Contemporary Irish Literature: an Expanding Chorus of Voices

A country of storytellers, poets and writers, Ireland has always been a rich breeding ground for language lovers but never before has Irish literature been this prolific. John Patrick McHugh, Naoise Dolan and Megan Nolan are just a few of the compelling voices who are attracting attention these days. In 2018 the Irish Fiction Laureate Sebastian Barry defined such a phenomenon as “a golden age of Irish prose writing.” However, what is most striking is the noticeable amount of women who have been debuting in recent times, Sally Rooney, Emilie Pine and Sinéad Gleeson among them. Why does it appear as though Ireland is producing so many female writers nowadays? Is it because women today have more opportunities compared to the past? How has the Irish literary industry become more female dominated in the past few years?

Mary Morrissy is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Her first two books, the short story collection A Lazy Eye (1994) and the novel Mother of Pearl (1995), earned her the prestigious US Lannan Literary Award in 1995. Since then she has never stopped writing, authoring two more novels (The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey) and one more short story collection (Prosperity Drive). But how was it for a woman working her way into the Irish literary scene in the early 90s?

Initially, one of her main concerns, Mary explained, was having to balance both the woman and the writer, a binary which seemed to her almost incompatible back then. From her previous experience as the Associate Director of Creative Writing in University College Cork, Mary noticed that such a conundrum was no longer a big issue for those who want to break into the literary world, especially for young people:

From dealing with female students, I don’t get the same anxieties about authorship and managing a female life and the creative life … I think it’s a much more common problem today that people have complicated lives. Men and women are doing a lot of juggling.

Apart from that, Mary also confessed that she had long struggled with the idea of calling herself a writer:

I think that took a really long time. I thought ‘what do I need to have done before I can say I’m a writer?’… you think ‘okay, it is the first time you got something published, can you then call yourself a writer? That has to be a book or just to be several books before you can actually come out?’ I found that process really hard.

How about male writers? Did her male peers go through the same dilemma?

I was surrounded by men who would sit at the bar and drink several hundred pints and say I’m a writer even if they hadn’t written anything, just identify… they didn’t need proof, they didn’t have to show anything … it was like a birthright. I did not feel that. I had to kind of really edge my way into it.

When she debuted as a writer, Mary was in her mid-thirties. Age, she has remarked, was the other huge difference between women writers and their male peers when it came to commencing a writing career in Ireland at the time:

Male writers always got published much earlier. If you were sort of a busy male writer you’d have your first book out at your twenties. Most women would have to enter in their thirties before their first book came out. Some of them would have to do with having children but mostly it took longer for women to work their way into that.

All this might sound rather surprising when one considers the emergence of many celebrated young women writers such as Sara Baume, Nicole Flattery and Sally Rooney in the last few years. What has changed then? Today women have undoubtedly many more opportunities to get their work published in Ireland compared to the previous decades. One need only consider how much independent presses such as Stinging Fly, Banshee Press, Tramp Press, Lilliput, New Island Books have contributed to the launch of new female voices including Oona Frawley, Mary Costello, Lucy Sweeney Byrne and Doireann Ní Ghríofa. And it doesn’t stop here. A broader range of literary journals including the female-run Banshee, Tangerine, Moth, Gorse and the more recently launched Sonder are now available to any emerging writer who wants to send her pieces out nowadays. Additionally, in January 2019 award-winning Irish author Nuala O’Connor set up Splonk,the first Irish online flash fiction journal: “It didn’t have much to do with me being a woman, per se, it was more to do with my love of flash fiction. But I am a feminist and I’m a do-er by nature – I create things (groups, publications etc.) all the time. But, I do think the Irish literary scene has been dominated by men (and continues to be, in certain ways and in some positions of power) and women just got really fed up with that and decided it was time to act, leading several women to set up journals with inclusive mandates,” Nuala affirmed. The increasing number of female contributors to these journals is notable, making one naturally wonder if there are probably many young women writing rather than young men in Ireland at the moment? “A majority of our submissions have come from women,” Sinéad Creedon and Orla Murphy, the editors of Sonder have declared:

Our latest issue has more men in it than in previous issues. This is not a conscious choice. We read and choose our pieces anonymously. But generally our submissions inbox is dominated by female writers and that is reflected in our journal … with a lot in Ireland being led by women, women feel more confident in submitting their work.

Drawing upon her teaching experience, Mary confirmed the predominance of women among her students:

If you look at the class I had a few years ago, just two of them were men and the rest were women. It’s becoming very feminised. If you do workshops or festivals around the country, it’s definitely predominantly female.

In the 70’s and the 80’s, people like David Marcus and Caroline Walsh, the then literary editors of The Irish Press and The Irish Times, were some of the first seminal figures who fostered women’s writing in Ireland and who, as Mary has added, “helped build a community of writers generally, and women writers in particular, that still persists.” The mid-70’s also witnessed the birth of the feminist Arlen House and the Poolbeg presses (the latter not publishing women exclusively), which introduced female authors such as Maeve Binchy, Patricia Scanlan, Marian Keyes and relaunched often forgotten writers including Kate O’Brien.

