Books

Irish literature is having a resurgence – and women are at the forefront

From Anna Burns to Suzanne O’Sullivan, writing by Irish women is undergoing a revival. Novelist Jan Carson looks at what’s contributed to recent successes. 

Recently there’s been much talk of a resurgence in Irish literature, particularly writing by women. This supposed trend encompasses all genres from literary fiction to crime, YA, poetry and non-fiction. Female Irish writers are enjoying significant commercial success, with novelists such as Louise O’Neill, Marian Keyes, Maggie O’Farrell and Liz Nugent regularly appearing in international bestseller lists.

But it’s not just sales which typify their growing influence; many are also receiving critical acclaim. Northern Irish novelist Anna Burns’ Booker win for Milkman added yet another major literary prize to the long list of accolades recently garnered. Notable mentions should also go to Sinead Morrissey’s TS Eliot and Forward Prize wins for Parallax and On Balance respectively, Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing which won the Goldsmiths, Desmond Elliott and Women’s Prize for Fiction awards in 2014, Lisa McInerney’s Bailey’s prize-winning The Glorious Heresies, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s 2016 Wellcome Prize win for It’s All In Your Head, Irish children’s laureate Sarah Crossan’s Carnegie Medal-winning One, and playwright Abbie Spallen, who won the prestigious Windham-Campbell prize in 2016. The list is far-reaching, cross genre and growing daily. 

Jan Carson is the author of The Fire Starters

Arguably Irish women writers are enjoying something of a heyday. While this revival must be viewed in light of the wider socio-political climate, where a growing interest in women’s rights and movements such as #MeToo have encouraged women worldwide to write prolifically and fearlessly about issues affecting them, Ireland does seem to be producing an unprecedented volume of high-quality female writers.

There are a number of factors underpinning this current boom. Recent legislative change in the South and the need for urgent, widespread reform of laws impacting Northern women’s rights have created a charged political climate where women are playing an essential part in both demanding and achieving reform. The ongoing erosion of the established Church’s influence has also undermined patriarchal constraints on women’s autonomy. Many women currently writing in Ireland are enjoying a freedom hard-won by the previous generation’s struggles. Having both freedom to write and pressing issues to engage with is the literary equivalent of a perfect storm.

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But it’s more than that. There is now an established network of supportive organisations through which women can share their writing. Movements like Waking the Feminists and Women Aloud NI have been catalytic in galvanising women to demand equality, exposure and support for their work. Publishers and journals such as Banshee, Tramp Press and Arlen House have championed women’s writing and, working in parallel with several recent anthologies, (Female Lines, The Long Gaze Back, The Glass Shore), have provided a platform for both contemporary women and the posthumous writers who shaped the literary landscape of Ireland.

However much the current creative climate seems to be producing Irish women writers at a furious rate, the reality should not become lost beneath the (albeit welcome) enthusiastic accolades. This is not a new phenomenon. 

The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

Despite what the infamous Irish writers’ poster, with its 16 stern-faced men, might suggest, there have always been prolific and talented female writers on the island of Ireland. Consider the lost female texts currently being resurrected by Irish publishers: eloquent and vociferous writers like Janet McNeill, Norah Hoult and Maeve Brennan.

Throughout history women have been consistently excised from the Irish literary canon. They existed. They wrote. They engaged with all the important social and political issues of their day. Any number of factors kept them from achieving the readership currently being enjoyed by their contemporaries.

The male dominated publishing world did its best to bar them from inclusion and influence. The patriarchal constraints of Church and society shamed them into silence. The responsibilities of home and family placed an impossible burden upon their time and resources.

Projects like the recent anthologies of female short story writers and the Fired poetry movement, which invites contemporary Irish poets to highlight the work of female poets who’ve been removed from the literary canon, have been incredible avenues for raising awareness of our female literary heritage. It is absolutely vital that we continue to pay tribute and give due respect to those women who wrote through difficult, male-dominated and politically troubled periods of our history. We owe much of our current freedom to their bravery and creativity.

There are too many influential women to mention by name. Let me highlight two of my personal heroes: Evelyn Conlon, who edited the ground breaking anthology of women’s short stories, Cutting The Night in Two, and Ruth Carr, who in 1985, at the height of the Troubles, published The Female Line, a fearless anthology of women’s writing from across Northern Ireland. For me, both women typify the boldness, bravery and sheer bloody mindedness which has kept Irish women’s writing alive when few people were reading, publishing or even willing to give woman an opportunity to speak. Women like Carr and Conlon, through their own writing and generous support of others, broke difficult ground and paved the way for younger, female writers to both achieve platforms for their work and the freedom to engage, vociferously with all the issues of the day.

Perhaps then, the question isn’t why there’s been a resurgence of Irish women’s writing so much as why it has taken the world so long to notice these women and their incredible work.

The cynics in me wonders if the current political climate, (with Brexit impacting both sides of the Border, the Catholic Church in rampant decline and widespread legislative change – or stalemate- in regards to women’s right), is finally giving the Press reason to focus upon those women writing about contemporary Ireland.

The longsuffering optimist in me prefers to believe that with so many women writing so powerfully, for so long, it was only a matter of time before we gained the world’s attention.

Jan Carson is the author of The Fire Starters (Doubleday, £14.99), out today. 

Images: Unsplash / Penguin Random House

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