Sounding the Margins

Literary examples from France and Ireland

by Sarah Nolan Balen (Volume editor) Eamon Maher (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection X, 196 Pages


Sounding the Margins is the second of two publications to emerge from the highly successful AFIS conference hosted by the Université de Lille in 2019. Concentrating on the literary manifestations of marginality in Ireland and France, the essays treat of various texts that demonstrate the extent to which marginality is a recurring trope. This may well be because writers tend to situate themselves at a distance from the centre or status quo in their desire to maintain a certain degree of artistic objectivity. But it is also the case that literary practitioners tend to identify more easily with others living on the margins, either through choice or circumstances. The collection is a mixture of comparative studies and essays on individual authors but, in all cases, marginality is presented as a liberating experience once it is freely chosen and embraced.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction (Sarah Nolan Balen and Eamon Maher)
  • Part I Engaging the Margins
  • 1 Ça mange comme les Irlandais des pommes de terre: The Great Irish Famine Comes in from the Margins in French Literature (Grace Neville)
  • 2 Representing the Marginalized in Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Chosen Garden, Globe and The Five Quintets: Perspectives on Jean Vanier and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Joseph Heininger)
  • 3 Ministering on the Margins: Fictional Priests in the Work of Jean Sulivan and Colum McCann (Eamon Maher)
  • 4 Seeing and Surveillance: Periscope and Watchtower in Susan Howe and Paul Muldoon (Joan Dargan)
  • Part II Voicing the Margins
  • 5 Space, Place and the Non-human in Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2016) (Sylvie Mikowski)
  • 6 Margins and Marginalities in Ireland: Being Jewish and Irish in Ruth Gilligan’s Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan (Marie Mianowski)
  • 7 Hugo Hamilton’s Hand in the Fire: Exploring Ireland’s Marginalities through the Prism of Immigration (Helen Penet)
  • 8 Paul Howard and the Celtic Tiger: A Voice from the ‘Morgins’ (Eugene O’Brien)
  • 9 The Ethical Implications of Irish Transcultural Fiction: Representations of the Immigrant in Roisín O’Donnell’s Wild Quiet and Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea (Pilar Villar-Argáiz)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series Index

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This collection is composed in the main of papers that were given at the thirteenth conference of AFIS (Association of Franco-Irish Studies) that was hosted by the Université de Lille. The editors would like to thank the organizers of that event – Professor Catherine Maignant, Sylvain Tondeur and Dr Déborah Vandewoude – for the great welcome we all received in Lille and the attention to detail that was clear in their planning. We also wish to express our gratitude for the financial support received from the Ambassade de France en Irlande, the Irish Embassy to France, the Centre d’études sur les civilisations et littératures étrangères (CECILLE) of the Université de Lille and the Groupement d’intérêt scientifique Études irlandaises (G.I.S. EIRE). A special thanks also goes to Yaqoub BouAynaya for the cover image.

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Sarah Nolan Balen and Eamon Maher


Literature and literary figures in general tend to be countercultural, slightly at a distance from the cosy status quo. This distance is necessary in order to maintain objectivity, an essential ingredient of any worthwhile literary production. Through their art, writers manage to capture lived experience and to convey it in a form that makes it somehow more real, more human, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Even when it comes to tragic events, their (re)presentation in words has the power to heal, to be cathartic, to point to feelings that have a universal resonance.

This collection deals with how French and Irish literary figures (mainly the latter) adopt marginal positions and describe various manifestations of marginality in their writing. When it comes to marginality, the hero or anti-hero of Albert Camus’ masterpiece, L’Étranger, comes to mind immediately. Meursault is condemned to death, not so much for the crime of murdering an Arab under a blazing sun on a beach near Algiers, but for refusing to conform, to play the game by the rules of society. In the French colonial justice system of the time, an Arab’s life was expendable, especially if there were extenuating circumstances, as there were in this instance (there had been a fight earlier between a group, including the victim, and Meursault’s friend Raymond, who suffered a knife wound), and so it would have been normal for a pied-noir like Meursault to be acquitted. What ultimately seals the fate of Camus’ character, however, is his inability to show emotion that he does not feel, to say the right things at the right moment, to display remorse about what has happened. He failed to cry at his mother’s funeral and this puts him in the category of a monster undeserving of mercy. When it comes to literary depictions, evil characters are ultimately more interesting than good ones, as there is more potential for drama and excitement in their lives. In the case of Meursault, however, Camus made of his indifference the essential ingredient of his ←1 | 2→narrative. He is neither good nor evil, he just exists in this marginal zone where instinct governs actions and where public opinion is unimportant. Such an approach makes the ruling elite and other interested parties uncomfortable, thus exacerbating the character’s alienation and marginality.

