From the Ashes: The Celtic Phoenix, Anna Burns’ “Milkman” and Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”

By Dr Aran Ward Sell

1: The Celtic Phoenix

Ireland is booming again! Our debt to the IMF has been paid off! Emigrants are returning in their droves! Ghost estates are ghost estates no more! Oh, the Celtic Tiger was a wonderful thing in our lives, Ross. But the Celtic Phoenix—well, it’s going to be even better (Howard 4).

Paul Howard’s 2014 play Breaking Dad did not invent the phrase ‘the Celtic Phoenix’. American writer Dennis Frantsve self-published a thriller novel of the same title in 2004 (; in September 2008, The Irish Independent printed a gossip article entitled “Celtic Phoenix emerges… in lipstick and heels” (Egan); in 2010, a Bulgarian Irish dance troupe launched their website; and in 2011, Wicklow sculptor Thomas Flynn entitled a bog-oak sculpture “The Celtic Phoenix” (Stafford). “The Celtic Phoenix” was a phrase well-suited to post-crash discourse surrounding Irishness.

Nonetheless, Howard popularised the phrase’s current meaning: the re-emergence of Ireland’s booming ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy after the hard years of recession. Howard deploys the epithet satirically: his character Charles O’Carroll-Kelly wishes ardently to return to the squalid capitalism of Tiger-era Dublin. The joke is that anyone could be so awful. Latterly, however, ‘the Celtic Phoenix’ has been unironically reclaimed into apparently sober analyses of the post-recession Irish economy. A 2015 Economist article entitled simply “Celtic phoenix” celebrated that “less than two years since Ireland exited its humiliating bail-out, its economy is resurgent,” crediting this resurgence to “strengths” including “a low corporate-tax rate of just 12.5%” and American capital investment. This Celtic Phoenix has remarkably familiar stripes: Fintan O’Toole previously wrote of the Tiger years that:

[t]he 12.5 per cent tax rate was a little over a third of that prevailing in the US and most of Western Europe. By 2002, Ireland had become the single largest location of declared pre-tax profits for US firms (129-130).

Aidan Regan and Samuel Brazys wrote in 2017 that Ireland’s “recovery from the ‘ashes’ has been equally dramatic [as its collapse], leading to a popular rebranding of this former Celtic ‘Tiger’ as the Celtic ‘Phoenix’”; (223). They cite not Howard, but the Economist article of 2015.

As such, a term designed to satirise boom-and-bust capitalism is thus recast as a fait accompli. But perhaps this optimism is not as naïve as it seems: perhaps the Phoenix has risen, and this time the centre will hold, and things will fall not apart but neatly into place. This article does not comb the entrails for the Irish economy’s future but seeks to assess what its current state means for Irish literature—after all, some time has passed since the financial crash of 2008-9. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, writers including Eimear McBride and Mike McCormack revitalised Modernist experimentation in the Irish novel. There has now been time for a reaction to this re-emergence to begin, in turn, to emerge.

Raymond Williams defines a “dominant” cultural mode as a “central system of practices, meanings and values” which pertains “in any particular period” (9). Abutting the dominant are two types of “practices, experiences, meanings, values”: the “residual” and the “emergent”. Residual cultural forms are those “practised on the basis of the residue […] of some previous social formation,” whereas emergent cultures are “new meanings and values, new significances and experiences,” which “are continually being created” (10-11). According to Williams, the dominant culture seeks always to incorporate the emergent before it can become either “oppositional” or “alternative”.

If Realism was the dominant literary cultural form of Celtic Tiger Ireland,[1] the crash created space for a genuinely emergent Irish Modernist literature (with an undoubtedly residual exhuming of Joycean aesthetics). Now, if McBride et al have become dominant (Celtic Tiger Realism having been rendered residual), we may turn our attention to the next emergence, which could take the form either of a true emergent, building on the experimentalism of its immediate forebears, or a revanchist return to the residual. This article diagnoses both currents, treating Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018) as representative of residual Celtic Tiger Realism, and Anna Burns’ Milkman (2018) as a new emergent, extensive of the oppositional textual politics of post-crash Modernism.

2: Normative People: Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018) provides one clear example that Irish letters have entered a Celtic Phoenix moment. The novel opens with the teenage Connell and Marianne still attending school in a small west-of-Ireland town, and follows them through an on-off romantic relationship at Trinity College Dublin. The financial crash is not trauma to these young characters; it is history. Rooney acknowledges this distinction in a 2018 interview. Although she identifies herself with a “period of serious social critique” resulting from the recession, she points out that, like Connell and Marianne, she “was only a teenager during the years of boom and bust.”    

Accordingly, in Rooney’s Ireland the crash is held at a distance: when Marianne remarks that Connell should study English at university despite poor job prospects as “the economy’s fucked anyway” (20), it is without bitterness; it is the justified insouciance of a teenager who knows that a fucked economy is not yet her generation’s concern (Connell, from a lower socio-economic class than Marianne, is equally justified in his greater concern for employability: nonetheless, he chooses English). The crash-as-history motif returns when Connell and Marianne visit the empty “ghost estate” (33) outside their town. Connell asks why such houses cannot be given away if they cannot be sold:

              [Marianne] shrugged. She didn’t actually understand why.

