Ireland Unread: Dave Lordan Interviews Seven Irish Authors

[Photo: Dave Lordan]

Dave Lordan has asked seven Irish authors to answer the following question:  

Which Irish writer, alive or dead, do you think is most unjustly unread? Why should we read them now?

Raymond Deane on Charles Maturin

Charles Maturin (1782-1824), a great-uncle of Oscar Wilde, was the author of six novels, only two of which are readily available today: Fatal Revenge (1807) and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). The latter had a huge impact in the 19th century, particularly in France. Balzac wrote a mediocre sequel (Melmoth réconcilié, 1835) and in 1865 Baudelaire projected a translation. I also detect its subterranean influence in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo.  It’s a deeply pessimistic, Faustian tale:  John Melmoth, a Dublin student, sells his soul to the devil then wanders the world seeking someone who, at a crisis in his/her life, will take over the pact from him. The book is dense, complex, fragmented, yet darkly playful:  Maturin teases the reader with tales within tales within tales, blanks in the text, and footnotes. Today’s Irish novel, whatever its international success, tends to be linear and conventionally realistic. Maturin reminds us of a more disruptive, perhaps more characteristic tradition leading from Swift (Gulliver’s Travels, 1720) through Edgeworth (Castle Rackrent, 1800) via the Gothic tradition (LeFanu, Wilde, Stoker) to Joyce, Beckett, and Flann O’Brien. Maturin needs to be reinstated as a central figure in this counter-tradition.

Raymond Deane is an Irish composer.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir on Malinski  by Síofra O’Donovan

Malinski has haunted me since I read it; not just for its melancholic subject matter – two brothers separated during World War Two – but for the delicate intensity of the writing. It was well-received by reviewers, but overlooked by prize-givers, and I’ve always felt Síofra O’Donovan deserved more accolades for this beautiful book.

The novel concerns Henryk and Stanislav Malinski, two elderly Polish brothers, who have lived distant lives, in Ireland and Poland respectively. Henry – as Henryk is now known – decides to find his brother, and through their alternate interior monologues we find a story of aging, memory, loss, bitterness and regret for what might have been. Each brother remembers their separation as occurring for different reasons, and Stanislav, who lives with an aunt in Krakow, blames his younger brother for the family’s break up. Forty-nine years after their separation, the two old men meet again, but are strangers to each other, a fact worsened by language difficulties, distorted memories, and their disparate upbringings.

Malinski is a well-paced, crafted, empathic story, and O’Donovan’s fluid prose is full of powerful and beautiful insights and descriptions. It deserves lots of readers.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir is a multi-genre and multi awarding winning Irish writer.

Thomas Duddy on Killian Turner

There is a widely held assumption that, beyond the holy trinity of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, and the work of a few less celebrated writers such as Aidan Higgins and Desmond Hogan, twentieth-century Irish fiction is bereft of experimentalism, parochial, and ploddingly unadventurous. Certainly, none of the great European avant-garde conflagrations ever gusted onto our shores. Yet, Killian Turner, an oddly neglected Irish author, has always struck me as an avant-garde unto himself. Despite Turner’s bizarre disappearance in West Berlin in 1985, his unnerving sexual practices and political declarations, and the aura of uncanniness and genuine madness that permeates his life and oeuvre, Turner has accrued little of the mystique attaching to comparably aberrant figures in the European anti-canon such as Artaud, Nietzsche and Bataille. (As my former student, Rob Doyle, points out in his recent and welcome, if slightly hagiographical, reassessment of Turner, there is evidence indicating that Turner believed he was a reincarnation of Bataille.) Indeed, it has been my experience that, even among Irish writers, Killian Turner is now largely unknown. Yet this very obscurity seems appropriate in light of what I have elsewhere called Turner’s ‘poetics of disappearance’, and the insistence running through his work that the true, far-reaching mission of literature (or ‘the Colony’, as he sometimes calls it), is to perpetrate its own extermination; that the writer ‘should not be sun, but black hole, not the generator of meaning, but meaning’s molester, finally its giddy assassin.’

Thomas Duddy an Irish philosopher specialising in theories and literatures of the missing.

Grace Wells on Peter Cunningham

I didn’t really feel qualified to answer, but I’ve always thought that Peter Cunningham was unjustly unread. He’s become a bit commercial now as a consequence, but his early novels are deeply satisfying. Cunningham writes with a more expansive palette than many other Irish novelists—it sometimes seems that everyone else has been writing within the limits of M for misery-lit, while Cunningham has remembered an Ireland that has been alive for centuries with an entire encyclopedia of technicoloured experience.

Grace Wells is an Irish poet and children’s writer.

Shauna Gilligan on Nina Fitzpatrick and Maeve Brennan

The Irish writer that I’m thinking of isn’t quite Irish and is both alive and, unfortunately, not alive. I’m singling out Nina Fitzpatrick for the daring wonderful wit, for the better-than-Flan O’Brien evident in the short story collection Fables of the Irish Intellegentsia which takes a wry look at perception, academia, madness and identity (though not in that order and not at all times related). Both Daimons and Loves of Faustyna (the latter set in Poland during the Communist years rather than Ireland) continue that exploration and juxtaposition of myth and politics via that sharp wit whilst also exploring notions of gender and sensuality with a biting prose. Like one of its own absurd stories, Fables of the Irish Intellegentsia was turned down for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize for Fiction in 1991 because Nina Fitzpatrick was unable to prove her Irish origins. But also, one suspects, because “Nina Fitzpatrick” was not a single author but the nom-de-plume of Polish Nina Witozsek (an author very much still alive) and Irish Pat Sheeran (who unfortunately passed away recently). In re-reading Nina Fitzpatrick, we can perhaps, consider notions of authorship, nationhood and legacy.

