An Irish writers poster: spot the difference
To mark International Women’s Day we’ve created an antidote to the all-male Irish Writers poster, free for you to download: 12 writers choose their favourite authors
Six of the best
by Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Anne Enright is one of the writers who made me want to write well. I read her short story collection The Portable Virgin early on as a writer and thought, “I’m allowed write about Irish women and be wicked, funny and literary all at the same time? Great!”
She writes a kind of Irishness that is close to the bone: honest, hilarious, melancholic and a little bit painful to read. She is particularly good on women’s lives and thought processes. I love her non-fiction book on childbirth and motherhood Making Babies – it offers a fresh, forthright perspective on the confusing business of pregnancy and children. Equally, I enjoyed The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, Enright’s historical novel based on a real Irish woman who went to Paraguay as the lover of a dictator. It’s bawdy, sensuous, full of gorgeous detail, and told in Enright’s stylised, audacious prose.
Anne Enright is the perfect writer for our times: she is opinionated, articulate, thoughtful, humorous, questioning, lyrical, literary, stylish and honest. She will do us proud as our inaugural Laureate for Fiction.
Other favourites: Edna O’Brien and Elizabeth Bowen
Writing as Nuala O’Connor, Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s third novel is Miss Emily
By Gerard Smyth
From her early poems to the most recent, in A Woman Without a Country, Eavan Boland brings a spirit of deep inquiry to her experience of womanhood and motherhood, marriage and the domestic space, her Irishness and the historical and psychic inheritance that comes with that state. She pioneered a poetic language for those living unseen lives in the new territories of Dublin suburbia.
Few poets have written, in prose form, so well and so intensely on the origins of their work as Boland has. It could be said that she set out to recalibrate the Irish poem from a dissenting perspective and, in doing so, took on a whole tradition.
Central to her poetry is her attachment to Dublin, her “ City of Shadows”: its river and landmarks and store of memory are lovingly but never blindly the subject of homage that is evocative and fully aware that hers is an “old, torn and traded city”.
But she brings to her poetry a wider sense of an Ireland with its intersections of past and present. Every new book is a consolidation of her gifts.
Other favourites: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Paula Meehan, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Máire Mhac an tSaoi.
Gerard Smyth is Poetry Editor of The Irish Times. His eighth poetry collection is A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus Press)
By Eimear McBride
The only good thing that happened to me in 1990 was reading The Country Girls. I was 14, miserable at the Gaeltacht and in dire need of a brush with the sublime that Edna O’Brien’s famous, infamous and in every way glorious debut novel provided. I spent the rest of the year reading everything from the hugely undervalued Night up to the wonderful stories in Lantern Slides.
It was years before I understood that the thorny path every woman writing in Ireland must tread in pursuit of acknowledgment of her work was cleared for them by her, at significant personal cost. That summer I fell in love with the deep, beautiful humanity of her prose and the incautious honesty of her portrayal of the Irish female experience.
That, more than 50 years after The Country Girls ’ cataclysmic publication, O’Brien is still writing fiercely about subjects that shock and torment our society, is proof of how deserving she is of the position she now holds at the forefront of our literature.
Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. Her second, The Lesser Bohemians, has just been longlisted for the Baileys
By Eileen Battersby
Jennifer Johnston is canny; her laconic narrators reveal her sophisticated grasp of the many faces of Irishness. Precision tempers her theatrical instinct. Her narrators are watchers; several turn to writing to make sense of their situations. Most of them live inside their heads.
Indifferent to surfaces, Johnston prefers brisk implication. Hatred and betrayal have been major themes for her, as is the first World War. Although associated with the big-house novel through works such as The Captains and the Kings (1972), The Gates (1973), How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974), The Old Jest (1979) and The Invisible Worm (1991) – and it is Johnston who moved that genre on from the big house in the countryside to its logical conclusion, in the Dalkey and Killiney suburbs – as an artist she is primarily concerned with inner worlds. She shares a stylistic affinity with Elizabeth Bowen.
Johnston’s finest novels may be The Christmas Tree (1981), in which Constance Keating, waiting for death, calmly revisits her life, The Illusionist (1995) or Two Moons (1998) juxtaposing grandmother, mother and granddaughter.
