I was fortunate that during my year in Ireland, the Women's Education, Research, and Resource Centre at UCD organized a spectacular first-of-its-kind conference celebrating Irish Women's Writing. For several days in May, 1999, women writers, scholars, students, readers and thinkers came together for readings, workshops, performances and lectures. I talked with several women who were there about Irish women's writing and the importance of this wonderful and long-awaited event.
MBS: My name is Marie Bashford Synott, and I live in Skerries, Co. Dublin
MT: And whats brought you to the conference?
MBS: Ive just finished a higher diploma in Womens Studies in UCD. Im coming to listen and see if I can find strands of the things that Ive been reading and studying.
MT: And has that been happening? What did you just come from?
MBS: Well its very funny, I actually got into something I wasnt expecting to get into. I went to a different room where they were discussing The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen, and a visit of Virginia Woolf to Ireland. They were talking about women loving women in Ireland. There was a tenuous connection in that Virginia Woolf came to visit Elizabeth Bowen in 1934 and they clasped hands over St. Brigids well in Bowens court. Virginia Woolf subsequently wrote to Vita Sackville West who had been her lover. She was trying to make West jealous by telling her about this.
MT: Whats your other role within this conference? Are you presenting?
MBS: Im just taking part in a writers forum. Theyve threatened me that Im going to take the session.
Ill be reading from a long poem of mine called A Lonely Momento that I wrote a couple of years ago. At that time I was very interested in postmodernism and post structuralism, not really knowing what it was about, but very excited by it. I wrote myself into a corner and now Im trying to get out of it.
MT: Do you mostly write poetry?
MBS: No, I write plays and short stories. I dont get very far with it, but Im still writing.
MT: When did you start writing -- have you written all your life?
MBS: No, I began when I went to a writers workshop in 1981. It was as a result of my first time abroad. Id been married and had four children. My husband and I went to Germany -- it was the first time on our own in donkeys years, and it was like getting a kick in the head. When I came back I had to do something, and Id always been thinking of writing.
When I was in school writers were English and they were men. In a very good course we had Charles Lamb, Hazlitt and other male writers, but I didnt see any place for myself.
MT: What is the significance of this conference? Has there ever been a conference like this?
MBS: The significance for me is that its making women writers visible in Ireland. In general, its the male writer who gets literary prizes or into anthologies. Women writers are rarely reviewed; women playwrights are never put on. I think if the mainstream is being reviewed and getting prizes, women who are writing very well and in huge numbers just arent getting through.
Theres a very interesting MA thesis at UCD in the Womens Resource Room, Arts [Building] 2. Its by Tara Durkin and shes done a very interesting project. Shes looked at the male writers John McKenna, Dermot Bolger and Roddy Doyle. Theyve all written as women. What they do is look at women in society like they look at the topic of racism. Instead of feeling sorry for the woman, the black person, or the marginalized person, you should look at the society thats made them have to deal with racism. Her thesis is that the male writers dont do that.
AK: My name is Alexis Kilbride. I did my MA in Womens Studies years ago and I am also a writer. Therefore, I think women writing in Ireland as a subject is particularly designed for me.
MT: What kind of writing do you do?
AK: Well, up to now Ive written short stories, but at the moment Im working on a novel that centers around a lesbian character. In the session Ive just attended weve been discussing that the lesbian novels produced in Ireland, few as they are, are all set in Dublin and have an obligatory Grafton street scene. Mine is not stepping outside that routine at all. I was pretty horrified to find out how predictable my work is.
MT: Are you going to be reading at all during the conference?
AK: No. I can only attend bits and pieces here and there because Im working and I have children.
MT: What are the highlights?
AK: Well, Im particularly interested in the sessions and performances that focus on lesbian issues. The big event is the reading in St. Annes church of all those wonderful Irish women writers. I just hope I get in. I imagine itll be packed.
MT: Who are some of the writers you are excited to hear?
AK: I love Cherry Smyths writing. Also Mary Dorcey, and Emma Donoghue. Ill probably attend her plenary session. Shes a wonderful writer and shes so varied because shes done a novel and play and the academic work. Im a big fan of hers.
