Donal Ryan



?1977- ; b. in North Tipperary village nr. Nenagh, nr. Lough Derg; employed in Dept. of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; author of The Spinning Heart (2012), a novel set in a West of Ireland village portraying the widespread hardships and tensions involved in the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger, narrated by 21 voices; widely-lauded by John Boyne, Jennifer Johnston, Anne Enright and others, being compared with Patrick McCabe and John McGahern; winner of the Book of the Year Award at Irish Book Awards and long-listed for 2013 Man Booker Prize;

reissued by Doubleday Ireland as their first title (2013); issued The Thing About December (2013), though written earlier - a novel dealing with the isolation and destruction of Johnsey, and orphaned countryman amid treacherous neighbours; issued All We Shall Know (2016), the story of Melody Shee, an educated rural Irishwoman in a dead marriage with a GAA player, and whose life is transformed by a pregnancy and her involvement with a traveller family called Topper; Ryan holds a writing fellowship at Limerick University and lives in Limerick with wife Anne-Marie and two children; made it known in Feb. 2017 that best-selling status in Ireland was not enough to pay mortgage, and returne to ordinary work.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan was named the Irish Book of the Decade in a Facebook poll conducted by the Dublin Book Festival, Nov. 2016.

  • The Spinning Heart (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2012), 160pp., and Do. [rep.] (London: Doubleday Ireland 2013), 224pp.
  • The Thing About December (Ireland: Doubleday/Lilliput 2013), and Do. [rep.] (Dublin: Black Swan 2014),
  • All We Shall Know (Ireland: Doubleday 2016), 192pp.

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Bibliographical details

The Spinning Heart (2102): ‘In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As the consequences of greed begin to affect good and bad alike, a drama of kidnap and murder is enacted, enveloping an entire community. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds. This astonishing debut brilliantly captures the language and spirit of rural Ireland. Taking on the mantle of Synge and O’Casey, the author pours out the thoughts of a generation with uncanny accuracy. Witty, dark and sweetly poignant, The Spinning Heart speaks for contemporary Ireland like no other novel.’ (Lilliput notice; see COPAC; online - accessed 23.09.2016.)

The Thing About December (2013): ‘“He heard Daddy one time saying he was a grand quiet boy to Mother when he thought Johnsey couldn't hear them talking. Mother must have been giving out about him being a gom and Daddy was defending him. He heard the fondness in Daddy's voice. But you'd have fondness for an auld eejit of a crossbred pup that should have been drowned at birth.” While the Celtic Tiger rages, and greed becomes the norm, Johnsey Cunliffe desperately tries to hold on to the familiar, even as he loses those who all his life have protected him from a harsh world. Village bullies and scheming land-grabbers stand in his way, no matter where he turns. Set over the course of one year of Johnsey's life, The Thing About December breathes with his grief, bewilderment, humour and agonizing self-doubt. This is a heart-twisting tale of a lonely man struggling to make sense of a world moving faster than he is. Donal Ryan's award-winning debut, The Spinning Heart, garnered unprecedented acclaim[...]’ (Doubleday/Lilliput notice; see COPAC; online - accessed 23.09.2016.)

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Reviews, Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy, review of The Spinning Heart, in The Observer (13 Jan. 2013) [available at Guardian Books - online]; John Boyne, ‘Unsettling study of the greed that tore us apart’, review of The Thing About December, in The Irish Times (19 Oct. 2013), Weekend, p.12.

Miscellaneous, Amy Farrell, The spinning heart: classroom questions : a scene by scene teaching guide (Enniskerry, Ireland: Scene by Scene 2015), iii, 34pp. See various others under Commentary - as infra.

See interview on The Spinning Heart at BookTrust - online. Also Niamh Horan, ‘Best-selling author has to return to civil service job to pay mortgage’, The Independent [IE} (Sun. 5 Feb. 2016) - as infra.


