Mike Quille interviews Jenny Farrell, editor of Land of the Ever Young. Illustrations are by Karen Dietrich, and are taken from the book
Mike Quille: The third book in the trilogy of working people’s writing from contemporary Ireland, which have all been edited by you, has just been published. Can you tell us about the background to the project?
Jenny Farrell: I was approached by the socialist website and publisher Culture Matters about this project. Culture Matters focuses in particular on the voices of working people, who represent what I call the second culture: not the mainstream celebration of the ruling class, but the distinct voice of the disadvantaged who make up a large proportion of any country’s population.
Culture Matters was aware of my background: I was born and educated in the GDR. This background meant that I was particularly conscious of the importance of working-class culture and its absolute validity in the cultural discourse, the importance of its development, and as a subject of academic research. In addition to this, I grew up in a household with a heightened awareness of the significance of working-class cultural expression. My father Jack Mitchell spent his entire academic career researching Irish and Scottish working-class literature, and as a singer he took a great interest in folksong and political song. A family friend was Mary Ashraf, one of the outstanding scholars of working-class writing.
A little table for Packy
Perhaps I should explain why working-class writing was important in the GDR, and how it was promoted.
The GDR state defined itself as a working-class state, one where the working-class had taken power, where this state distributed the wealth produced back into the living standards of the working people. To ensure working-class input into all spheres of social life, specifically culture, most workplaces had creative writing circles, free of charge. These were usually tutored by established writers. From these workshops arose several successful authors. In addition, professional writers were encouraged to spend time in production, familiarising themselves with working-class people and life, to be able to write more authentically about it, set stories and novels in the factory sphere. Authors were financially supported by the state, which meant they could write fulltime, irrespective of other income.
MQ: Thanks for that background information. Can you give us some more details about the first two books in the trilogy, and then tell us about the latest book, Land of the Ever Young?
JF: When I began work on the first anthology, the big question for me was how to reach out to working-class writers. I realised that there had never before been such a collection of working people’s writing in Ireland. At the back of my mind I had the idea of the Working Class Movement Library in Manchester. As far as I know, nothing similar exists in Ireland. This made the anthology project even more important to me.
So how did I go about trying to find working-class writers? I consulted the working-class poet Rita Ann Higgins, who was very helpful in identifying potential contributors and their networks. I also put out the call for submissions via many writers’ networks, and through Culture Matters. Salmon Publishing was also most helpful.
Until recently, I taught modern Irish literature at GMIT and have, over the years, observed the difference between the effect highly wrought poetry by representatives of the literary canon have had on students as opposed to the poetry that calls a spade a spade. The students respond far more enthusiastically if they think a poem has something to do with their lives. This is not to put either side down, devalue the texts of our Nobel Prize for Literature winners etc., nor is it to say that the poetry of the working people is somehow simplistic. Yet, the latter find a more direct line, shall we say, to the people about whose life experience they are writing.
Molly, Brigid and the Irish Revolution
These anthologies are different to collections of political writing. As far as I am concerned, all writing is written from a particular point of view, the author’s point of view. This can either consolidate or undermine the mainstream culture. I believe that in the anthologies of working people’s writing, the point of view is that things are not as they should be. Things as they are, are not in the best interest of the working population. Important themes are homelessness in all its forms, including emigration, the abandonment of women in the mother and baby homes, poverty, but also about fightback, internationalism and solidarity. There are very many more themes of course, but all of them reflect what if feels like to be disadvantaged, a victim in a society that punishes the poor and rewards the rich. By writing about his experience, the authors are creating political writing with a small p.
Many contributors only took up writing because they felt no one like them was in the books they read. To make this common ground clear to the readers, I asked every contributor to supply a short biography outlining their connection with the working people. Many readers have commented to me very favourably on the inclusion of these biographies. It is a break with convention, where authors are asked to list their publications, prizes and successes, never their socio-economic background. This can sometimes falsely alienate readers who wish to find themselves in a book – their biographies, their stories, their life experience.
I wanted the anthology to be a collective voice of working people – not individual voices, but that the anthologies would make a statement greater than the sum of their parts. That this was a class making a statement about being excluded from the establishment discourse.