MT: What is the current situation of lesbian writers in Ireland? Are there many getting published or is that still difficult to get work out there?
AK: I would say its relatively difficult in the sense that anything that I would have had published on that theme would be in feminist publications and those type of magazines. Two authors that people are aware of are Mary Dorcey and Emma Donoghue, yet Im sure there must be loads more writing in that vein. I imagine it still is difficult.
MT: And what is the significance of this conference -- is it an historic event?
AK: Im certainly not aware of any event that has ever assembled such a range of Irish women writers of such status as this event.
MT: You always hear about Irish writers but theyre always men...
AK: There are all the famous controversies over the Field Day Anthology. It excludes some of the women writers who certainly should have been in there. Emma Donoghue ended up compiling an addendum to the Field Day Anthology based on lesbian women writers, or maybe it was gay writers in general. Then theres the famous, or infamous, poster of Irish writers with Yeats and Shaw and all the rest of them. Women like Mary Lavin and Elizabeth Bowen didnt appear on the poster. Its all men. Thats a very popular number for tourists coming here. Its sold in the Writers Museum and many other places so visitors interested in Irish literature would be buying this poster. It gives the impression that the only people who have written in Ireland are men. Women are totally excluded, which has tended to be a tradition*.
Thats why its so great to see such a range of wonderful women writers all gathered together for an event like this. Im not aware of it ever having happened before.
*[Editor's Note: There is now in pre-publication a Field Day of Irish Women writers. Field Day Anthology: Irish Women's Writing and Traditions ed. by Angela Bourke.]
GW: My name is Geraldine Whelan. J.V Whelan as a critic and O.R .Melling is my writing name.
MT: What has brought you to the conference?
GW: Well Im giving a paper on Saturday. Its called The Moon and the Bog: a Resurrection Myth for Women. Its an introduction to a nonfiction book Im writing. Its for every woman whos ever been buried and risen again. Its particularly for women in mid-life, women who have gone through at least one major time of suffering and then have overcome it. The book is a departure for me because I dont normally write nonfiction. I write fantasy novels for children and young adults. Ive written one adult novel, which is experimental, a fantasy and a love story, in a peculiar sort of way.
MT: Do you live here in Dublin?
GW: No, I live in Bray. I was born in Bray and then my family emigrated to Canada where I grew up. I came back about 14 years ago.
MT: What is the significance of the conference for you?
GW: It raised the whole question of whether Im an Irish woman writer. Generally, I would call myself Irish-Canadian. In Ireland and even in the circles Ive moved in, as soon as they hear that I have a foreign accent they consider me a foreigner. It doesnt matter that I was born here or that my subject matter is chiefly based on Irish mythology. When people refer to Irish childrens writers they dont always mention my name, whereas in Canada, when they mention Canadian childrens writers they always mention my name. In that sense theres a kind of a question of what am I. Sometimes when I say we I might mean we Canadians or we north Americans or we Irish. So, there is ambivalence in me as well. I know a lot of the women writers involved in the conference and I love their work.
As a critic -- I write for the Irish Times and for Books Ireland -- Im always reading Irish writing and particularly Irish women writers. Ive come to the conference for that reason as well, but it has raised questions for me. Am I an Irish woman writer? Am I one of that group? Am I one of that circle? Im not sure yet. Ill have to decide by the end of the conference.
MT: Who are some of the writers youre looking forward to hearing?
GW: Im looking forward to the performances -- Ger Moane and Joni Crone. I want to see Áine McCarthy talking about critics and criticism. I want to hear what other women critics have to say as well. Im going to do the workshop with her on creative nonfiction writing. I enjoyed Nuala Ni Dhomnhaills opening remarks and I really like her work. Shes quite a performer as well as a thinker and a poet.
One of the problems with the conference is there are so many things going on at the same time. You really want to clone yourself and go to loads of them. Theres a whole group of women writers who Im part of and a lot of them will be reading at the same time -- Celia de Fréine, Liz McManus, Éilis Ni Dhuibhne. Ive only just recently joined the group and I havent heard all of them read. Theres so many intelligent women gathered in the same place at the same time and all talking about incredible interesting things. I actually think thats one of the big differences between men and women -- women are a lot more interesting. Men are interesting in their own way, but theyre not as complex and theyre not as varied. Quite frankly, I think a whole conference about men wouldnt be this fascinating.
