Irish women writers: ‘This country’s done punishing me. I can do whatever I like now’

Catherine Toal's ‘Brigid in Berlin’ keynote speech praises Lisa McInerney, Eimear McBride, Sally Rooney, Anna Burns, Sara Baume and Louise O’Neill

Ambassador Collins, Louise O’Neill, Sara Baume, Audrey Magee and moderator Deike Diening of Der Tagesspiegel

Ambassador Collins, Louise O’Neill, Sara Baume, Audrey Magee and moderator Deike Diening of Der Tagesspiegel


Dass ich eine Frau bin, spielt für viele eine Rolle. Für mich selbst weniger: Ich kenne mich ja nur als Frau. I’m quoting there the most powerful person in Europe, since we’re having this celebration at our country’s Berlin embassy. To adapt her words slightly, for our purposes: That I’m a woman is an issue for many people. Less so for me. After all, I know myself only as a woman.

Fintan O’Toole once remarked that we will only understand the problem of gender inequality in the institution of literature if we think about how strange we would find the idea of an award specially and explicitly designed to promote and encourage the talents and achievements of men: the Guinness prize for the first novel by an Irish male writer, say for example. What would people think of an event conceived to celebrate the creativity of men? They might find it strange, perhaps even suspect it of carrying some darkly ironic overtone, whereas applied to women we hear the phrase as evoking something almost mystical and life-affirming.

I don’t need to list all the ways in which gender prejudice has damaged the reading and reception of literature

That sort of affirmation has always been a necessary moment in any cultural or political struggle, whether it be to do with gender or race or class or sexual orientation – even though rights have nothing to do with qualities. To invoke the words of Angela Merkel again: as long as the fact of a woman being a woman is an issue for many people, such that it comes as a surprise when she has no issue with it herself, an event framed like this is important.

I don’t need to list all the ways in which gender prejudice has damaged the reading and reception of literature. Men don’t read women writers, we’re told. Publishers have sought to market literary novels by woman as pop-cultural cliche. Literature by women is often immediately read as autobiographical. Literature by women is expected to deal with certain types of subjects.

“You might not think you’re a sexist,” the Guardian journalist Jessica Valenti observed, “until you take a look at your bookshelf.”

Amid all the controversies and hostilities that are supposed to dominate the exchange of opinion in our time, we can note one very positive development, which is the challenge that is constantly being posed to assumptions like these, and also the invitation to move our attention towards art that might previously have been kept partly hidden from us by cultural parochialism or defunct hierarchies. “You might not think you’re a sexist,” the Guardian journalist Jessica Valenti observed, “until you take a look at your bookshelf.”

Panel discussion with Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Julia Kelly and moderator Stefanie Flamm of Die Zeit
Panel discussion with Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, Julia Kelly and moderator Stefanie Flamm of Die Zeit

The authors gathered here show it goes without saying today that Irish literature is a literature produced by female as much as male writers, in the range of its brilliance and in its international reach. Their work connects to the canonical monuments of Irish modernism and to past and current European and global literatures and movements.

Eimear McBride is the contemporary inheritor of James Joyce; Lisa McInerney of Flann O’Brien, but also of Raymond Chandler

Eimear McBride is the contemporary inheritor of James Joyce (we’ll have to come back to that); Lisa McInerney of Flann O’Brien, but also of Raymond Chandler. Julia Kelly’s novels and memoir share affinities with the recent phenomenon of autofiction, which – as we see in the work of Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard – involves an uncanny closeness to everyday life: its awkwardness, chaos, aggressions, and charms.

Audrey Magee’s work has rightly been compared to that of Hans Fallada, and it also has links to the sparseness of modern drama in revealing the motives of its characters largely in their speech and actions, and following their quest to fulfil their own interests to the very edge of destruction.

