The mother of the Irish novel, Frances Sheridan, was brought up to be illiterate. Her father didn't want her to be able to read, and her brothers had to teach her in secret. Many of the plays of the most striking Irish woman dramatist, Teresa Deevy, remain unproduced to this day. One of the most historically significant of Irish plays, Cathleen Ní Houlihan – the one of which WB Yeats asked the self-important question, "Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?" – was largely written by an uncredited woman, Augusta Gregory.
Peig Sayers, one of the last great storytellers of the European oral tradition, is remembered chiefly as the founder of Irish misery lit. Molly Keane, one of the finest comic novelists of the 20th century, wrote under the gender-neutral name MJ Farrell and dropped off the radar for four decades until she finally re-emerged with the scintillating Good Behaviour.
Even in this enlightened century it took Eimear McBride nearly a decade to get what is widely regarded as one of the most significant debuts in recent Irish fiction, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, into print. Women's writing has never been easy.
If you go to the website of RTÉ, Ireland's major public cultural institution, you can still buy a poster in two sizes. It is advertised as featuring "Ireland's best-loved writers", but in fact its caption is the even more sweeping "Irish Writers". There are 12 of them: James Joyce, Oliver Goldsmith, WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Flann O'Brien, Samuel Beckett, GB Shaw, Jonathan Swift, Seán O'Casey, Patrick Kavanagh, JM Synge and Brendan Behan. Besides their literary talent and their nationality they share something just as important: their gender.
There are some variations on this poster – Bram Stoker has come back into fashion – but none has a woman's face on it. Next Saturday, to mark International Women's Day, The Irish Times will publish a visual rebuke: a poster of 12 woman Irish writers.
Of course, an all-woman line-up of literary mugshots is just as absurd as the all-male one that has hung on thousands of walls and given hundreds of Irish pubs around the world a touch of cultural grandeur. The poster is intended in good measure as a parody of gender exclusivity, but it is a joke with a serious point.
The Irish Writers poster has been around a long time, but it still functions as part of the branding of the island: the RTÉ shop sells it alongside posters of Irish cottages, Irish pubs and the Irish landscape. Like those others, it is an idealised version of Irishness that we sell to outsiders but also, more ambivalently, that we sell to ourselves. It is, moreover, ubiquitous: there can be few people who haven’t set eyes on it at some time. And it makes an unequivocal statement: Irish literary genius is male.
The danger in parodying the poster, of course, is that you end up challenging its gender exclusivity by reproducing something else that goes along with it: a hall-of-fame hierarchy of woman superstars. In fact the really interesting thing about any discussion of Irish women writers is that it takes us into a terrain where reputations are much more fluid, where the accidents of history are much more obviously influential, where things are lost and recovered, where voices are silenced and heard again.
The whole idea of a literary canon is replaced by a much more open and argumentative debate, not just about this writer or that one but also about writing itself. What kind of writing matters? Who gets to determine taste and value? How useful are notions of genius anyway? All of this played out in the debates that raged over the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, which, in 1990, attempted to establish a canon of Irish writing and ended up excluding most women from it. What is striking, though, is that the fourth and fifth volumes of the anthology, which set out to correct the deficit, are much more stimulating, provocative, wide-ranging and surprising than the original three volumes. The act of trying to imagine what Irish women's writing might be takes on its own peculiar energy.
So it is important not to see The Irish Times poster as a female equivalent of the all-male Irish Writers. It is not intended to canonise a dozen women so they can sit at the left-hand side of their male counterparts in literary heaven. Each of the writers who will appear on it has been nominated by another writer, but everyone involved is insistent that there could indeed be a dozen different posters in the same format with not a single face repeated. The poster doesn't even begin to gesture towards the range and depth of writing by Irish women in two languages – writing in Irish is itself a very obvious absence – across the centuries.
As it happens, figures like Frances Sheridan and Teresa Deevy don’t feature – but that’s not the point. The poster is intended as a conversation piece. The very obvious absurdity of reducing Irish women’s writing to 12 figures is an invitation to think about how we present our literary heritage to ourselves and to the world. It asks questions about how that heritage is shaped and how it can be reshaped to include half the world.