New Irish Writing Moves to The Irish Times

January 27th, 2015 § 0 comments

 

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Ireland is a country that prides itself on its literary history having produced great writers such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats, and more recently, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright and Eimear McBride.

However, in order to keep the tradition of Irish writing alive, novice writers need a place to submit their work and have it read.

That’s exactly the remit of New Irish Writing (NIW), a page that first appeared in the Irish Press in 1967, later moving to the Sunday Tribune when the Press changed to tabloid format. However when the Tribune closed in 2011, so too did the page.

With the announcement last week that the page has a new home in The Irish Times, the Irish literary scene has been given a new lease of life.

Writing about NIW for The Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole wrote: NIW ‘has been one of the English-speaking world’s great literary incubators. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it in mainstream newspapers anywhere else.’

The driving force behind New Irish Writing was David Marcus. He originally established it as a quarterly literary magazine in 1946, when he was 22 and a law graduate. He had a deep love for the short story and that was the format the magazine championed.

He had the chutzpah to get submissions to the magazine from Seán O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Liam O’Flaherty and Samuel Beckett, then virtually unknown outside France and still to write Waiting for Godot.

But Marcus’ passion wasn’t enough to keep the magazine alive and it folded in 1954. Disillusioned, Marcus went to London for 11 yeas and worked in insurance. When he returned to Dublin in the late sixties he was dismayed to find the tradition of the literary journal was almost dead in Ireland.

There were a number of magazines available at that time, magazines such as Bell, Envoy, Irish Bookman and the Kilkenny Magazine, but all were dying. Marcus feared that if action weren’t taken immediately a great tradition would die.

From past experience Marcus knew how hard it was to make a literary magazine financially viable so he had the brainwave of approaching a newspaper with the plan of giving new and established writers equal billing on a page dedicated to Irish writing.

Marcus planned to pitch his idea to The Irish Times but on his way to their offices he bumped into Sean McCann, a journalist with the Evening Press. Marcus explained to McCann what he was up to and McCann liked the idea so much, he in turn pitched it to his editor, Tim Pat Coogan.

The page was an instant hit. ‘The first presentable text in English I succeed in writing will be yours,’ promised Beckett. Not only did NIW catch the attention of writers but also the Hennessy family, who were originally from Cork but had moved to Cognac in France in the eighteenth century.

The Hennessy’s were champions of Irish literature and, always looking to strengthen their cultural ties with Ireland, they agreed to sponsor annual literary awards highlighting the best writing published each year on the page.

The winners of the inaugural awards, in 1971, were Dermot Morgan, Patrick Buckley, Kate Cruise O’Brien, Desmond Hogan, Liam Murphy and John Boland. Other writers to enjoy success because of the page include Patrick McCabe, Deidre Madden, Sebastian Barry and Frank McGuinness to name a few.

When the Irish Press closed the page in 1988 it didn’t take long to find it a new home in the Sunday Tribune, where a poetry category was added to both the page and the Hennessy awards. The first winner of the award for poetry was Joseph O’Connor (Sinead’s brother) in 1989.

Talking about NIW both Joseph O’Connor and Frank McGuinness confessed that the page was a lifeline. When O’Connor’s story The Last of the Mohicans was published in the late eighties, he’d just about ‘lost heart.’

For the last thirty years NIW has been a platform for great Irish writers, such as Hugo Hamilton, Anne Enright, John Boyne, Vona Groake, Martina Devlin, Mary Costello, Paul Perry and Mary O’Donoghue, again, to name but a few. Now thanks to The Irish Times, that platform lives on.

As Fintan O’Toole wrote in the aforementioned article, NIW ‘is, apart from all its other merits, a standing rebuke to the celebrity culture that has become increasingly prominent in publishing. It exists for the unfamous, the as yet obscure, the writers who are just writers, not names, not brands.’

 

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