How a Tiny Literary Magazine Became a Springboard for Great Irish Writing
Before Sally Rooney was the author of best-selling books, and well before those books became buzzy television series, she was an undergraduate student at Trinity College Dublin with a growing pile of unpublished poems and no contacts in the writing world. Her first break came in 2010, when The Stinging Fly, a small Irish literary magazine, agreed to publish her work.
For Colin Barrett that career turning point arrived in 2009, with the publication of his short story “Let’s Go Kill Ourselves” in The Stinging Fly. Four years later, Barrett’s debut collection, “Young Skins,” was released via the magazine’s adjacent press to international acclaim. Barrett went on to win the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.
The Stinging Fly has been something of a revelation in Irish literature. Founded in Dublin in 1997 by Declan Meade and Aoife Kavanagh as a receptacle for “all this great writing floating around,” as Meade said, it earned government support and has reached its 25th year as a launching pad for some of the country’s most promising, and in time, some of its best known, poets and novelists. As such, it has also become prime poaching ground for editors in other countries hungry for Irish talent.
“Many of the most prominent Irish writers to emerge in the last 20 years were published in the magazine at an early point in their development, I think,” said Sally Rooney in an email. She remains active with the organization, serving as the chair of its board of directors and even stepping in as the editor between 2017 and 2018. (Rooney bears no relation to Dan Rooney, the American executive and namesake behind the Rooney Prize.)
Beyond the opportunity to get published, Barrett said, The Stinging Fly also offered new writers a network of peers, another essential source of support. “It really introduced me to the literary community,” said Barrett. “I had never met a writer up until then. It was just a very remote thing that mainly dead people had done.”
That community was something Meade himself had to seek out. Born the fifth of eight children in a farming family in Ardee, a town of a few thousand in County Louth, Meade was the first in his family to graduate college, earning a business degree from Ulster University at Coleraine. But thanks to authors like John Steinbeck and Alice Munro, Meade knew he wanted a life of letters. With little purchase in the literary world himself, he left Ireland to work at an independent bookstore in Atlanta.
After moving back a year later for a job with the James Joyce Centre in Dublin, Meade joined a few writing groups. It was there that he met more than a few disgruntled authors who complained about the lack of opportunities for newcomers. From those conversations, The Stinging Fly was born. (Kavanagh helped edit the first two issues but then left to pursue a career in education.)
“I kind of thought what we were doing was somehow revolutionary or unique,” Meade said with characteristic self-deprecation. “It was only when I started doing it that I looked around a bit more and saw that literary magazines were a thing.”
Putting aside the question of ingenuity, the end result has most certainly been a boon for Irish literature. Though The Stinging Fly has only around 1,000 subscribers and an overall circulation of 2,000, it has proved to be an excellent springboard for budding writers.
“We want to be representative of what’s actually happening in Irish writing, and we want to publish as diverse a lineup every time as possible,” said Lisa McInerney, who took over as editor of The Stinging Fly last year. Meade stepped back from editing duties in 2017 to focus on business operations, and the magazine cycled through a few short-term editors in the interim, including Rooney.
By that same token, The Stinging Fly has become a hub for editors in search of new talent. “I really look to them for exciting new Irish voices,” said Katie Raissian, a senior editor at the U.S. publisher Grove Atlantic who recently worked on “Homecoming,” Barrett’s second story collection. “With a Stinging Fly author you’re getting something interesting on the level of the line, as well as obviously the overall story and character.”
The work is made possible by reliable support from the government. The Arts Council, an Irish government agency, been supporting the outlet since 1998. For 2023, the council has allocated about $200,000 to The Stinging Fly, an increase over the approximately $180,000 it gave in 2022. Since 2021, the outfit has also been aided by the T.S. Eliot Foundation, a charity.
Audrey Keane, a literature manager at the Arts Council, also commended The Stinging Fly for its efforts addressing the pay and conditions for writers. In the often-miserly world of literary magazines, it offers healthy rates; fiction and nonfiction entries can net writers as much as $1,300 per piece.
As to what The Stinging Fly and Meade in particular are looking for in a poem or story, there’s no simple answer. “The main thing is that I am looking for excitement,” he said after a long pause. “A sense of something I’ve not read before, that reflects a singular take on the world.”
A better explanation of Meade’s prowess comes not from the man himself, but rather from those whose words he’s touched. “Declan is a very good line editor and a good close reader but I think what he has essentially as an editor is taste,” said Kevin Barry, another Stinging Fly veteran, over email.
In 2004, Barry said he approached Meade with a half-dozen very short stories. Meade suggested that with a few more, he might have the bones of a collection. Three years later, that collection, “There are Little Kingdoms,” was released via Stinging Fly Press, earning Barry the Rooney Prize. It remains the press’s best-selling book, according to Meade.
“He recognizes the moment when a writer is starting to hit their stride,” Barry said, “and tries to help with the momentum.”
Meade waves away the mention of his good intellectual instincts, orhis place in the Irish canon. He’s willing to recount, however, the ways in which his career choice often left friends baffled.
“A common reaction that I’ve got from some people would be amazement. Basically, ‘You’re still doing this?’” he said with a chuckle. “There is a sense of, ‘Oh, aren’t you great to be doing that, but aren’t you mad at the same time?’”