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29 May 2019

The Irish writers reinvigorating the personal essay

From Emilie Pine to Sinéad Gleeson, new Irish writers are producing essays that are at once fragmentary, fluid, personal and expansive.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In his enormous, two-volume biography of Yeats, the Irish historian RF Foster begins by defending his exhaustive, chronological approach to the poet’s life. “We do not, alas, live our lives in themes,” he writes, “but day by day.” A wave of autobiographical books from new Irish writers reject the idea that life cannot be experienced thematically, adopting an approach that is at once fragmentary, fluid, personal and expansive, and using that most malleable of forms: the essay.

First came Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self. Initially published by the independent Tramp Press in Ireland in 2018, it contains six essays on Pine’s experiences of alcoholism, grief, parental separation, the female body, sexual violence and workplace sexism. In March, Ian Maleney’s Minor Monuments, a series of meditations on the Irish landscape, family, memory, Alzheimer’s and music, was also published by Tramp Press.

Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision and Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations followed. Breathnach’s essay collection combines wincingly personal depictions of porn-and drug-addiction, compulsive lying and loneliness with long, detailed sections of criticism. Gleeson’s book is a personal history both grounded in the stories of her body, with essays on bones, hair, blood, pregnancy and surgery, and illuminated by interrogations of the art, literature and music that have influenced her.

To see so many literary writers make their debuts with personal essays is rare, especially in the Irish scene, which has long privileged fiction. While Tramp Press was set up as a publisher of Irish fiction (its website’s submissions page still politely insists “fiction only, please!”), founders Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen decided to make exceptions for Pine and Maleney. (As Coen told the Sunday Times Ireland: “the rule… is that the non-fiction still has to aspire to be great literature”).

“The idea of launching a writing career with a collection of essays would have been all but incomprehensible for an ambitious Irish writer until very recently,” writes the Dublin Review editor Brendan Barrington, who published early versions of essays from Breathnach and Maleney. Not so today. “The species ‘Irish essayist’, long critically endangered, is now in rude health.”

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“By the time we find him, he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.” This is how Emilie Pine, an associate professor of modern drama at University College Dublin, begins Notes to Self. It’s a sentence that is indicative of her style: at once explicit and clinical, immediate and reflective, intimate yet somehow detached. This opening essay concerns her relationship with her alcoholic father, his illness, and the impact this has on his family: an experience that is at the same time mundane (medical frustrations and strained family dynamics), absurd (the conditions of Corfu General Hospital, where her father is treated, are incredibly poor) and devastating.

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“As I sat beside him in those hospital rooms in Greece I wondered how to tell the story of blood, of nurses and gloves, of doctors and waiting,” Pine writes. She turns over these words like flashcards from a set labelled “hospital”, pointing to our impoverished vocabulary for the ordinary catastrophes of illness, violence and grief.

Pine’s title suggests that these were thoughts she was only capable of expressing internally, to herself. In fact, many of Pine’s essays – from her painful reflections on her struggle to conceive a child to a searing and nuanced account of her experiences of sexual violence – grapple with themes that are paradoxically both topical and taboo. These are subjects that are constantly analysed and debated by the media, but usually in a way that is divorced from the texture of ordinary lives. Across these collections, turning to a form that is often digressive, multidisciplinary and contradictory, writers attempt to articulate the everyday experiences, emotional complications and quiet realisations we often fail to satisfactorily voice.

For Sinéad Gleeson (an established novelist, art critic and poet as well as essayist), the key theme is the simple fact of our bodily existence. We experience our lives through our physical selves, and yet, Gleeson writes, “The body is an afterthought.”

Until we feel “pleasure or pain, we pay this moving mass of vessel, blood and bone no mind”; the body is “both an unignorable entity and routinely taken for granted”. The female body, in particular – especially in Ireland – is both scrutinised and dismissed, and in her essays Gleeson attempts to rescue the female form from this double punishment by placing it front and centre of a story of a life: from a childhood diagnosis of monoarticular arthritis, and an ensuing pilgrimage to be “cured” in Lourdes, to the birth of her daughter a full month early and her adult experience of leukaemia.

“I felt scrutinised and voiceless, a specimen in a jar,” Gleeson writes of her medical encounters. A doctor ignores her protests and saws into her hip when removing a cast; nurses insist she can’t be in labour four weeks early when she innately knows she is. In hospital rooms, in abortion legislation, in everyday conversations, she finds herself not only reduced to her body, but silenced when she tries to speak about her physical experience. Perhaps that’s why she turns away from the literal to art. In “Hair” she seamlessly glides from Kate Bush on Top of the Pops to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” to Little Women to PJ Harvey’s “Hair”. In “A Wound Gives Off its Own Light”, she discusses her most traumatic surgeries alongside the work of Frida Kahlo, Jo Spence and Lucy Grealy: “lights in the dark for me, a form of guidance” showing that “in taking all the pieces of the self, fractured by surgery, there is rearrangement: making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it”.