MT: Has this kind of event ever happened before? It seems like a great achievement.
GW: A conference about women writers? No, I don't think so. I think in some ways the women themselves are actually surprised to see how many women writers there are. Nobody had ever stopped to take count. When Nuala said the battle is not over but its won, I think shes right in the sense of just looking at how many women are here. All these women have taken part in writers conferences around Ireland, but the panels are always three men and one woman. At most there are two men and two women. Often its four men and nobody notices the lack of a woman. There hasnt been a festival or conference that I know of where there have been such a huge number of women writers all gathered together. Its fabulous.
RK: Im Rita Kelly. Ive come under a couple of guises, the first of which is to introduce the Laois writers group. At the present time Im working as writer in residence for county Laois; its part of an initiative by local authorities and the arts council. The group has been in existence since the early 90s. My appointment was for 6 months and then they asked me if I would stay another 6 months. So, I must have done something half right. Im enjoying it very much. Of course because its not a gender-decided group, we had to decide who would come. We have about 8 or 9 women. There are also men in the group and they tried various guises, that they would dress up as this that and the other. They wanted to come, but that didnt happen.
Im giving a paper on the ethics of translation and Im also part of a writers forum. I write in both Irish and English, so thats why translation is a burning issue.
MT: What is your background as a writer?
RK: Ive become the Irish cliché. They put some of my stories on a course at Yale and I went out to give them lectures and seminars and put a face with the stories. What happened was I loved New York so much -- as opposed to New Haven, Connecticut -- that I stayed for 6 years. I went through all the HIV and blood tests and all the documentation. I had shipped all my books to the upper west side when I asked myself, Do I really want to be here? The climate in New York was just too dry, especially in the winter. So I decided I had better get back to where there was more moisture. Had I have left when I was younger I wouldve become acclimatized.
MT: Are there are particular themes that youre working on now?
RK: First of all I come from East Galway. Galway is one of those big counties. By our terms its big and it spans a lot of different landscapes. Ive lived most of my adult life in the southeast, so Im a midland person. One of the things would be that very strong sense of place and sense of landscape. I have relations on the seacoast and have spent a lot of time in my youth with them. I recall the whole idea of that movement, that incredible energy that you dont get in the midlands, in the midlands of any country. But you get a different combination -- you get the movement of the grass and the bog cotton that moves in an undulation or in waves, and that fascinates me. As I said, I write in Irish and in English. Irish is very concrete and is tied to a sense of place, too. So I suppose that would be strong, the lyrical quality of my work. They accuse me of being poetic.
MT: I can think of worse things.
RK: What else can I tell you about? Again, Ive been accused of being courageous for taking on themes. Early on I was called confessional, dealing with personal brutality or being at the receiving end of brutal behavior and finding a language for that. Looking back now it was courageous I suppose, and to find a language strong enough in which to express it.
Now I think because I am back in the midlands again with this job... Prior to this what would happen is that a lot of the institutions like the Arts Council would give you a lump of money and they would expect you to be creative. You were supposed to go off into a corner and whatever, like the old Irish poets did, and lie for 40 days in the dark with a stone on your belly. I mean thats what they did you know, in those dark hot places -- I mean talk about having problems with their bodies! So they dont do that anymore. They give you x amount of money and x amount of time combined with the local authority and you go out into a community and you be the writer. Many aspects of that, of being writer in residence, are fascinating.
Im really enjoying it. A lot of my poetrys coming out of that stimulation of working in a very definite place, with all kinds of people of all types of age groups. The writers group is just one element of that. There are individuals doing various things. Its like being a conduit between the local authority and the community.
I did live in isolation for ten years with my husband who was also a writer, and we had to get in there by boat to this technical island sort of barrow which is close to Kildare. I suppose that was from the 70s until my husband died in the early 80s. And then I found Im more gregarious than I ever thought I was.
MT: What an experience.
