Greener on the other side

The Irish talent for writing is renowned the world over: here, two new anthologies prove once again that this is one national stereotype that can't easily be denied
New Irish Writing: Soho Square VI, ed Colm Tibn, Bloomsbury pounds 7.99.

National stereotypes are firmly outlawed these days, but there must be allowances for empirical fact. Only a Welsh rugby crowd can sing in tune; only the Irish, with a population (North and South together) not much over half the size of greater London, can produce the overwhelming diversity of literary talent on display here. It must be something in the water.

For the sixth in the excellent Soho Square series, editor Colm Tibn has crammed his volume with fiction extracts, stories, poems, essays and work-in-progress in a wide range of styles. Among the 40-odd contributors there is a galaxy of smart names, as we have perhaps lazily come to expect: from Seamus Heaney to Paul Muldoon and Edna O'Brien, Tom Paulin and Roy Foster to Roddy Doyle and Eavan Boland; John Banville, Michael Longley and more. Some authors do what they're best known for doing (a fine poem from Paul Durcan, a gritty street-tale from Patrick McCabe); others float free of genre - Neil Jordan's "Remote Control", for instance, is a slice- of-life from Tinseltown that brings small apercus ("I know I need a paper to have breakfast with") and larger discoveries ("I knew then that having your name on hoardings was no guarantee whatsoever of untroubled sleep").

Jordan's sense of exile addresses a mighty theme in Irish writing (as in Irish history), but another note sounds through all these pieces. It is not only the sense of place, of home, that Irishness seems almost uniquely to bring - what Tibn calls in his Introduction "the world of common knowledge". It is also a gratitude for that sense of belonging, even if it is a hard heritage, which is reminiscent of Jewish writers. In both groups, it accords a special power, and a powerful context for feeling and experience, as John McGahern puts it in "The Church and its Spire".

It's appropriate, too, that this small volume is dense with text; whereas previous Soho Squares have been richly designed and illustrated, this boasts only a few pages of photographs by Tony O'Shea and one (unillustrated) essay on Jack Yeats by Tom Paulin. It's a book for reading.

Wee Girls: Women Writing from an Irish Perspective, ed Lizz Murphy, Spinifex pounds 8.95. The contributions come from all over the world: from those who, like Medbh McGuckian and Maeve Binchy (below), were born in Ireland and still live there; those who moved out; and those whose connection is more tangential. Perhaps that's why many of these pieces have a self-conscious air. New Zealander Sue Reidy tackles this head-on: "'Rubbish,' pronounced my partner crisply. 'You're no more Irish than I am English.'" Reidy could always spot fellow "Irish Catholics": they would be the ones "cracking jokes and telling stories". But of course. St Pat's Day, as you'd expect, is a keystone of ex-patriate cultural identity. Bronwyn Rodden, from Sydney, went to Ireland and found herself surrounded by people who looked like her family: "I realised I belonged to a race of people after all." Belfast-born editor Lizz Murphy married a Catholic and as a result "was introduced to Irish culture. My Irish culture as opposed to the British subculture imposed upon us by British-Protestant rule and religion," she says firmly. McGuckian is more ambivalent in a fine essay on her own Belfast childhood: "My sister was sent to Irish dancing, but this always struck me as an artificial, joyless rigidity." Bravo!