Cork and its hinterland has always had a vibrant literary tradition. As the undisputed capital of the South for many centuries, the city has drawn poets, biographers, novelists and short-story writers to its cafes, lecture halls, and publishing houses. From the influential Bolster’s Magazineof the early nineteenth century to distinguished publishers like Collins Press, Mercier Press, and Cork University Press of the present day, writers and poets have found in Cork a robust fraternity of editors and printers.
Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and A View of the Present State of Ireland can be placed beside writings of the Gaelic world produced locally by Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill, Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill, and Máire Bhuí Ní Laoghaire. Though centuries apart, the work of all these writers constitute a rich linguistic and imaginative heritage from which more modern Cork authors drew their inspiration and the scale of their ambition. The early 1800s in Cork were highly creative decades, bridging the gap between the imaginative world of the Irish-speaking J.J. Callanan and the neo-Classical Victorian worldview of the influential William Maginn. Callanan translated Irish poems and songs for Bolster’s and published seminal poems such as ‘The Maid of Inchidony’ and ‘Gougane Barra’ before sailing for Portugal where he died aboard ship on the Tagus. Maginn was educated at Trinity College Dublin and returned to Cork to teach in his father’s private school. He became a contributor to Blackwood’s Magazine and, after his move to London, became the founding editor of Fraser’s Magazine where he attracted the attention of Fr Francis Sylvester Mahony; the famous ‘Father Prout’ whose essays were collected in the hugely popular Reliques of Father Prout, first published in two volumes in 1836. Another Cork writer making a name for himself in London was Thomas Crofton Croker whose Fairy legends and traditions in the South of Ireland was published by Lord Byron’s publisher, John Murray, in 1825. Croker’s work was translated into German by the brothers Grimm and his personal correspondence with the Grimms is a unique treasure.
The Great Famine of 1847 was a watershed moment, not only socially, but politically and culturally. A great choir of balladeers assembled around Thomas Davis and his Nation newspaper. That tone of grief, exile, deportation and eviction would dominate the newspapers and literary journals of Cork until the early twentieth century when the Great War and the War of Independence created new cultural shocks and new imaginative possibilities in Cork writing. Perhaps inspired by the zeitgeist of Tolstoy, Turgenev, or even George Bernard Shaw, writers like Daniel Corkery and Terence MacSwiney began to deal with issues of revolution, labour agitation, and the rebuilding of the nation. Though Irish-speaking and devoted to Gaelic culture, MacSwiney and Corkery would engage more urgently with the Cork public through play-writing and polemical work in English. Poetic and romantic by nature, they gravitated towards a new ‘Cork realism’ in writing; yet both are now more famous for two great crossover works of cultural–political significance: Principles of Freedom and The Hidden Ireland. Literary historians have been unfair to Daniel Corkery: without him Cork’s two greatest short-story writers, Frank O’Connor and Seán O’Faolain, might never have developed. When Corkery published his A Munster Twilight collection of stories in 1916 he defined a new landscape in Irish fiction. Corkery’s dual world of working-class city laneways and brooding, arid West Cork fields was the first mapping of a territory dominated for nearly fifty years by his two brightest acolytes. O’Connor’s world of revolutionaries, wayward fathers, and mother-fixated sons, would become the dominant fictional mode of Irish writing for over half a century: collections of stories like Guests of the Nation and Crab Apple Jelly held Irish and American readers enthralled.
For the best part of the twentieth century the Short Story was king. It would have been difficult for any other mode of writing to break through. But in 1954 a young middle-class Jewish poet from the Mardyke in Cork, David Marcus, published his first hugely successful novel, To Next Year in Jerusalem. Marcus had begun as publisher/editor of Poetry Ireland, later Irish Writing. He would go on to publish A Land Not Theirs and A Land in Flames. One of the poets he published in his Poetry Ireland journal was the inimitable and brilliant poet–playwright, Patrick Galvin. Galvin went on to become the most influential Cork poet of his era, publishing collections such as Christ in London, Heart of Grace and The Wood Burners, as well as a trilogy of memoirs, Song for a Poor Boy. Galvin’s generation of Cork poets included Seán Lucy, Robert O’Donoghue, Anthony Blinco, and Seán Ó Criadáin.
While Marcus and Galvin were at work in English, yet another great Cork writer, the poet Seán Ó Ríordáin, was writing and publishing work of stunning originality in the Irish language. In collections such as Eireaball Spideoige (1952), Brosna (1964) and Línte Liombó (1971) Ó Ríordáin combined a native language from his parents’ locale of Ballyvourney–Coolea with an angst-laden, modernist personal politics of dread. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis just at that moment when he found full-time employment with Cork Corporation: it was the disease that had killed his father and it forced him into a life-long dialogue with death, with being and non-being. In ‘Adhlacadh mo Mháthar’ (‘My Mother’s Burial’) he creates an exciting new language, a forceful, acquisitive Irish that injests syntax and feeling from contemporary usage. He published only four collections, including the posthumous Tar éis mo Bháis (‘After My Death’), yet his life’s work is a triumph — like James Joyce, he published only masterpieces.
In Cork’s hinterland, also, it must be noted, two wonderful story writers and novelists, Elizabeth Bowen and William Trevor, have created entire worlds of their own; a sui generis Cork Arcadian landscape captured in The Last September, Bowen’s Court (both by Elizabeth Bowen) or The Ballroom of Romance and Fools of Fortune of Trevor. In more recent years Mary Leland in her novels The Killeen and Approaching Priests has mapped an haute-bourgeois Catholic territory of Cork’s mid-century, while Alannah Hopkin has followed her fictional The Out-Haul with a series of non-fiction books on Cork culture and history.