Books

Celebrating Ireland's working-class writers in The 32

The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Voices is a new book that celebrates working-class voices from across Ireland. Jenny Lee finds out more from Belfast novelist Paul McVeigh, who edits the collection

Launching The 32 are, pictured left to right, Lisburn writer, Marc Gregg, editor Paul McVeigh and Belfast writer Riley Johnston. Picture by Brian Morrison

"I'd been a schoolteacher who taught in a community school on the Northside and who'd self-published a book, and had metamorphosed into an internationally known author whose name appeared in the Guardian and the New York Times. I'd crossed over a line; I'd become a useful accessory."

These are the words of Dublin author Roddy Doyle, writing in The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices, reminiscing on how opinion of him had changed following the release of The Commitments, a film based on his book and play, as well as his Booker Prize wins in 1991 and 1993.

Doyle is just one example of a working-class writer who has become a success in the literary field, yet is still proud of his roots.

Historically, Irish dramatist Seán O'Casey and writer Brendan Behan are others who used their craft to comment powerfully on class inequalities in the society around them.

But, all too often, working-class writers find that the hurdles they come up against are higher and harder to leap over than those faced by writers from more affluent backgrounds.

One of the main aims of The 32 is to help unpublished working-class writers get into print.

The collection of 32 short stories features 16 contributions from published writers and 16 from new voices, all drawn from throughout the 32 counties of Ireland.

Edited by Belfast novelist Paul McVeigh, this intimate and illuminating collection features memoirs and essays from voices including award-winning writers Kevin Barry and Lisa McInerney, Senator Lynn Ruane, Derry writers Claire Allen and Abby Oliveira, RTÉ broadcaster Rick O'Shea and many more.

The book came about following a similar publication, Common People by Kit de Waal in 2019, in which McVeigh was one of two Irish contributors.

"Common People was a huge success, and while touring festivals in Ireland with the book, Kit was asked on many occasions, 'Will there be an Irish version?' and she handed me that challenge," he explains.

The result is a collection of diverse short stories reflecting the depth and texture of working-class life, the joy and sorrow, the solidarity and the differences, from contemporary stories to memories of working in mills in the 1950s and experiences of those from LGBT and Traveller backgrounds.

"There's a whole myriad of experiences. I could have chosen 100, but you have to make choices and I think we have got a broad experience," says McVeigh, who had the unenviable task of selecting 16 unknown voices.

"We want The 32 to be a success, not only to showcase the talent and experience of working-class lives, but for the new writers to have a chance to be published and get a leg up in their literary career."

This includes building a professional development programme with the help of leading publishers and the Irish Writers Centre.

McVeigh knows from personal experience the struggle of getting published. Born in Ardoyne, he shared his bedroom with six siblings.

"As a working-class boy from Belfast, I never thought I could be a writer. I didn't get to grammar school and always thought I was stupid, and more or less treated like I was stupid," he recalls.

"The publishing industry is scary. The whole idea of writing a book is scary and there are so few examples out there of working-class people making it to the top.

"Like acting, unless you have a wee bit of money behind you and a family who can support you to take auditions or spend time writing, which is what the middle class do, you tend to be excluded."

McVeigh gave up his dream of writing in his thirties to become a teacher, because "as I got older, it became harder to justify writing while having huge bills to pay".

But after turning 40, he decided to "give it another go" and in order to do so elected to sleep on two cushions on a friend's floor for six months followed by a further six months in another friend's cloakroom "under the coats".

But succeed he did and his novel, The Good Son, was published in 2015, winning the Polari First Book Prize and The McCrea Literary Award. It has since been translated into French, German, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Turkish.

"To imagine yourself sitting on a stage with the likes of Colm Tóibín and Anna Burns when you are sleeping on your mate's floor is almost impossible. It's a hard life, but there are routes there," he says.

McVeigh admits that getting The 32 to publication wasn't without its challenges. These included fending off Twitter warriors who argued that there was no such thing as class in Ireland and opposition to the choices he made in commissioning.

One of the biggest challenges was raising the funds to publish the book and he is especially grateful to the substantial contribution from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for making it possible.

The 32 includes an excerpt from Belfast-born investigative journalist Lyra McKee, who was fatally shot during rioting in Derry in 2019.

She had agreed to contribute to The 32 and McVeigh says he is delighted to have been able to include an extract from The Lost Boys, the book she was working at the time of her death.

Within it, Lyra writes: "The term 'the conflict' became a more acceptable alternative, even if it made a thirty-year battle sound like a lovers' tiff... But we were to be the generation to avoid all that. We were to reap the spoils and prosperity that supposedly came with peace."

McVegith says: "I was helping Lyra prepare for the upcoming publication of her work in progress and I'm moved to have an extract from that book included here.

"It's very poignant because Lyra was of the generation that were supposed to be spared from the violence of the past."

Launching The 32 at No Alibis in Belfast are, pictured left to right, editor Paul McVeigh, Belfast writer Riley Johnston and Lisburn author Marc Gregg. Picture by Brian Morrison

Among the exciting new voices included in The 32 is Riley Johnston, an English teacher, jazz musician and socialist activist from Belfast.

In her essay, Improper, Johnston recalls her own school days and her experience as a teacher, in which she writes "some people have tried to make me feel ashamed of my identity".

McVeigh encourages budding writers from working-class backgrounds to believe that their story "is as valid as the next".

"The anthology shows that we have much in common but that we also have varied backgrounds and experiences," he says.

"Without these working-class voices, without the vital reflection of real lives or role models for working-class readers and writers, literature will be poorer. We will all be poorer."

The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices, edited by Paul McVeigh, is published by Unbound and is out now.

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