CORK’S literary position in Ireland resembles that of San Francisco. The city possesses its own artistic atmosphere, whose more reflective character thrives away from the larger metropolitan house lights.
My times in Cork over the years have cast a permanent light over my own writing. Readers will notice a complex ache of love in my writing, evident in my first novel, The City Dealer.
Let me explain. I do not only refer to the steep hills about Cork City. These formidable ascents can be aching enough to citizens. Also to visitors: I knew of a young Irish-American couple (from Baltimore) who lived less than 50 yards from a supermarket, but were so appalled by the climb they shopped online and got home delivery.
I had no such luxury from Dominick Street, in historic Shandon. I was in love with the riverside beauty of the city, with winding streets and alleys, particularly in the evening with the lights of houses studding the hills around, twinkling in the black cord of river water.
However the Shandon bells were less charming during (the small hours of) night-time, ceaselessly rendering ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’, and other touristic gems.
At the same time I was conscious of living, breathing and (trying to) sleep, in the quarter of Cork that had inspired the classic stories of Frank O’Connor. Perhaps the area was different to how our grandparents might remember, now with wine bars and internet cafes.
That’s important since O’Connor’s stories tell of the people that lived there; the society, the time. Yet the district’s atmosphere, the hints of the Lee and (I admit) those day-time bells, was unimpeachably O’Connor.
Then I covered the first Frank O’Connor International Short Story festival, for the Irish Examiner. These days it is truly international. Cork has such a tradition of the short story, with William Trevor at the zenith.
Perfect location with those San Fran slopes. I could identify with O’Connor, because he felt the isolation and the peculiarity of the writer, who knows her/himself as being separate, with a curious destiny and purpose — what he drolly called his “genius”, which father and friends didn’t understand.
Of course I had experienced O’Connor’s serious yet humorous feeling of difference, from just as early an age: it’s ineradicable.
From O’Connor I learnt the wry art of engaging the reader; drawing the reader in as your friend and confidante; the human being you most want. It is the warmth, humanity and humour of O’Connor that captivates.
I also admire and learn from Sean O’Faolain, particularly as a novelist. For his admirers O’Faolain’s status is comparable to Joyce. He’s a world literary great, if that doesn’t sound too Premier League.
He has a daring adventurous voice, while the style is accessible, communicative. O’Faolain has an extraordinary liveliness and big spirit.
He typifies an Irish way of writing, for me, in that he makes no apology for colour and personality; it’s like the pour of cream over the back of a spoon. I would never be sniffy about literary ‘accomplishment’, but O’Faolain taught me to never write to a formula. Rather trust to your imagination and to just be yourself (to discover who you are).
You can find that individual Irish spirit in John Banville too.
He writes apparently esoteric ‘continental’ books, yet there is always that Irish linguistic lick, the turn of phrase, as if Kundera is frying up some liver and onions. Be your own writer, they say.
Can you imagine Banville or O’Faolain, using a software programme to aid their novel? These days publishers favour novels that are like film scripts, with a bit a directorial scene-setting.
Not only is this patronising to readers, it has the effect of washing out the writer’s narrative personality; a kind of identikit mould to get you on to prime time. It has no cream over the spoon, it is just an economy-style jar of instant.
Even if I have more plot and suspense: Joyce himself teaches writers about resilience, determination and vision.
Any writer can learn from the Irish style, since it is a defence against dumbing-down, the bland and the banal. We should protect that literary heritage.
Don’t forget the love of language, they say: feel it.
Neil Rowland is the author of The City Dealer which is available now priced at £8.99 in paperback, or £4.99. E-book from neilrowland.com