Front cover of Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon?
First edition, Hamish Hamilton 1974
Contrary to the dour news reports, surveys, and statistics of late, I have been a full-fledged member of the Irish workforce for the past eight years. Perhaps even more contrary is the fact that my work has centred on Irish writing and publishing for most of that time. For three years I wrote the monthly book pages for IMAGE, an Irish glossy women’s magazine. For another one year, I promoted Irish writing by encouraging international publishing houses to buy translation rights through an Irish government-funded arts organization. Two more of those years I spent researching, writing, and talking about books for various Irish radio shows, newspapers, magazines, and even a breakfast TV show. I’ve worked for two Irish cottage industry publishers (one was literally in a cottage) and was the managing editor for four issues of a quarterly publication called The Irish Book Review. I have been fortunate to meet many great writers, both Irish and international. One of my dearest memories is hearing the late poet Seamus Heaney read his deeply evocative poem, “Midterm Break,” in the atmospheric St Canice’s Cathedral at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2009. It felt surreal sitting there listening to him. It was his work, along with novelist and playwright Jennifer Johnston’s state-prescribed 1974 How Many Miles to Babylon? that struck a chord during my schooldays and set me down the path of a career in publishing.
Jennifer Johnston has now published 17 novels and will publish a novella, Naming the Stars, later this year. In 1977, her novel Shadows on our Skin was shortlisted for the Booker prize (now the Man Booker Prize) and in 1979, she won the Whitbread Book Award (now the Costa Book Award) for The Old Jest. Both stories draw heavily on Ireland’s historical tension between Catholics and Protestants. Although born in Dublin, Johnston later moved to Northern Ireland and was there throughout the turbulent and violent period of Irish history—from the birth of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998—known as The Troubles. She received the Irish Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and Roddy Doyle has called her the “greatest Irish writer ever.” She is a member of Aosdána, the all-island affiliation of artists, established by the Arts Council in 1981 to honour those who have made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland (membership is by peer nomination and election).
In Babylon, Johnston introduced generations of Irish schoolchildren to the very human face of an awkward chapter in Irish history: the Irish soldiers, from north and south, who joined the British army during World War I and, in taking the King’s shilling, either relieved their family’s hardship or betrayed their countrymen. This tale of class division, friendship, and loyalty remained on the national school curriculum for what felt like donkey’s years and I loved it; reading it felt like accessing a secret era. The greater matter for me was that reading a book by an Irish woman whose work felt so close to home, and who had achieved the respect and admiration of the “establishment,” prompted the teenage me to seriously consider a career somewhere in the literary world. Before Jennifer Johnston planted this seed in me, books were things made by distant menfolk in faraway places like North America. Somewhere around this time, I entered into a lifelong love affair with the written word.
The Irish literary scene is strong and its roots are solid. Creatively, there’s rich soil to be tilled and an abundance of groups, courses, societies, and events to encourage and support writers. Choosing which books to review each month for IMAGE was always a joy. Not long after I started with the magazine I was tasked with writing an article celebrating contemporary Irish women writers. Needless to say, I was in my element. Trinity-educated and Dublin native Claire Kilroy was about to release her third novel, All Names Have Been Changed, with Faber & Faber. Based on the relationship between a creative writing tutor and his students, and set on the 1980s campus of Trinity College, Dublin, it was already making waves prior to publication. Next up was Christine Dwyer Hickey. I had met Christine previous to interviewing her for the article and had been taken with her straight-talking nature. Her Dublin Trilogy (The Dancer, The Gambler, and The Gatemaker) depicts a gritty working-class city that creeps under the reader’s skin. An obvious next choice was Cathy Kelly. This commercial fiction powerhouse (she published 16 novels between 1997 and 2014) prides herself on writing for, and about, contemporary Irish women and, at the time, had ten bestsellers under her belt.
Jennifer Ryan, blogger, reviewer, bookworm
Cautious of weighing too heavily on the fiction side of the scale, I searched for a non-fiction writer and decided that the Derry-born journalist Susan McKay fit the bill. She specializes in political and social issues and was writing a book called Bear in Mind These Dead, on the legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland. Her work has proved to be both hard-hitting and heartbreaking, and speaking with her was, in fact, a breath of fresh air. The Irish poetry scene can be a daunting place for the uninitiated and so I referred to better-qualified friends. They introduced me to Moya Cannon, a Donegal native settled in Galway who was co-directing the writing course at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She spoke candidly about how historically Irish women’s creativity had been stunted by Éamon De Valera’s Ireland—where the woman’s place in the home was enshrined in the constitution—and her joy at how that time had passed.
I sat back and reviewed my selection. Something was missing. I consulted with the editor. We agreed I needed a heavyweight, a stellar and established performer. The type whose writing we grow up with, the one who has always been there as a point of reference. I went back to my bookshelves. I thought long and hard about my early years of reading; about the stories that captivated me and ignited a spark of curiosity or introduced me to worlds and lives I would never experience beyond their pages. I thought about the bigwigs, the writers with me since my schooldays. Alas, Seamus Heaney, for obvious reasons, was ineligible on this occasion.
I could hardly approach Jennifer Johnston, the heroine of my schooldays … Or could I?
Mere days later I found myself on the phone with the lady whose work had influenced me at a critical time. I’m sure that to her it was just another interview with a journalist. For me it was a milestone.
I was surprised by two things: her accent and her modesty. It was a short conversation but I was not disappointed. Johnston told me that she considers her writing to be simply Irish, not Northern or otherwise: “I write about things Irish, I don’t write about anything else. I write about Irish people, I write about the Irish quandaries that I’ve seen cropping up.”
I told her how I remembered studying her novel in school and we spoke a little about her own school years, which she recalled as being full of reading and not games, unlike her pals. I asked which women writers influenced her broadly as she grew up, then more specifically if she ever found an author who articulated her experience as a young Irish woman. Her answer was a simple no: “Well there were none. From a literary point of view, I’ve never felt I was following in anybody’s footsteps. I’ve always felt I was doing my own thing.” By doing her own thing Johnston inspired me to do mine, and I am certain that I am not the only Irish woman of my generation who was inspired by seeing a strong female Irish writer succeed. Things have certainly changed since Johnston began writing in the 1970s. Right now the Irish publishing scene is bursting with successful young Irish women writers; Louise O’Neill and Belinda McKeon to name just two.
A little while after the issue hit the shelves I received a small blue postcard. On one side it had my name and the magazine address, and on the other, underneath a beautiful letter-pressed return address, a short handwritten note from Jennifer Johnston thanking me for including her in the article. It sits in a frame on a shelf in my room and is one of my most prized possessions. For those of us with the book bug it makes the simplest sense.
Jennifer Ryan is a communications professional who lives and works in Ireland. You can read her book review blog at www.theladylovesbooks.co. She lives in a house made of books, almost.