But ‘writing the margins’ does not simply mean depicting rebels, social misfits and victims of injustice. It also involves the literary process itself. The creative act is constantly undergoing revision depending on the fashion of the time, the various discoveries of how the mind works, how memory impacts our behaviour and how we are moulded by our social and material circumstances. Realism, romanticism, naturalism, modernism, existentialism, cubism, postmodernism, feminism, ecocriticism, all these movements influence how writers see the world and set about depicting it. In this regard, France tends to be ahead of Ireland and is the testing ground for some of the newest and most radical ideas in relation to literature and literary criticism. It was in France that the ‘Nouveau Roman’ (New Novel) first came into being. It involved a questioning of the traditional idea that a novel should have a plot, a linear narrative and well-developed characters. In 1925, André Gide describes an interesting exchange in what many rate as his chef d’oeuvre, Les Faux-Monnayeurs:

The interesting point about this exchange is the way in which certain accepted norms are called into question. Why should a novel have a subject? Why should it be seen as producing a ‘slice of life’, a realistic and linear account of an existence which is not, in fact, either logical or linear. Gide’s title already gave a hint as to his motivation, as ‘faux-monnayeur’ means counterfeiter in English, something which Gide felt writers were in danger of becoming. As the discoveries of psychology and other sciences began to show the mysterious workings of the mind, literary practitioners felt the need to reflect these developments in their writing. Thus, instead of smooth prose and predictable behaviour, writers’ style became fragmented and notions of time more fluid, as narratives jumped from the past to the present, to the future, without any warning. The omniscient narrator was no more, as literary theorists announced the death of the author. It is certainly no coincidence that three of Ireland’s most famous fin-de-siècle writers, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and George Moore, spent prolonged periods in Paris and were to the forefront of literary initiation, especially Joyce and Beckett, who pushed language to its limits. For Beckett, the ultimate margin for language was silence, a theme that is discussed in some of the chapters which follow.

This collection is divided into two parts, with the chapters in Part I, entitled ‘Engaging the Margins’, examining French and Irish texts which reach out. Some of these texts, including those by Jean Sulivan, Colum McCann and Micheal O’Siadhail, focus explicitly on people marginalized by their respective societies – such as those with intellectual disabilities, the homeless, sex workers – and on those who engage with them. The philosophies and motivations of those who follow vocations are presented to the reader, with the earthly and spiritual rewards considered. This part also examines the poetry of Susan Howe and Paul Muldoon, specifically ekphrastic poems ←3 | 4→based on works of art which observe, inspect and surveille – pushing the viewer, or reader, to the margins. An analysis of thematic currents, charting the references by French writers to the Great Famine, begins this first section, bringing together questions of national identity and the connections possible through shared understandings of history.

Grace Neville’s chapter examines the extent to which the French were familiar with Ireland’s Famine in the 1840s, and also the ways in which contemporary French and Québécois writers reengage with this aspect of Irish history. As Neville notes, ‘Scholars have tracked the Famine in Irish writers major and minor from Edgeworth and Trollope to Beckett and Eavan Boland’ – but what she adds is an astonishingly comprehensive catalogue of French texts which refer to the Great Irish Famine. With her research sparked by some references to the Famine in Balzac’s La Cousine Bette, 1846, Neville went on to discover several thousand Famine-related publications in French from the 1840s onwards. Some of the texts analysed confirm that those living in working-class Paris districts may themselves have known the strains of constant hunger. Others provide a different perspective: ‘Again and again, they highlight the transatlantic crossing, the flight from the periphery to the centre, from Ireland to the Promised Land of Canada’. As Neville shows, while the Famine, and recent literary and artistic revivals of it, may appear particular to Ireland, the experiences, long-term consequences and symbolism are not only understood elsewhere but, notably, form a traceable part of French and Québécois literature.

While there are many connections identifiable between the chapters, those of Eamon Maher and Joseph Heininger are linked most explicitly, focusing on writing which seeks to connect with those on the margins, which highlights the plight of those who have been marginalized by society, encouraging an empathetic reaction and an appraisal of the individuals and societies in question. Heininger’s study follows the thread of compassion, social justice and democratic vision through three collections by Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail. As Heininger observes: ‘In giving his attention to major figures in twentieth-century philosophy and theology, [O’Siadhail] weaves vivid word portraits of Bonhoeffer and Vanier as they engage with imprisoned, culturally marginalized, or intellectually disabled people.’ Some of these figures, such as Vanier, require re-evaluation, and Heininger does ←4 | 5→this while remaining focused on the spiritual questions, duties and rewards which the poems explicate. The chapter’s close-reading is very effectively combined with contextual and intertextual detail to provide an analysis of O’Siadhail’s most burning concerns, which, it is noted, show, through an ‘exploration of connectedness […] that a twenty-first century democratic agora must include the voices and experiences of all people’.


X, 196
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
Irish literature French literature marginality comparative literature Sounding the Margins Sarah Nolan Balen Eamon Maher
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. X, 196 pp., 1 b/w table.

Biographical notes

Sarah Nolan Balen (Volume editor) Eamon Maher (Volume editor)

Sarah Nolan Balen is President of AFIS (Association of Franco-Irish Studies) and a lecturer in Literature at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), Dublin. She completed a doctoral thesis at the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in TU Dublin which analysed interconnections between the works of several city poets including Charles Baudelaire, Fernando Pessoa, T.S. Eliot and Peter Sirr – and has published on these and other poets. Eamon Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in TU Dublin – Tallaght Campus and general editor of the Reimagining Ireland and Studies in Franco-Irish Studies series with Peter Lang. His most recent book (with Eugene O’Brien) is Reimagining Irish Studies for the Twenty-First Century (2021) and he is currently working on a monograph on the Catholic Novel.


Title: Sounding the Margins