              It’s something to do with capitalism, she said.

              Yeah, everything is. That’s the problem, isn’t it? (34)

Normal People is a text of the Celtic Phoenix generation. Rooney does articulate a familiar and justified anti-Tiger critique, even hinting — in a bored, isn’t-it-obvious fashion — at a structural critique of “something to do with capitalism”. However, technically and narratively Normal People is extensive of the Tiger’s dominant literary Realist ethos, diametrically opposed to the emergent interrogative Modernism of the post-crash period.

The text takes as its ur-residual background not Joyce’s Ulysses or Beckett’s trilogy, but the nineteenth-century Realism which, in Catherine Belsey’s words, “create[s] the illusion while we read that what is narrated is ‘really’ and intelligibly happening” (1980, 47-8).[2] Rooney has claimed, of her first novel Conversations with Friends (2017), that its “prose style and the themes it explores and the politics that underpin it, maybe, are on the experimental side” (Nolan), but there is little evidence, in Conversations or Normal People, of this purported experimentalism, beyond the omission of quotation marks to denote dialogue (each utterance is given its own line, so this does not blur speech transcription and narrative prose in the defamiliarizing mode of Joyce’s elision of “perverted commas”). The straightforward portrayal of bisexual identities and desires in Conversations would admittedly be progressive for Irish literary Realism of the early-2000s, never mind the nineteenth century—however this applies only to the “themes” and “politics” of Rooney’s claim, not the unfounded claim of an experimental “prose style”.

Helen Charman observes that Rooney’s Realism is not truly naturalistic, arguing that “the affective power of the narrative depends upon the characterisation of its protagonists as exceptional”. For Charman, this narrative tactic creates a “rift […] between the realism of the character portraits, and the mounting pressure of a narrative reaching its conclusion”. As Belsey writes, “classic realism cannot foreground contradiction” (75). Normal People is a Celtic Phoenix text in the residual sense, where the Phoenix represents not a return with a difference, but simply a return: to a Realist textual politics which summarises and portrays economic inequality and individual trauma, but never allows inequality or trauma into the central mechanisms by which the novel is organised, maintained and presented.

There is another potential form for ‘Phoenix Lit’, in which the emergent-oppositional post-crash Modernism has been incorporated by the dominant in a lasting and meaningful sense, such that newly emergent forms may build upon and react to, rather than simply rewind and record over, post-crash Modernism. This alternative vision is incarnated by Anna Burns’ 2018 novel Milkman.

3: Unfamiliar, Restful Consciousness: Anna Burns

Milkman operates from the first-person perspective of an eighteen-year-old woman whose family refer to her only as “middle sister”. The setting is the Catholic community (broadly speaking) of 1970s Belfast. Its narrative position modulates between internal and partially-external perspectives upon Middle Sister, whose own viewpoint modulates between a knowing faux-naif critique of her environs and a more truly naïve immersion within them.

It is in this mode of narrative presentation that Milkman can be aligned with what publisher and author Sara Davis-Goff has called the “Movement” of post-crash Irish Modernism. Like the “Movement,” and like Ulysses, Milkman refuses a consoling Realist meta-language. Instead, Milkman maintains a partially subjectivist, defamiliarized distance from the reader. An active process of interpretation is required to parse the narrative into three modes: interior monologue; narrative prose knowingly focalised by the character through her self-aware faux-naivety; and narrative prose unknowingly focalised by the character through her own cognitive damage. A novel such as McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013) centres on the mental damage of its focalising character, manifesting her personal traumas in various ways in the formal characteristics of the prose. Milkman is extensive, not reduplicative of this tendency; Burns has taken this theme and, as McCormack has said of McBride’s approach to Joyce, “ran with it” (Jordan).

While Milkman is a text of damaged consciousness, the damage is also that of Middle Sister’s community, not only her individual psyche as aberrant from that community. This damaged stream of communal consciousness is illustrated in an episode concerning Middle Sister’s French language class. The free-thinking teacher demands that her pupils look at the sky and find in it colours other than the quotidian blue (71). The pupils resist. “‘Le ciel est bleu!’, they chant, ‘What colour else can it be?’” (70). This is not a parable about the pupils’ ignorance; but an illustration of their adherence to social convention: “Of course we knew really that the sky could be more than blue […] but why should any of us admit to that? I myself have never admitted it” (70). The teacher begs the communal consciousness to choose objective inputs over a socially damaged perceptual capacity, but she only incites resentment. Middle Sister is entrenched among her community’s reaction: “How come she was doing all this antagonising, this presenting of an anti-culture to our culture […]?”(72).