RK: I have to write about that, too. Im only kind of about ready to write about that now. I suppose again Ill have to decide: do I write in English or Irish or what?
MT: How do you decide?
RK: Its a very good question, one that Im often asked. I think that the material will always decide. Sometimes there are practical considerations. My husband also wrote in English and Irish, and in his time if you wrote in Irish you were absolutely assured of getting published very fast and you were insured of an income because of the subsidy. For instance, in 1964 he published two books of poetry, one in Irish and one in English. Within a couple of months, the Irish one brought in £400 and the English one brought in 12. So, that tells you.
In my case, as indeed in anybodys case who is bilingual, I think that its a combination of what it is you want to express at that particular time, and choosing the language that it wants. Because I translate my own stuff, when I do, that makes it slightly unusual. Its not the normal sort of wait for someone to translate you. I do that translation basically as a way in, as a route of accessibility to readers, rather than saying that its a whole other work of art in itself because in many ways it isnt. Its a rendering; its a way in.
Sometimes the emotion will choose, sometimes the very taste or texture, because as I said, Irish is very concrete. English is infinitely more abstract than Irish. Youll find when you want to be abstract in English the concreteness of the language just gets in the bloody way. When you long and yearn for that moment when you can taste the very thing. When you want that taste in English because its been so used and so worn, you just long for it.
I really find that I am a bilingual person. It wouldnt have been the traditional way of doing it -- I was forced into doing it. Bloody hell, how Irish can you get? I don't have to make that statement. Its not that kind of political crusade where I am concerned.
MT: My last question... has this kind of thing happened before which is specifically bringing together Irish women writers?
RK: Yes it has, back about 85-86. Ive lost touch with the continuity. I think to combine womes studies and writing is very interesting and very exciting. It gives us a chance to hear and to meet the people who are standing back and taking the objective view. And that is quite important because the writer is not always and cant always be the critic. Even though I write criticism myself rather than, well say, full fledged academic analysis, I know exactly what it does. It makes you very self-conscious, while at the same time we can meet someone like Eavan Boland who can develop a language of criticism while developing an expression and image in the work. But thats not new. Eliot did it; he did it very well in his essays. Then of course you had disassociation. Very often criticism can be a creative thing in itself.
MT: Anything you want to add?
RK: Theres this wonderful umbrage de richesses. How do you choose? Youre pulling your hair out because you cant go hear this and go hear that. Theres no way around it at all. Thats the question when you have 6 sessions going on at once. Its a real difficulty. You do want to hear and you do want to see everything.
But also the setting is good. I was saying this morning, this was the kind of elusive waiflike figure of Newman hopping between high elegance and high Catholicism and coming up with this idea of a gentleman. So its nice to be doing it here in this sun filled room.
BS: My name is Bernadette Smyth and I just finished a masters program in writing at New Mexico State University. Im losing my voice, but Im giving a research paper presentation today. Its a look at book reviews of books by Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney to look at gender biases in book reviews.
MT: What did you find?
BS: There are gender biases, in ways that I wasnt expecting. Women reviewed Seamus Heaney in very much the same way that the men did. Like: Seamus Heaney is a good poet who sometimes has some weak moments. The women all looked at Eavan Boland and gave her good reviews. With the men it varied, and some of them were almost life threatening, some were in rage. It was quite surprising how angry they were at her.
MT: How do you explain that rage?
BS: I dont know. Theres a whole bunch of theories on it. There is the cultural dominance theory. One of the things that I thought was interesting, and I think it was Judith Fetterly who said it, was that very often men choose not to read womens texts properly because to do so would mean that they would have to recognize, and therefore confront, the oppressive male in both the texts and then in themselves. To do that is very difficult for many men, and in some men it can actually turn to anger and to rage. It did seem like a few of the critiques of her work were a little over the top. Many of them were fine, but a few... there were a higher number of male reviewers who critiqued her badly than women reviewers.
