Róisín Ingle recently said that this is “… the golden age of essay writing in Ireland and it is being spearheaded by women.” She said this at the launch of Rosita Boland’s travel memoir, Elsewhere. Boland joins essayists like Emilie Pine, whose Notes to Self changed how I view the world (on my Staff Choice card in Dubray Blackrock, I say it should be on the Leaving Cert curriculum). Sinéad Gleeson, whose debut collection Constellations evinces all the light and strength of the author herself. Not to mention Polly Devlin, Emma Dabiri, Kevin Breathnach and Ian Maleney, to name but a few more.
Why have we as a nation fallen for this form? What is it about our current times, and our recent history, that lends itself so well to the essay?
In the past, Ireland has been a country steeped in secrets and shame. But, in recent years, it has tried to shake off these shackles, to create a more equal and happy state. The essay is not only our wake up call, but contains the history of these things.
Gleeson, Pine, Dabiri — these women step into the limelight to show us the things they have endured, struggles deeply rooted in their gender and race. They open up a whole new range of emotions, as their griefs, their struggles, become our own, and perhaps, often, they were our own. Maleney’s work echoes a growing dissonance between our capital and the rest of the nation, and, through his grandfather’s dementia, mourns the loss of the memories from a generation who’ve watched Ireland change irrevocably.
Other works on depression, addiction and compounded emotional horror teach us that no one is alone in their suffering and that all human beings share the same weaknesses and strengths, though not in equal measure.
I call this the “Golden Age of the Irish Essay” because this is a season of change. All around the world, totalitarian conservatism tightens its grip, except here. The recent referendums on marriage, abortion and divorce, show that Ireland does not want to follow this curve. These essays show us why.
We have been there, done that. The essays of the last few years have taught us we can, and should, do so much better. They’re a chronicle of how far we’ve come, and a testament to how far we still have to go. And we are all so lucky, to have these amazing peoples sharing their experience and wisdom with us, and most importantly, letting us know, we are not alone.