I’m not saying anything new, or pointing out a parallel that is not fully present in the work itself, when I mention that Louise O’Neill’s first novel Only Ever Yours is an affiliate of George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Where Louise O’Neill goes beyond these dystopian warnings is her heightening of the sense of uncertainty about whether they are only warnings, only thought-experiments. The relationship between Only Ever Yours and her second novel Asking For It renders this uncertainty even more acute: which reality are we living in? Not the one with the totalitarian system?

In Sara Baume’s writing the novel travels nearer to the artwork, not only by incorporating images and allusions to aesthetic experiments, but also through replacement of the sensations of plot-twist in favour of the sensations of thought, feeling and body. In this, her work attains the intensity of poetry as well as sharing the sustained focus of contemporary art and philosophy on the non-human world, and the homelessness and restlessness of the human presence within it.

The reader is entering a world where language is the main currency, the main treasure, the main resource

As you can already tell from these brief summaries, the works represented here do not necessarily have anything in common. There are resonances, but not similarities. If they do share something, it is the unnerving and exhilarating effect that Irish writing in English began to generate at least since the literary revival of the late 19th century: that the reader is entering a world where language is the main currency, the main treasure, the main resource. I wonder why that is. The historical reasons for it are obvious.

As John Banville once remarked: “we’re a language-based society”, adding the indulgent diagnosis: “You can get away with anything in this country, if you give a good enough account of it”.

Recently the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told a story about what happened when her first novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize but did not win: a stranger, also a Nigerian woman, came up to her at the airport and told her “Congratulations. We will win next time.” This “we”, she said, “moved me very much”. “And when I did win a few years later, I had many moments of being hugged by strangers in Nigeria, being told that I had represented us.” But as she commented, “the person who is the citizen is not quite the person who is the artist.” If you will forgive this verbal hug, let me note for the sake of the role of awards in ensuring the recognition and circulation of books, as well in expression of congratulations and plain old nationalistic as well as feminist pride, that the writers we have the opportunity to encounter in reading and discussion here have been the recipients of the highest literary honours in Ireland, the UK and the United States. They also bring to this celebration some significant and even breathtaking achievements in opening literary art to a wide audience, and in groundbreaking genres.

Dr Catherine Toal, Professor of Literature and Dean of the Faculty, Bard College, Berlin, delivders her lecture, Women Writing Irish Literature
Dr Catherine Toal, Professor of Literature and Dean of the Faculty, Bard College, Berlin, delivders her lecture, Women Writing Irish Literature
Burns’s novel was the quintessential novel of the Troubles: despite the erasure of all names and concrete references, indeed partly by means of that

There are a number of contemporary names we could cite alongside the guests gathered here. The last few months alone have been a noteworthy time for writing by Irish women, with the Booker Prize awarded to Anna Burns’s novel Milkman – I mention her also because she wanted to join us for this celebration and could not – and the stellar successes of a very young author at the beginning of her career, Sally Rooney. Burns’s and Rooney’s work, although very different, shows why people care, the way Ngozi Adichie’s compatriot at the airport did, about the achievements and the recognition of their nation’s writers.

Shortly after it was published, readers everywhere began to realise that Burns’s novel was the quintessential novel of the Troubles: despite the erasure of all names and concrete references, indeed partly by means of that, it summed up the structure of the worst and most deadlocked phase of that conflict, with an explosive humour.

Sally Rooney pulls off the same magical trick as that best-loved of English authors, Jane Austen

Rooney’s novels give us effortless access to the way in which virtual forms of communication are integrated into relationships of all kinds, and pulls off the same magical trick as that best-loved of English authors, Jane Austen, in creating romances with happy endings ambiguous enough to contain some giveaways about real life. In both of these examples, as in the work we are exploring these two days, something entered representation which had not quite been there before, or not in such a satisfying way. When that happens, both the work and the writer are cherished. As Joyce suggested with Stephen Dedalus’s audacious pledge to “forge…the uncreated conscience of my race”, representation is what makes experience, not the other way around.

Irish writing often makes a conscious effort to brand itself as such: it’s always entertaining to see that this kind of incredulity towards Ireland’s actual existence still persists.

