Review of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (ed.) Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms 1970-2020 by Michelle Dunne

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (ed.), Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms 1970-1920 (Arlen House, 2021). ISBN: 9781851322510. Price: €25. 

Look! It’s a Woman Writer! is a collection of essays by 21 writers from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who were born in the 1950s and early 1960s. As Éilís Ní Dhuibhne explains in her Introduction, she was partly inspired by the ‘Waking the Feminists’ movement in 2016 to create this book. She asked the contributors to write an account of their literary experiences and journeys during their lives to date. The women who responded to Ní Dhuibhne’s brief include (in order of their appearance in the collection): Cherry Smyth, Mary Morrissy, Lia Mills, Moya Cannon, Aine Ní Ghlinn, Catherine Dunne, Mary O’Donnell, Mary O’Malley, Ruth Carr, Evelyn Conlon, Anne Devlin,  Ivy Bannister, Sophia Hillan,  Medbh McGuckian, Mary Dorcey, Celia de Fréine, Máiríde Woods, Liz McManus, Mary Rose Callaghan and Phyl Herbert. The book includes  writers of both the English and Irish languages, novelists, playwrights and poets and include members of the Women’s History Association of Ireland also.

Each essay is preceded by a portrait photograph of the author (in full colour), as well as a collage of some of the author’s book covers. They are followed by a short biography and a bibliography of the authors’ published works. Interspersed among the essays are short accounts describing important milestones in Irish feminist publishing since 1980, beginning with the publication of Arlen House’s Classic Literature collection (a series of books written by women writers which were, by then, out of print or forgotten, for example, Kate O’Brien’s The Ante Room). The collection is written from a feminist perspective, placing women at the centre of the work. Speaking at the launch of this publication, Professor Margaret Kelleher said that the essays in this anthology made her more aware than she had been ‘in quite some time … that to be a feminist is to be aware of, to be indebted to, those women who have gone before and to have a sense of responsibility to those who will come after.’ Evelyn Conlon states that she is a writer who is a feminist because she ‘must not be the opposite’ and explains that in her opinion, feminism is not about being ‘anti-man’ but rather ‘trying to understand women’ (pp 187-188). Everyone involved in the publication of this collection achieves and champions this. 

In her foreword to the collection, Martina Devlin highlights the importance of both education and the establishment of feminist presses to women writers: ‘It meant women could – and did – leave a candid record of who they were’ (p. 12). Ní Dhuibhne echoes Devlin’s claim and she asserts that the effect feminist theory and feminist publishers had on publishing women’s writing in Ireland was incredibly profound: ‘… they created a literary atmosphere in which it became fashionable, popular and profitable to pay attention to women’s voices’ (p. 21). Arlen House publisher Alan Hayes’s afterword is an enlightening commentary on the journey Irish feminist publishing has taken since the 1970s. The afterword also includes tributes to Dr. Margaret Mac Curtin OP (1929-2020), Eavan Boland (1944-2020) and Nell McCafferty. 

The contributors do not shy away from difficult topics and paint intimate, honest portrayals of their experiences as readers and (published) writers. While some wanted to write since childhood, others did not. The difficulties of writing and the pressure some contributors felt to be creative are laid bare. Inspiration for their work could come from past traumatic experiences. The rage, fear, sorrow and even the trauma itself are all given expression in the written word. When speech simply could not adequately express what they needed or wanted to communicate, the written word was a highly useful tool, as Cherry Smyth describes: ‘Writing is a way to speak while you’re shut up … What I couldn’t face, I wrote’ (p. 42). 

