‘Do you have to be a lady to write a fine story?’
Sinéad Gleeson’s The Long Gaze Back is considered in the context of previous anthologies of Irish women’s short stories
Sinéad Gleeson: magnificently highlights both the historical extent of Irish women writers’ commitment to the short story and the richness of the contemporary short story in women’s hands
‘Do you have to be a lady to write a fine story?’ This was the question posed on September 23rd, 1980 in an article, The Rise and Rise of the Lady Short Story Writer, published in The Irish Times. The question was no doubt prompted by the increased prominence of Irish women writers during the 1970s, which in turn was partly the consequence of a newly discovered confidence on the part of Irish women after the founding of the Irish Women’s Movement in 1970.
The short story in particular benefitted during this decade when Irish women were gradually finding their voice. Short stories appeared to demand less time and resources than novels; they could be written in between household tasks and sent off to magazines for a speedy publishing decision. David Marcus’s New Irish Writing page of The Irish Press was particularly open to stories by women and many of Maeve Kelly’s stories, reflecting the struggle of the Irish feminist movement to highlight women’s issues, were first published there. As if to underline the association of Irish women writers with the short story form, Janet Madden-Simpson’s anthology, A Women’s Part: An Anthology of Short Fiction By and About Irish Women 1890-1960, appeared in 1979.
So there have been anthologies of Irish women’s short stories before Sinéad Gleeson’s The Long Gaze Back, notably Cutting the Night in Two edited by Evelyn Conlon and Hans-Christian Oeser and also published by New Island in 2001. What distinguishes this anthology of 30 short stories is both its historical range and the wealth of previously unpublished stories by 22 exciting contemporary writers. Within the constraints of the anthology form, The Long Gaze Back traces the evolution of Irish women’s writing, from the 19th-century didacticism of Maria Edgeworth’s children’s story through the modernist-inflected The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen and the realism of Mary Lavin’s portrait of the life of a widow in 1960s Ireland, In the Middle of the Fields, to the experimentalism of June Caldwell’s SOMAT and the surreal comedy of Anakana Schofield’s Beneath the Taps: A Testimonial.
In the early period, familiar names are here – Edgeworth, Somerville and Ross, Kate O’Brien, Bowen and Lavin – alongside stories by writers who are being rediscovered, such as Frank’s Resolve, Charlotte Riddell’s reflection on the gendered nature of the workplace, and When Miss Coles Made the Tea in which Norah Hoult probes both gender and disability discrimination.
One of the advantages of the anthology’s historical range (over 200 years), is that it reveals connections between earlier and later periods: the loss of a newborn child is a reality in Maeve Brennan’s The Eldest Child (1969) and threatens to overwhelm the parents in Lucy Caldwell’s more recent, powerfully evoked, Multitudes. Lavin’s portrayal of the life of a widow is echoed in a new story by Eimear Ryan, Lane in Stay, and in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s exquisitely paced The Coast of Wales. Hoult’s earlier portrait of disability finds its parallel in Christine Dwyer Hickey’s moving presentation of a young girl blinded by a car accident (The Cat and the Mouse) and in Anne Enright’s evocation (Three Stories About Love) of a father suffering from dementia, a growing theme in the Irish short story, reflecting Ireland’s ageing population.
If the short story is “an arrow in flight”, according to Mary Lavin’s famous description, these are stories to illuminate our darkness and carry us forward into the future
Sometimes these stories relate specifically to women’s experiences of pregnancy, miscarriage and motherhood, reluctant in the case of the narrator in Eimear McBride’s Through the Wall. Sometimes they seem particularly Irish in tone or theme: emotional repression is central to Bernie McGill’s A Fuss, the peculiarities of Irish law around pregnant women’s bodies is explored with both humour and anger in June Caldwell’s SOMAT, while several stories evoke in differing ways the perennial Irish themes of exile and return – Anne Devlin’s uncanny Winter Journey (The Apparitions), Evelyn Conlon’s wry The Meaning of Missing, Belinda McKeon’s touching account of family bereavement, Long Distance, and Lisa McInerney’s roistering Berghain. A newer twist is given to the theme in Roisín O’Donnell’s evocation of the experience of an African immigrant family (Infinite Landscapes).
In recent decades the Irish short story has moved from the countryside into suburbia, although all is not well in these Irish suburbs, plagued by divorce and loneliness (Susan Stairs’ As Seen From Space), and domestic violence (Mary Costello’s My Little Pyromaniac and Niamh Boyce’s I’ll Take you There). Many of these themes even at their most Irish are also universal; indeed, as the accomplished Irish short story writer, Michael McLaverty, wrote to John McGahern, the universal can only be attained through intensive exploration of the local: “no matter how small the latter is, if it is deeply pondered the resultant work will overleap its boundaries”. By their careful attention to the local, quite a number of these contemporary stories stand a chance of passing the test of time.
All anthologists have to make a choice and they are always playing catch-up: since this anthology appeared, at least two new voices in the Irish short story – Sara Baume and Danielle McLaughlin – have emerged. By selecting stories from early and contemporary periods, Gleeson largely jumps over those feminist voices from the 1970s and ’80s referred to earlier, such as Maeve Kelly, Leland Bardwell, Julia O’Faolain, Edna O’Brien, Mary Dorcey, Ita Daly, Clare Boylan, writers who featured prominently in the earlier New Island anthology, Cutting the Night in Two. Instead Gleeson’s anthology magnificently highlights both the historical extent of Irish women writers’ commitment to the short story and the richness of the contemporary short story in women’s hands. If the short story is “an arrow in flight”, according to Mary Lavin’s famous description, these are stories to illuminate our darkness and carry us forward into the future.
The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers edited by Sinéad Gleeson (New Island Books, 2015). Heather Ingman is Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, Trinity College, the University of Dublin