life, and religious faith, during “these uncertain times” (to invoke a Covid-era catchphrase). In doing so, the monologues trigger provocative questions. How do Irish writers capture and critique this particular moment in history, as we live it? In our digital present, with theatres and cinemas currently dormant and in dire financial distress, what new roles must arts institutions play? And how might contemporary Irish writing, as it assesses this global public health crisis and its consequences, nudge our attention to an imaginative future of care? 

Such questions about the productive role of Irish contemporary writing are at the heart of The New Irish Studies. The collection also considers possible futures for the interdisciplinary field of Irish Studies. The pandemic has already, in less than one year, triggered calamitous outcomes in higher education including the eradication of tenure lines, the closure of academic departments, and the erosion of academic freedoms. But a renewed sense of activism, and creativity, has also come of this deep distress. As merely a few examples, the annual conference of the British Association of Irish Studies successfully moved online in spring 2020, as did the Cúirt International Festival of Literature, while Boston College Irish Studies now streams a weekly Zoom discussion with writers and academics entitled “The Irish Influence.” This shift to digital fora evident democratizes access, enabling a wider swath of participants (including my undergraduates, now spun across the US) to encounter contemporary Irish writers and their work. But this pivot might eventually undermine the very organizations and institutions that host such events, and the individuals who work for them. Today, we can only imagine the ultimate consequences of 2020 pandemic – but in that imagining, both prospective and retrospective, both creative and scholarly, we can seek better solutions to shattering problems.

The New Irish Studies edited by Paige Reynolds
The New Irish Studies edited by Paige Reynolds

About The Author

Paige Reynolds

Paige Reynolds, Professor of English at College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts, is the author of Modernism, Drama, and the Audience for Irish Spectacle (Cambridge, 2007) and edi...

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