See! She’s a woman writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020 Edited by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne Arlen House, € 25
New Irish writers could be forgiven for thinking that writing is a gender-neutral quest. Why would they think otherwise when they have witnessed the success of Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Megan Nolan and many more? Times have changed, they might think, why do we need a book like this?
See! She’s a woman writer! is a collection of essays by Irish women writers, born in the 1950s, on their writing life. The project was prompted, somewhat ironically, by the Waking the Feminists movement, founded in 2015 to campaign for women’s equality in Irish theater. While fully supporting the movement, publisher Éilís Ní Dhuibhne felt that the previous revolution regarding gender issues in Irish literature had been largely forgotten.
The brief to the 21 contributors was broad: write about your own literary journey. The responses were necessarily varied in form and style, from the second-person poetic essay by Mary O’Malley, to the insistent numbered paragraphs of Mary Morrissey and Lia Mills, to Sophia Hillan’s moving tale of a life as a writer. framed in the parameters of the disease.
The key themes, however, come up throughout. Mary Dorcey sums them up perfectly in the subtitles: Why Did You Become a Writer ?; Gender and sexuality; Publication; Critical reception; Returned; Find our voices.
The love of history, of song, of “recitation”, but above all of reading, comes first in the training of these writers, closely followed by the supporting families. “Books were my life,” writes Áine Ní Ghlinn, and this sentiment is shared by many others. There were books in most of these houses, usually supplemented by local libraries.
The importance of education in the lives of this generation of women cannot be overstated. As Ní Dhuibhne notes, the introduction of free secondary education in 1966 was key to the development of these writers. Many contributors continued their studies at university, although it was not always a positive experience; many noted that their childhood dreams were temporarily shattered by encountering an unattractive bachelor’s degree literature program.
As for the books written by women, Ní Dhuibhne remembers only Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and the Brontës (who, as Mary Rose Callaghan ironically observes, “had been forced to pretend to be men. “). It was at UCD that he realized in Máiríde Woods that “being a woman could be a disadvantage – the shine appearing to be masculine”.
Mentors appeared along the way. The name most frequently mentioned is that of poet Eavan Boland, who created the WEB (Women’s Education Bureau) and conducted nationwide writing workshops for women. Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Poetry and Ailbhe Smyth, Founder of Center for Education, Resources and Research for Women (WERRC) at UCD and editor of Attic Press.
In a publishing climate where women were vastly under-represented, feminist presses like Arlen House and Attic Press, and women managers were crucial. (Catherine Rose, Janet Martin, Louise C Callaghan, Róisín Conroy, Mary Doran, Mary Paul Keane, and Gráinne Healy, to name a few.)
The same goes for David Marcus’ New Irish Writing page in Irish press, who has published stories and poems by many contributors, often their first publication; Evelyn Conlon, however, criticizes Marcus as the arbiter of what the Irish news should be.
Rage has inspired and propelled the careers of others. This is explicit in Lia Mills’ essay; it is palpable in the measured prose of Celia de Fréine who, sitting at the inaugural meeting of the Irish Writers Union, “saw a man nominate another for different roles on the committee”; and it simmers between the lines of many other essays against gender exclusion, resource scarcity and erasure.
Catherine Dunne refers to “the infamous” Field day debacle in 1991: a three-volume anthology of Irish writing that almost entirely excluded women under its male direction.
In 2017 in The London Book Review, Anne Enright tried again to count the women; not much had changed. The fact that these women have managed to sustain their writing lives for so long against all odds is both impressive and a cause for celebration.
The nature of an edited collection means that not everyone can be included, as Ní Dhuibhne notes. Contributors to this volume come from north and south of the border, write in English and Irish, and represent different sexualities.
If she can be blamed for a lack of diversity between races and classes – the contributors are largely white and middle class – it may be that this reflects the lack of diversity of women writing in Ireland during this period.
This collection, with a preface by Martina Devlin and an afterword by Alan Hayes, editor-in-chief of Arlen House, represents a precious act of recovery that, it seems, women are condemned to carry out on an ongoing basis.
It tells the story of a group of women, one “who has not yet received a name, but who was revolutionary” in the words of the women. For early career writers, the message is clear: educate yourself and never let your guard down. This collection is a good place to start.
Paula McGrath teaches creative writing at University College Dublin. His novel, ‘‘, is published by John Murray Press