In his book Essayism, the Irish writer Brian Dillon claims a great essay should “be at once the wound and a piercing act of precision”. Gleeson’s are both vulnerable and penetrating. “I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation,” she writes. The book itself is a kind of constellation: Gleeson joins the dots to form an impressionistic, symbolic image, slowly building connections between her seemingly splintered narratives.

Where Gleeson’s book is fragmentary, Kevin Breathnach’s shatters the essay form completely. Opening with a poem, ending with words that seem to visually dissolve on the page, Tunnel Vision can loosely be divided into six personal narratives set in Munich, Korea, Paris and Madrid, and six critical essays, but none can be clearly defined. The title essay is at once the most personal narrative and the book’s longest critical analysis. It jumps between a sustained ekphrasis of the 2009 film Train Ride Bergen to Oslo (“longer than all but the most ponderous works of cinema […] it consists of a single shot filmed on a camera inside the driver’s cabin of the No 602 to Oslo, inhabiting a train’s-eye view for all seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirteen seconds of its running time”) and a claustrophobic depiction of Breathnach furiously masturbating to the “most popular” sections of porn sites while high on mephedrone: “For 12 hours in my room, so hot that the widow and mirror would steam up, I jerked off to this aggregate of heterosexual desire, pausing only to use the bathroom.” Reading about these “clammy and eventually painful sessions” alongside the relentless, monotonous journey of the 602 is unsettling to say the least.

I squirmed, too, at many of 31-year-old Breathnach’s depictions of his friendships and relationships, marred by miscommunications, unspoken resentments and dishonesty. “I don’t know,” he shrugs at one point. “Half of me loved you, half was just honouring a promise.” He is often self-deprecating about his own pretentiousness and duplicity, but is this honesty or just another posture? Some moments are sublime, particularly two essays on photography, where Breathnach takes a scalpel to self-portraits by Berenice Abbott and André Kertész with startling deftness and insight. Other essays are more daring, but messy and impenetrable.

Always exquisitely precise is Ian Maleney’s Minor Monuments, which looks to the Irish midlands to map out his personal history. “The bog is a quiet place,” he writes. He seeks to record it – literally, trying to capture its sounds on a microphone, just as he surreptitiously records the voice of his grandfather, John Joe, whose memories are slowly being eroded by Alzheimer’s.

These essays all take place on the family farm where he grew up, viewed from the keen but somewhat distant perspective of a twentysomething who has left home and returns, not quite a visitor, but no longer a true citizen of the landscape. He lives in an in-between state: “Between the moment and the recollection, between the experience and the record of it.” Maleney is painfully sensitive to minute, incremental losses of memory, belonging, or community. “Each time I came home, it felt a little different – relationships were altered, intimacies were lost, the worry grew heavier.”

Joan Didion describes the writer of a personal journal as affected by a persistent “presentiment of loss”. That could perhaps apply to all these writers, but none more so than Maleney. His dedicated documentation of his grandfather’s last years is moving, a desperate preventative measure against his inevitable loss: “Almost every decent word I’ve written in my life has come out of this impulse to make explicit what would otherwise be hidden, overlooked, soon lost.” Simone Weil wrote that, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Maleney’s attention to John Joe, his family, and the landscape of his home is tender and meticulous. If this is a minor monument, it’s no less a profound one.

Pine, Gleeson and Breathnach all share an anxious awareness of the exposing nature of their own personal narratives, to varying degrees. There is a political urgency to Gleeson’s justification for her own writing: “To talk about the body in Ireland, to write of it, is to confront [the] theft of autonomy” that occurs in abortion legislation and sexist medical environments. There is a similarly vital self-preserving instinct at the heart of Pine’s book. “The urge to write this feels not only dangerous and fearful and shameful, but necessary,” she explains. “I write it to unlock the code of silence that I kept for so many years.”

Maleney is hyper-alert to the problems posed by personal writing. “The further I have gone into this job of writing about one family in one place – the family I was born into, the place where I grew up – the greater the distance has grown between me and all of that,” he writes. “What a melancholy act. There is no redemption in it.” It is a bleak judgement, but thankfully one that we as readers, having experienced these books’ many insights from the other side, cannot share.