“The English,” wrote Kenneth Tynan when reviewing Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, “hoard words like misers; the Irish spend them like sailors.” This is, however, exactly what Irish writers are afraid of. Much of modern Irish literature can be seen as a struggle to, in Seamus Heaney’s phrase, govern the tongue. Volubility, garrulousness, lushness, and lyricism are the clear and present dangers against which the writers have to arm themselves. What can they do with the drunken sailor of Irish speech, heady with elaborations, exaggerations, and evasions? They must lock it in the hold. They have to throw obstacles in the way of the natural flow that would otherwise carry them onto the rocks of rhetoric, sentimentality, or bombast. Their quest is not so much articulation as disarticulation, the wrenching of overly easy words into some kind of hard syntax.
We can trace this effort in the way Oscar Wilde learns to hide behind his apparently free-floating epigrams or the way W.B. Yeats ditches the soft beauty of his Celtic Twilight poems for the muscular plainness of his mature work. James Joyce quickly drowns out the elaborate music of his early poetry with the discord of a fracturing language. John Synge finds a new strategy by creating a strange hybrid, neither poetry nor prose, neither Irish nor English. Flann O’Brien erects endless façades of pastiche and parody, perfecting a comically pedantic narrative voice. Samuel Beckett goes to the last extreme of writing in French so that he can translate his own words back into English, making his native language a second tongue.
Contemporary Irish writers still grapple in their various ways with the spendthrift sailor of easy articulacy. John Banville chisels sentences one by one as if from a solid block of muteness. Colm Tóibín works always toward the stark simplicity of airtight sentences that refuse to leak out any hint of metaphor or rhetoric. Emma Donoghue, in Room, creates an elaborate baby talk. And so on: ambitious Irish writers work in the handcuffs they make for themselves to inhibit the “easy writing” that, as Richard Brinsley Sheridan put it, makes “curst hard reading.” But few in recent times have forged a pair quite so tight and painfully cutting as those Eimear McBride wears in her widely praised debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
McBride’s book comes trailing a long tail of awards, including the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Irish Novel of the Year award, and the Goldsmiths Prize for “boldly original fiction.” It also comes with a classic modernist back-story of artistic persistence in the face of neglect and indifference. McBride was born in Liverpool in 1976 to Irish parents who were both nurses, grew up in Sligo, in the west of Ireland, and moved to London to study acting when she was seventeen. She finished A Girl…
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