Voices from over here and Down Under
From what primeval starting point to here?
A relay race through centuries from mother to daughter an expression passed on a gesture, a profile
THESE lines taken from Mary Dorcey's poem "My Grandmother's Voice" perhaps best capture the essence of a new collection of stories, poems, extracts from novels and personal musings on what it is to be Irish. Entitled Wee Girls: Women Writing From An Irish Perspective and published by Spinifex Press in Melbourne, it includes work by 22 contributors, scattered across the world from Australia and New Zealand to England and Ireland to the US and Canada.
The dearth of published work by Irish women writers in Australia led the poet and literary publicist Lizz Murphy to undertake this project. Initially, Murphy had simply planned to put together something that would give Australians access to contemporary Irish women writers and Irish people access to current work written by Australian women.
However, like most good projects, the collection evolved into something greater and Murphy ended up including writings by women writers in North America, England and New Zealand with a loosely defined "Irishness" as the common link between all of them.
"Contributors were given a fairly open invitation. They could use their complete space allocation for current work or some of it to write about their lives and writing processes, the influence that being Irish has on them as women and writers, or any other related topic," explains Lizz Murphy.
Irish based writers in Wee Girls include Maeve Binchy, Medbh McGuckian, Rita Ann Higgins and Mary Dorcey, while the voices from the Antipodes include Jill Jones, Bronwyn Rodden, Sue Reidy and Lizz Murphy herself. Journalist Helena Mulkerns, feminist philosopher Mary Daily and writer Pam Lewis represent North America.
The individual authors' contributions range from pieces written specifically for the collection to previously published poems and stories. While some of the latter are very worthy choices, especially in terms of opening up the writings to a wider audience, the freshly written autobiographical pieces are the most interesting.
For instance, the Belfast born poet Medbh McGuckian writes an honest and thought provoking piece entitled "Drawing Ballerinas: how being Irish has influenced me as a writer". In her concluding paragraph she writes, there's a respect for the hurt of words as well as bullets, and the hurt of no words. There's a determined search for the right language in which to say what we really mean, to each other and about each other, no longer behind each other's backs in each other's houses.
Speaking to The Irish Times from her home in Binalong, New South Wales, Lizz Murphy says that the process of editing Wee Girls has brought her closer to Ireland. Born in Belfast in 1950 Murphy emigrated to Australia with her family while still in her teens and, after returning briefly, went back to Australia with her husband in the late 1960s and has not been to Ireland since.
"I have been doing a lot of journeying myself in the last number of years and I feel I have revisited Ireland through the book. I have made good friendships through my discourse with the contributors and I now have a great need to go back to Ireland as a writer," she says.
One of the common themes explored by many of the writers in Wee Girls is identity whether to feel Irish is as valid as being Irish, and what, constitutes the latter anyway.
Confronted by her partner's dismissive attitude to her Irishness (the whole notion is sentimental and misguided, he claimed), the New Zealand writer Sue Reidy attempts to justify her need to explore her Irish roots. "When I began to explore my genealogy I was full of emotional fuzzy ideas about my Irish roots. I had to confront the reality that I had only the vaguest idea of where my wider family fitted into the overall, scheme of things."
Born in Australia of Irish parents, the poet and short story writer Bronwyn Rodden discusses the sense of celebration she felt when she visited Ireland for the first time. "It didn't occur to me that I was Irish until ... I found myself surrounded by people who looked just like my parents and brothers and sisters. I realised I belonged to a race of people after all."
The Australian feminist writer Robyn Rowland eloquently expresses the need for such a homecoming. "Dislocated to find location I come in search of family,/ traces followed with perverse avidity by those whose/stories in their stolen lands take short breath counting/ stars for all the Irish exiled by famine, pain, or/ that great roving spark burning in their bloodline still.
That Australian women writers feel part of an Irish diaspora is certain; however, this feeling run alongside a consciousness of another place, their own vast continent.
The third generation Irish Australian poet Jill Jones analyses the Irishness in her own writing. "And then I write as someone living on an island (a very big one, no doubt) close to the sea using a language that came from some other place, that is my own surely but at times not quite."
THE effects of growing up in Northern Ireland are richly explored both by writers who continue to live there and those who have long since left. While the violence experienced by those who grew up there is poignantly felt by the reader, leaving the North is also understood to be a huge emotional release for some of the contributors.
Linda Anderson, who was born in Belfast but now lives in England, explores the links between public and private kinds of violence. "The public violence seeps and deforms and creates what a "man and woman say to each other in their own kitchen, for example, and the reverse situation too. The way all our privacies create the mutilating world," she writes.
The experience of being Protestant or Catholic in Northern Ireland is also spoken about. Lizz Murphy writes about growing up as a Protestant bin Belfast and then marrying a Catholic. The prevalence of mixed marriages in the family histories of some of the emigrant writers leads one to wonder whether this experience in itself led to their ancestors emigration. The vast subject of the emigrant experience is, however, only scantily dealt with in Wee Girls.