Look! It’s a Woman Writer!: Irish Literary Feminisms 1970-2020, ed Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Arlen House, 349 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1851322510
Eavan Boland, sadly taken from us too soon last year, was deeply interested in what it meant to become a woman writer, an Irish writer, and above all, a poet. In two riveting books, Object Lessons and A Journey with Two Maps, she explores her trajectory through the territories and claims of gender, nationality, tradition and craft. She knew from the beginning that the subject matter she wished to explore in poetry had no place in Irish literary tradition, which she describes as “both nourishing and suffocating”.
The books give us detailed accounts of her reading as a child, an adolescent and a student of English literature at Trinity College, Dublin in the early 1960s. She recounts her struggle with the pronouns “I” and “we” as a way of interrogating the tradition in which she was immersing herself and attempting to imitate. Her eventual choice is to move from the dominant individualistic, powerful first person singular, with its apogee in Romantic poetry, to the more communal and archaic first person plural, with its roots in oral tradition and semi-musical composition.
She thinks about two previous Irish women poets: Jane Wilde (“Speranza”), mother of Oscar Wilde and frequent writer of verse for The Nation, which had a big circulation among nationalist readers in the 1840s, and Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, author of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire in 1773, one of the great laments for the loss of a spouse. She thinks Speranza was trapped in the inauthenticity of nationalist propaganda, and Ní Chonaill rewritten and dragged out of shape by successive generations of male reputation-makers.
Her most consequential struggle, for herself and for women writers who came after her, was that concerning finding a place in poetry for her life experiences after she married, moved to the Dublin suburb of Dundrum and became mother to two daughters.
I still read my poetry books. I still wrote in my notebook. But I turned the pages now with hands that had come from lifting a child or shutting the back door against a gust of rain.
I was prepared for the beauty and intensity of a small child. I became used to the shelter and scale of [her] room. But I was unprepared for the way it all fused into a drama of arrival and encounter; a continuous daily adventure of sights and insights.
… I was not sure where or whether they belonged in any poem I might write … What use was an expressive medium if it couldn’t shelter an expressive life? What purpose was there in giving voice to an old art if it silenced a new experience?
These are fundamental questions about “appropriate” subject matter for a woman poet in Ireland. She is constantly alert to the centrality of women in male Irish poetry, as love objects, muses and symbols of the country throughout its troubled history. She wants to challenge these categories, and to create space for the importance of daily domestic life as a subject for the discipline she has chosen. She is posing these questions at a time when the second wave of Irish feminism is opening up issues of economic, social, personal and reproductive inequality, and challenging the long-standing hegemony of a Catholic, patriarchal and misogynist mindset, which had held sway in Ireland since the foundation of the state.
Boland interrogates her understanding of this history of poetry, particularly lyric poetry, with its emphasis on the “sublime” and the prescribed subjects for exploring it: “the moon, the horizon, shifts of weather and the colour of a field – all signalling an inner life as well as an outer circumstance ‑ belonged in a poem”.
Back to her daughter’s bedroom:
Not this room. However radiant it seemed to me, it was just a room. There were hundreds, thousands of them marching out into the Irish night, lighting up their yellow windows in the dusk of the Dublin suburbs. The growth of population, the building of estates suggested a social shift; not a poetic change. In this new life I had acquired a subject. But no ready-made importance had been ascribed to it. I had to do that for myself.
She did. The luminous universality of “Night Feed”, her poem about rising to feed her infant daughter before dawn, has as much authority, beauty and technical skill as any poem dealing with more approved versions of the sublime. Boland’s meticulous, self-examining trajectory towards the point where she could be absolutely certain of her subject matter and how it could fit into her craft gave her natural sapiential authority which opened the door for many other Irish women poets, novelists and playwrights. She built on this ingress by becoming a key figure in feminist literature, through the Arlen Press and the Woman’s Education Bureau. She gave countless workshops to aspiring women writers over her years in Ireland, and played a crucial part in the commissioning by Field Day of the two volumes of Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions, one of the great Irish feminist achievements.
Eavan Boland is mentioned for her mentoring workshops by many of the contributors to Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s collection of essays by twenty-one Irish women writers born between 1944 and 1960, the majority of them in the 1950s. They are a fine collection of writers, many of them poets, and therefore beneficiaries of Boland’s exertions. Ní Dhuibhne anticipates questions about exclusions in her introduction: “Some who were invited could not contribute for various reasons. Others were not asked, due to oversight and also because of inevitable space issues.”
This is a reasonable rubric: there will always be people an editor would like to have in a collection who, for one reason or another, cannot be there. I wonder if Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill was asked. Her position as a ground-breaking woman poet in Irish must surely qualify her, and she was born in 1952. If willing to go back to 1944 as a birth date, why not move forward to 1962, and include Anne Enright, by far our best-known woman novelist. A particularly unfortunate exclusion is Paula Meehan, one of our best-known and loved poets, former Ireland professor of poetry, described by Moya Cannon in this volume as “Dublin City’s most eloquent voice since Sean O’Casey”. The novelists Anne Haverty and Deirdre Madden, both of whom fall within the prescribed timeline, are also missing.