“Irish writing often makes a conscious effort to brand itself as such”: I remember feeling slightly offended reading this comment in the London Review of Books, which appeared in a review of Rooney’s novel Normal People by the English novelist Adam Mars-Jones. But it’s always entertaining – also politically, up to a point – to see that this kind of incredulity towards Ireland’s actual existence still persists. It’s also entertaining to imagine how some of the characters in the novels we will be discussing would react to being told that the features of their circumstances that bear the hallmarks – positive and negative – of being specifically Irish are the result of a branding exercise.

Of course Irish writing has always carried the burden of particular themes. These recur without the writers’ conscious intent. Lisa McInerney has been asked whether she intended an ambitious allegorical design through the character, in The Glorious Heresies, of a woman who has been the victim of the extreme stigma on single motherhood in the history of the Irish State. As she pointed out, writers don’t construct in advance a diagram or apparatus of meaning – but it is impossible to write about Ireland without writing about the influence of the Catholic Church. For Eimear McBride, the lure of certain themes was inexorable and unwelcome. About A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing she said “You know, being Irish, oh God, sex, death, religion, shame, here it all is”; “I thought I really don’t want to write this book”. The review of the novel in the New York Times expressed both shock and admiration for the results with the invocation of a well-known place, in the title “Bloody Hell”.

Far from provoking an impulse to branding, the heavy burdens of historically typical Irish themes have led to the erasure of specific markers of place and name. This was Samuel Beckett’s strategy. The indirect mentions of Ireland in his texts reveal an exhaustion with the same themes relating to famine, violent political struggle, national self-idealisation, being repeated over and over again. It’s also, as we’ve seen, Anna Burns’s approach in Milkman, in order to convey the governing rules of a context in which a name can get you killed. Eimear McBride draws upon it as well, with the otherwise obviously Irish setting of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing without concrete local place names, and the girl in The Lesser Bohemians returning periodically from London to a country that receives only brief description and at one point the repressing line “Ireland is what it is. Sealed in itself like me.”

On the lighter side, it’s striking to note the confidence with which contemporary Irish writing takes for granted the possibility of invoking specific places and cultural references. I would like to be able to convey the sense of comfort, variety and beauty as well as the sharp sense of difference and danger in the Dublin portrayed by Julia Kelly. The Japanese-English writer and last Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro once urged his fellow English writers to abandon culturally-specific references in order to ensure easy translation and a global audience. Contemporary Irish literature expects the international reader to accept in an otherwise perhaps challenging but intelligible narrative even the inclusion of words from and exchanges in the Irish language, as well as certain standard peculiarities: you can imagine a German reader going “what is this Late Late they’re all watching?”

Portraying contemporary Ireland also implies finding a means to evoke the ways in which the long-familiar, the old-fashioned, the cliched collide with the modern, and the technological. “We pass a Mary in a perspex box behind an ATM machine” says the narrator of Sara Baume’s Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, deftly summing up that clash. “When did we become fluent in this language that we never wanted to learn?” cries out the narrator of Louise O’Neill’s Asking for it, a book that begins with a reference to another novel about growing up, Fiche Blian ag Fás, by Muiris Ó’Súilleabháin, which it urgently has to replace. The narrator is not talking about English, but about the jargon of trigger warnings, safe-spaces, therapeutic healing, which is sceptically treated in others of the works represented here.

All of them were published after 2008, and several reference a new phase of unhappy shared history precipitated by the cataclysmic changes of that year. Reminding us that the novel is historically a middle-class form, largely written by and for middle-class people, critic Yvonne Nolan remarked on the unusualness of the focus of Lisa McInerney’s novels, in addressing the entanglements of characters who are completely cut off from any of the modes by which respectable middle-class Ireland earns and protects its money – apart from Natalie, the accountant, in The Blood Miracles, from a family of accountants, and whose golden retriever Alf, quips the narrative, “is probably an accountant too”. Recession and austerity are a preoccupation for the form of Julia Kelly’s The Playground, which centres on the reclamation and maintenance of a common space, a project that becomes all the more poignant in the light of the causal connection between current populist dissatisfaction and the tragedy of the commons.

