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The 32: a diverse, moving and tantalising collection on on class in Ireland

This collection is a bold, welcome and generous start to mining the working-class Irish experience

The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices
The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices
Author: Edited by Paul McVeigh
ISBN-13: 978-1800180246
Publisher: Unbound
Guideline Price: €12.5

There is a common misapprehension that Ireland has no class system. Sure how could we? Didn’t we get rid of the Brits with their aristo obsessions and weren’t we all broke anyway, or all Catholic, so how could we have a class system? Aren’t we a land filled with hard-working, educated, egalitarian, non-covetous, noble people? Class was for “over there” with their landowners and private schools and flat-capped miners.

Except we all know that isn’t true. Lack of a scrounging monarchy aside, Ireland is like every other country; riddled with invisible, unfair strings that bind people together according to their socioeconomic status. Disparities in opportunities between these groups have fuelled a very distinct and complex class system that is unique to this island. A system that differs between city and country, between races, between North and South, and between the generations.

It’s a fascinating, oft-neglected and potent topic, and one which The 32 seeks to address. This collection of essays by Irish writers attempts to collate working-class voices from all over the island and add diversity to the range of voices out there. If you cannot be what you cannot see, then this collection is attempting to clean the glasses, widen the lens and enrich the detail of the picture.

It is a project inspired by Common People, a collection of essays edited by Kit de Waal about the working-class experience in the UK. Due to funding restrictions and lack of access to writer development agencies, new writers from Northern Ireland were not included in Common People – again showing the unique structure and limitations working-class writers face here in Ireland – so it was decided that Paul McVeigh would edit the Irish version, for the whole island, the 32, and invite 16 published writers and 16 new writers to contribute. It is published by Unbound and exists due to crowdfunding and a significant contribution from the Northern Irish Arts Council.


Memoirs and reflections

The result is a diverse, moving and tantalising collection of memoirs and reflections from new and familiar voices. It’s a proud book, bright and curious and one which is very welcome. Writers, like actors, like all artists, find it hard to make a living from just their art form. A recent Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) report found that “the top 10 per cent of writers still earn about 70 per cent of total earnings in the profession”. I don’t know the exact numbers when it comes to acting, but I imagine the ratio to be very similar.

How can art reflect, provoke or inspire society when the artists are homogenous? Art needs diverse voices, not because diversity is an a la mode tickbox, but because art that only speaks from one experience ain’t art, it is propaganda.

Enough soap-boxing. Down to the goods themselves.

The collection opens with a piece from Rick O’Shea who poignantly offers a topography of his childhood Dublin and the Dublin he lives in now. Class dictates how you experience your city. He ends with an image of his mother walking through Trinity College, a place she had never been before.

She was born a mile from there,

Lived her whole life no more than three miles away,

It may as well have been the Moon.

Erin Lindsey tackles the inevitable question of what exactly working class means in her essay Working Class is Authenticity and does away with the misconceptions cast upon her upbringing by describing a loving, stimulating and confident childhood. The only limitations she encounters are the patronising expectations of others when she says where she is from.

As with Erin’s piece, the king of working-class Dublin, Roddy Doyle, bandies the word “gobshite” with assassin-like precision to illustrate yet again that it is the perceptions of others that limit the experience of the working class. His father sounds wonderful.

New Age travellers

But this collection doesn’t just focus on Dublin or even urban working-class experiences. As Martin Doyle says, “in the literature of the working class, the rural experience is the poor relation”. Not so here. Dave Lordan in Revelations recounts when the New Age travellers descended on Clonakilty and opened up his idea of what was possible in more ways than one.

From Martin Doyle and Maurice Neill we have reflections on the specifics of growing up in the North and the class structures there. From cocoa tin lids being used to hammer over holes in the floor to keep out rats in Neill’s Ulster-Scots Spricks, to a “prolier than thou” reflection from Doyle.

The late Lyra McKee is represented here with an extract from The Lost Boys, the book she was working on before her murder. Her clear-sightedness and warm intelligence permeate throughout and make it all the more heartbreaking to think of what could have been.

Claire Allen brings us to the hairdresser in Derry where all are equal in the chair, evoking the cadence and the camaraderie within.

Rosaleen McDonagh presents nostalgia as an exploration of the objectified image of Traveller by the settled person. Again, the outsider telling the person who they are and who they should be according to class. It’s a powerful piece and one that again shows Ireland’s unique situation when it comes to class. Where does the Travelling community fall within an Anglo-centric view of class?

Dr Michael Pierse ends this collection with an academic essay that details the specific characteristics of the Irish class structure. It concludes a collection that is rich with diverse tones, approaches and experiences.

Leave it to the “big serf-headed” Kevin Barry to articulate the fascination and appeal of mining the working-class Irish experience.

“It takes half a lifetime to see out beyond the immediate shadows of yourself and of your own biography. It takes for ever and a day to recognise the systems and the streams that are in place to divert you from your true will and ambitions. It takes a steady nerve, and a steady voice, to begin to question them, and to unpick them.”

This collection is a bold, welcome and generous start to that journey of unpicking.

Siobhán McSweeney is an Irish actor, whose roles include Sister Michael in Derry Girls