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Sean Moncrieff: Why are Irish novelists so successful? Perhaps because they’re telling us the story of ourselves

The family drama, particularly in the Irish context, can also operate as a powerful metaphor

This is a golden time for Irish literature. Scarcely any of the big international book prizes don’t feature a few Irish writers. Others routinely dominate the best-seller lists or are saddled with the voice-of-a-generation tag. Why is this? Take your pick. It’s because we’re a nation of storytellers, because of our education system, because of Arts Council support, because the Irish writing community is collegiate and because Irish publishers and readers aren’t put off by experimental work. It’s because writing is essentially an extension of talking, and the Irish never shut up.

But another factor, I’m inclined to think, are the sorts of things Irish writers tell stories about: particularly the family. It is striking how many of our writers have produced family dramas: stories where the family is somehow dysfunctional. There are buried secrets or a scarring tragedy or the family itself is shunned by the community it lives in. It’s arguable that family is the dominating trope of Irish writing. (This may just reflect what I’ve been reading lately, but I’ve also noticed that a lot of these families also send their children to Trinity College. They might be troubled, but they get good points.)

The appeal of such work, internationally and domestically, is obvious. Nearly everyone has a family and can relate to the tensions family life can produce; there’s that weird contradiction where those who love you can also be the cruellest to you. Families always give a good story.

When the country won independence and our Constitution was written, Family was given a starring role

And the family drama, particularly in the Irish context, can also operate as a powerful metaphor: the dysfunctional family representing the dysfunctional society in which they live. Both family and society are impossible ideals: we are drawn to both, even when they are damaging to us.


But writers didn’t invent this idea. It is, according to many historians, part of our cultural DNA. Back when Ireland was a colony, family was the only unit the ordinary Irish person could trust: everything else, even the church, was part of a ruling superstructure.

When the country won independence and our Constitution was written, Family was given a starring role: not as a private place free from state interference, but as an avatar of the state itself. Ireland was a family: an oasis of decent Catholicism, a bulwark against the godlessness outside our borders. Each Irish family had to live up to this Netflix-special version of Ireland, because to do otherwise was a betrayal of Ireland itself.

This was powerful juju, and it lodged in the minds, not just of people here, but every Irish emigrant. Abroad, the idea was given even more power. In Cricklewood or Chicago, the Irish formed into tight ghettos, surrounded by others who disliked their accents and their religion. Family, and family-as-country, became the twin ideas that nurtured those communities. Remnants of it still exist today, particularly in the United States. It may partially explain why Irish-Americans tend to cling to a version of Ireland that no longer exists on this side of the Atlantic.

Joe Biden seems to have been steeped in the Irish family-as-country idea when he was growing up. He lived that story: devout Catholicism, mixed with personal tragedy. And, by his own telling, in Israel he saw the same narrative. The wounded family clinging together, still surrounded by enemies.

The American political class is almost universally supportive of any action Israel takes – or fears the backlash criticism would bring – but even by those standards Biden seems the most prepared to constantly write Israel blank cheques. As Sally Rooney wrote here recently, for him it seems to be personal: the family-as-country idea so deeply embedded within him that it seems to have bypassed any facility he may have had for logic or morality.

Perhaps he should read a few Irish family dramas to remind him, if he ever knew, that sometimes, those we love can also be the most monstrous.