But was everything so smooth once a woman got published? As Mary observed, after entering the literary scene, it was almost impossible for women not to be affected by gender bias and to see their works confined to a separate category, what Italian author Elena Ferrante called ‘a literary gynaeceum’ (in ancient Greece, a gynaeceum was the section of a building reserved for women). In particular, Mary has stressed that this tendency to classify women’s writing as a genre apart was exacerbated during the years of her debut, giving birth to a new genre aimed at a female public exclusively.

For a long time you were labelled as a woman writer. It was like a special literary genre, like a little niche market … And then the way women got into the mainstream of Irish publishing was through Chick Lit. As a result there was a huge explosion in Chick Lit in the 90s.

Significant strides have been made since then. More and more Irish women writers are engaging with literary fiction today. “That’s what I found so encouraging now about people like Nicole Flattery, Sara Baume and Sally Rooney,” Mary said, “they are absolutely unashamedly literary writers who are in there with the big boys, and no distinction is being made.” However, such gender bias was not circumscribed just to literature, she has clarified. When in the early 70’s, the former Evening Press feature editor, Seán McCann gave Mary her first break in journalism, he was running a weekly woman’s page called ‘Petticoat Panel’:

He did great work and everything but you think ‘my god’. At the time we didn’t think that was strange. There was nothing demeaning about that. We just thought ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing something for ‘Petticoat Panel.’ It now sounds like Victorian.

The current publishing landscape has very much improved compared to the past. But is it really much easier for a woman writer to get published in Ireland today? Twenty-seven year old Louise Nealon’s debut novel Snowflake will be released in May. Having written stories since she was a child, she decided to study literature and develop her writing skills in college. After doing a BA in English in Trinity College, she received a Masters in Creative Writing from Queen’s University in Belfast in 2016. Her class was also notable for how many women were in it. Although all the lecturers were male, 11 out of 14 of the students were indeed women.

While I have great respect for the lecturers,” Louise has noted, “I learned the most from a woman in my class – Louise Kennedy. She has gone on to be shortlisted for the Audible Short Story award twice and has a debut short story collection out this year (The End of the World is a Cul de Sac will be released by Bloomsbury in April). I feel like there are a lot of Irish women over 40 who have come to writing relatively late in life:- Louise Kennedy, Una Mannion, Danielle McLaughlin among many more … I think part of the reason for this is a lack of confidence and support shown to them when they were younger … I admire those women an awful lot. They are producing some of the most exciting work that is out there today.

Once she had graduated, however, Louise found it quite difficult to take her first steps into the literary milieu:

After the course ended, I felt really lost. I didn’t think I was good enough to publish anything, but I submitted a couple of stories to competitions. At that stage it felt like I had more chance of winning the Euromillions.

She had to practice a lot of resilience to navigate her way through the ferociously competitive and crowded literary arena. Thankfully, talent and fortune were on her side. Her short story ‘What Feminism is’ was awarded the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Prize in 2017. The story, which focuses on the bad sex experience from the point of view of a young woman, was the first work she got published. “There was so much luck involved that it feels like fiction. It wasn’t the first time I submitted a story for publication. I still get lots of rejection emails,” she admitted.

Despite the initial difficulties of reaching the reading public, Louise did not get discouraged and kept on writing. Her determination and tenacity proved to be her trump card. When The Irish Times reprinted her award-winning short story, agent Marianne Gunn-O’Connor came across her name and got in touch, offering her guidance through the difficult publishing world. “She gave me the confidence to consider that it was possible that I could make a living from writing full-time,” she said. But how does she feel being part of the recent boom of Irish female voices in fiction? “Irish women have been silenced for generations, so I think it’s only natural that there is this cacophony of female voices in Irish literature,” Louise has pointed out.

I don’t think it’s any easier for women to get published in Ireland than it is for men, but we don’t take this equality for granted. It has been a long time coming. I feel like I owe it to my female ancestors to articulate some of the things that they never got to say. I still feel like I’m trying to make my way into the literary scene. The closer I get, the more it seems like a mirage.

The national literature – often defined by the names of Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Bernard Shaw etc. – is becoming a more inclusive space. Readers have now set their eyes on this new promise of Irish literature who has just joined this resolute chorus of women. Commenting on her favourite female writers – including Edna O’Brien, Isabelle Allende and Elena Ferrante – Louise has observed:

All of these writers seem to express my own secret thoughts in their writing… One of the few benefits of being a woman is that there are so many of these communal secret thoughts that are yet to be transcribed in fiction.

The Irish literary landscape has expanded considerably, enriching and complicating this chorus of voices that is Irish literature. The remarkable number of talented men and women writers who are emerging these days is unquestionably clear evidence of the healthy state of contemporary Irish fiction, as well as being one step closer to gender balance in the arts.

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