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50 Irish Books and the canon

Submitted by site_editor on Sat, 2015-09-05 10:11

50 Irish Books, the first project of the Digital Platform for Contemporary Irish Writing, is an online manifestation of the processes of selection, inclusion, and exclusion that have generated comment and controversy in Irish Studies. There are, as always in an attempt to list and categorise, limitations to the project. However, 50 Irish Books offers an engagement with contemporary Irish writing and critical/readerly reception of that writing that will, we hope, shape future canon formation. The choice of fifty books from the last five years may seem arbitrary, or a reduction of a huge body of work to a soundbite, but it is hoped that readers and users will be provoked, if only through indignant cries of “but what about….?”, to generate discussion and debate about Irish texts and their reception. 

In choosing the fifty titles, many people were consulted (including our international and UCD advisory boards), many opinions considered, many groans heaved as a favourite text was struck off, and, finally, many long conversations held about those texts that were safely included. The principle of selection was “book as event”: which texts marked a particular sea-change in Irish writing or captured the mood of the moment? Thus, none of the many studies of Irish economics (books about boom and bust, bankers, builders, and losing the run of yourself) have been included, because most of these were based on previously published op-ed pieces in Irish newspapers, and it was those newspaper articles, read in print or online, that captured the country’s attention. Our focus has been on publications that, in our view, are of note – whether because a small press and unknown author won a galaxy of prizes or because bi-lingual poems challenged ideas of “Irish literature”. Each text on the list marks a special moment, whether it is an author’s first or fifteenth publication, a book that began as a series of Facebook posts, a memoir that shocks and provokes, or a play that changed Irish theatre.


What type of canon does it reflect?

50 Irish Books offers a list of texts from several genres and numerous styles, and an inclusive and challenging canon.

Twenty-four of the titles are by female authors, and twenty-six by male (admittedly Come Here to Me!: Dublin’s Other History has three male authors). Prose dominates the list: novels are the most common form, but there are also three collections of short stories. Other literary genres are well represented, with seven volumes of poetry and seven plays. Across these genres, five Irish-language or dual-language texts are included on this list, representing a small, but significant, 10%.



Current trends in contemporary Irish writing are reflected in the dominance of certain publishers. One of the notable strengths of this project is the inclusion of texts produced by Irish presses of varying size (from the very small to the rather large), the most prominent of which is Gallery Press, which produced four of the titles included. However, by far the most represented publisher is the London-based Faber & Faber, which published nine of the titles, across several genres. In fact, thirty-two of the titles have been published by companies based outside the island of Ireland. What may be argued from this is that some of the central canon- and reputation-forming forces of contemporary Irish writing are external, and that Irish writing is outward facing, shaped by international readers and publishers and targeted at international audiences.


What makes 50 Irish Books different?

A selection of only fifty books from the wealth of contemporary texts must lead to imbalances. Popular texts from well-known authors have many more reviews and associated material, which we have made available through this site, while work from new writers or those working in less critically-popular genres or languages has been the subject of less media coverage. The project is certain to have missed certain reviews, interviews, or publicity material here or there, a natural flaw we are more than happy to rectify if brought to our attention.This site does not create new critical content any more than it creates new literary content, but is an attempt to reflect as best as possible what is currently available and prominent in contemporary Irish writing and its criticism.

What truly marks 50 Irish Books as different is its value as a conduit through which material relating to these texts may be accessed. Rather than elevating certain writers or genres or styles above others, 50 Irish Books seeks to provide, through its selection, an illumination of the standing of Irish writing today and the multiple forces engaged in its shaping and reputation.

It is for this reason that we see 50 Irish Books, and the Digital Platform for Contemporary Irish Writing more generally, as other than the latest step in canon-formation. 50 Irish Books is reflective, rather than generative; it is temporal, through its selection of a time period to focus on, rather than making bold universal claims to timeless properties. 50 Irish Books does not and should not present itself as an arbiter of taste; it does not offer a ranked list of ‘50 Irish books to read before you die.’ Instead, it is indicative of the current publishing trends in contemporary Irish writing and criticism. The fifty texts chosen are intended to act as signposts, not only towards writers and texts, but more importantly towards the great depth of extra-textual resources available to help a reader, student, or academic to engage with contemporary Irish writing. These writers and their texts are examples, test cases to demonstrate the depth of what is available, not a definitive and exclusive list of the supposed best of the best.

50 Irish Books is not a point of culmination – it is a website, a living, breathing, changing resource. The Digital Platform for Contemporary Irish Writing is consequently called a platform, and not simply a website or a resource, because it is intended to act as a starting point, a springboard for interested parties to jump from and to dive deep into the fluid, illimitable body of Irish writing, to pursue engagement with not only those listed here, but with those associated with these writers and texts, those seemingly opposed to them, those that appear so different, those writers whose texts sell well, those whose texts barely sell at all, the large publishing houses, the small one-person-and-their-printer presses, the whole complicated spectrum of what constitutes what we talk about when we talk about contemporary Irish writing.


Post Authors

Postdoctoral project fellows: Dr Karen Wade (2013-4), Dr Catherine Smith (2014-5), Dr Kenneth Keating (2015-)