--poetry and prose that happens to not scream at the stereotypes. That somehow the rage might not be so great against them even if it exists at all. The poems of Eavan Bolands that were most popular with the men. One thing I thought was very interesting involved a reviewer. He was giving her a hard time about working with myths and reworking myths, which of course every poet does. And rewriting the myths and making herself Ceres or Demeter. He was very scathing of her attempts to do that. Theres one poem where she does envision herself as a serpent, and he loves that poem. I think thats hilarious, that the one poem that he approves of where she does play with the whole mythic thing is the one with this huge phallic symbol in it. I dont know. Im probably being very silly. When they were all separated it didnt seem so bad. But when you sat down and you looked at them all together it was quite dramatic.
Well, what I did was I looked at every book review of every book by Seamus Heaney and Eavan Bolands from the time they were first published in the States until 1994, when Heaney had won the Nobel Prize. It didnt seem right: You know, he had celebrity status at that point. 12% of the book reviewers were women and the rest were men. And a small percentage I couldnt figure out what sex they were because they had generic names. But 80% were very definitely male. So the world of reviewing out there is a mans world, and if men are misunderstanding womens poetic intent and having knee jerk reactions to their attempts to rework the images of women in poetry, then I think its a real problem for women who are trying to get published; [this is particularly problematic for] women who are trying to rework the stereotypes or relook at them.
And they seem angry at her for daring to say that were a little bit tired of Yeats images of women. She wasnt saying he wasnt a great poet. She was saying were just a little tired of those images. And that its a real weakness in Irish poetry. She was talking about, that so many -- I think she said men -- were using these old icons, all those sort of icons and images of women as a nation, [using the icon/images for] inspiring men to go out and fight to defend them. There are [connections] between Ireland and women that was set up as as part of nationalism that we need to dump.
It was really interesting to do the study because I did a lot of reading on gender theory first and then thought, "Well how would this apply to things like book reviews?" I was in the States at the time and I was reading a lot of articles from women here who were saying, Why do we need a womens press because women, if theyre good enough, should be able to be out there in the pool of writers with men. And I thought well, I dont really believe that but I wonder if theres any research out there I could look at. So I decided to look at book reviews and see [if there was a bias operating]. I was very surprised that women didnt seem to have a gendered reaction to mens writing, whereas men had a gendered reaction to womens writing.
There could be several reasons for that. It could be that Seamus Heaney is a great poet that crosses gender boundaries. Or it could be that women were just not as hung up about gender. Or it could be that women who are writing [are trying] to please the male half of the population.
MT: Lets talk about your writing. Youre going to be reading on Saturday. What kind of writing do you do?
BS: Mostly short stories. I have done some poetry but now Im working mostly on short stories.
MT: What will you be reading on Saturday?
BS: I actually dont know yet. I have to take an excerpt so I really have to find a short scene that I can read in 5 minutes that can be something on itself, that wont just sit there and be nothing. So I thought about trying to rush through a short story by then but it was too hard. But its from a series -- Im working on a series of short stories about a small village in Ireland. And mostly its about how each person is trapped or not trapped. The central character is either mentioned or referenced in each of the stories. She comes out (Ive gotten two women to come out in this village already and I suspect Ill find a couple more). I dont know how it will end up.
Its set just in a small village. I grew up in a small village...
MT: Where was that?
BS: Kilmacanogue, its more residential now. But it was definitely a small village in the country when I grew up there. Its about 15 miles outside here. Its outside Bray. On the way to Enniskerry. Its gorgeous. Its beautiful. It was very working class when I grew up but now its just gotten expensive.
MT: Let me just ask you one more question about the importance of this conference in general.
BS: I think its really wonderful. For me especially I thought Id really lucked out. I came home for 6 months. Im going to go back to the States for a while, for a year, and then Ill decide if Im going to come back here or go somewhere else. But I feel like I lucked out. It's got everything and everybody who knows anything about Irish womens writing all collected in one place. Its fabulous. And it didnt just focus on straight womens writing, which is wonderful.
TO: There have been other women studies summer schools which have incorporated womens writing, but not a specific conference. I was talking to a friend of mine whos a publisher who was saying that in England there are summer schools that incorporate Irish womens writing and yet there is nothing in Ireland, which is bizarre.
MT: Ive already started rolling. So lets back track and have you introduce yourself.