Other favourites: Elizabeth Bowen and Claire Keegan.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times and author Tethmarks on my Tongue
By Anne Enright
She was rumoured to have spent her last days living in the ladies’ loo of the New Yorker. The first time I visited the magazine, in 1999, I went into the washroom and paused at the mirror for her ghost.
Maeve Brennan’s sentences have the rigour that the New Yorker requires: they feel, on the page, like sensible, well-structured things, but there, between one clause and the next, are tiny gaps where her future madness twinkles out at you.
What is it that is so unsettling? A feeling of anguish horribly muted, a shouting silence behind the description of carpets and coal fires; the daily round of middle-class Ranelagh, where her work is set.
Everything is normal in Ranelagh – apart from that woman hanging on to the railings on Eglinton Road because her son has deserted her for the priesthood. Normal. Normal. Normal.
The line between holding it together and falling apart is thinner here than anywhere else in Irish fiction.
Other favourites: Claire Keegan and Eimear McBride.
Anne Enright is the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction. She won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 for The Gathering and irish Novel of the Year in 2016 for The Green Road
By Belinda McKeon
In 1938, Mary Lavin was writing a PhD thesis on Virginia Woolf. Then, all of a sudden, she was not. One day, after bumping into a woman who actually knew Woolf, Lavin decided that she did not want to waste her time writing about writers anymore; she wanted to write. She took her thesis manuscript, and on the reverse side, she wrote her first short story, Miss Holland. It was published by the Dublin Magazine. Lavin went on to write 13 books of stories and two novels. For almost 20 years, she published stories in the New Yorker. For her centenary in 2012, two of her collections, Tales From Bective Bridge (1942) and Happiness (1969), were reissued, but the rest of her work remains out of print, which is a great pity, because her stories are wonderful. They are darkly knowing on the stuff of human interaction, on its awkwardness and daftness and vulnerability; stories like The Shrine or In a Café are perfect emotional minefields in which sharply-drawn characters come up against one another, all nerves. Herself a mother (her youngest daughter, Caroline, would become the literary editor of this paper), and widowed young, she depicted with immense power the inner lives of women, women who had no reason to be anything other than honest with themselves about the realities of their situations. Her stories evoke those situations with sympathy and candour and with, in many cases, a frank and delicious comedy. She threw a lot of literary parties in her mews off Baggot Street, in the 1960s; those are still spoken of. But what ought to be much more spoken of is her genius. Because it was glinting and real.
Other favourites: Elizabeth Bowen and Anne Enright.
Belinda McKeon is the author of Solace and Tender
By Ciarán Carty
Born into an Anglo-Irish family with roots going back to the Norman conquest, Mary Nesta Skrine, known to readers as MJ Farrell and, later, as Molly Keane, grew up in a privileged world that partied on as the Britsh Empire faded. To the colonised Irish its hauteur was resented, its eccentricity derided. Yet the two cultures of “bog Irish” and “horse Protestants” fed off each other to enrich the English language. Nobody saw through the ascendancy classes more perceptively or wittily than one of their own.
Making her debut with a Mills & Boon romance, she won critical recognition with Devoted Ladies (1934), confronting the risque theme of lesbianism. Then, when her play Spring Morning (1938) became a West End hit, the secret of her identity was out.
After the death of her husband, Bobby Keane, the fun went out of writing, but she came back in 1981 with Good Behaviour, a black comedy adapted for TV by Hugh Leonard. She wrote two more novels, Time After Time and Loving and Giving, and saw Virago reissue her MJ Farrell novels before her death, in 1996, aged 91.
Other favourites: Mary Lavin and Kate O’Brien.
Ciarán Carty is a writer and the editor of Hennessy New Irish Writing
By John Banville
Had Elizabeth Bowen been a man she would be recognised as one of the finest novelists of the 20th century. Her best-known novels are The Death of the Heart and The Heat of the Day, but her own favourite was The Last September, published when she was still in her 20s; it was, she said, the work of hers “nearest to my heart”.
She had an eye as sharp as Henry James’s, a wonderfully shrewd yet accommodating sensibility, and a sublime literary style.
Was she an Irish, an Anglo-Irish or, as some would insist, an English writer? She said that her most natural place was somewhere about the middle of the Irish Sea. Certainly she could be impatient with what she saw as Irish obtuseness, but she was no less severe on the vagaries and occasional fecklessness of the English character.
