One of my earliest lessons as an agent was that UK and Commonwealth rights, as a rule, included Ireland, despite my Irish passport saying otherwise. For such close neighbours, the variances between the Irish and UK markets are fascinating; contrasting cover aesthetics, different formats. It’s remarkable how much of the Irish bestseller list is homegrown (14 of the top 20 books sold in Ireland in 2016 were by Irish authors).
Other things feel a bit different too; the national pride in our literary inheritance and the high status accorded to writers. As Niamh Mulvey at riverrun, the literary imprint at Quercus, says: "Irish people buy disproportionately more books and the media - particularly the radio - seem to give more space to serious fiction and non- fiction than they do in the UK." Every book seems to get a launch, and everyone seems to go to everyone's launch. The support established Irish authors give up-and-coming writers is striking.
There are some frustrations; occasionally I encounter reductive expectations of what an "Irish Novel" is, or a publisher loves something but already has an Irish author on its list. But this is changing, and in a time when it's increasingly difficult to get attention for literary débuts, Irish authors have an advantage. Mulvey notes that an Irish début is less likely to be greeted by silence. The buzz at its launch translates into "intangibles like a positive energy and more measurable things like reviews from major Irish publications, a position in the Irish book chart (even if sales are only in the hundreds), and shortlistings for Irish literary prizes."
The expat's dual outlook can be useful as an agent. Mulcahy Associates is based in London but [founder] Ivan Mulcahy and I are both from Dublin, and travel to Ireland frequently. We are proud to represent outstanding Irish authors across adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, and enjoy doing business with Irish-based publishers. But as an agency we think globally, and look to place projects with publishers who hold the same ambitions. One of my proudest moments was finally putting my Leaving Cert Irish to good use in doing my first bilingual book deal, for the clever and funny Motherfoclóir by Darach O'Séaghdha, based on his Twitter account, @theirishfor. The winner of the auction was UK-based publisher Head of Zeus, which will be doing its best to ensure the book finds readers far beyond Ireland.
Novelist Julian Gough remarked, "It has always been handy for Irish writers to get the feck out of the place." Ireland has radically transformed in terms of tolerance, openness and diversity. It still has some way to go (as the Repeal the 8th campaign demonstrates), but it's no longer the case, as it was historically, that writers must leave the country in order to speak freely.
While many new voices are now being discovered first in Ireland, however, sales outside the country are crucial. Vanessa O'Loughlin, literary scout and author, says that for Irish authors "the key to making a living as a writer will always be international sales". And Irish authors do well abroad: in the past three years, there have been two Irish winners of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (including Mulcahy client Lisa McInerney) and three Irish winners of the Goldsmiths Prize. In France, three Irish writers have won the Prix Femina étranger.
Since the Brexit referendum, "border" has been cropping up more frequently in discourse around Ireland. Happily, the space for fiction is free and open, and as an agent it's exciting how broad the scope of Irish literature is. Our recent débuts, McInerney's The Glorious Heresies, E M Reapy's Red Dirt and Alan McMonagle's Ithaca, demonstrate the breadth of writing coming out of Ireland in recent years, with, as Anne Enright put it, "not a confession box in sight".
Sallyanne Sweeney studied English at Trinity College before an MPhil in American Literature at Queens' College, Cambridge. She is a literary agent at Mulcahy Associates.
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