Crumbling housing estates, chronic unemployment, criminal gangs, drugs and murder. These aren't the kind of stories Tourism Ireland promotes, but for thousands of Irish people they're a reality, and one that usually doesn't get told by our novelists – until now. Step forward Lisa McInerney, the award winning new Irish writer whose debut novel The Glorious Heresies paints a picture of an out of control underworld we rarely see. Cahir O'Doherty profiles the gifted new writer, her groundbreaking debut and the stack of prestigious awards that have been coming her way.You won't often see crumbling housing estates, 50 person dole lines, drug addicts, or the small time hoods who deal coke to them in the stories we tell the world about Ireland. Bad enough we know they're out there, there's no need to make a holy show of us by writing about them for the world to read, right?
Well, step forward Lisa McInerney, author of the The Glorious Heresies (Tim Duggan Books). From the first page of her stunning debut novel you'll be bowled over by the sheer force of her storytelling and her all-electric prose.
The judges of the prestigious Baileys and Desmond Elliott prizes have already agreed that she's that rare thing, a first time, first rate writer, which saw her beating off established major heavyweights like Anne Enright to earn their top awards this year.
It's because McInerney writes as though her life depends on it, and in her new book her characters live each day as if it might be their last (it occasionally is), so the sheer rawness of the lives she described are matched only by the immediacy of her prose. It's the unmistakable arrival of a major new talent.
But who is she? McInerney describes herself as working class and says the Irish working class -- specifically Cork City's -- are her subject.
With her own mother pregnant at 19 and her father quickly out of the picture, the thirty-something writer was raised by her grandparents in a house in Co. Galway filled with eight older brothers and sisters who were in reality her aunts and uncles.
None of these facts were hidden from her. She knew who she was and where she was (she has a good relationship with her mother), so perhaps it was the age and experience gap with her older “siblings” contributed to her retreat into books. Dedicated writers often start off as voracious readers after all, and she was no exception.
In her teens McInerney moved to Cork to study at UCC and then stayed on to spend most of her formative years there. Now living in Gort, Co. Galway with her husband and daughter, she recently moved back to her home county to escape the steep cost of city living, but making money -- thanks to her growing raft of major writing awards -- may be becoming less of a problem.
Most writers dream of the exposure McInerney is getting by the time they've written their fifth or even sixth book, but she's being feted as though she is much further along in her career than she actually is. As introductions to the book buying public go it's a pretty ideal one.
What makes The Glorious Heresies so exciting is that it tells of an Ireland that we know exists but that we rarely hear about. McInerney's tough and tender characters are barely hanging on by their fingernails, which gives their lives and her storytelling their remarkable sense of urgency.
The story begins when Maureen Phelan, exiled to London four decades earlier before her pregnancy became too obvious, kills an intruder in her home with a Holy Stone (McInerney has an eye for irony).
With a dead man lying on her kitchen floor she calls the only man she knows who can take care of it, her son Jimmy Phelan, known to one and all as JP, the boss of Cork's criminal underworld and in truth a total stranger to her because her overtly religious parents refused her any access to him through all her London years.
Living in his former brothel, her burgeoning monster of a son figures out who to call – he has no intention of dirtying his own hands – for the cleanup operation. Right away he has the answer and the job is done.
We walk past these people on the streets every day and we don't see them, the book reminds us, but McInerney does see them.
One of her unforgettable characters is called Georgie, a teenage former junkie and former sex worker trying to stay out of trouble. For Georgie, Cork City is a place where the more fortunate stare at her as though she was something unidentifiable that had stuck to their shoe.
Here's how McInerney tells us what it feels like to be Georgie: “Cork City remained a mystery, the expanse of it forbidden to people like her, a soirée to which she held no invitation.”
It's because she can write like this, and because she understands what it feels like to live like this, that her book is such a marvel. On every page McInerney knows that for most people in Ireland, what you see is determined by where you stand.
Something similar happens to poor people in Ireland, she realizes. The Irish poor are people who know nobody and who nobody knows, which makes them someone's else's problem, which means they're treated like it too.
Where you're not seen you're not heard. You are completely invisible. And no one knows what it feels like to live a life that's unseen and unheard like the people in this book, whose hardscrabble lives are McInerney's riveting subject.
From barely furnished council estate buildings that become drug dealing hideouts, to the brothels that the police pretend don't exist, to the burial grounds that aren't on any map and the teenagers who are employed to sell coke to his mates, The Glorious Heresies is a unforgettable ride.
“When you think about literary fiction written by men, it’s automatically assumed that they’re writing about universal themes and the human condition,” McInerney told the press recently.
“Women writers are almost straight away battling against the assumption that their writing is personal and domestic. I found that a lot with The Glorious Heresies. It’s a novel in which all sorts of people get up to terrible things. People were expressing amazement at it, saying it’s such a male novel. What does that mean? They actually thought they were complimenting me.
“There’s an assumption that women don’t have a diversity of voices, that the things women write about are limited. That’s ridiculous. If you look at the Baileys Women’s Prize long list, it’s beyond diverse with science fiction in there.”
Joining an increasingly lone lineup of outstanding Irish novelists who happen to be women, McInerney's new novel is crying out for a film treatment, which means the marginal lives that are her subject will probably get the same warm reception that her debut novel has.
Irish writing is having a renaissance at the moment, and many of its most distinctive voices belong to women. In time for the 100th anniversary of the Irish revolution, even revolutionary voices like McInerney's are finally getting a hearing. Pick up this book and be amazed at her talent.