Mary O’Donnell: How the thoughts of others helped me unlock my own

In any profession, what counts is the kind nod, the passing blessing. I’ve had many as a writer

It was 1983. Sometimes, we met upstairs in what used to be called the Granary, in an undeveloped Temple Bar. We were the usual assembly of poets and writers, some already published, others like me starting out. When my turn to read came, I stood up and leaned lightly against a long wooden table behind me, then read my poem. Afterwards, I felt great. There was praise and acceptance.

I’d done one other reading in public, at Listowel Writers’ Week, and enjoyed a flicker of gratification when I spotted in the audience a weirdo Irish American writer who had recently offered to employ me as his typist, but on condition that he could pay me three months later. When I refused, he warned me that I’d still be working in Loctite Glue out in Bluebell, where I held a temping job as a telex operator. There was a recession in full swing, and few jobs for newly qualified teachers like me. I temped all over Dublin city in between trying to write, and met great people everywhere I went, becoming adept at fitting in quickly to any situation.

If an editor rejected something I'd submitted, I always took another look at what I'd sent, and if it still held up in my eyes I immediately reposted it elsewhere

I loved coming home from work to our new, scrimped for, mortgaged house in the country, to check the post-box for letters. Sometimes, a delicious batch of correspondence would await me. I’d finger the envelope, sensing by its density whether the manuscript I’d submitted was being returned or not. Because I knew that I was both a poet and a fiction-writer even before I really got going, indeed with a fervour that shocks me a bit today, I put a lot of time and effort into sending out new work. I was ambitious, something Irish people weren’t supposed to be. But I believed in working on behalf of the work. If an editor rejected something I’d submitted, I always took another look at what I’d sent, and if it still held up in my eyes I immediately reposted it elsewhere. Frequently, it would be accepted.

I found it easy to keep faith with the idea of writing for a life in sentences and believed that James Joyce’s outrage at the state of the nation he’d left was never misplaced, and in the 1980s, just as in the early 20th century, our highly hypocritical, secretive, illiberal and anti-female Irish society needed a good, critical mirror held up to itself. I wanted to be one of those who did that in my first short story collection, Strong Pagans.


The period did have its Gubu moments, particularly in relation to women artists. We were like novelty acts, little dancing dolls let out of the toy-box to show what we could do, the critical standards to which we were held, sometimes distorted, inaccurate and unfair. But something held me steady in a world of unsettling comments where, on one occasion after a poetry reading, I was asked if my husband helped with the work, and how he would feel about the content in some of my poems. This is both comical and shocking. In a world in which people are judged on appearance, even in the literary world, I didn’t look like a poet should apparently look, and the pub scene bored me. I wasn’t a Leland Bardwell, or a Dermot Healy, a Michael Hartnett or an Eithne Strong. I was simply myself and lived in suburban Maynooth, a place which also sustained me, between the university and the local library.

However, it’s not always easy to place certain writers in a canon quite naturally influenced by academically and media-favoured themes. Like other women of the era, I was accustomed to a curious balancing act between how I thought and how I was perceived and of placing this discrepancy at arm’s length while I wrote. Some of the male editors of certain publications were quick to invite female writers to lunch. But really? While these guys believed themselves to be radicals, scratch the surface and suburban conservatism roiled in the depths of their minds. Moreover, they liked their female writers to be amusing (obviously), attractive (if possible) and not too feminist.

There were writers whose presence mattered. I’d met Eavan Boland on several occasions and she read some of my poems. She asked many frank and fearless questions and had a completely refreshing perspective on how to proceed as a poet. Conscious of what was happening on the poetry scene in the USA, it seemed to me that she carried a different sense of her own authority as a writer, something in quite short supply for writers in Ireland unless they were in some way connected to literary Dublin. John F Deane also offered an incredible lift to my attitude to my work, when I took part in a poetry workshop at Listowel. I left the town in high octane form, locked myself in my Kildare writing room for 10 days afterwards, and produced lots of poetic bilge, but a few salvageable poems that did go on to be published. This is what the support of an older poet can do: it allows you to write out the dross and then settle to finding out a little more about your own voice as a writer.