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Anne Enright, review of The Thing About December by Donal Ryan, in The Guardian (5 Jan. 2014): Every so often, a writer comes along who cheers Ireland up, not because the books are cheerful – on the contrary, indeed – but because the writing enlarges a particular sense we have of ourselves. Claire Keegan is one such writer, John McGahern is perhaps the best known, and Donal Ryan is the latest addition to this distinguished line. He writes from the rural heartland in prose that always pushes for the truth of things. Ryan’s language is colloquial and easy, but the central emotion is, for lack of a better word, dignified. His characters are large-hearted people in a small-minded world and this timeless theme is played out, not in misty boggy nowhere-land, but in a contemporary Irish space, where people talk on their mobiles and the halal meat plant has been recently closed down. / [...] The Thing About December[...] has only one voice, that of Johnsey Cunliffe, whose slow puzzlement burns through the story like the spark on a long fuse. The explosion, when it comes, is finely judged by Ryan, who is interested in what makes men kill other people or themselves. Maleness is experienced, by his characters, as an impossible state, a kind of accident waiting to happen. [...] It is a fashionable [...] to work a narrator who is somehow childlike in an adult world – but Ryan’s control is terrific. He underplays the ironic distance and pulls our sympathies tight. And he tells a great story. His paragraphs are unnoticeably beautiful, his heart always on show, and he writes with a social accuracy that is devastating. He knows the tiny differences that make all the difference – between the small town and the countryside, between the labouring classes and those who own a few acres, between the local council tenants and the ones relocated from the city. / This is a world away from posh Protestant versus cute Catholic tales of yore, and different again from the airless self-enclosure of the families in McGahern’s books. People drive around and meet one another in a novel that is set in the Irish countryside. I don’t know why this seems like an amazing thing for them to do. There are others who manage this trick, perhaps, but not many who hit the sweet spot of the Irish tradition as Donal Ryan does here. (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.)

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Kevin Curran, review of All We Shall Know', in The Observer (28 Aug. 2016) [sub-title -‘The Irish writer’s third novel explores new territory – a foray into the Traveller community – but his heroine lacks depth’]: ‘Donal Ryan’s third novel is a departure for him. With his previous two books he cruised along easy street with tales of woe and tragedy that picked up praise and rewards on the way, their unlikely heroes plucking at our heart strings. Here, with his female anti-hero Melody Shee, Ryan turns his back on the formula and veers off-road. Expect a bumpy ride. / Melody is 33 and has just informed her husband – who “13 and a bit weeks ago was the only boy I’d ever kissed” – that her unborn child is not his. A 17-year-old Traveller named Martin Toppy, whom she taught for more than a year, is the father. / [...] Refreshingly, Melody refuses to be a victim like the many narrators of Ryan’s other novels. But as if to offset this denial of easy sympathy, every other character becomes weak and needy. Within the opening 40-odd pages, everyone (other than Melody) cries: Melody’s husband on hearing about the pregnancy, Martin Toppy when he first arrives to be tutored, Melody’s father at the kitchen table, her childhood friend, Breedie, and a young Traveller woman, Mary. It is unrelenting. [...] It is the flashbacks to Melody’s relationship with Martin that gives the book much of its colour, but the moral consequences of her actions – seducing a boy of 16 over the course of a year – could have been examined in more depth. / Undoubtedly a departure for Ryan, All We Shall Know is a brave attempt at extending his oeuvre. It might just be an extension too far.’ (Available online; accessed 23.09.2016.)

