Irish author Paul Lynch has won the 2023 Booker prize for dystopian novel Prophet Song. But he wasn’t the only writer from Ireland nominated. Paul Murray was also the shortlist and, on the long list of 13 novels, Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat and Sebastian Barry’s Old God’s Time made the cut.
While Barry and Murray have previously been listed for the Booker prize, Lynch and Feeney are new additions to the catalogue of Irish Booker prize nominees which includes Claire Keegan, Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín.
Irish writers have benefited from structural factors in recent years, including: a strong Arts Council, legislation which since 1969 has exempted artists from income tax, an artist’s three-year basic wage pilot and the sheer proliferation of excellent literary journals at the moment.
Irish writers have been over-represented on other prize lists, too, with three Irish writers winning the Sunday Times Audible short story award in the last few years.
However, ask them in person and Irish writers are more likely to highlight impediments to producing work. The housing crisis has been taken up by former Booker prize long-listee Sally Rooney, for example. The closure of arts spaces in Dublin given over to short-time lets is also a common cause for concern.
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The nominated novels
Murray’s The Bee Sting is a tragicomedy of epic proportions. Clocking in at 656 pages, it follows the Barneses – mother, father, 17-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son – as the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis places unbearable strain on an already tense family dynamic.
Lynch’s slimmer offering, Prophet Song, takes place in a dystopian Ireland hurtling towards authoritarianism. It is both recognisable and unknown – Ireland, but “under some foreign sky”. Its main character is a stalwart of Irish literature: a mother and wife named Eilish. Her attempts to protect her family in a world not of her making is resonant back through the canon, while taking on a new and eerie prescience in Lynch’s portrait of an Irish police state.
The Bee Sting and Prophet Song deal with one of the abiding themes of Irish literature – the trickiness of memory, both personal and collective. This literary preoccupation with the past has sometimes come under fire.
In 2001, Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole alleged that Irish writers were struggling to analyse the times in which they were living, instead reverting to old tropes and themes and depicting an Ireland that “most competent writers can do […] with their eyes closed”.
Both Murray and Lynch seem to speak directly to O’Toole’s concern. In one instance in Prophet Song, Eilish muses: “All your life you’ve been asleep, all of us sleeping and now the great waking begins.”
Indeed, both novels deal with wake-up calls. Murray revisits the financial crash – a moment in recent Irish history whose trauma remains, it could be argued, partially suppressed. Meanwhile Lynch takes aim at Irish political “stability” and complacency.
In Murray’s depictions of personal, buried histories and in Lynch’s concern with the vulnerability of consensus and humanity, these novels reflect how we can simultaneously know so much and so little of the people and places closest to us.
Both writers masterfully reveal the strangeness of familiarity, and the familiarity of strangeness. They both question the extent to which we know the depths of our own capabilities, for good and for bad, and sketch the intersection of existential crises with normal, individual lives.
It has historically been the job of Irish writers to reflect the worst elements of their society back at itself. In Prophet Song and The Bee Sting, Lynch and Murray are continuing this tradition. Ireland should pay attention.
This article has been updated to reflect the outcome of the Booker prize.
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Orlaith Darling receives funding from the Irish Research Council.