Gerson Reader Claire Kilroy Talks Irish Literature and the Celtic Tiger

Tuesday night UConn’s Alumni Center hosted its Gerson Irish Reader of 2015, and novelist Claire Kilroy read from and discussed her most recent novel, “The Devil I Know.”

Kilroy is the first author to be featured twice by the program, having previously spoken at the event in 2009. The event was sponsored by the Gerson family and supported by the Irish Studies and Creative Writing departments.

Mary Burke, professor of English and director of the Irish literature concentration program, introduced Kilroy and praised her work for its “lush language” and “intricate plotlines.” Kilroy has received much critical acclaim in Ireland and internationally. She was awarded the 2004 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for her debut novel “All Summer,” and currently holds the prestigious Heimbold Jr., Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University for the spring 2015 semester.

In her introductory remarks Kilroy said that she had written the most work “at a tine when the Celtic Tiger had just been slain.” She is referring the recession of 2008 in Ireland, which followed a period of great economic boom.

“The Devil I Know,” said the author, “is structured around a banking inquiry into what went wrong.”

The audiences listened intently as she read passages from the book, particularly those focusing on the business enterprises and relationship between the two main characters, “who are old enemies: Hickey, a builder… and Tristram St. Lawrence, who is as posh as they come… [and how] two jokers become architects of the Celtic Tiger.”

Kilroy’s work has been compared to famous Irish writers of the last two centuries such as James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. The story is largely set in the Irish town of Howth, as is Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” [sic], and features the motif of selling one’s soul to the devil, much like Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Grey.”

Following the reading, the floor was opened to the audience. Kilroy described her writing style and influences, saying she starts her novels when she will “just keep putting sentences down on the page until I know where it’s started,” and that her “process is gradual and slow, painfully slow.”

She discussed her fondness for the first person style of narration, as well as her decision to switch her characters to male “to give myself more freedom” after she felt people had begun to confuse her characters for the author herself. “You realize that the people in your book are more real than the people in your life,” she continued, “You don’t spend all of your time thinking about the real people in your life.”

“The Devil I Know” prominently features Tristram’s alcoholism, and when asked how she came to describe the condition with such depth, the author described her personal experiences as an Irish undergraduate spending summers in New York and meeting members of Alcoholics Anonymous, who shared intense and personal stories.

She talked about interviewing the addicts and the strange experience of seeing sponsors “couching these people on what to say” and how fascinating it was to “talk to them [the AA members] without them being there” as they used another’s voice.

On being compared to famous Irish writers, the author said, “You don’t deliberately try to emulate the authors… but you are schooled in your forbearers. I found things in [John] Banville’s work… sentences that were eerily close to those I thought I’d written… All cultures read Irish literature. We are schooled in it and it’s a rich schooling.”

 

The event was well received by the audience. “I was impressed by Kilroy’s ability to seamlessly blend classic Irish folklore with contemporary themes,” said Jesse Cohen, 4th semester English major, “Her writing is pithy but accessible and I look forward to seeing what she has to write in the future.”

 

Professor Burke was similarly excited. “We were delighted to have her back and it speaks to her talent. She builds on Irish literature, on Joyce and Stoker, she’s coming off a series of famous Irish writers whom I think she’ll soon be considered a part of.”

 

 

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