Turning to some passages from the works we will be discussing tonight: I will never forget the moment when I read the following lines from Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I later had the opportunity to discuss them with students here in Berlin and saw what a powerful reaction they provoked. Eimear McBride is the great laureate of the Irish superego, the uniquely intense – or at least I thought it was unique until I discussed it with my students, who are from all over the world – pressure that the Irish parent can exert on a sensitive young mind. Guilt is not always optional for the Irish character fictional or real, but it’s fair to say that one of the many ways in which McBride revises and expands the Joycean aesthetic is to create a stream of consciousness in which this experience of pressure is far more acute than it ever was in the states of mourning inhabited by Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom.

“So she called me when are you coming home? We haven’t seen you in an age. Now you will. Come home now. Ah you will. It’s your home. Where you belong. I’m praying for you everyday. Ah come for Easter. Ah you will. It’s been a year. Do. Ah. Do. We want to see you. Should do. Should do.”

Something very interesting happens in the next line: “Sure parents drag you in the muck, through puffs of fag ash on my bed.” The first part of this sentence is a metaphor, the second is a reference to something in the immediate environment, to smoking on the bed with a roommate, who has said the words in the first part. The way the line is organized makes the metaphor real, so that it seems as if the girl is being dragged through muck and cigarette ash. The superego has left the character’s head and entered the material world around her, infecting everything. The narrator’s descriptions of home are also a merger of inside and outside: “Those bungalow dot dot my conscience,” a reference to the way in which the houses appear from a distance, and the surveillance and judgment their inhabitants inscribe on her thoughts. Her hyperbole encompasses the registers of tragedy and comedy: “Those fields. Going through them just like then. Drowned over. Filled up with rain. Even cows drown here. Even sheep. Even people if they’re lucky. Children falling under every year. … If Jesus were here he’d have gone. Running. Screaming with his sandals all flapping in through the cow shit.”

I think of sequences from Julia Kelly’s work as being like containers that fold in familiar things of the everyday world and completed actions, to conjure up emotional states that are on the verge of moving in a new direction: “I saw our empty house. Magpies pit-patting across the playroom roof, a swollen drip trembling from the leaking tap in the upstairs bathroom. The feeble bleep of the alarm clock coming from my room, which I’d set and then woken long before, shivering with cold, my blankets on the floor.”

Kelly is interested in the effect of minor and major adjustments to the way in which this everyday world is perceived, for instance the shift in the narrator’s view of her father in With My Lazy Eye or the at once comic and devastating evocation of a female friendship turned awkward and empty in The Playground: “and then neither of us could think of a thing to say. For five deeply uncomfortable minutes the only sounds coming from our table were the clink of cutlery and quiet mastication.” Sometimes the shift in perception is enough to make the domestic world seem unreal, as in the dramatic coda to the realization of the protagonist’s mother in With My Lazy Eye that her elderly husband has gone missing overnight: “The child playing with the doll’s house gets frustrated because she can’t get a figure to do what she wants it to. She flails her arms around till all the figurines are scattered, lying on their sides or tumbling out of the house altogether, with the tiny wooden bunk beds and chairs.” This can be a comic kind of estrangement, as in the idea of the family dog in The Playground as “such a perfect caricature of a dog. He was like a dog in a dog outfit.”

“Mind your language - the promotion and representation of Irish women” by Sinéad Mac Aodha, director, Literature Ireland
“Mind your language - the promotion and representation of Irish women” by Sinéad Mac Aodha, director, Literature Ireland

As in the case of other Irish writers of the last few decades, Anne Enright, Nuala O’Faolain, Kelly’s work encompasses memoir and fiction, and like her forerunners’, touches on national history through personal biography. The title of Matchstick Man, her account of her relationship with her partner Charlie Whisker and his struggle with Alzheimer’s, refers to a memento Charlie incorporated into all his paintings: an emblem of the cutting short of the life of a young victim of the Troubles in his hometown of Bangor.