However, there are some very well-written and instructive pieces in the book. Lia Mills, author of Another Alice (1996), a really important novel about sexual violence, has a piece which combines justified rage against the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland and the treatment of its victims, with a nuanced and subtle analysis of her own trajectory as a writer. Her description of being driven to write her first novel is compelling:
I have to say, I didn’t much want to be the one to write Another Alice, but I knew I had to do it, no matter how scared I was (shitless, if you must know). And that, right there, is the moment when I became a writer. When the insistent call of the novel overcame the howling demons that warned against it, the voices that told me, day and night, that of all the insanely self-destructive things I had ever done, this was by far the worst.
After a lifetime of trying and failing, trying and giving up, that’s when my real writing life began; when it was the story that mattered; when the character’s demand to be heard was the most urgent of all the voices in my head; when I committed myself to the novel and knew I had to see it through to the end, no matter what.
When the book was published, none of the things she dreaded happened. Instead, she got “more validation than I could have dared to hope for”.
She writes interestingly about her discovery of female Irish writers of whom she had never heard, like Katharine Tynan, Emily Lawless and Alice Milligan, and astutely points out that a lot of work had already been done on them, only to be forgotten. She draws a parallel with the recent Decade of Centenaries work on women activists in the revolutionary period and cries of them being “written out of history”. Well, no. Mills lists the historians working on women’s history from the 1960s on and reflects that each generation has to relearn the lessons of the past but doesn’t always do so.
Mills’s book on mouth and neck cancer is a brave, intelligent, helpful exposition of a really difficult condition, and a huge contribution to medical literature. She doesn’t discuss her illness in her piece, but for anyone undergoing a similar ordeal, and for anyone interested in good writing, that book is essential reading.
Poet Moya Cannon’s piece is a hymn of gratitude for all the influences she encountered, from songs and poems in her childhood home in Donegal, to “a diminutive Scottish nun, Sister Dolores” who read poetry aloud at her secondary school, to her brother’s gift of the poetry of Neruda and Machado, to a friend’s gift of Japanese haiku, to her discovery of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Eavan Boland, and “their confidence and courage in challenging what constituted an Irish poem”. She describes Dermot Bolger’s workshops in the Grapevine Arts Centre, “anarchic and wonderful”. She emphasises, as do many other contributors, the importance of Listowel Writers’ Week in the 1970s and ’80s, not least for the opportunity to belong to a community of writers, and to see and hear poets from abroad, like Ted Hughes and Tomas Tranströmer.
She moved to Galway city in the mid-eighties and encountered a new community of writers, including Rita Ann Higgins and Mary O’Malley, and was there when Fred Johnston set up the Cúirt International Poetry Festival, where she saw Denise Levertov and RS Thomas. Her charting of what she was reading throughout her life is very like Eavan Boland’s own endeavour, and indeed Doris Lessing’s in her autobiographies. They all understand that reading is the nourishment from which ideas, inspiration and understanding of their craft comes, and a very useful retrospective guide to the development of a writer.
She credits David Marcus’s New Irish Writing page in the Irish Press as a really important portal for first publication. She moves on to other portals – Cyphers, Poetry Ireland Review, and eventually finds herself publishing her first collection, Oar, in 1990, with the fabled Jessie Lendennie’s Salmon Press, also mentioned with admiration and gratitude by other contributors. Her career is gradually developed by writer-in-residence spots abroad, by editorship of Poetry Ireland Review, by friendships with other writers, by reading voraciously, especially translations, and in 2004, by membership of Aosdána, which allowed her to give up teaching and concentrate on her work. Again, many other contributors, especially poets, credit Aosdána with their economic salvation.
Cannon’s considerable emotional intelligence, as evinced in her poetry, and her interest in and talent for music, gives us this lovely reflection on her approach to writing:
Reading Machado and haiku, I became aware of emotional resonance, of evocation … of the way in which one clear crisp image, or the layering of two images, could have the effect equivalent to that of a musician’s holding down a string lightly, and playing a harmonic. I learned that what is stated is usually less important than what is evoked.
She finishes by remembering Theodore Roethke’s comment that “you only really feel like a poet in the five minutes after you have finished writing a poem”.
Sophia Hillan gives us a beautifully structured account of her complicated relationship with fiction. She is an expert on the writing of Michael McLaverty, author of a fascinating book about Jane Austen’s nieces’ lives in Ireland, and has published two novels and a collection of short stories. She also suffers from a rare form of cancer, a neuro-endocrine tumour.
She opens her piece with an account of finding herself in a ward in Jervis Street hospital in 1975, twenty-five years old, reading her name upside down at the head of her bed (not the right name) and a sign reading “Fluid’s only”. She is as annoyed at the wrongly placed apostrophe as she is at her misnaming. Her cancer has been discovered, is treated, and leaves her alone until 2008, when it recurs.
