This week sees the publication of Look! It’s a Woman Writer!: Irish Literary Feminisms 1970-2020, edited by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and published by Arlen House. Ní Dhuibhne is one of Ireland’s senior literary writers. She writes short stories and novels in English and Irish, and has also written plays and poetry. Among her many prizes and awards, her novel The Dancers Dancing was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and her memoir Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss was shortlisted for the 2020 Michel Déon prize for non fiction. She is president of the Folklore of Ireland Society/An Cumann le Béaloideas Éireann. Her latest collection of short stories, Little Red and Other Stories, was published by Blackstaff in 2020. She is a recipient of the Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature and a member of Aosdána. Look! It’s a Woman Writer! is an anthology of essays by twenty-one Irish women writers who were born in the 1950s. Lia Mills talks to Éilís Ní Dhuibhne about her reasons for compiling these essays about the writing lives of the contributors.
What made you start work on this project? Why the 1950s?
I got the idea for the book four or five years ago when I read, and reviewed, a memoir by one of my favourite writers, David Lodge – Quite a Good Time to be Born. It occurred to me that 1954, the year of my birth, was quite a good time to be born if you were an Irish girl with literary ambitions. Free education came along in time for university to be a real possibility for someone from a poor(ish) background, like me. But perhaps even more importantly, feminism, and its concurrent impact on Irish legislation, society, arts and literature, came along at the right moment for someone born around the mid-1950s. Legislation for gender equality, and, most significantly, for legal contraception, occurred at the right moment.
The idea came in the aftermath of the Waking the Feminists movement which started in 2015 as a protest against the underrepresentation of women in the Abbey Theatre’s commemoration programme for the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Many of the things that were being said reminded me and my contemporaries of points we made starting in the 1970s and 1980s in groups like the UCD Women’s Studies Forum, founded by Ailbhe Smyth in 1983. Of course we fully supported Waking the Feminists, but it struck us that the earlier revolution concerning gender issues in Irish literature had been forgotten. Today, the fiction scene in Ireland might even be seen to be dominated by women – Eimear McBride, Sally Rooney, Nuala O’Connor, Sara Baume, Jan Carson, Sinéad Gleeson and many others. Even the term “woman writer” might seem redundant. But the climate in which these writers deservedly thrive was created by the previous generation, who emerged in a literary scene entirely dominated by men. I decided to assemble the essays to document the differences between then and now.
Throughout your literary and other work you have engaged constructively with the tradition, for example editing the influential Voices on the Wind: Women Poets of the Celtic Twilight, curating the National Library exhibition WB Yeats: Works and Days, your lifelong dedication to folklore. How has that impulse shaped your literary career?
Folklore has played a huge role in my life. I became very interested in oral narrative – folktales, legends – when I first discovered the subject as an undergraduate student in UCD in 1973. I was studying English then, Pure English, but took an optional module on “The Folktale and Medieval Literature”. In this course we read medieval poems and stories – by Chaucer, Robert Henryson, Marie De France, and so on. They all based some or most of their poems and stories on oral tales. We read analogues to their stories which had been collected in Ireland in the twentieth century and were stored in the archive of the then Department of Irish Folklore, now the National Folklore Collection, in UCD. The close connection of folklore and literature came as a stunning revelation to me – a basic fact of the history of literature that I hadn’t known, although I had been studying literature for almost two years at that point. I found the study of the literature/folklore links fascinating. I continued with it as an MPhil student, and then as a doctoral candidate. For my MPhil I wrote a thesis on analogues to Chaucer’s “Friar’s Tale” in Irish Tradition. For my PhD I broadened this out and investigated all the versions of the particular folktale in question, in international oral tradition and in literature. Many writers apart from Chaucer used the same story as the basis of their work. As a folklorist, my interest has mainly been in the relationship of literature and oral narrative, and in the nature of narrative itself.
Can you remember when you first decided to bring folkloric elements directly into your fiction, that is by using actual text rather than allusion?
Initially I was very reluctant to use folklore in my own work. I didn’t want it to be old-fashioned or “folksy” at all – and it wasn’t. Moreover, I had huge respect for folktales, and for the tellers of the tales. I saw them as artists in their own right, which they are, and I didn’t like it much when writers more or less grabbed their stories and did whatever they felt like with them, usually without any acknowledgment of sources (or, indeed, apparently, without any realisation that these stories had been told by an artist.) There is no copyright on folklore. However, sometime towards the mid-eighties – I guess when my PhD was finished and out of the way – I wrote a story based on an oral legend, “Midwife to the Fairies”. Subsequently, I felt it was OK for me to rewrite folktales or legends in modern versions, to offer my own interpretations. When I do this, I feel that my new stories, my new versions, throw light on the old versions, and perhaps vice-versa.
