1954: A good year for an Irish woman writer to be born

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne looks at the social and gender progress made since her birth

David Lodge, in his memoir, Quite a Good Time to be Born, observes that as a writer he was lucky with his birth date of 1935. It meant free secondary and university education were available in the UK at the right time for him, and that he began to publish novels when authors were still cherished by publishing houses, and could earn significant money. Had he been born a bit earlier, his life could have been very different.

Ireland in 1954 was possibly one of the worst years in which to be a writer, or a woman, or perhaps even a man, unless you were well-off, or a cleric, in which case it was probably a great time. In the 1950s, Ireland hit a sociological, economic and cultural nadir. It’s the decade associated with the highest levels of emigration in the 20th century. Poverty was widespread. Women who transgressed the puritanical sexual rules – often by being raped, a crime which wasn’t much recognised as such – were treated abominably. The country was full of Magdalene laundries and cruel mother-and-baby homes, and even more ghastly industrial schools for boys, like Letterfrack and Artane.

Nineteen fifty-four was the Marian Year. The cult of the Virgin Mary was at its height; one woman (who conveniently did not exist, at least not on Earth) was adored; real women were the snares of the devil. In some ways, Ireland had not progressed much since the 14th century. There was massive inequality; the Catholic Church practically ruled the land, politicians were terrified of offending the ultra-conservative archbishop of Dublin, the infamous John Charles McQuaid.

Literary heritage

Literature could not but be affected by the fundamentalist atmosphere of the time. Ireland now prides itself on its literary heritage and boasts to a sometimes tiresome extent about its great writing tradition. But writers were not cherished in the 1950s. Saints and scholars, yes, with the emphasis on the former. Not real, live writers. This was particularly the case if they were novelists or writers of fiction. Their works were not just unadmired. To read them was de facto illegal, because they were banned by the censor.


In June 1953, Seamas Kelly, Quidnunc of The Irish Times, wrote the following satiric jingle on the occasion of the International Pen Conference in Dublin:

Haven't you been Censored Yet? Mo náire Thú.
We've got a lovely lengthy list and we hope you'll be thrilled
To find your works appearing there with 'Hotsy, you've been chilled!'
The censor doesn't trust you all, and so to save us sin He
Sends your novel to cold storage with the Works of Doctor Kinsey.
O, céad mile Faite and the wearing of the Green
For we find the oddest novelists are generally obscene.
Among your hosts you'll want to meet Ó Faoláin, Clarke, O Connor
Who, we are told, attained (abroad) some literary honour
They may not all be present at your feastings and your sport
For they're apt to be on trial at our Literary court
Cead Míle Fáilte, no xenophobes are we
For we'll clear this land of writers from the centre to the sea.

The period of most intensive censorship in Ireland was the 1950s. Between 1926, when the Office for the Censorship of Evil Literature was set up, and 1967, when it more or less lapsed into idleness, more than 3,000 works were banned by the State. Two kinds of work predominated: in the first place, anything giving information on contraception or sexuality; in the second, novels in English. Poetry was seldom if ever banned; books in Irish, never – perhaps because it was assumed the Irish publishers would self-censor. Fiction in English was the “evil literature” par excellence, in Ireland – most Irish fiction in English was published, not surprisingly, abroad, in England (publishing a novel then was a bit like having an abortion – you had to go to London).

Censor’s hands

All our good novelists and short-story writers suffered at the hands of the censor: Edna O'Brien, John McGahern, Frank O'Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Kate O'Brien. Non-Irish writers were also at the party, of course, and the lists included works by Guy de Maupassant, Vilhelm Moberg, John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Mary McCarthy, Philip Roth. Their books rubbed shoulders with works entitled Bound Ankles, or Original Bitch, and Sasha Gets Ravaged. And anything that "advocates the unnatural prevention of conception, advocates contraception".

We are inclined to laugh at the follies of our quaint forebears, and joke that you were nobody as a writer if you were not banned. But for the Irish writers whose books could not be sold in their own country, it was not a laughing matter. Frank O'Connor, who has the honour of having written one of the very few poems to be banned, his translation of Brian Merriman's Cúirt An Mheán Oíche, commented: "English publishers are no longer prepared to publish the work of an Irish author. They realise that nearly all serious work will be banned in Ireland." (December 12th, 1961.)

The worst year of all for banning was 1954 when 300 books made it to the censor’s list in that year, more than in any other during the decades of censorship.

