Irish literature has quickly become a globally celebrated phenomenon. It is loud, it is different, it is direct – and with voices like Sally Rooney, Anna Burns and Sinéad Gleeson it is almost exclusively female. How could this happen on the traditionally arch-conservative island?

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On May 25th 2018, the people of Ireland voted to legalize abortion. It was an extraordinary moment in the history of women’s rights in the country. 

Just 35 years earlier the nation had voted overwhelmingly in favor of placing the life of the unborn child on par with that of the mother. This gave constitutional protection to the foetus and cemented the ban on abortion in any circumstance, even when the women’s life was in danger. 

New Irish Literature: Decades of oppression that’s turned on its head (Illustration: SPEX).

But a lot can change in three decades. 

Since that first vote in 1983, Ireland has emerged from the long shadow of violence cast by the Troubles in the north of the island, experienced an unprecedented economic boom and a subsequent crash that plunged the nation into a deep recession. In the process, it has cast aside a Catholic conservative state that punished women for their sexuality and controlled their bodies and their fates.

With that rapid change has come a chorus of critically acclaimed Irish female literary voices, capturing the new reality of post-crash Ireland and dealing with the demons of the old. Women’s experiences, having been in the shadows for decades, have now begun to take centre-stage, where they are often presented in an experimental form. 

Sinéad Gleeson’s work presents a good example. In her essay collection Constellations: Reflections From Life, released in early 2019, she blurs the line between poetry and prose when she speaks about her sick body under the restrictive gaze of a Church that saw women as reproductive vessels. In the Booker prize-winning Milkman, Anna Burns writes an opaque, stream-of-consciousness narrative of a young woman growing up in an oppressive and misogynistic culture during the violence of the Troubles. Sally Rooney navigates class and relationships in an almost post-Catholic, hyper-capitalist Ireland of extortionate rents and low corporate taxes, in Normal People and Conversations With Friends

Successful for a short while

This new generation of female writers is embracing an artistic freedom that Ireland has not traditionally afforded women. The sentiment is personified in the gnarly character of Maureen Phelan in Lisa McInerney’s darkly comic The Glorious Heresies. Having returned to Ireland after being banished to London for having a baby outside of wedlock, she says: “This country’s done punishing me and I can do whatever I like now.”

This feeling of liberty has been hard won. In the past, Ireland proved itself adept at punishing its women, particularly those who didn’t fit the Holy Trinity of respectable, married and reproductive. Women were supposed to accept their lot and be quiet about it. 

This did not stop them from writing, though. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, female Irish authors were having a bit of a moment. Writers like Katharine Tynan and Rosa Mulholland, were well known, particularly outside of Ireland, in countries like the US, for their realist novels. 

“There were always a lot of them. They were enormously prolific and quite successful but generally not in Ireland,” says Paige Reynolds, a professor from College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. 

“So as an American critic studying Ireland it’s easy for me to see a kind of neat trajectory from the sort of noisy success of these writers in the early 20th century to the noisy success of those in the early 21st century,” she adds. 

The question then arises as to what happened to Irish women in the intervening hundred years. Part of that answer lies in the events leading up to and following Ireland’s gaining of independence from Great Britain in 1922. 

In the clutches of state and church

As the suffragette movement took off worldwide at the beginning of the 20th century, Irish women were playing a key role in the country’s fight for independence from the British Empire. During the failed Easter Rising in 1916, women fought alongside their male compatriots. 

Among them was Constance Markievicz, who went on to become the first woman voted to parliament in Westminster, although she did not take her seat. Following independence, Markievicz, who was also a painter, became the Minister of Labour in the first Dáil, as the Irish parliament is called, making her the first female cabinet minister in Europe. That first Dáil also enshrined equality regardless of gender into the 1922 Constitution. 

But subsequent Catholic conservative governments did everything they could to ignore their own constitution by restricting women’s influence in public life. As the Taoiseach Éamon DeValera, who oversaw the writing of the 1937 Constitution, once told a researcher, women “were the boldest and most unmanageable of revolutionaries”. So, it seems, the best way to deal with that unmanageable portion of the population was to keep them at home, having plenty of babies.

The state did that with a raft of legislation including a ban on artificial contraception, a bar on married women in the civil service (which was only lifted in 1973) and a constitutional ban on divorce that was only repealed in 1995. Finally, the 1937 Constitution also recognised the place of women in the home — a clause that still remains. For the church and state, the woman at home was essential to the upholding of Catholic values within the family and the moral well-being of the nation. 

Reduced to silence

“I used to call it ‘Iran with lipstick’”, says June Caldwell, former journalist and author of Room Little Darker, a collection of dark, funny and visceral short stories. “Ireland was in some really strange little vortex for a long while.”

Those who stepped out of line were banished to another kind of home where they would be hidden from public view. Thousands of women were imprisoned in church-run, state sponsored institutions like the Magdalene Laundries for having babies outside of wedlock. There, they were forced to work for free under cruel conditions, shunned by society. Some stayed for a short while, others remained their whole lives. Most had their babies taken away from them and put into orphanages and up for adoption. Many never saw their children again. The last laundry closed in 1996.  

