Why are there no women writers in the National Wax Museum?
Nine dead male Irish writers and no women – but Marian Keyes and Maeve Binchy are on a shortlist
The National Wax Work Museum Dublin featuring the all-male Irish writers’ area. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Maeve Binchy has been suggested for the writers’ room at the National Waxworks Museum Dublin. Photograph: Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
The Irish writers are in the bar. Sure, where else would they be, especially dead male Irish writers? No, excuse me, one of the nine is poet Pat Ingolsby, and he is very much alive. He’s sitting over there in the corner, reading an out-of-date Evening Herald. I’m a bit concerned about the state of Pat. His face is bright orange, as if he recently came out of an unlicensed tanning salon.
I’m in the Writers’ Room of the latest incarnation of the National Wax Museum Plus, which recently moved from behind the Bank of Ireland at Foster Place, to Westmoreland Street. It might have plus in the title, but there are no plusses for the complete absence of any women writers represented here. In fact, according to Paddy Dunning, who is the owner of the museum, less than a third of all the waxworks are of women. (I had told him not to include the dead bodies hanging upside down in the Hotel of Horrors display in the count.)
It’s a lovely room, where the nine waxworks of Irish male writers are located. The room has many windows, and they all overlook O’Connell Bridge and the Liffey; a view fine enough to inspire any writer, even one made of testosterone and wax. So who has made the cut? There’s Samuel Beckett, standing by a window, looking stern. Brendan Behan is at the bar, but he’s out of luck, because all 19 bottles of whiskey and tequila on display are empty. This lot of writers obviously had quite a night of it the previous night, and have drunk the bar dry.
Next to him is George Bernard Shaw, who is standing in his plus-four tweeds next to the vending machine, which dispenses Taytos, soft drinks and bars of chocolate. You may think (I did) that Nobel Laureate Shaw was a man who only had lofty thoughts, but in this representation, he looks very like the man in charge of doling out the crisps and cola.
Sean O’Casey is reading a book in Latin, and looks pretty fed up with it, if you ask me. Oscar Wilde is brooding on a set of library stairs, holding a white cane that looks suspiciously like one end of a painted curtain pole. William Butler Yeats has his back up against the wall, arms held stiffly down beside him, like a schoolboy brought before a headmaster. Or perhaps he’s contemplating dancing a jig, which would make sense, as there is Oirish music on a loop in the Irish Writers’ Room. James Joyce is sitting at a table, with a book in his hand. It’s a Chambers dictionary. Of course it is. The swot.
Just as I am turning away from Joyce, a pair of windows fly open, and almost sends Samuel Beckett into waxwork meltdown. A couple of inches closer, and Beckett would have been on the floor, and probably smashed his spectacles too. Stacks of books on the windowsill have come crashing to the ground when the window opened. I go in search of an attendant.
Have you ever tried looking for a real person in a building full of waxworks? Father Ted is laughing at me from a doorway, as well he might, because all I can see is Donald Trump, Tina Turner, David Bowie and Mary McAleese, before I get lost in the Maze of Mirrors and keep crashing into images of myself. (I can report that the Maze of Mirrors is jolly good. It took me quite a while to get out of it.)
Finally, a man comes to wrestle the windows closed, and restack the books. I am looking at Writer Number Nine, who looks vaguely familiar, in his hat and overcoat, but I just can’t place him. There’s a typewriter in front of him, but no paper in it, as if he’s having a really, really bad day.
“Do you know who this is?” I ask the Window Wrestler.
He has a good look at him. There’s an empty decanter and glass beside him, so it’s probably no wonder Brendan Behan up at the bar is giving him the thousand-yard stare: you had whiskey, you bowsie, and you didn’t share it with us? “Patrick. Patrick someone,” he says eventually. “I can’t think of his surname.”
Ah. It’s Patrick Kavanagh.
So that’s them. But why no women writers? The National Waxworks Museum Plus is a privately-owned commercial business, but it also has the word “National” in its name.
“You’re dead right, you’re on the ball about that,” Dunning agrees cheerfully when I call him to discuss the curious absence of women from the Writers’ Room. “It was pointed out when we launched Philomena that we didn’t have enough women in the museum.”
He means Philomena Lynott, who is the newest waxwork in the museum, and who, he tells me, frequently visits the likeness of her dead son. I had passed Philomena on my way to look for someone to see to the windows, and very lovely she looks too.
“It’s a problem in society generally, that women get overlooked, but I have no control over that,” Dunning says.
I point out he owns the museum, and presumably has an input into the decisions made as to who gets made into a waxwork, be they dead or alive, male or female.
“We will have a woman in the Writers’ Room,” he says. “We have a shortlist at the moment to see who’ll be the next one.”
The names currently on the shortlist are: Elizabeth Bowen, Maeve Binchy, Edna O’Brien, Marian Keyes and Anne Enright. Dunning is not sure yet how they will choose the first Irish woman writer to join the coterie of nine men in the Writers Room, but he hopes to involve the public in the decision in some way.
Meanwhile, the nine Irish male writers already in situ can start arguing about who’s going to give up their chair to a woman writer, and who’s going to sit where now, and for the love of God, while you’re at it, can you please replace the empty whiskey bottles?