A cursory check of holdings in the National Library suggests that from 1920 to 1980, about 20 per cent of Irish fiction was written by female writers

Perhaps things had come to a head? Although the banning of literary fiction that made any reference to sexuality continued into the mid-1960s – John McGahern's The Dark, a novel about child abuse, as we belatedly recognised, was one of the last novels to make it to the censor's list, in 1965 – it began to slow down as the 1950s progressed. By the end of the 1960s, the censor focused only on manuals giving information on "unnatural forms of contraception" and, of course, abortion. The Irish love affair with novelists, who had resisted the mood of the land and had written against it during the dark days, was about to begin.

You didn’t have to be a woman writer to be banned. The censor practised gender equality, you can say that for him (he was always male, as far as I know). But he didn’t have to ban that many women, because they weren’t publishing in large numbers. Although we have no figures for the proportion of men to women fiction writers in Ireland, it is possible to find them. We know for instance that as far as novels in the Irish language are concerned, about 300 in total were published in the 20th century. Of those, 10 were written by women. A quite bizarre statistic.

Fiction stats

For fiction in English it is much harder to get the figures. A cursory check of holdings in the National Library, which has as its policy to collect every book by an Irish author, suggests that from 1920 to 1980, about 20 per cent of Irish fiction was written by female writers. Much more work needs to be done to establish reliable figures, however. But I would speculate that this percentage – based on a quick check of the first 100 titles which come up in the NLI catalogue, using filters Irish author, fiction, and date – would be supported by a more scientific search. I suggest also that the impact of censorship would have had a stronger impact on women than on men. And here I will quote from an essay by myself, in a forthcoming anthology of essays by women writers born mid-century, on my experiences as a writer:

“‘A woman can’t be a good writer,’ my boyfriend told me. I can remember very well the moment. We were sitting on the banks of the Grand Canal under a hawthorn tree, one balmy summer night. It was July. It was 1971. In October I was going to college to study English. I was going to be a writer.

‘Why not?’

‘They can’t be frank enough.’”

About emotion, love, and sex, I guess is what he meant. Even young men, relatively enlightened, in 1971, had certain fixed expectations of what women should be: modest, softly spoken, gentle.

I had no arguments to defend my literary ambitions, or those of my gender. I might have mentioned the female army of the college English syllabus – that trusty triumvirate: Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson. Obviously I wouldn’t have elicited support from Enid Blyton or Elinor Brent-Dyer or even Louisa May Alcott, since obviously no man in his right mind would rate those scribblers of children’s fiction as real writers.

But until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that simply by being female I was innately incapable of being a writer. That being female was a kind of disability, that in the literary stakes I belonged in the category of someone with special needs. With the gift of hindsight, I realise that the young man had put his finger on something very significant. Women in Ireland were expected to be modest, retiring, ladylike. A writer reveals too much, she reveals her heart and her soul, and, even worse, possibly other secrets to do with her body. It’s fine for a man to do that, but how could a decent Irish girl consider such a thing? Goodness! She might as well go off and hang around Burlington Road or Harcourt Street, selling her body to men in expensive purring motor cars.

Moreover, she would break another very strong, and related, taboo. She’d be showing off. This was absolutely forbidden by the whispered constitution of the time. And it is one reason why there were very few Irish women writers. Nice Irish women didn’t write fiction. They read it. Then they covered their heads with lace mantillas and bowed them to the male gods of the country – not a few of whom were prancing about the slopes of Mount Parnassus. (They still are.)

Puritanism and Mariolatry

But in 1954, did all that banning and Puritanism and Mariolatry matter to an infant or a toddler, providing, of course, she had the basic luck to belong to a family which could look after and cherish her and could afford to stay in Ireland? I – and all the other female babies, born in or around 1954, who would become writers – were unaware of the mores of our society. We didn’t know that we had the distinction of being born in the year in which 300 books were banned in Ireland. And we could not have anticipated that from then on, things would change for the better. The darkest hour is before the dawn. As the babies of the 1950s grew up, everything improved.

As time would eventually tell – and despite it being possibly the worst year to be a grown-up novelist – 1954 was quite a good year for a baby writer to be born if you happened to be an Irish female baby with a pen in her mouth. I and several female babies born in or around 1954 became writers. I am in the process of editing an anthology of essays by these writers, now in their 60s, in which they describe their careers.

My guess is that our lives would have been very different had we arrived on Earth 20 years earlier. In fact, I would go so far as to ask, would we have become writers at all?