Another important consideration for me was that I wished to include Irish language writing. Far too often, an artificial divide is put up between Irish and English – commonly published in separate books, which obscures what authors have in common. We need to see the writings in both languages put side by side and highlighted for their collective concerns. I wanted to include Irish language writing for many reasons – one is that there is such a strong working-class tradition in writing in Irish, and this is rarely acknowledged even in academic study. English literary writing and Irish literary writing are kept separate, when they belong together. It was very important to me that the anthologies should make this point.
Finally, I wanted these anthologies to represent the whole island of Ireland, and I am very proud to have achieved this. There are a significant number of contributors from the North of Ireland, and here from both communities. These include two women and one trade unionist from the Protestant tradition. The trade unionist writes about the importance of the Irish language in his family, also the tradition of aspiring for Irish independence. Another interesting contributor from the North is Linda Ervine from East Belfast who is the heart and soul behind the Irish language classes in the Protestant community. There are of course also several contributors from the nationalist community who reflect on British military violence, sectarianism and how this lives on.
Puss in Boots and the Ogre
The fact that there are contributors from both parts of Ireland also highlights common ground between the people living in the North and those living in the Republic: working-class people’s lives are not so different. I also aspired for a good gender balance for obvious reasons.
The first of the anthologies, entitled The Children of the Nation, was published in 2019. It is a poetry collection and was launched by Peter McVerry, who is very well known in Ireland for his outstanding role in championing the cause of the homeless
The poetry anthology was a fantastic success, the book selling out on the day of the launch. So when the pandemic hit, I was then asked to consider putting together a prose anthology. I agreed and I applied the same principles. The volume that emerged, is entitled From the Plough to the Stars. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the true value and critical importance of workers’ contributions to our communities, worldwide, takes centre stage. These contributions expose the parasitical captains of industry and their fellow travellers in global finance.
The third and final volume in the set, Land of the Ever Young, is an anthology of the writings by working people in contemporary Ireland for children. All the stories are packed with humanity, tenderness, and wisdom. The authors present children and adults who confront wrongs, challenge superstition and injustice, and who often see further than others around them. The heroines and heroes in these stories are always filled with a sense of the common good, highlighting the qualities necessary to make society a fairer, better place, a home for a happy future, a Tír na nÓg. Such a place can only materialise in the absence of wars, of profit-driven greed with its contempt for equality, humanity and the environment – a place where instead the common good is the measure of society.
Children read and re-read stories many times, and they often stay with them for a lifetime, acting as a moral compass. This is what makes literature for children so very important. The images that accompany children's stories are also remembered for a long time, and Land of the Ever Young has been beautifully and sensitively illustrated by the artist Karen Dietrich. Her images comment on and expand the humanist themes contained in the texts and help make them truly memorable for the readers, children and adults alike.
We have been extremely lucky that all three anthologies were financially supported by the Irish trade union movement. It is a first time that a literary project of this magnitude has been fully supported by the trade unions, in recognition of the importance of creativity and the right of the working class to express the wealth of their culture and to articulate their experience of life.
MQ: Thank you. Have trade unions or political parties engaged with the class-based inequalities that lead to this lack of working-class cultural representation? Academic research in Britain over the last few years has revealed huge class-based inequalities in cultural production and consumption. Despite the image generated by the cultural industries that culture keeps you healthy, brings people together etc., the reality is also that there are deep and long-standing inequalities in the cultural landscape.
So according to Culture is Bad For You, the recent book by Dave O’Brien and others, working-class people are systematically excluded from cultural occupations, and the consumption of cultural experiences like theatre, art, music etc. is heavily biased towards the well-off, tourists, and people living in the South of England. In publishing, for example, only around 15% of the workforce is of working-class origin, and the representations of working-class life on TV, films and books are often absent or unfair. For example, children’s literature is overwhelmingly focused on the lives of young middle-class children. All these inequalities are also predicted to worsen following the pandemic.
What is the situation in the whole of Ireland, and what efforts are being made to tackle the problem by trade unions, political parties, cultural institutions and universities?
JF: I agree completely that mainstream cultural hegemony is expressed in the most unsubtle ways in the media, TV, literature, where we are presented with middle-class people, and where the working-class appears, it is frequently ridiculed. The ruling class determines the ruling ideas, in culture as in all spheres of life.
