Was this ‘the most gifted woman Ireland ever produced?’

Hannah Lynch (1859-1904): Feminist and anti-colonial author refused ‘to prove my patriotism at the expense of truth’

“Still running over the remarkable people in Paris of whose intimate life I know something, I think of Miss Hannah Lynch, who is said to be the most gifted woman Ireland ever produced.”

The striking portrait, published in 1902 in Harper’s Bazaar, continued with a list of literary achievements: ‘She writes regularly the Paris literary letter for the London Academy, a month or two ago had articles in the current number of three of the great English reviews, while at the same time her famous ‘Autobiography of a Child’ was appearing in a French translation in La Revue de Paris.”

Who was Hannah Lynch, this remarkable yet overlooked author of novels, short fiction and journalism? Born in Dublin in 1859, she died in her beloved Paris less than two years after the Harper’s Bazaar piece appeared. At the time it was written, Lynch had been living independently, travelling widely and publishing regularly for more than 20 years. This was far from the first time she had been described as exceptional, although she knew that such praise could come with a sting in its tail. Near the start of their careers, Katharine Tynan remembered Lady Wilde introducing Lynch to Oscar Wilde as a “young Irish genius”. “Are not young Irish geniuses as plentiful as blackberries?” was his wry reply.

Lynch’s artistic and political affinities were profoundly shaped by her upbringing. Her family were proprietors of the Star and Garter hotel at 16 D’Olier Street. One of her obituarists recalled that “the drawing-room of the ‘Star’ was a salon in which nightly assembled a coterie of men and women who represented the talent and education of the Nationalists of Dublin”. Glimpses of these figures can be found in Lynch’s fiction, and Katharine Tynan paid tribute to this inspirational family in her memoirs: “In their house I really entered the literary atmosphere. One of them was Hannah Lynch … one of the few people I have known who eat, drink, and dream books”. Lynch, and her sisters and step-sisters, were active members of the Ladies’ Land League between 1881 and 1882, taking considerable risks to keep United Ireland in production during its banning by the British government.

But despite her connections, Lynch faced some equally formidable hurdles. “Genius” or not, she was still a woman, who never married, and lacked any surviving male relatives to support her. In a period that witnessed the opening volleys in a series of literary revolutions, opportunity went hand-in-hand with competition, as Wilde’s riposte suggests.

Lynch was acutely aware how easily women could be pushed to one side, even in movements that could not have survived without them. The history of the Ladies’ Land League, its success and swift dissolution, had shown her that. As such, she couldn’t resist satirising the jockeying for position that she witnessed in the early days of the Irish cultural renaissance, spoofing WB Yeats and his circle in 1888. When she delivered a public lecture on Irish literature in Paris in 1896, she pointedly avoided male authors. Instead, she singled out Emily Lawless’s novels Grania and Hurrish, and Jane Barlow’s Irish Idylls. These, she informed her audience, were “undoubtedly the best stories the young school of Irish Celts has produced”.

Lynch’s writing was rooted in Ireland and in Irish history and politics. Like Lawless, her work addressed female experience in depth, sometimes provoking readers on both ends of the political spectrum. Through Troubled Waters (1885), her first full-length novel, was based on a historical scandal that she had heard about whilst working as a governess in Co Galway. It included the murder of daughters to make way for sons, and the landowning family concerned are said to have burned as many copies as they could lay their hands on. But the novel also attacked the moral authority priests wielded over their rural congregations, featuring the pulpit denunciation of an innocent village girl. This infuriated United Ireland, which accused Lynch of trading in crude stereotypes aimed at an English readership. Given her history with the paper, she was in no mood to accept the criticism. The editor knew, she wrote, that she had intended the book for an Irish publisher and audience. Of course she was a patriot, but she should not be asked “to prove my patriotism at the expense of truth”.

Lynch continued to place Irish women at the heart of her work, but as a self-described “vagabond” and “restless wanderer” it was inevitable that her writing should come to reflect her cosmopolitanism. She had been educated in England and in France, lived for some time in Greece, and had a sister residing permanently in Spain. Lynch used these locations – and many others – in her travel writing, and in her novels and short stories blended her experiences with scenarios familiar from the New Woman literature of the period. In these books, her heroines explore their Irishness, and their gender, with others similarly liberated by mobility.

Travel also gave Lynch the opportunity to observe familiar, oppressive forces at work in different contexts. Her coverage of the 1900 Paris Exhibition made it clear that she understood its purpose as a display of imperial power. She expressed horror at the actions of the French army when writing on the Alfred Dreyfus case from 1897. Speaking out on the antisemitism and nationalism of the anti-Dreyfus side placed her in opposition to former allies. In response to an article by Michael Davitt, she declared: “As an Irishman who has suffered with the weak in strife against the strong, who has thundered repeatedly against injustice and iniquity, I find no words, as an Irishwoman, to express my indignation and surprise on finding this victim of oppression to-day on the side of injustice and iniquity in another land.”

Her best-known piece, Autobiography of a Child (1899), examined such systems of subjugation through the eyes of a young Irish girl. For modern readers, it is an exemplary anti-colonial text, appropriately enough for a work first serialised alongside Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Critics of the period were more concerned with where the line between fact and fiction fell, particularly as the book’s small heroine endures abuse and violence from her mother when at home, as well as from the nuns at her convent school in England.

Yet again, Lynch had to contend with a backlash, this time involving accusations of libel, although this did nothing to undermine her pride in what she had written, or her pleasure in its success. Controversial, sharp and courageous in her work as in her life, Hannah Lynch's writing reminds us just how much there is to learn from – and still to learn about – this lost generation of late nineteenth-century Irish women.
Faith Binckes is at the Department of English Literature, Bath Spa University and Kathryn Laing is at the Department of English Language and Literature, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. Their critical study, Hannah Lynch 1859-1904: Irish writer, cosmopolitan, New Woman, is published by Cork University Press, 2019

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