After the Catholic Church’s influence had been cast off, capitalism rushed in to fill the gap and the Irish female writers began to explore its consequences. Fortunately enough, because in the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis, new networks of solidarity begin to form, making the Irish literary scene a progressive force to be reckoned with.
While the Catholic Church has been a major force that informed, repressed and inspired the Irish literary landscape, it is far from the only one. The country’s changing economic fortunes have also shaped the narrative of Irish women writers.
For the brief heady period from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s known as the Celtic Tiger, the country experienced an economic success and a wealth that it hadn’t previously known. There was a building boom, tax cuts, a long tradition of emigration reversed. A few people made a lot of money. Claire Bracken notes in the book Irish Feminist Futures that in the novels of the 1990s by women, the protagonists often feel isolated from the materialistic concerns around them.
But in post-crash Ireland, when the bubble had burst and the state had bailed out the banks and implemented a strict regime of austerity, narrative structures changed, writes Bracken.
Materialism tends to isolate people but “when they struggle economically, they have to rely on each other, so there’s more of a community ideal,” says Professor Catherine Toal, Dean of Bard College in Berlin, noting how Sally Rooney’s use of emails and texts provided a “communicative structure” in which several people contribute to the text.
Rooney entered into her twenties in an Ireland where secure jobs are no longer guaranteed, a lack of social and affordable housing and rents have pushed thousands of families and individuals into homelessness, and austerity has worsened inequality. In both her novels, class and power dynamics lurk in the background.
In Conversations With Friends, Frances, a 21-year-old student and aspiring writer, is constantly aware of the difference in wealth of the people around her — particularly her older literary friends and the older man she becomes involved with. In Normal People, a ghost estate — one of the unfinished housing estates thrown up toward the end of the building boom — provides the backdrop to an interaction between the two main characters, Connell and Marianne.
The two main characters of Rooney’s second novel are involved with each other on and off from the end of secondary school to the end of university and their different class standing comes up in various ways. When both end up at Ireland’s elite Trinity College in Dublin, moving from their home town in the west of Ireland, they win scholarships. This has a real material importance for Connell.
“For him, the scholarship is a giant material fact, like a vast cruise ship that has appeared out of nowhere,” writes Rooney. For Marianne, who doesn’t need the money it’s just about the affirmation that she is clever, which is something that, she writes, Connell has never thought about himself and still doesn’t know whether to believe — his class is a factor even in his own self-belief.
McInerney too looks at the role of class in her novels, although she is quick to point out that she doesn’t start a story to say something about society because it risks it becoming polemic. Her characters are largely working class because she is working class, she says, adding: “It’s impossible to examine a lot of the themes in Heresies and in The Blood Miracles [her second novel] — for example, drug dealing, the Catholic church’s treatment of women, abortion — without examining them in the context of social class. It’s not just about the problems, but about how these problems might disproportionately affect disadvantaged people.”
McInerney, who says she’s never completed a degree and or an academic creative writing course, honed her voice writing a blog called The Arse End of Ireland when she was a young parent on a council estate. That led her to a book deal.
Bypassing the Male, Pale and Stale Gate-Keepers
But the erosion of the Church’s influence and the concurrent shift in social attitudes are still not the only factors that have led to a growing recognition of Irish women’s writing.
The rise in creative writing and mentoring programs in the late 20th century have, according to Paige Reynolds, given “more women access to the same kind of tools and mentoring that men have traditionally had more ready access to”. Irish literary magazines like The Moth, The Stinging Fly, and Banshee Lit — also an indie press — have provided space for new and experimental voices.
Independent publishers like Tramp Press are doing the same. Founded in 2014 by Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff, staff reportedly read everything sent into them. They publish only a handful of books a year and the gender split is fairly equal. They partly credit the internet with having had a democratizing influence on the industry. “Bypassing the male, pale and stale gate-keepers has become easier,” wrote Sarah Davis-Goff in an email.
Bias in favour of male authors still exists though. Just a few years ago, an industry professional told them a book Tramp Press was about to publish was “about women; probably people won’t be interested in it”. The book went on to sell well, she said. Davis-Goff mentions the success of Eimear McBride’s 2013 novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing demonstrated the hunger for difficult fiction regardless of gender.
“Slowly there are more women edging their ways into positions of power; women having equal say in what ends up on a bookshelf is hugely important. With regard to the change we seem to be experiencing, again it seems that having more women and more male allies in positions of power is so important.”
The lack of recognition for women authors in the past, which is not necessarily an Irish problem, has become a big part of the conservation. The infamous Irish literary tea towel, which features 12 of the country’s greatest writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (and they are undoubtedly great), is frequently derided for not featuring a single woman. Because of the lack of profile given to women writing, they were almost waiting “for permission to write”, says author and playwright Christine Dywer-Hickey, whose fourth novel Tatty recently became the third by a woman chosen as Dublin’s One City One Book.
“There’s more encouragement there for women writers now. You used to wait for someone to recognise you and say you can come forward, that’s not the case now,” says Dwyer-Hickey.
Other Silences Remain
Indeed, Sara Baume says, growing up in booming Celtic Tiger 1990s Ireland, when the country voted in its first female president, she never questioned the idea that anything might be off-limits to her.
“Perhaps I was one of the first generations. I didn’t grow up in an Ireland in which I was given to expect anything less than a man might expect,” says Baume, the author of two novels, including A Line Made By Walking, which has been acclaimed for its ecocritical perspective.
This shift in power and perspective has undoubtedly done much to promote literature by Irish women. But those whose voices are being heard are aware that silences remain.
“I think we’re in danger of congratulating ourselves so much on the successes of privileged women that we neglect the voices that aren’t being heard,” says McInerney. “And what’s the point of literature, if not to make the whole world a bit more familiar, if not to marvel in the scope and breadth of humanity?”