TO: My name is Tina OToole and I teach English at University College Cork. and Im an old girl of womens studies at UCD, in every sense of the word.
MT: Ill let that one linger. And whats brought you to the conference?
TO: Initially I thought I would give a paper but the combination of chickening out and work overtook me. So I chaired one of the sessions this morning. thats my only direct involvement in the conference. My main work, my thesis is on Irish womens writing.
MT: And whats your thesis?
TO: Im working on late 19th century Irish womens writing. but I also teach contemporary Irish womens fiction and Im also interested in the whole field of contemporary Irish lesbian writing. There was a paper given on that by Stacia Bensyl this morning. Im interested in that as an area.
MT: And what are some of the highlights of the conference for you?
TO: Well I really enjoyed the paper this morning about Edna OBrien, which was on ecofeminism, given by Amanda Greenwood. Ecofeminism is something I know nothing at all about, so it was something new and fresh. It was a really good and well presented paper. Im really looking forward to Emma Donoghues reading tonight. that will probably be the highlight for me.
MT: Just to go back to your dissertation, are there any specific women writers who youre focusing on?
TO: Im focusing on two writers: Sarah Grand, who is an English writer who grew up in Ireland, and George Egerton. Theres a paper being given on her tomorrow. At the moment Im right in the middle of George Egerton. and Im looking at landscape, which is part of the reason why the stuff on ecofeminism was really interesting to me because it will open a whole new field to me if I can check up some of those references. And I was talking to Amanda after her paper and just discussing some of the writers shes working on and the writers Im working on and sort of the similarities between them.
MT: So your field is Irish women writing. you must have some theories on why women writers have been ignored for so long?
TO: Books have been written on the subject. I think its interesting. I think there are a lot of different issues in that question which would probably take all night to go through. I suppose the most obvious one is this theory around post-colonialism and the way women in Ireland have been othered or rendered other by the state. I think its interesting as well--it came up this morning in Stacias workshop --that there are a lot of people from abroad working on Irish womens writing. There are a lot of American women, English women. A Spanish woman gave a paper this morning. And there is an underrepresentation of Irish women working in the same area. Again, I think it can be related to exactly the same thing: that it is a post-colonial state and its still lingering. The legacy of the DeValera years is still there. Even though there are more women writers, lesbian writers, writers of different hues in Ireland, we still have a dearth of criticism on that writing, which is coming from the country itself. This is not to invalidate the work of women from abroad, but its just to say that there needs to be a representation of both.
DB: Im Deborah Ballard, and Ive been helping on the publicity on this conference. but its also the kind of conference Id want to go to anyway. I think its important that Irish womens writing is recognized, as I think it is now , but it certainly hasnt been for such a long time. I think its such an achievement that there are more than 120 women writers here, not to mention over 70 academics giving papers on so many more writers-- waves of ripples of writers, from way back when to now.
MT: what are some of the highlights for you?
DB: Well I suppose one of the big highlights must be the reading in St. Annes tonight. I think the keynote sessions will be very interesting. and I also love the way writing has been construed so expansively. So, for example, I want to go and hear Medb Ruane talking to Alice Maher. and I want to go and see some of the film stuff. I think its great that its gone from song writing to film writing to the pictorial arts, as well as literature.
MT: And I know you do your own writing. Are you going to be reading?
DB: Well, I do a little, although Im really not prolific recently! But I am going to take part in one of the readings. Ill probably just be reading poems. I sometimes write short stories as well.
MT: Do you have any theories about why Irish womens writing hasnt been recognized until recently? I always thought of Ireland as being a place which was so well renown for writing and the arts.
DB: I think it was quite interesting what the minister, Síle DeValera, said at the opening session: The Bord Failte Irish Literature poster is entirely men. And I think that probably has been that image because theres been a very narrow construction of literature as an extremely high art. I mean I suppose writers like Joyce, much as I admire him, is not the easiest of writers, nor Beckett. But there are also writers like Yeats who are completely accessible. So theres absolutely no reason why writers of equal eminence who happen to be women have been ignored. I mean, people like Kate O'Brien: It seems to me bizarre that she should have been ignored. There are just so many women, important writers, who have not been treated with the same seriousness as male writers who I think perhaps, in a hundred years, people will not consider very highly, but who have been recognized at the expense of women.