While reading the anthology, this reviewer was struck by the parallels between her own doctoral research into women’s folklore in Ireland during the 1930s and 1940s and M.A. research undertaken by Lia Mills. The question of women’s participation in folklore collection in Ireland and the recognition of women as tradition bearers and storytellers is similar to the absence of women in literary studies and history as discussed by Mills. She discovered that women writers such as Alice Milligan and George Egerton ‘occupied such a blind spot in our literature’ (p. 68). It was as though no women existed; any record of a woman’s writings, experiences or history seemed to have been erased, or reduced to a reference in a footnote or an appendix. Mills also notes her disappointment with the personification of women in Irish myths and legends: ‘… they were known for nothing so much as the ructions they caused among the men, who’d have been better off without them. Where there was trouble, a woman was surely to blame’ (p. 68). Mills observes that the ‘… historically-assumed scarcity of Irish women writers is simply not true’ and ‘… assumptions about their lack of value or relevance are wrong’ (p. 70). Just as many female storytellers and tradition bearers existed, yet were overlooked in favour of male storytellers who told longer stories in more public settings, many women writers have been forgotten or neglected. 

One of the most poignant and potent threads running through the collection are the shared memories of other women being key to their development as writers, such as Eavan Boland and Ailbhe Smyth. This is something that Doireann Ní Ghríofa spoke about last year at the launch of her award-winning A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press, 2020): 

And so much of this book … is about what we learn and what we draw from our mothers. Our biological mothers but our foremothers as well, the women around us that we draw inspiration from all the time. … that just seems such a powerful thing to me … how important it is to have women around you that inspire you, and …  to be able to observe other women’s lives and the decisions that they make and to feel their company around you, it feels so important. … And I know for me I’m so fortunate with my own mother, but I’ve also felt a type of mothering from so many other women as well and that’s been a very powerful feeling and that’s something I hope that in my life that I’ll be able to extend to other women too.

The decision to write in the Irish language also posed difficulties for women writers. Áine Ní Ghlinn’s account of her unexpected first meeting with Mícheál Ó Gaoithín (poet, storyteller and son of renowned storyteller, Peig Sayers) in Dingle Hospital after she had suffered an accident during her Gaeltacht stay is humorous at first glance as she initially believed him to be the ghost of the recently deceased Kruger Kavanagh. It is incredibly moving to read how Mícheál spent time with Ní Ghlinn and encouraged her (‘pleaded with’ are Ní Ghlinn’s words) to keep writing in the Irish language (p. 100). His support is at odds with how Ní Ghlinn felt as a young Irish-language writer until she joined the Cumann Liteartha agus Cumann Drámaíochta in University College Dublin as a student: ‘I was no longer alone! No longer an oddity!’ (p. 100). Celia de Fréine contemplates the discouragement of rejection of her first forays into writing in the Irish language when grammatical errors and the ‘unsuitability’ of her chosen themes (the death of Ann Lovett and bringing a sick child to hospital) were cited as the reasons for rejection of her work (p. 256). It would be the late 1990s before de Fréine would find the freedom to express herself in Irish. Bolstered by her new-found confidence, she began writing poems in Irish once more. 

The influence of place upon these women writers is also discussed in evocative prose. Mary O’Malley expresses her love of Connemara and the Irish-language names for the natural world that enchanted her: ‘It was the shore that drew me, with its beauty and freedom and possibility. There, most of the words for things were in Irish still, all the seaweed, the little fish and creatures in the rock pools, most of the life under the sea, … I didn’t distinguish which were in English, which in Irish until much later. The small child doesn’t care’ (p. 173). 

This collection is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Irish women’s writing. It is ultimately a celebration of the courage it takes to put pen to paper in the first instance, and to overcome life’s challenges, obstacles (both personal and external) and stereotypes. It is a testament to these women writers, the writing foremothers of many Irish women writers who were born in later decades, and to the support and encouragement they received from family, friends, fellow writers, publishers and other literary organisations. As Ní Dhuibhne states, starting to write is only half the battle: ‘You must go on’ (p. 32). 

Michelle Dunne (@MichNiDhuinn) is a PhD Candidate at Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge, Dublin City University. Her PhD research examines women’s folklore and folklore about women in north west Co. Clare to analyse its functions, genres and traits.