The Irish writer that I’m thinking of isn’t quite unread but I do believe that her work is not read enough, in other words, unjustly unread as the question states. I’m singling out Maeve Brennan (b.1917 Dublin d.1993 New York) for her fiction rather than her life. I’m thinking of the acute sense of the Irish landscape which oozes from each and every story – despite (or because of?) spending most of her life in New York. Or the way socio-political essences are captured both in physical details and gestures – a railing, a garden, a glance – and the emotional barometers of her characters – hope, disappointment, detachment. Her short novel The Visitor, which was given to me by a friend years ago, is one which I have read many times and one which I will return to again not only for the story, but for the lush, carefully crafted prose and the superb use of dialogue. Emma Donoghue’s recent play The Talk of the Town which touches on part of Maeve’s time in New York, has, along with Angela Bourke’s great biography (Homesick at The New Yorker, 2004), started that process of shifting Brennan into the justly read category.

Shauna Gilligan is an Irish writer.

Richard McAleavy on John O’Connor

John O’Connor’s 1948 novel Come Day-Go Day opens a window on the everyday life of working class families in Armagh whose fortunes are shackled to the declining nearby Mill.

The world of the cramped and frequently flooded homes on the Mill Row is brought to life through the excited sensations and fearful apprehensions of its child protagonists, Neilly and Shemie. Through their eyes, O’Connor’s portrait of the Row residents is alive to the vulnerability and failings that emerge from the pressures of the protagonists’ precarious existence, but unrelenting in his admiration for the verbal creativity and gruff humour through which they cope.

We hear it was St Patrick who built the sphinx-like Mill as punishment for the inhabitants of the Row: “says he, now this’ll be the greatest ould curse of a mill for going on and off”. One who tried to escape the curse was Uncle Pachy, a young man who only got as far as the British Army in India, and has returned, damaged. His gregarious fragility is one of O’Connor’s many triumphs of this short book, a loving engagement with a community threatened with extinction, whose spirit is encapsulated in the fantastical trajectory of the final ‘bullet’ thrown in the breathtaking contest between the Row’s Jim Macklin and the Hammer-man from Belfast: a ferrous nucleus of wonder that refuses to give way against the real.

Richard McAleavy is an Irish author and social critic.

Stephen Murray on Festy Blake

To say that Festy Blake is the best writer that the world has never known is a violent and quite vulgar understatement. I first chanced upon his work at a poetry reading in Galway, where this previously never seen before (or again) genius read from his masterpiece, the epic poem, Sketches of Washing Machine Malfunction. It was an odd kind of performance in which Blake stood in the corner of the stage and spoke his piece into a plastic bag which, turning around to face the audience, he then popped with an almighty slap of his filthy man hands. Further examination of the stage revealed that Blake had in fact been urinating throughout the performance. This earned him a life ban from Ireland’s much lauded (c)literary scene, forcing him into hiding. Those of us privileged few who have had the honour of reading his work can testify to his genius. His work mirrors his tragic and quite epic life experiences. As an infant Blake and his family moved to the UK, where he was cast onto the Hackney streets and there growing up with alcoholism, prostitution, violence and addiction he cultivated his craft of articulating the obscene like no one else before him or since. You see Festy Blake does not just write on the page, he weeps onto, he bleeds onto it, then finally he wipes his arse with it. This may ultimately be why the world does not know his name. Indeed his first and only novel The First Born Bastard of a Battered Wife, will, one day I am sure, be lauded as one the greatest memoirs Ireland has ever produced. Alas, Blake’s tragedy is that the only publicity he ever receives is for all the wrong reasons. Last year he was wrongly accused of molesting a swan and earlier this year a court injunction was brought against him when he terrified the children of St Mary’s Primary School after being found eating a crow in the playground.  Often I have found this quite brilliant but wayward genius at the very brink of his existence and pulled him back by the cravat as he tried to hurl himself off the Cliffs of Moher. Often have I wiped the tears of blood from his cheek and changed his soiled adult pads on the morning after the end of the world. In the end the world may never know of his Godly talent. For Festy Blake is not just a writer of words. He is fondler of them. A fondler of words in the dark until they giggle and scream and cry out in pain for more. But no one can hear them, for no one is listening, because no one actually cares.

Stephen Murray is the Wizard King Of All-Ireland.

Dave Lordan

Dave Lordan is the first writer to win his country’s three major prizes for young poets. He is a former holder of the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award and a previous winner of both the Patrick Kavanagh and Strong Awards for poetry. His collections are The Boy in The Ring (2007) and Invitation to a Sacrifice (2010), both published by Salmon Poetry (; “Dr Essler’s Cocaine” will appear in his newest collection, First Book of Frags (2013, Wurm Press). His poems are regularly broadcast on Irish national radio and he reviews for many publications. He can be contacted at

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