There was also something I wanted to say about one session I particularly enjoyed, which was the opening. And I think it was a shame that a lot of people thought they could only give so much time to the conference and couldnt afford to come. But I think anyone who heard Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill speak would come away feeling so enthused by her terrific performance. She has no fear of being controversial. She had a wonderful expression: hysterical male outbursts masquerading as literary criticism. To me she proved her point; I thought she was great. Shes highly polemical and I think some people thought over optimistic. Because I think the achievement of this conference is extraordinary and yet it has not had the media attention it should have done. So I actually think that some of these attitudes continue. There are some extremely powerful women writers now in Ireland who may not be getting the attention that they would be getting if they lived in another country.
At the opening session, someone said this is a conference whose time has come. And it is timely. What is extraordinary is that is hasnt been done before, when you look at the quality of womens writing in this country. And I think its been a huge gift to women writers that WERRC has taken on this subject, and I love the way that its called celebrating Irish womens writing. They are taking Irish womens writing for granted in a way that perhaps other critics and academics should be doing. I think things are very much better for women writers now but I do feel that the battle hasnt been entirely won.
ED: Im Emma Donoghue.
MT: And what brings you to the conference?
ED: I was invited to give a paper by an old teacher of mine, Ailbhe Smyth. Im an Irish writer but Im living in Canada at the moment so I seize every pretext to come back to Dublin.
MT: What will you be doing at your session tonight?
ED: Ill be introducing a book of short stories Im working on which are all short fictions based on real historical incidents in the lives of women of the British isles from the 1320s to 1901. So its a big sort of sweeping history and fiction as it were.
MT: What are some of the things youre looking forward to in the conference?
ED: I think whats drawn me to it is the variety of content. Ive just been at scholarly papers on Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf and next was a sideshow about Newgrange and Celtic spirals. So I think what I like about feminist conferences is the pick and mix, eclectic quality of them.
MT: Has there ever been anything quite like this before? It seems like a remarkable gathering.
ED: It does seem remarkable. Im not familiar enough with the history of feminism in Ireland. Im a bit out of touch because I was living in England for 8 years before I moved to Canada. So really my position has been as an outsider in all of this. But what WERRC has created in UCD is unique because when I was in college there were very few visible signs of feminism. I remember being in the womens group, a tiny little beleaguered group, and people kept saying, Why dont you let men join? So to see WERRC up and running and to see them holding conferences like the Lesbian Lives conference, I mean that would have been inconceivable when I was UCD from 1987-90. So I think many things have changed for the better.
MT: And why is it... Im asking everyone... I guess when I came here I had this idea of Ireland as a place that was really centered on writing and the arts. And when I got here it seemed like women were literally left off the calendars, left out of the anthologies. Im asking everyone if they have any theories about that.
ED: Well theyre certainly not part of the glorious tradition that you see on the T-shirts and the mugs. Theyre not part of the Irish literature that is sold to tourists. However theyre a very lively part of contemporary literature. And I don't think theyre that neglected anymore. I think Irish writers of both sexes are taken very seriously now. Theres such a lot of talent around, from the best sellers of Maeve Binchy to people like Anne Enright, really extraordinary writers. So Im not really worried about Irish women writers' position within contemporary literature. But certainly when you look at literature of the past and how its commodified, you know the sort of unique single great Irish man... I think the real problem is the focus on single geniuses as it were. I mean obscure male writers get left out too. I think people really like to reduce the literary past to a handful of names and faces and then just sort of hand them out over and over again. And I think tourism can really contribute to this process. Its so much easier to say to tourists, "Here, this is all you need to know: Yeats, Joyce, Synge, theyve all got one name each. Heres their pictures. Now come and see their plays on at the Abbey." So its a dreadful sort of simplification of the real story of Irish literature.
MT: But you feel like thats changing, especially for women now?
ED: Certainly for women now. I mean I would like to see some writers of the past get more attention. Im a big fan of Kate O'Brien, and shes a peculiarly marginalized figure in Irish literature. She never gets considered as one of the gang.