Her prose is so subtle and allusive that it would be a disservice to quote from her, but read almost any descriptive passage in The Last September and you will understand her greatness.
Other favourites: Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth.
John Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. As Benjamin Black he writes the bestselling Quirke series
By Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Kate O’Brien is one of UCD’s best-known graduates. When I was studying English there, in the 1970s, she wasn’t mentioned. But only two or three woman writers were.
Virago reissued her works in the 1980s, and this brought her to attention once again. By now she has a firm foothold in the Irish literary canon, although some establishment writers still sniff at her.
She is an immensely skilful novelist who writes enthralling stories mainly about middle-class Irish women – from the kind of background she came from. Few have written as expertly, with such compassion and insight, as she, about conventual life. Her masterwork, Land of Spices, gives the most excellent portrait of a pleasant civilised Irish convent and convent school in existence. She was lesbian, but her exploration of heterosexual love in Mary Lavelle and That Lady have seldom been surpassed in Irish fiction.
Why was she left out for so long? First, she was a woman. Second, some of her books had been banned, for too open an analysis of sexuality. O’Brien is a master of classic realism. And that’s okay now. Mount Parnassus has many mansions.
Other favourites: Edna O’Brien, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Patricia Lynch.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s works include The Dancers Dancing
Somerville and Ross
By Anne Haverty
Somerville and Ross could be expected to present a difficulty here, being not one woman but two. But so symbiotic and consummate, as well as mysterious and inexplicable, was their writing partnership that they’re fully regarded as one. The Somerville was Edith Somerville; the Ross was Violet Martin (of Ross in Connemara, hence the name), cousins who, until Ross’s death, in 1915, published several novels.
The sparkling series about an Irish RM gives, above all, wonderful renderings of the then Irish vernacular. But it’s The Real Charlotte that may be the best Irish novel, qua novel, of any century. As Anthony Cronin says, Ulysses, which might seem to qualify as “the best”, is a “fictive construction”, while The Real Charlotte is a powerful exemplar of the classic novel as it was, and sometimes still is, written.
In Charlotte and her young cousin Francie we get vivid and engaging characters, an acutely depicted milieu (loosely that of the Irish gentry) and a poignant tragicomic plot. But, of course, like all great novels, The Real Charlotte is greater than the sum of its parts.
Other favourites: Edna O’Brien and Maria Edgeworth.
Anne Haverty’s novels include The Far Side of a Kiss, The Free and Easy and One Day as a Tiger
By Colm Tóibín
After the death of her husband, in 1892, Lady Gregory devoted herself to the cause of “adding dignity to Ireland”, as she put it. She learned Irish. She collected folklore. Her translations of Irish poems and songs have a tender simplicity and immediacy. The tone she used for her translation of The Táin – often referred to as Kiltartanese – provided Synge and others with a template for a re-creation of the Irish idiom in English. Her Cathleen Ni Houlihan, which she wrote with WB Yeats, had a deep effect on the revolutionary generation. Her work with writers, especially Seán O’Casey, and her own plays, and indeed her generous vision, make her one of the architects of modern Ireland. Her diaries and letters offer one the best accounts of running a theatre, life during the Troubles and what it was like to lose a son in the first World War.
Colm Tóibín won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award for The Master and the Costa Award for Brooklyn
By Margaret Kelleher
In 2010 two of Maria Edgeworth’s novels, Patronage and Helen, came back into print with the cover slogan “Jane Austen’s bestselling rival” and with great introductions by John Mullan. The sales pitch was clever and more or less accurate; in fact, for more than a decade in the early 19th century Edgeworth was the most commercially successful novelist in Britain. Admirers of her work included Austen, Byron, Stendhal, Turgenev, Trollope, Thackeray and, for her enigmatic Irish tale Castle Rackrent, one George III.
So why is this author so neglected and little read? One reason has been that her books are hard to find – a difficulty now overcome for her and myriads of other female writers by downloadable PDFs from free-access sites, such as Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg, and the odd enlightened reprinting. More damaging has been the bad press she has received from some critics, who criticise her moralising judgments. But read the novels and you’ll find much more mischief than morals, along with wit, compelling characters and keen human understanding.
Other favourites: Kate O’Brien and Somerville and Ross.
Margaret Kelleher is professor of Anglo-Irish literature and drama at UCD and chairwoman of the Irish Film Institute
Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times