By the 1950s or the 1960s, only a tiny handful of female novelists or poets were well-known, and they were not all well-liked

Changes occurred in the 1960s and 1970s which benefited everyone, but particularly women and particularly writers, and, eventually, perhaps inevitably, because everything hangs together, women who were writers. The introduction of free secondary education in 1966; the introduction of third-level grants enabling poor children to go to university in 1971; accession to the EEC in 1973 and subsequent legislation encouraging equal opportunities for women’s employment – notably the lifting of the marriage bar in the Civil Service in 1973, were all major changes which gradually changed the landscape for women.

The battle for reproductive rights continued until 2018, but by the time the babies of the mid-1950s were having babies themselves, “unnatural forms of contraception”, as the censor put it, were available, at least if you were a university student or graduate in a city, even if they were not legal until 1980. This, of course, was the single great improvement in women’s lives in this country, which paved the way for multiple other changes, improving the wellbeing of women, and enabling them to have some chance of fulfilling themselves professionally, artistically and financially.

Women have been creating literature for a very long time, in Ireland as elsewhere. But until the 1980s, they were in a minority. The work of women was in general not celebrated or recognised. Novelists and poets of the 19th century and of the Revival – Lady Morgan, Annie P Smithson, Katharine Tynan, Eva Gore-Booth – and of the early 20th century – Maura Laverty, Teresa Deevy, Elizabeth O’Connor, Norah Hoult – were forgotten.

Being banned

By the 1950s or the 1960s, only a tiny handful of female novelists or poets were well-known, and they were not all well-liked: Mary Lavin, Kate O'Brien, Edna O'Brien. Mary Lavin escaped the censor. Kate O'Brien was hardly spoken of. Edna O'Brien was censored and reviled, and the title of one of her books, A Scandalous Woman, could describe the way she was regarded in Ireland in the 1960s. Hoult, who had published 30 novels, dealing largely with the lives of women, and had the honour of being banned more often than almost anyone else, was living in Greystones until 1984, but we never heard of her when I was growing up. None of them were on the university syllabus for English literature in the early 1970s.

There were winds of change in the world in the 1950s and 1960s, which began to influence Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. Cultural feminism, literary feminism, was flourishing in the United States, in the UK and in Europe. The rediscovery of books by women, the republishing, and the drive to encourage more writing by women was a phenomenon of the 1970s. Virago (originally Spare Rib Press) had been established in London in 1973 to publish books by women authors, past and contemporary. In the 1960s, what is known as the Second Wave Feminist Movement foregrounded writing by women and developed feminist theories of literary criticism, mainly in the US. While feminist literary theory was to exert a profound effect on the production of literature by women in Ireland (whether the writers are aware of it or not), popular feminist books, such as Betty Frieden's The Feminine Mystique (1963), Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1979), and Simone de Beauvoir's much earlier The Second Sex (1949) were making an impact on the way women thought.

Ireland began to pay attention. In 1975, Arlen House, on the model of Virago, was founded in Dublin by Catherine Rose – just when the babies of 1954 were coming of age. In 1984, when they were 30, the most usual age for any writer to publish her first novel, Roisin Conroy established Attic Press. These publishing houses had a huge practical value for women’s writing: they published the stuff. But they also had a symbolic significance. They highlighted facts relating to the previous history of Irish letters – for instance, that the woman’s voice was to a great extent silenced or ignored. And at the same time they created a literary atmosphere in which it became fashionable, popular and profitable to pay attention to women’s voices.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the surest sign that you are on to a good thing. It was not long until other publishers, and male writers, underwent a change of mind and heart about the value of women. The library changed. The book changed. And the Irish imagination changed. Women’s lives and experiences were deemed to be worth writing about. Women were no longer discouraged from exploring the trivial domestic quotidian in books which they wrote themselves.

Field Day fiasco

This did not happen overnight and without controversy. The woman's voice was not universally welcomed, and a close analysis of reactions – reviews, comments, criticism – would uncover a (now) fascinating level of backlash. The debacle of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, what was to have been the major publishing event of 1990, symbolises the one step forward/two steps backwards feel of the advance of women's writing in Ireland.

The Field Day fiasco is now something of a cliche in feminist discourse, but for a reason: it provides a dramatic (and convenient) textbook symbol of what was going on back then! When the three-volume work, the Rolls Royce of books – enormous, ostentatiously lavish, expensive, including representative Irish texts from the early Middle Ages until 1990 – was launched by all the big guns of Irish literature with fanfare and panache, it was soon discovered that one fairy had not been invited to the Christening: half the population in fact. The women. In no time at all the thing was cursed and I think it is fair to say it has fallen asleep for a hundred years. (Well, that is the fate of most big, fat, overpriced anthologies.)

