If you could travel back in time to the seventies, Ireland would not be high on the destination list. America had disco, Britain had the Sex Pistols, and Ireland had religion and rain. Tales of the swinging seventies do not, by and large, exist in the Irish collective memory. This makes Rosita Sweetman's Fathers Come First all the more refreshing to the contemporary reader.
Recently reissued by Lilliput to mark the book’s 40th anniversary, Sweetman’s only novel is an engaging and painfully honest account of a young woman trying to find her feet in the shifting, seedy society of seventies Dublin.
The book is also a reminder of how subjugated Irish women were in this not-too-distant world and the efforts it took from groups such as the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement to earn “the second sex” a more equal footing. A journalist and writer, Sweetman was part of this movement, whose founding members included Mary Kenny, Nell McCafferty, Máirín Johnson and Marie McMahon. Sweetman’s feminist beliefs are at the centre of her novel, written when she was 23 and selling more than 60,000 copies within a year.
As the author notes in an afterword, feminism had arrived in Ireland, but few were really championing it: "Feminism was a bit like bidets – all fine and good for a few 'poshies' in Dublin, but nothing to do with us ordinary people." Fathers Come First reaches out to the masses by showing, through Elizabeth O'Sullivan's story, the pressures placed on women by a patriarchy that expected them to look pretty and keep quiet.
Divided into three parts, the
follows Lizzie from her teenage years in a Catholic boarding school to a summer in Paris as an au pair, to her first year of freedom as an adult in Dublin. With its
leanings, brutally honest insights, and squirm-inducing scenes, there are strong echoes of Edna O’Brien in the book. But there are also parallels with a recently published Irish debut, Louise O’Neill’s
Only Ever Yours
, highlighting that Sweetman’s themes are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.
As Lizzie undergoes lessons in the “School of Charm” in Dublin to learn how to improve herself and become a model, the dystopian horrors of O’Neill’s school for perfect doll-women come to mind. Ordered to lose a stone, Lizzie comes back a week later for her group assessment: “Giggling we stripped and scrubbed and lined up. We smiled at each other and sized each other up . . . We pouted out from the celluloid scrapbook, asking to be bought.”
This process of objectification begins long before the doe-eyed Lizzie lands in Dublin. At boarding school, the nuns give advice on how to be a “Nice Girl” who will snare a good husband. The advice changes in the modelling world, but the goal remains the same. As the title reminds the reader, what men want takes precedence.
Lizzie’s relationships give a loose linear structure to the book: an admired but distant father; her boarding school penpal Jack; a pushy Protestant neighbour who gets his comeuppance when he tries it on; the opportunistic Frenchman Henri; the “tally ho” college boyfriend Iain; the rich and pathetic businessman David, who wines and dines Lizzie in Dublin in return for sex. Although “the rules favoured men”, there is the sense throughout these relationships that Lizzie, not particularly enamoured with any of them, retains control.
The power shifts when she meets television producer Colin. Charming, intelligent and great fun, Colin becomes all-important to Lizzie and she quickly loses her independence by moving into his flat near Dollymount Strand after a whirlwind romance: “I wanted to say ‘Take me and keep and let me live with you and in you and . . .’”
Aching to be approved of, she ignores Colin’s controlling nature and issues with women. The swinging seventies gets another look-in with Colin’s free-love attitude, but we are firmly back in Ireland when we realise it does not extend to his woman.
Men hold the power and women hold the shame: “Does everyone feel this sense of having committed a crime? Not all the time, but having sometimes a very strong sense of guilt, an awareness of at some stage being, perhaps billions of years ago, party to something horrible. It remains as a little deformity inside you.”
Towards the end of her tumultuous year with the often abusive Colin, Lizzie meets Mary, a talented young documentary maker who is angry at the gender inequality in Irish society. She challenges Lizzie to think for herself, not to rely on “what other people give you, or refuse you”. Lizzie’s journey towards this place makes for an engrossing read, with characters and stories that are easy to devour but hard to swallow.