Was it difficult to get started in terms of getting poems and stories into print? Not particularly. There were no cabals which aimed to exclude at first print level. Difficulties came later, when the time came to search for a book publisher. Retrospectively, I came to see how several Dublin-based writers had had the good fortune to be connected either to newspaper editors (through their parents), or to be part of a casual cultural network that had always existed in the city among the middle classes. The truism is that if your family is known, it’s possible to be ushered gently along the system.

Notwithstanding those comments, I’ve had as much or more assistance over the years from men as I’ve had from women. The late and greatly missed Bernard Loughlin offered a bursary to stay for a whole month at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in 1984, which allowed me write several short stories and more poetry. Bernard was accepting of new writers and the air around the place was fragrant with creativity. The late poet and short story writer Conleth Ellis from Athlone generously wrote a private critique of all my short fiction. Written longhand, in black ink, and I still have the long letter which placed such faith in my endeavours.

Turn up at your own desk. Write around your children's schedules or around your ageing parents' schedules, and carry on without grumbling

Derek Mahon, whom I also knew, was experienced in both the mess of life and the mess of art. I saw him from time to time in Dublin after I’d taken part in the workshop he offered in Temple Bar during his stint as TCD’s writer fellow, along with Paula Meehan and Sara Berkeley. Mahon offered encouraging insights, and planted in me the seeds of thinking about poetry translation (one of his own interests), and I was honoured when he included a quotation from my long poem Spiderwoman’s Third Avenue Rhapsody in his 1995 collection The Hudson Letter.

As the 1990s dawned, there was a subtle shift in thinking. Many fiction writers who had been mentored by David Marcus through the Irish Press’s New Irish Writing, were now emerging in book form. My first novel, The Light Makers, was published by Poolbeg Press in 1992. I’d had the good fortune to come under the guiding editorial hand of Sean McMahon, whose sharp and literary sensibility grasped what I was trying to do. At that time, John Banville as literary editor of The Irish Times, for whom I occasionally reviewed books, welcomed the novel in a private note as a new and exciting addition to Irish letters. As in any profession, provided you’re not a sociopath, what counts for many is the kind nod, the passing blessing.

The zeitgeist of the day superficially welcomed women’s literary art, although few women were represented in any major anthologies, at that time always edited by men who had no difficulty with or awareness of the insult to contemporary writing which their blind-siding omissions caused. I sometimes ask myself whether the female writers who so clearly avoided writing literary criticism were shrewd, given the rigid climate. A case of the colonised needing to devise the means of their own survival as writers?

Today, the instant chain of communication between beginning writers and potential publishers is like an ocean of glittering fish. The writer goes on line, excerpts from works-in-progress are posted, and notices about forthcoming work. I remember a Spanish academic telling me about 10 years ago that she would not have known about the existence of novelist Nuala O’Connor had it not been for her online presence on Facebook.

Among us now and gifting our written culture is a vibrant generation of writers (though it’s the women who now get attention). At a conference abroad last August, I was in the company of two poets. It was so compelling to hear these two women read their work and I formed the impression that both inhabited a space of significantly greater certainty about their validity as writers than I and my companions would ever have done in the 1980s.

As ever, there’s a dichotomy to acceptance. Right across the generations, an undermining and defensive self-consciousness has also taken root, whereby whatever one says risks being interpreted with a complete absence of nuance. One example was when Colm Tóibín’s remark about genre fiction (in a Guardian newspaper interview) drew thin-skinned levels of vitriol. Genre fiction doesn’t work for him. But neither does literary fiction for some people, and the episode characterises how whatever is expressed must be set on a scale of bland to palatable comment.

Yet what are we here for in the physical world, as the surviving primates whose capacity for language has enabled us to triumph in adversity, if not to discuss, agree, disagree again, possibly change something?

Authors can still capture those glittering fish alluded to earlier, to be set a-swim in the depths of the creative mind. But sometimes the pressure to conform to one’s particular literary tribe is anti-creative. Perhaps it’s more simple than we think and the deal is this: turn up at your own desk. Write around your children’s schedules or around your ageing parents’ schedules, and carry on without grumbling. This is life, and the diversity longed for by so many in the 1980s is now part of our breathing, the mirror of critical reflection considerably renewed. I love being a writer, and I intend to do it till I drop.