Can you remember your thought process when you were writing “Midwife to the Fairies” specifically? It is such a brilliant fusion of folklore with contemporary issues ‑ were you clear from the beginning that that was what you wanted to do, or did you have to struggle towards it? (These things seem so simple in retrospect but they’re often hard-won.)
This was the very first story I wrote which had a basis in folklore. I’d say I wrote it around 1986, so it would have been one of the more recently written stories in my debut collection, Blood and Water. Although I was deeply immersed in folktale studies I was averse to using folktales in my own fiction, as I explain above. In 1987, Bengt Holbek’s great book Interpretation of Fairytales was published. I was already familiar with Holbek’s theories and method of interpretation, since I had been his student in the University of Copenhagen in 1978-9 when he was working on this mammoth book and discussing it in his weekly seminar with graduate students. But the publication renewed my interest in interpretation. At the same time, I was influenced by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poems, which often used folk legends as their inspiration. I was also influenced by a lecture given by Dr Angela Bourke, in which she opined that fairy beliefs and legends could be viewed as a sort of code by which people in the traditional communities spoke about the unspeakable – infanticide (the changeling legend), clandestine childbirth (“Midwife to the Fairies”). Bo Almqvist suggested that the very popular legend of “The Man Who Married the Mermaid” could be seen as a story about an unhappy marriage, separation and divorce, and that “The Fairy Hill is on Fire” was definitely about the pressure on women to be good housekeepers.
In 1984, the Kerry Babies case was headline news. Two dead newborn infants were discovered in Kerry, a young woman was charged with their murder. Subsequently, a tribunal of inquiry into the case and into the behaviour of the gardaí involved was held – there were allegations of forced confessions. Witnesses changed their evidence. It was a major news story, about a miscarriage of justice. I knew from folklore studies that infanticide was not uncommon in Ireland in the past. The story of the Kerry Babies, and particularly one aspect of it – that a witness, present or in the house when one of the dead babies was born, gave two different versions of the event. That reminded me of the folktale “Midwife to the Fairies”. In the final scene the fairies put out the eye of the midwife, who is not supposed to see them or speak about the baby she delivered inside the fairy fort. The farmhouse in which Joanne Hayes lived with her family looked isolated, out in the country, like a fairy fort. All these ideas came together. I wrote the story, a fiction about a clandestine birth and the death of a newborn baby.
To assuage my guilt at using a legend, which after all some other artist had told, orally, I included the entire text, or most of it (in translation) in the body of my story. I did not retell the original story, I let it speak for itself. It lies side by side with my contemporary story – an invented story, set in Shankill and Co Wicklow, but inspired by the Kerry Babies.
I think the mysteriousness of the legend enhances my story. Indeed I always feel this, when I use this device, of counterpointing a modern story with an old legend or folktale. The old stories are beautiful. They survive because they mean something – this is Holbek’s theory. But there is another reason for their survival, it seems to me. They are beautiful.
Your story “The Flowering” was a key text in the foundation of Women’s Studies in Ireland. It brought women’s history and positive reclamation into focus. Can you talk about its origins?
In the National Library, where I worked then as an assistant keeper, I came across a book called The Irish Flowerers (1971) by Elizabeth Boyle. It’s a great book, a history of crocheting and embroidery in Ireland – the women called crocheting “the flowering”, which is a beautiful and evocative and totally suitable name for what they were doing. I actually remembered, then, that as a young child I had known an old woman in my father’s valley in Donegal who was a flowerer. She was very old, and she used to sit outside her cottage, crocheting, and offering handkerchiefs and doilies for sale to passing tourists. Like the women described in Elizabeth Boyle’s book, she was no doubt one of those who had been taught crochet and embroidery by teachers employed by the Congested Districts Board, back in the late 1800s. So a few impressions came together. Elizabeth Boyle tells the story of a young woman in Co Down, or Antrim, who was a wonderful embroiderer, but who had to take work as a maid, and could not continue to work at her flowering. She went mad, or committed suicide, I can’t remember which.
So all these ideas came together –“herstory”, women as artists, the undervalued art of women, the torture for a woman who could not fulfil herself as an artist owing to economic circumstances. This was a big issue for me back then, when I was in my early thirties. I was working full-time in the National Library, I had two little children, I was trying to keep up some of my folklore research, and also trying to write fiction and get my first books published. I was full of ambition, as one is at that stage, but – as is also often the case, for men and women – I had a lot of responsibilities.