We might return here to Williams’ cultural hierarchy. The dominant culture of Middle Sister’s community is close-mindedness, represented by the stubborn insistence that “the sky is blue”. Seeing other colours is oppositional to this dominance, and cannot be incorporated without damaging the controlling interests—community conformity—of that dominant. Middle Sister is a co-representative of the damaged communal consciousness. The scene is interrupted by memories of a trip “to see the sunset” with her “maybe-boyfriend”; he can also see other colours in the sky, but this is so incomprehensible to Middle Sister that she questions his masculinity. She feels “ashamed” of maybe-boyfriend’s non-conformity, even though she herself, in more self-aware moments, resents the pressure to conform. Soon afterwards, Burns restores Middle Sister’s knowing, faux-naif narrative standpoint, and offers this pointed summary of communitarian psychological damage:

a whole community […] overladen with heaviness and grief and fear and anger—well, these people could not, not at the drop of a hat, be open to any bright shining button of a person stepping into their environment and shining upon them just like that […] normality here was this constant, unacknowledged struggle to see. (89)

Back in the French class, the memories of watching the (to her) pointless sunset with maybe-boyfriend blurs with Middle Sister’s present experience and:

[…] the truth hit my senses. It became clear as I gazed that there was no blue out there at all. For the first time I saw colours, just as a week later in this French class also was I seeing colours (76-77)

Middle Sister is finally seeing the sunset. But this does not mean that she wants to. The “subversiveness of a sunset” is upsetting, but drawing on her earlier experience, she dismisses the “urge to panic” (77). By “keeping still, by not letting it overwhelm me,” she can mentally incorporate the “shock of the sky” and “get respite from what might have been, after all, a non-conforming, unfamiliar, restful consciousness” (77). Thus, in Milkman, Burns uses the contingency of her subjectivist prose techniques to create a provocative live description of the process by which the oppositional emergent is incorporated by the dominant culture — even as it interrogates it.

4: Ashes to Ashes

The above analyses present two forms of Celtic Phoenix literature: Normal People, which is extensive of Celtic Tiger Realism — with a shared root in nineteenth-century textual aesthetics — and Milkman, which is extensive of post-crash Modernism. One indicator that Rooneyesque Realism may win out as the newly dominant mode of Phoenix Lit is the frequent categorisation of Milkman as “difficult,” despite its commercial success and, frankly, its pace, personality and humour (Garner; Marriott; Leith). This off-target furore about difficulty may be a death spasm of cultural gatekeeping against Modernism, a final convulsion of Realist normativity before the welcome trend towards an interrogative Irish literature continues. But it may also be the vanguard of a reassertion of pre-crash critical politics, whereby the now-residual ethos of the Celtic Tiger will be reasserted by texts such as Normal People, the Celtic Phoenix’s feathers limned by a Realist glow.

If this is the case, Milkman’s success suggests that a live, albeit peripheral, counter-current of Irish Modernist writing is nonetheless well-placed to continue — although any suggestion that it became a cultural dominant may come to seem an ephemeral false dawn which flickered only briefly between 2013 and 2016. In this view, where Rooney-esque Realism is the true cultural logic of the Celtic Phoenix, then Milkman’s success despite this trend may be because of its Northern-ness, despite its association with Republic of Ireland post-crash Modernism. Rooney’s socially liberal Realism may be associated with the hugely heartening referendum victories for gay marriage (2015) and increased reproductive rights for women (2018); a more palatable set of national mood-markers than a continued grapple with crisis capitalism. Burns’ across-the-border Modernism, its proximity to Irishness but also its distance from the Republic-of-Irish economic context,[3] operates at a distance from the Republic’s “Phoenix” upsurge in national optimism, while texts like Solar Bones and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing may now feel like unwelcome baggage for Irish readers who once again regard the bad old days as having been irreversibly laid with O’Leary in the grave.

[1] George O’Brien characterises the pre-2010 Irish novel by ‘formal conservatism, consisting mostly of modest modifications of pre-modernist novels’ (xxiii), while Ruth Gilligan cites Eve Patten, Sylvie Mikowski and Anne Enright among those who have noted that commercial and cultural pressures combined to promote Realism and suppress Modernism during the Tiger years (783).

[2] Catherine Belsey sadly died shortly after this article was accepted for publication. Her insights and theoretical rigour have been a major influence and inspiration to my academic work and thought.

[3] Not that the North was unaffected by this global crisis: for example, the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, touted as ‘Europe’s biggest riverside regeneration project’ (McDonald), stalled in 2008 and was not restarted until 2013 (Smith). However, a Northern Irish text has greater distance from the narrative of the Celtic Tiger (and hence Phoenix) than one ‘from’ south of the border.


Aran Ward Sell, “From the Ashes: The Celtic Phoenix, Anna Burns’ Milkman and Sally Rooney’s Normal People,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2021): n.pag. Web 8 March 2021. DOI:

About the Author

Dr Aran Ward Sell is a writer, researcher and Learning Technologist based at the University of Edinburgh. His PhD, awarded in 2020, assessed contemporary Irish modernist fiction in the aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crisis, focusing on portrayals of damaged consciousness in the novels of Eimear McBride, Mike McCormack, Kevin Barry, Anakana Schofield and Anna Burns. He has published on this topic in C21 Literature and HJEAS. He also maintains an interest in speculative and ‘weird’ contemporary fiction. His critical writing has also been published in AntaeThe Scottish Review of BooksThe List magazine and The Modernist Review.

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