I’m not going to be able to do justice to the full range of activity of the Lisa McInerney sentence. One of its modes projects the deadpan, jaded cynicism of her characters: “Ryan likes to get shit out of the way when the option’s there: dentist’s visits, treason.” They do a concise line in insult, threat, sarcasm, self-defence: “Come down off your yoke”; “[I hear you’ve got] a future bright as a bruise”; “I’m like those gobshites who clap when the plane lands”; “Do you mind not fucking perving on me like.”

Maureen Phelan, the dangerously creative heroine of The Glorious Heresies, ponders the merits of arson over murder: “there was time to savour it and time too, to quench it if second thoughts were your thing.” This phrase, casually treating remorse as a matter of personal style, reminded me of Raymond Chandler’s private detective Philip Marlowe: “There was nothing in that for me” he says in The Big Sleep, when a new client tries to patronise him “so I let it drift with the current.”

As well as partaking in the kind of detached cool born of hard-bitten experience, and which is the signature of literary contact with crime, McInerney’s sentences share Chandler’s sense of human verbal interactions as a world of physical movement and metamorphosis: “Phelan’s words, low, smooth and cold, crept up on him like a trippy pill.” When a character is reproached “she shrinks then shoulders the error.” Description daubs its disgust over ordinary limitation, as in Ryan’s survey of the house of one of his victims: “Snapshots of a life scattered around him. An orange striped mug on the coffee table, the TV tuned to a chat show in which a procession of slobs tried to snarl tears out of each other, on the mantel a photograph of a tot in a roomy grey and blue school uniform.” Sometimes this ironic detachment and contempt gives way to a solemn lyricism that evokes transformation of uncanny and beautiful type, as in the pivotal encounter between Ryan Cusack and Jimmy Phelan, in which Jimmy, who has his own mother and father issues, is disconcerted to notice the Italian looks Ryan has inherited from his deceased mother: “Beyond Ryan’s shoulder was a heavy stone sky and the dark, thick green of overgrown grass, and between both the reds and greys and browns of the suburban terraces. The boy was dark as his father, but lacking the ruddy palate of these hills and their rusted air. Here was a changeling who’d laid claim to the landscape and the place had grown up around him.” Lyricism doesn’t preclude a certain variety of bald statement: Ryan’s father’s fatal flaw lies in his being “the kind of man whose favoured publican lives for children’s allowance day.” Natalie’s shameless laughter is described as “great, in the way that accomplished dictators or typhoons are great.”

Just last year, the first comprehensive History of Modern Irish Women’s Literature, edited by Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó’Gallchoir was published. As Aileen Douglas commented at the official launch of the book, the story it tells reminds us that – in literary production as in other spheres – Enlightenment is not a forward movement of inevitable progress. Always susceptible to reversal, it demands commitment and ingenuity. Irish women writers of the early 20th century were dismayed to see the independent state they had helped establish succumb to repression and narrowness with the advent of the Committee on Evil Literature of 1926 and subsequent censorship legislation. They retained a forum in the Irish Women Writers’ Club, which in its functions of solidarity and mentorship is an ancestor of recent initiatives such as the Women Writers in the New Ireland Network, founded in University College Dublin in 2007 to support the work of migrant authors.

Ingman and Ó’Gallchoir’s History is itself partly the culmination of a long effort of reclamation and consolidation. In the 1980s, publishing presses Blackstaff and Arlen House began reissuing titles by Irish women novelists of the 1930s and 40s whose work had in those decades been banned in their own country but was widely read outside it. Attic, Poolbeg and Tramp Presses furthered the publication of new literature by women authors, as did the London-based Virago and Pandora imprints. The last few years have also seen the issuing of the anthologies The Long Gaze Back (in 2015) and The Glass Shore (2016), edited by Sinéad Gleeson, which build on the groundbreaking anthologies Woman’s Part from 1984 and the fourth and fifth volumes of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (of which there was originally supposed to be only three volumes – you can guess what happened there, if you don’t remember the controversy).