As a result, for much of the mid 20th century, women had little say in public life. Few had the means or the time to write. Female writers of that era who did manage to break through found themselves battling against the expectations of how Irish women should behave.

The late writer and journalist Nuala O’Faolain, who herself pushed against those norms, described literary Dublin in the 1950s and 60s as a place where everyone was in the pub, all the writers were men and “the women were all women who were going out with the men”.

“If you were a young female, no one asked you what you did, around the pubs of Dublin, or what you wanted to do,” wrote O’Faolain.

Escape from Dublin to London

Other Irish women writing at the time, such as Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen and Maeve Brennan achieved a degree of success and respect. But for authors like Edna O’Brien — who was long recognised as a genius outside of Ireland and whose latest novel Girl about the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted in 2014 by Boko Haram has been widely praised — success came at a personal price. 

O’Brien moved to London in the 1950s to escape the “enclosed, fervid and bigoted” Ireland of the time. She told American magazine The Atlantic that she likely wouldn’t have written anything had she stayed: “I feel I would have been watched, would have been judged (even more!), and would have lost that priceless commodity called freedom.”  

O’Brien was judged at home for her first novel The Country Girls, part of a trilogy that depicted Irish women coming to terms with the suffocating society they lived in. Ireland’s zealous censors banned the book in 1960 for its “explicit sexual content” (which was probably even mild for its day). The most powerful Catholic in the land, Archbishop John McQuaid, and the then minister for justice Charles Haughey, and later Taoiseach, referred to it as “filth” that “shouldn’t be allowed in any decent home”. It got a local parish priest so hot under the clerical collar, it was reportedly burned, and O’Brien received hate mail. Her first six novels were censored. 

Male writers also fell foul of the censorship laws, of course. And it was often seen as a badge of honour. It was women though, beacons as they were of public morality, who bore the brunt of shame, as they did in matters of pregnancy and sexuality.  

No false shame anymore

Today women no longer have to fear being marginalised in the quite the same way for those acts. Indeed, the major Catholic taboos have been broken. In June Caldwell’s collection of short stories Room Little Darker, she writes about a couple kept as sex slaves in the countryside, a programme to rehabilitate paedophiles that involves giving them robot boys and her short story Somat talks about abortion from the perspective of a foetus. Caldwell wrote the last story, which also appeared in the 2015 anthology The Long Gaze Back, in a fit of rage over doctors’ decision in Ireland in 2014 to keep a woman on life-support as her foetus still had a heartbeat.

“I just decided not to censor myself,” says Caldwell. “I thought I’d be slaughtered but we’re in a new era and people were happy that I wrote honestly. But it’s not a surprise to me that people are writing honestly. It’s just decades and decades of oppression that’s turned on its head.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Caldwell, or any women writing now, being able to produce those stories without those who went before. That contribution is partly what Sinéad Gleeson wanted to acknowledge with The Long Gaze Back. The anthology is chronological, spanning four centuries of Irish women writing, starting with Maria Edgeworth’s short story The Purple Jar, first published in 1796 and now read as a parable of a girl getting her first period, to Mary Lavin’s 1967 tale of a widow garnering “unwanted male attention” in In The Middle Of The Fields and ending with new voices like Eimear Ryan’s Lane In Stay, specially commissioned for the book. 

“I’m always aware of the echoing,” says Gleeson. “Those women gave us all permission to say what we can say now. That debt is easy to forget when you say, I can write anything. But you can only write something because someone else did the work a couple of decades ago when they did lose their job or get lambasted or censored.”

In remembrance of the pioneers

Writing Constellations: Reflections From Life was also in some ways “paying a debt” to the women who went before, says Gleeson. She writes of the lack of choice for her grandmother, great grandmother  — “working class women who had to leave school at 12 or 14” — and the “armies of mothers and Magdalenes who wanted so much from the world; women who never asked for anything.” And the activists who worked for years women’s bodily autonomy and freedoms. 

One chapter is dedicated to the “12 women a day who left” Ireland to access abortion abroad and meditates on the lack of compassion in the country for pregnant women, mentioning among other instances, the case of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who died in a Galway hospital in 2012 after being denied what could have been a life-saving termination of her pregnancy because “Ireland is a Catholic country”. 

In The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, protagonist Maureen exacts revenge for all that collective trauma by burning down a church in her native Cork after 40 years of exile in London. But in ways, it’s a pointless act, says McInerney, because the Ireland she’s angry with though is “waning, if it still exists at all”.  

“Of course, the problem then is that she’s trying to attack something that’s no longer there, which leads to some (I think) funny situations,” says McInerney. 

Certainly, the hold Catholicism had, has largely disappeared. Mass attendance has slumped, priests and nuns are a dying breed, divorce is allowed, as is abortion (although women still have difficulty accessing it). Yet the vestiges remain. Schools and hospitals are still patronised by the church, which has been at best reluctant to acknowledge the full extent of the suffering it has caused. Scandals still emerge. In the past few years, revelations about a mass grave filled with the remains of 800 babies, mostly buried in the 1950s, in a mother and baby home in the west of Ireland sent shockwaves well beyond Irish shores. And the Irish state has to some degree replicated the carceral system of the laundries and homes in the form of direct provision, where asylum seekers are kept, some for years in terrible conditions without the right to work. 

To be continued (…)