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This introduction surveys the state of contemporary Irish and Northern Irish literature and culture from the close of the twentieth century to the present day, exploring how Irish writing reflects and intervenes in rapidly changing contemporary cultural conditions, both local and global. It helps to explain the national and international significance of Irish contemporary writing in the twenty-first century and focuses on the increasing authority of formerly marginalized voices, particularly those of women, LGBTQ, and migrant artists. It homes in on how durable artistic and cultural legacies are reshaped by contemporary writers, how the altered cultural conditions of a socially progressive Republic and a post-Troubles Northern Ireland are represented by writers in a variety of genres, and how Irish writers and artists invoke new aesthetic forms and practices to depict the contemporary moment.
This brief coda considers the current state of the interdisciplinary field of Irish Studies, showing how literary criticism and pedagogy, in particular, might engage in fresh ways with contemporary conditions. It offers a short history of Irish Studies, situates the field amid current understandings of area studies, identifies possible new scholarly practices, and argues that a renewed Irish Studies, one still focused on the particularities of Irish culture, has much to offer the “global turn” in literary studies.
The New Irish Studies demonstrates how diverse critical approaches enable a richer understanding of contemporary Irish writing and culture. The early decades of the twenty-first century in Ireland and Northern Ireland have seen an astonishing rate of change, one that reflects the common understanding of the contemporary as a moment of acceleration and flux. This collection tracks how Irish writers have represented the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland, the consequences of the Celtic Tiger economic boom in the Republic, the waning influence of Catholicism, the increased authority of diverse voices, and an altered relationship with Europe. The essays acknowledge the distinctiveness of contemporary Irish literature, reflecting a sense that the local can shed light on the global, even as they reach beyond the limited tropes that have long identified Irish literature. The collection suggests routes forward for Irish Studies, and unsettles presumptions about what constitutes an Irish classic.
In the final decades of the twentieth century and into the first years of the twenty-first, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland experienced dizzying societal changes. At the beginning of the period at hand, in the early 1980s, conditions across the island seemed drearily familiar: the Irish economy was mired in recession, outward emigration was on the increase, social and political policy in the South continued to align with Catholic doctrine, sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland persisted, and the hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the North remained a fraught space of armed and ideological struggle. Yet halfway through these decades, on the cusp of a new millennium, the Irish economy was so strong that it had been anthropomorphised as the Celtic Tiger, inward immigration outpaced emigration, the longstanding moral authority of the Catholic Church had been destabilised, and the Good Friday Agreement indicated that the violence of the Troubles would diminish or even cease entirely.
This coda considers in dialogue two influential Irish publishers, The Irish Times and Tramp Press, that have successfully adapted to the digital age while maintaining a deep commitment to literature and readers. The Irish Times is a venerable newspaper of record founded in 1859 whose form and content reflect contemporary conditions, while Tramp Press is a small, independent press founded in 2014 whose venturesome publications have garnered enthusiastic critical praise. As divergent as their organisational structures and objectives, these publishers share a common mission in advocating literature, and particularly Irish literature, as an essential and durable cultural instrument – one that not only helps readers to apprehend their contemporary moment, but also encourages them to think critically about the past and to imagine possible futures.