A survey of the history of literature by Irish women offers a number of precedents for the works of the present as well as revelations of the resilience of creativity under some less than favourable circumstances. There is a significant realist tradition which is the forerunner of a Bildungsroman like Julia Kelly’s With My Lazy Eye. Its major figures include, among others, Julia O’Faolain and Jennifer Johnston. As Anne Fogarty has argued, this tradition often discovers a new emotional freedom through its questioning of the constraints of traditional gender roles.

Historical fiction by Irish women, like Audrey Magee’s The Untertaking, concentrates on the effects of the entanglement of political ideologies in such roles. There is an ancestor for the future dystopia of Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s The Bray House. Like O’Neill, Ní Dhuibhne examines the construction of identity through stereotype, and gestures towards a story of female experience that can’t yet be written. Caroline Magennis has observed that literary fiction by women in Northern Ireland has in the past largely been produced within the Catholic community but that (like Anna Burns’s Milkman), it tends to criticise the inner workings of that community and to renounce partisan alliances. We also find in previous writings precedents for Burns’s experimentalism in Derry-born Frances Molloy’s No Mate for the Magpie (1985) recounted in local vernacular.

Eimear McBride wrote in her stunning preface to a new edition of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls that O’Brien “lifted the linguistic play she so loved in Joyce and, taking note of his relish in the interchange of the high and low in human nature, went away and fashioned something wholly her own.” This idea of an unconstraining Joycean influence applies to McBride’s work as well. “Joyce’s barbarism gave me the chutzpah to try” she says of her first novel, “but his work is about the extension of the human into the universe, mine is about human vulnerability and fallibility.”

The innovations of contemporary Irish literature in the novels of Sara Baume prompt a revisiting of the radical modernist experimentation of a writer like Elizabeth Bowen, in whose sentences. In Bowen’s sentences, as the critic Jacqueline Rose has pointed out, both objects and moral concepts can take on the uncanny power to cross between life and death, reflecting the nervous states of her characters.

I said at the beginning that the work of the writers represented here does not necessarily have anything in common. That’s not quite true. One motif that runs through all of it is an affirmation of the attitude expressed by Ryan Cusack’s in The Glorious Heresies when he scorns the pious mantras of a religious cult as “judgey bollocks”. On March 7th, 2017, the then taoiseach Enda Kenny responded in the Dáil to the news that between 1925 and 1961 the bodies of 800 babies had been disposed of in a sewage tank at a home for unmarried mothers and their children run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam, Co Galway. This horror occurred, he said, not only because of the state’s consignment to the church of its responsibilities of care but because of “our perverse, in fact morbid relationship with what you call respectability”.

A dispensation on respectability might not have been of decisive help to the poorest citizens in the Ireland of the Tuam home and after, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that within the novels we have represented here, there is a consistent exposure and a rejection of social judgment in its punitive, corrosive guises. McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians embraces happiness in defiance of the experience of damage and trauma. The critical judgment that mothers often encounter for their decisions about the way they bring up their children is comically dissected in Julia Kelly’s work. Audrey Magee gives us the unfolding of the effects of characters’ motives, without castigation. The isolated protagonists of Sara Baume’s novels hold up a mirror to social coldness, but are also allowed their own unsympathetic reflexes. For Louise O’Neill’s plots, the negative policing of what it means to be a woman has to stop, whatever happens. The avenging angel and redeemer of The Glorious Heresies, Maureen Phelan declares: “this country’s done punishing me. I can do whatever I like now.” And you can have that in writing.

Prof Dr Catherine Toal is Dean of Bard College, Berlin. This is the text of her speech earlier this month at Brigid in Berlin, an event in the Irish Embassy celebrating Irish women writers

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.