In the meantime, she teaches in Greendale Community School, which also boasted Roddy Doyle, Catherine Dunne and Paul Mercier among its staff. Hillan’s account of how the children she taught inspired her and restored to her “the power and liberation of the imagination” is a tribute to committed teachers everywhere, and the huge difference they can make to young lives.
She has a theme of portals into other worlds, beginning with Alice through the Looking Glass and the hall mirror in her Belfast home, continuing with wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, moving through Paul Celan’s prison writing about the sky he can see through his cell window, to a sort of mirror concept of her cancer co-existing with her rather than invading her. She describes a trajectory which begins with early prizes for short stories, moves through her teaching life and a distinguished academic career at Queen’s University, and finally results in a return to short stories and two novels.
She takes delight in all aspects of this life, which could be characterised as drift except for the amount of hard work she was doing, but which has brought her back to her first love. Along the way she has reflections on the economic oppression of women in Ireland in the 1970s and ’80s, the sense of something very dark and unspoken in Belfast in the 1950s, and her sense of privilege and displacement in Queen’s in the 1960s, with classmates like Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson. Her mixture of the personal, formational and professional in the piece is beautifully judged, concise and instructive to the reader.
Whereas Hillan chose the teaching and academic life as an alternative to writing, Liz McManus chose politics, becoming a Labour Party minister for housing and urban development from 1994 to 1997. Having published her first novel in 1989, she took a break from writing until much later. Her second novel was published in 2015. Here is how she describes writing her third:
I am 73 years old and I’m in the middle of writing my third novel. This is a race, I tell my friends, between me and dementia. They try and cheer me up with examples of creative octogenarians: Picasso, George Bernard Shaw, Molly Keane, even Leonard Cohen. You’re only getting started, they say, but I’m not persuaded. All I can think of is poor, mindless Iris Murdoch plonked in a chair and left to watch her favourite Teletubbies show.
Only a writer could come up with that paragraph!
Celia de Fréine has an interesting and depressing story about the old chestnut of “appropriateness”. An Irish language poet, she submitted some poems to an Oireachtas competition in 1986. “The male Oireachtas judge analysed my poems with care. One concerned the death of Ann Lovett, another involved bringing a sick child to hospital. While these were noble topics, he concluded, they were not suited to poetry.” Another echo of Eavan Boland’s battle with perceptions of subject matter.
Mary Dorcey, poet, novelist and short-story writer, was the first woman in Ireland to openly campaign for LGBT rights. When the word “lesbian” appeared on the cover of her first book of stories, A Noise from the Woodshed, published in 1989, Dorcey tells us it was spoken about in “hushed tones”, but as a sign that Ireland was growing up the book was also awarded the Rooney Prize. Dorcey is another beneficiary of the Salmon Press: “Jessie Lendennie … did not care a fig about which kind of sexuality a poet endorsed, and … published each of my poetry books when every other male dominated Irish press was closed to me”. Dorcey’s piece reminds us of how far we’ve come since the 1980s as regards LGBT rights, and what courage was required to start the movement for change.
Phyl Herbert tells the heart-breaking story of giving birth in St Patrick’s mother and baby home on the Navan Road in 1967, and losing her baby to adoption. Medbh McGuckian recalls women poets like Dickinson and Plath being represented by her teachers in Queen’s University in the 1970s as “weird or suicidal”. Anne Devlin gives a vivid account of the early civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, her need to escape from the awful trauma of the 1970s Troubles, and her desire to separate herself from her namesake, Robert Emmet’s housekeeper.
All of the women whose pieces appear in this book grew up, in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, at a time when both places were beginning to change. They themselves played a part in that change, as activists in Irish second-wave feminism and its considerable achievements, the LGBT movement and its challenge to entrenched homophobia, and the long slog to persuade a homogenous society that life is more various, complicated and diverse than was believed or desired. They suffered through the reproductive wars of the 1980s, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the death of Anne Lovett, the crucifixion of Joanne Hayes, and what Nell McCafferty called the “pig ignorant slurry of woman hating that did us temporarily down”. They read, they thought, they taught, and above all, they wrote.
Their very different essays give us a kaleidoscopic view of the challenges they faced, some personal, some societal. The old trope of lack of initial confidence in their work is referred to often. The value of workshops, mentoring, literary festivals, feminist and liberal presses, and artists’ retreats like the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig is made abundantly clear. The value of Aosdána, as a sign of peer approval and an economic saviour for many, is also clear.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, in her extensive introduction, tells us:
The generation of women writers born in and around the middle of the twentieth century constitutes a key group or school of writers, a group that had not yet been given a name but which was ground-breaking and which has and will always occupy a significant place in the history of Irish literature.
Catriona Crowe is a former President of the Women’s History Association of Ireland, and Chair of the SAOL Project, a rehabilitation, education and advocacy service for women with addiction issues in Dublin’s North Inner City.