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Roy Foster, ‘All We Shall Know review: No flash in the pan’, in The Irish Times (17 Sept. 2016): ‘Donal Ryan’s fourth work of fiction in as many years shares some trademarks with its predecessors: short, brilliantly colloquial, lyrical, sometimes brutal. The universe is small-town and rural Ireland in a state of postmodern decay, peopled by the sad, the no-hopers, the binge drinkers. Bankrupt builders visit Latvian prostitutes in Limerick motels; threatening vigilantes patrol grass-grown housing estates; implicit violence hangs in the air and often bursts into reality. / But in some ways All We Shall Know is a new and ambitious departure: a story told from a woman’s viewpoint, where thwarted love drives the action rather than the search for drug-fuelled oblivion. Where it works, the novel exerts a powerful grip; even where it falters it remains in the mind. There is also a new (and not altogether successful) element that suggests an older Irish trope: faery lore. [...] That her young lover was also her pupil, and that she was teaching him to read – “All he brang home from school was nits” – suggest an echo of Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller’s alarmingly polished psychodrama. But Melody’s world is closer to that of a Marina Carr play, with its lurches into Grand Guignol and jarring flourishes of language. [...T]he novel moves towards a conclusion where forgiveness and redemption feature more optimistically than in Ryan’s earlier work, suggesting the world of Sebastian rather than Kevin Barry. The parallel structures of the novel are laid before the reader. / Mary is also the survivor of a passionate, confrontational and childless marriage. Her destiny and Melody’s final act of grace suggest a completed symmetry that does not carry full conviction, seen against the savage, ragged and unforgiving world that both women have inhabited. / But the novel, written at white heat in sentences that sometimes flow for a full paragraph, reads compulsively and is delivered with an impressively disciplined power. Ryan’s rise to prominence may have been meteoric and his output dizzyingly prolific, but he is a writer who is very far from being a flash in the pan.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.)

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John Burnside, review of All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan, in The Guardian (22 Sept. 2016) ‘At first glance, it may seem that Donal Ryan is returning to the well-proven territory of the 2013 Guardian first book award-winning, and Man Booker-longlisted, The Spinning Heart, or his much-praised The Thing About December of the same year. But as All We Shall Know progresses, we watch with growing fascination as he expands, not only his emotional range, but also his social sphere. The book builds on those earlier works to establish Ryan beyond dispute as one of the finest writers working in Ireland today. [...] As the book approaches its difficult conclusion, the possibility of healing, of atonement, is at least suggested by the narrator’s last, extraordinary gesture. Without disclosing the details of this final scene, it does not seem extravagant to claim it is worthy of Greek drama. That the tragedies of our own age happen in suburban semis, or on Travellers’ sites, does not make them any less cathartic – and Ryan’s choice of narrator, a character both deeply flawed and painfully guilty, shows him working in the great tradition of tragic fiction, his lonely adulteress coming to grief in the same shadowy spaces as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.’ [The reviewer substantially summarises the plot and characters ad interim.] (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.)

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Day-job: In Feb. 2017, Ryan made it know to an Irish Independent interviewer that his income from writing was insufficient to pay a mortgage and that he was obliged to return to work as a civil servant - but also says that when he started writing he knew that he had to be "sellable" because he was in increasing debt as a result of the effect of government strigencies on his civil service salary.

“When I got my first publishing deal, I was completely and utterly broke. I literally hadn’t a penny.
“People working in the civil service were told we were on ‘the pig’s back’ and that we supposedly had big salaries and parachute pensions. We were blamed for the crash and told the only way to get out of it was to crucify us.
 “But to lose a quarter of your household income at the stroke of a pen was a pretty serious thing. All of a sudden we hadn’t got enough money to pay for the messages. I literally could not pay the mortgage,” he says.
 “At the end of every month the outgoings as a family were more than what we were earning - there was no break from it, there was no end in sight. But then that spurred me on.
 “I started writing at the time and I said to myself, ‘I have to make this sellable’, I have to create something that will make a bit of money.
 “I wrote The Spinning Heart in that frame of mind. From the point of view of a person who was broke, and I knew if I could get that advance, we would be out of that hole of debt. To be honest - being a writer literally saved me.” Ryan - who received 47 rejections before finding a publisher - gives inspiration to young writers and explains that it was his self-belief that made him persevere.

See Independent [IE] (Sunday 5 Feb. 2017)- online.

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