You were part of a strong cultural feminist moment/movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. How did that influence your writing?
“The Flowering” was also inspired by my discovery of literary feminism, in the 1980s. My eyes were opened when I joined the Women’s Studies Forum in UCD around 1985. The Forum organised lectures and other events, and I became aware of ideas such as “herstory”, women’s art, the woman’s voice (or lack thereof) in literature.
Prior to that I was very ignorant about feminism as it related to art and literature. As a student of literature in the 1970s I never noticed that almost all the works we studied had been written by men. The folktales I studied in my folklore studies were mostly told by men. Seamas Ó Duilearga in his seminal article “The Gaelic Storyteller” (1945) commented that most Irish storytellers were men, and that women knew the stories but did not perform them. I accepted all this at face value. Now, at the Women’s Studies Forum, I discovered that assertions such as Ó Duilearga’s were open to question. I also found out that women were seriously underrepresented in the literary canon, not because they didn’t write, but because their work was not valued, and that the literary scene in Ireland (and the world) was male-dominated.
I had been writing since my teens. But when I was enlightened by feminism, I realised that it was important to go on writing. Start. Finish. Start again. Feminism gave me an incentive to start again. As I have written in my essay in Look! It’s a Woman Writer!, I wonder if I would have continued writing had it not been for feminism. There were so many other aspects of life getting in the way, so many temptations: my research interest (I was passionately interested in folklore research), my family, children, job. I theorise that in the past young women who were writing gave up under all these pressures, and nobody was begging them to go on. Nobody is ever begging a writer to go on, I guess, but feminism gave me a “cause”. That was its main influence on me. The other was that I began to think seriously about exploring women’s lives and experiences. So I wrote stories like “The Flowering”, “Midwife to the Fairies”, “Eating Women is Not Recommended”. Before, in the ’70s, I had sometimes written stories from the point of view of a man. I stopped doing that after the Women’s Studies Forum, realising that men were well able to write their own stories.
And now you have edited this anthology of writing by your female contemporaries. Your argument is that women’s writing in Ireland began to flourish in the 1980s.
In the 1980s, there was a luxuriant flowering of fiction, poetry and children’s literature by Irish women, when these 1950s babies had reached the age of thirty or so – the most usual age for a writer to publish her first novel is thirty, according to the great novelist Jane Smiley. There have been periods of interest in “the woman’s voice” in literature before, and they faded away, but I am convinced that the flowering of women writers in the 1980s will not fade away. The women who started publishing then, when they were in their thirties, are mostly still publishing in their sixties and seventies. This is the main point of Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Everything has changed, as far as women are concerned. In a rough examination of the catalogue of the National Library of Ireland, looking at books by Irish writers acquired in 1960 and in 2010, I found that in 1960 about 25 per cent were written by women, and in 2010 almost 50 per cent. The National Library’s policy is to acquire every book written by an Irish author, books published in Ireland, and books about Ireland; there has never been any discrimination against women in its collection policy, to my knowledge. This was a very rough study, using the online catalogue, and applying to all books, not just literary works, but I am pretty sure that a scholarly investigation of Irish literature would come up with a similar statistic. Unquestionably, the book world has changed dramatically over the past fifty years.
I felt Arlen House, which began as a feminist publishing house in 1975, was an appropriate publisher for this book and Alan Hayes, who has always been a supporter of women’s writing, has made it a beautiful production, with the addition of colour images and a scholarly essay telling the story of women’s publishing in Ireland since the 1970s. The book was to have come out a year ago, but the pandemic intervened.
Did anything surprise you about the contributions?
I was surprised at how varied the essays were ‑ some very personal, others more political, chatty and intimate, others formal. I was touched by the honesty of writers, when describing their experiences with publishers, reviewers and so on.
This may be a strange question, given the remit of the anthology, but it’s worth asking because this is often a contentious question at festivals etc. Where do you stand on the issue of labels such as ‘Irish’, ‘Woman’ ‘Writer’?
It’s a bagatelle. I’ve always been happy to be labelled Irish, and a woman. I don’t see anything wrong with either. I like them. I was a writer, indeed, before I was a woman, and long before I was a feminist. But I have always been Irish. I like to think of myself as European, and am deeply connected now by family, language and culture with other European countries, and America. But I’m still Irish. Perhaps I should be angrier, protesting that I am a just a writer. But nobody is just a writer. We are individual, we are universal, but it is just as true that our context forms us. That is in fact one of the points of this anthology. We are individuals ensconced in place and time, sheltered, or trapped, as it may be, in the nets of history. And of place and of gender. Men writers are men writers: they should be labelled too. Irish Men Writers – because, you know, they really have been very male, and usually very Irish, for most of history.