Until about the 1970s, the impulse to create was positively discouraged by Irish society, and I contend that many women writers were lost to us as a result.

The nemesis for Field Day was that 10 years later two further volumes of the monstrosity, Volumes 4 and 5, were added by the disgruntled women, and these are the volumes which have been of most interest and most successful. The editor in chief, Seamus Deane, apologised for the omission of women from the earlier definitive selection of Irish literature. He just forgot about them, he said. Or words to that effect. Since important Irish scholars, writers, politicians had been forgetting about women, or dismissing them, for centuries, this explanation was all too credible, but not forgivable on that account. Especially given that we had Virago, Arlen House, Attic and all the rest of it. Women had been shouting for a decade at least: Read me! Read me! Field Day managed to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to what was happening all around them. (It was a North of Ireland outfit. Ulster generally lags behind even us down here when it comes to issues of gender.)

Against the background of this exciting, revolutionary, controversial, above all lively literary scene, many women writers emerged – women who were born in that dark decade of the 1950s: Mary Morrissy, Liz McManus, Evelyn Conlon, Mary O’Malley, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Lia Mills, Catherine Dunne, Anne Devlin, Celia De Freine, Mary Rose Callaghan, Clairr O’Connor and numerous others. Most of them published their first books in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were in their 30s. Several published initially with women’s presses – Arlen House, Attic Press, Salmon – or with presses which were not specifically feminist but which were very open to women writers: Poolbeg, Blackstaff, New Island. (As an aside, it is worth noting the Irish publishing industry began to get off the ground again during this period.)

Anthology of women

As an anthology of essays written by women writers born in the mid-1950s indicates, most of these women started writing in childhood. Their interest in reading and writing, their creativity and talent, their literary gift, was there from the start. But I would also suggest that had it not been for historical circumstances, sociological, cultural, and indeed legal, most would not have developed and continued writing and most would not have become lifelong writers. Apart from financial considerations, which are not to be dismissed obviously, writers require an environment which welcomes and encourages their work – they need publishers, readers and, increasingly, scholars who are interested in them, translators, prizes. These things are circumstantial and have nothing to do with the innate impulse to create, with the desire and ability to write. But that impulse can be starved and killed if not encouraged. Until about the 1970s, it was positively discouraged by Irish society, and I contend that many women writers were lost to us as a result.

There has been much discussion of women's writing in Dublin over the past year or two – first, in connection with the celebration or commemoration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising in 2016. Our national theatre, the Abbey, infamously celebrated the centenary with a programme of 10 plays, only one of which was written by a female playwright. This instigated a movement called Waking the Feminists – indeed a wake-up call, since writers like me, who had begun publishing in the 1970s and 1980s, had already experienced the earlier feminist cultural revolution. The publication of The Long Gaze Back, the anthology of short stories by Irishwomen edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and its selection as One City One Book choice this year has resurrected the gender debate once again.

Things have improved. Once again I will introduce a statistic here, based on cursory research on the numbers of works of fiction published by women. I previously suggested that from 1920 to 1980, 20 per cent of books of fiction by Irish authors had women creators. From 1980 to 2018, the proportions change dramatically and not unpredictably. In that period, men writers are still ahead, but only just. Almost 50 per cent of fiction books by Irish authors in the National Library holdings 1980-2018 were written by women. In short, there has been more progress here on gender balance than in almost any other area of Irish public life.

Nurturing environment

As a writer who was born in that dreadful year, 1954, who decided to be a writer in 1963, who had the luck to get her first story published in 1974, and whose 27th book will come out sometime soon, I have to acknowledge that Ireland has been a reasonably nurturing environment for me and for other women since the 1970s. The battle for equality is not over, in life or in literature, but progress has been made.

In answer to the question I posed at the beginning, would I, and my writer colleagues, have become writers if we had been born in 1934 instead of 1954? I think the answer is this: we would have been writers, since on the evidence of the essays in the anthology I am editing we mostly decided to be writers when we were eight or nine. But it is likely that most of us would not have continued to write. Society would not have encouraged us to start, go on, start again, as Seamus Heaney put it. Or to fail better, as Samuel Beckett expressed it. On the contrary, it would have encouraged us to lay down our pens and wash our windows. We try to transcend history. But nobody, not even that most individualistic of humans, the artist, entirely escapes its nets.

As it happens, culture, social mores and expectations, and medicine and the law, have been on the side of the women born in the 1950s, more or less. So yes, 1954 was quite a good time to be born, if you were an Irish girl baby with a pen in her mouth.