Archive Online – New Island, May 1996.

Shirley Kelly looks at the fresh faces and literary voices to be found at the recently established New Island publishers.

 (May 1996, Issue no. 195)


‘New Island, new directions’

When Dermot Bolger’s Raven Arts Press became New Island Books in 1992, a cloud of uncertainty hung over the new company. Raven had been set up fifteen years earlier to provide a platform for a new generation of Irish poets, including Bolger himself, Paul Durcan, Anthony Cronin, Michael O’Loughlin and Sara Berkeley.

bolger pic“Raven was two fingers being shoved in the face of tradition,” Bolger said. “But after publishing 122 books, your fingers get a bit sore.” With New Island, Bolger planned to take a back seat and leave the running of the company to Raven’s distributor, Edwin Higel, and Higel’s brother in-law Fergal Stanley of wholesalers Argosy Books. Described by Bolger as a writer’s press, Raven had never been commercially viable. With two hard-headed businessmen at the helm, New Island promised to be more profitable, but would the radical edge of its predecessor be lost in the transition?

In fact, New Island is as polemical as Raven ever was, but with a sense of humour that was not so much in evidence in the Raven days. Poetry is now a small portion of the list, with essays and autobiography predominant, and an increasing number of well-known writers have chosen New Island as an outlet for their more specialised work.

New Island_201602121908_0001Joe O’Connor’s The Secret World of the Irish Male, a collection of his columns from the Sunday Tribune, set the company on a firm financial footing last year with sales of over 30,000 copies (a sequel, The Irish Male at Home and Abroad, is due in June). Colm Tóibín has edited a collection of essays on Paul Durcan, The Kilfenora Teaboy, by the likes of Derek Mahon, Edna Longley and Fintan O’Toole himself, a respected and controversial commentator, has published Black Hole Green Card, a wide-ranging study of Irish. Ciaran Carty’s excellent Confessions of a Sewer Rat, on film censorship in Ireland, and Declan Lynch’s Ireland on Three Million Pounds a Day have further enhanced New Island’s image as an imprint on the cutting edge of Irish publishing.

All of this has been made possible by the perfectly balanced trinity of Higel, Stanley and literary editor Tony Glavin, whose appointment in 1994 finally allowed Bolger to slip into the background. Higel in particular has brought a degree of professionalism and commercial awareness to New Island that was somewhat lacking in Raven. Having moved here from Germany in 1978, he worked as a representative for Methuen before setting up his own agency, Brookside. He represents the various imprints of the Reed Group, as well as a number of Irish publishers. For all his commercial nous, however, he is committed to what he calls “public service publishing”. “We need to make money to survive,” he says, “but we also want to give real value for money and we want to be there as a service for writers with something interesting to say. I’m particularly pleased with the way the humour element of the list has developed? I’d like to think we could carve a niche there. The irony of a German publishing humorous books is not lost on me!”

by-salt-water-stories-angela-bourke-paperback-cover-artOther growth areas include drama—most recently Gerard Stembridge’s The Gay Detective—and new fiction. Apart from the work of Frances Stuart, famously pursued by Dermot Bolger for Raven Arts, and this year’s Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction (published to mark 25 years of the Hennessy Awards), both New Island and its predecessor had given fiction a wide berth. But last month saw the launch of short story collections by Angela Bourke (By Salt Water) and Ciarán Folan (Freak Nights) and Glavin is hopeful that full-length works will follow.

“Both of these authors have been writing for some time,” he says; “They’ve both won awards, they’ve appeared in various anthologies and their work was ripe for collection. The launch represents a definite shift for us—fiction is unlikely to become a serious and substantial part.”

Glavin, an Irish-American who succeeded David Marcus as editor of New Irish Writing at the Irish Press, is particularly pleased to see a new Irish woman writer on the list and ering of Irish women’s writing,” he says. “When I edited New Irish Writing, I could see that there was a great pool of talent there but it just wasn’t being developed.”

May 96 cover_201602291248_0002Despite the uncertainties of publishing short stories, Higel is also excited about the New Fiction series and shares Dermot Bolger’s unusual approach to developing new Irish writers. “I’ve always wanted to publish new fiction,” he says. “It seems to me there’s a huge step from being a fresh talent in Ireland to securing a contract with a London house and I hope we can provide a sort of bridge for talented young writers. Generally speaking, there’s no money in it, but because New Island isn’t my main source of income, I can afford to be altruistic!”

Books Ireland archive online: (May 1996, Issue no. 195)


You might also be interested in this archive article:

Archive Online – Parsons Bookshop, September 1979.



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