Thinking about the Vida count. – where do we stand now?
I am fond of number-crunching. We – women writers – need to keep our eye on the statistics. There has been a huge improvement in the representation of women in literature in Ireland, in the reviewing of women’s books in the media, during my lifetime. I don’t foresee a reversal of that trend. But we need to keep an eye on things and not become complacent.
There was a backlash against feminism, and against women’s literature, in the 1980s. Publishers like Attic were derided. Men still lash out against women-only prizes, and publications. I foresee criticism of this anthology, for instance, by some of my own friends. In the past, men have said things like this to me: “Women can’t write” and “Attic Press is a vanity press for women.” They continue to say things like “You all know each other, don’t you, and review each others’ books?” and “It seems that evey woman is a writer these days.” I think some men suspect that they are discriminated against because of their gender, and that women get a free pass. But, as Maeve Binchy used to say – I paraphrase – literary success is not a pie. There’s plenty for everyone.
In earlier interviews you have said that your folkloric research and your own writing practice are part of an ongoing quest to discover the secret(s) of storytelling. Have you found it/them?
The key question! It is true that I started out with the ambition to find out how good stories were made. That’s why I studied Pure English in UCD, and in a way it is what led me to the study of folktales – back to the origin of stories, because human beings were creating good stories long before they learned how to read and write.
Folklore studies provide some answers to what constitutes a good story, when we ask why some stories survive and some do not. In the pure oral tradition, a story will only survive if people tell it. They will only tell it if listeners are interested. We know that thousands of “stories” are told every day, but only some catch on and get passed around and down through the generations. Why? Good oral stories have a coherent plot – in many instances, a predictable plot for the listeners. They are colourful. They contain images which are extraordinary, exaggeratedly beautiful or ugly and terrifying. They also express emotions or ideas which interest the narrators and audiences and are meaningful. This in fact is one of the basic theories of why some stories survived and others did not: it is the stories whose meaning is relevant to the society that survive. So, the wondertales, inaccurately called “fairy tales”, survive because they always tell the story of a disadvantaged young person who overcomes obstacles and achieves success: rags to riches, loneliness to love, immaturity to maturity. Other kinds of story, for example of oneupmanship, show us poor but smart people overcoming prejudice and stupidity (“The Emperor’s New Clothes”)
I think what successful stories often have in common, though, is central characters who are sympathetic, or at least interesting. In fiction, we have long abandoned the tightly plotted tale. Still, some of the old patterns are there, even in the most untraditional of stories. In Ulysses – which could do with a bit more plot – we have one of the oldest storylines of all, the storyline of all wondertales and hero tales: the hero goes on a journey. In this instance, the journey is around Dublin. Leopold Bloom is lacking a son, and he finds Stephen. Stephen lacks a father, and he finds Bloom. Lack/lack liquidated.
Even the most plotless short stories – and many of mine fall into that category – have a “quest” theme, or a lack/lack liquidated structure. Someone is looking for something, and they find it, or do not find it. So much for plot, storyline, the structure of story.
But what I notice, with novels, plays, films, television dramas, that keep me reading, is that the characters are interesting. They have to do something (that is plot or storyline) but what really keeps one’s attention is that they themselves are rounded, believable, interesting, and often vulnerable. This is particularly well-demonstrated in the genre of detective fiction, a genre which has replaced folktales as a popular form of narrative reaching a wide audience. In the most popular and best detective novels or dramas, the hero is always interesting, quirky as in the Agatha Christie stories, quirky and vulnerable in the most recent great dramas: Saga in The Bridge, Sara Lund in The Killing, Kurt Wallander in all the novels and TV dramas. The central character is strong and appealing because of his or her flaws, and difficulties (Saga’s difficult mother, Wallander’s troublesome father and failed love relationships, etc.) The supporting characters, in this sort of fiction, are also interesting, because they are engaged in “normal” human life – family relationships, love affairs, money problems and so on. The plots – finding the killer, revealing motivation – hold the stories together. Surprises and unpredictability play a role. But what makes these fictions attractive is the characters. Superficiality is the enemy of good stories. Depth is the key. The writer has to think hard.
So. A good story. Something happens to somebody. That somebody is interesting. The writer digs deep into the character and the character’s dilemma. The writer is thoughtful. And of course the writer chooses his or her words well. I don’t think plot is very important but it’s there. It’s the framework of the house and without it the house falls down. Originality in writing is in the style, the weaving of words, and, above all, depth of thought.
The research conducted for this interview was funded by the Irish Research Council under grant number GOIPG/2020/349