That cultural consumption eliminates the low-paid population is not a new insight as far as the working class are concerned. Likewise, that their narrative is omitted from mainstream cultural discourse is a matter of their everyday experience.
When working-class writers depict the realities of their lives, they are quite often silenced by these mainstream cultural powers. I have experienced this myself even in trying to promote the three anthologies I have edited. I applied to two literary festivals, Cúirt in Galway, and the Dublin Book Festival, to include readings from the anthologies. Cúirt did not answer, despite repeated emails, and the Dublin Book festival, after months of very intermittent communication, finally wrote to say they didn’t have the space. A coincidence that it was these anthologies? I think not.
The Blind Ones
Another example of a prize-winning working-class writer who has been a firm part of the anthologies and who has experienced class prejudice is Alan O’Brien.
He submitted his radio play Snow Falls and So Do We to RTE, based on the true event of Rachel Peavoy freezing to death in a Ballymun flat in January 2010. O’Brien won the P. J. O’Connor Award for Best New Radio Drama but encountered significant opposition from RTE when they were to broadcast his play. O’Brien was told his lines were crude and that the portrayal of the Gardaí was unacceptable. A significant and inappropriate change in the narrative was suggested whereby the main character, Joanne, rather than disliking the Garda known as “miniature hero”, actually fancies him, and wants him to take her out of this hellhole.
This smacked more of make-believe Hollywood that the reality of Ballymun. O’Brien’s statement that the people of Ballymun have a very different experience of the Irish constabulary was sneered at. He rejected the changes to his script, explaining his reasons. But RTE made them anyway and many more, without further consultation. Most significantly, they changed the ending of a working-class woman dying as a result of social deprivation, metaphorically (and actually) freezing to death. Working-class tragedies are not allowed. The establishment will only accept its own interpretation, and rewrite history accordingly.
I quote this because it is representative of the working-class writer experience. Academia has in recent years discovered working-class studies in Ireland. It has become a subject of study and research, in fact there was an international conference held in early November. However, most of the writers I work with had negative experiences as working-class people in academia, often being told that they had now “made it” into the middle class, the ultimate goal, it would appear.
Gerry Murphy, past president of the ICTU, comments about the role of the labour movement: "We have yet, despite some valiant efforts, failed to fully employ the many forms of expression culture encompasses as a vehicle for change”. He emphasises the need to “come up with a plan to persuade the gatekeepers in government and the creative industries to change their approaches and open culture and (…) to present an alternative narrative."
Murphy believes the unions’ extensive education programmes should be broadened to include cultural education and to assist cultural workers and local communities to access the existing limited arts funding available from the government and charitable avenues.
There are some community festivals that break mainstream hegemony, however, and they must be mentioned and commended. Among these are the Belfast People’s Festival, Féile an Phobail, and the Connolly Festival organised by the Communist Party in Dublin. There are also community groups and libraries that organise little festivals that are not exclusive.
MQ: To conclude then: how can we as individuals, trade unions, community organisations, political parties and Government work to tackle the problems we’ve discussed? How can a more equal, communal society or Tír na nÓg be imagined and created in the various areas of cultural production and enjoyment?
JF: It is one of the functions of art to explore where we all going. Oscar Wilde put it in an image:
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.
Utopia is not a Never-Never-Land, but the goal towards which we are progressing. Here and now this is a world that is environmentally sustainable, one free of discrimination, exploitation, poverty and wars. Every one of us can be involved in helping our boat reach this shore by confronting the inequities that are at the very core of imperialism. Ultimately, Tír na nÓg will only be reached when the Machiavellian world we live in is changed into one which puts the common good at its heart.
Every effort to defend and expand on democratic achievements, to challenge ruling class control over all aspects of society, including culture, is a step towards achieving a better life for all. The Culture Matters anthologies do this by giving voice to the class in whose hands the future lies.
The Nightingale and the Rose
Land of the Ever Young: An Anthology of Working People’s Writing for Children from Contemporary Ireland, edited by Jenny Farrell with illustrations by Karen Dietrich, ISBN 978-1-912710-43-0, is available here.