MT: She was the woman who was censored?
ED: Yes, two of her novels were banned. One of her novels, The Land of Spices, was banned for a single sentence. She has a sentence about a gay relationship where she says, its a phrase, the embrace of love," and for that single line the novel was axed.
However theres a glorious tradition of Irish writers being banned, I sometimes slightly regret that I came a little bit too late, I was just a few years too late to get banned. So Ill never be part of that great pantheon.
MT: If I remember correctly, youve written nonfiction as well as fiction?
ED: Yes Ive written fiction and plays and history, mostly lesbian literary history. Ive written some for radio as well. And Im writing a screenplay of my first novels at the moment, which hopefully will be filmed in Dublin this summer. So Im trying to try lots of different genres before Im 30. Because you have a certain amount of sheer bumptiousness when you start in your career. Its often easier to try new genres then rather than after when you have a reputation to protect.
MT: Did you write a book about Eva Gore-Booth?
ED: It was just an essay. It was in that collection from Cork Univ. Press, Sex Nation and Dissent. It was about her and lesbian imagery. Shes a wonderful poet and I tracked down her grave in Hampstead. I had to climb over the wall to get in to it. But it was really fun. Its a really pretty grave--her and her lover are buried together under a quotation from Sappho.
GM: Hi, Im Geraldine Moane. I am a lecturer in the psychology dept. in UCD. And Ive been very involved in womens studies in UCD and setting up the womens studies program. Im in the area of psychology as my background so this whole area of creativity and womens writing is something that I feel almost like an observer to rather than a participant of. But Im actually changing that now because Im beginning to feel that I need to break down that barrier between what is called womens writing-- which is often seen as poetry, drama, and so forth--and academic writing or narrative writing. Whats my writing? is what I started asking myself. If I write and counter something or if I set forth a theory, like the article on Newgrange, which is prose, where does all that fit into all this talk of writing? Can we break down that barrier between creative writing--poetry, drama, fiction---and other kinds of writing? I feel I must break that down myself in my writing, that I have been trained to write a certain way. I really want to break out of that. I want to be able to make points about research, about say womens lives or Newgrange or whatever my topic is. I want to be able to make an argument about something in a creative way. Thats my interest in the conference.
MT: Id love to hear about your presentation today.
GM: The presentation was about what happened at Newgrange, or how can we understand Newgrange. It really makes me angry that Newgrange is referred to as a tomb and a cemetery. Thats still the language thats used for Newgrange. Whereas for me its clearly a womb, and its a womb in the sense of a womb from which life comes and to which life returns. And I also think its an energy center. Thats my real interest in Newgrange.
I think the reason why they were so interested in aligning it exactly to the winter solstice, and why Knowth is aligned to the equinoxes, is because they wanted to be able to pin down those exact moments when the sun comes to a standstill, which it does at solstice, and when it spans the earth, which it does at equinox. [They were concerned with this] because they were trying to channel the energy, and if they knew those exact moments then they could synchronize their energy system with the sun and the cosmic energy system. They knew that that kind of energy could be used for healing. And, I mean we can only imagine [what they were up to]. So I think there are massively interesting things that can be looked at in terms of Newgrange.
What I was doing today was looking at some of the work, the archeological research, thats been done in Europe. Theres a symbol system associated with this whole thing: the triangle, spiral, wavy lines. I was showing slides of how the artwork in Newgrange is very similar to artwork found all over Europe from that time period. Its part of a whole shared system that everyone in Europe was involved with. I think all those ways of looking at Newgrange can really open our imagination.
And I think it fits the conference because I call it the language of the goddess. Thats the words Maria Gambutjas used in her work: that all those symbols and spirals and triangles that are carved in Newgrange are symbols, an alphabet ( she used the word alphabet) in a language of the goddess. They convey different aspects of the goddess, like the birth giving aspect, the regenerative aspect, and so on. So thats what I was talking about.
MT: I think I might have read an article about this by you in the Canadian Journal--
GM: Yeah, well theres an example of what I mean by: Whats writing? What I like about this conference is the diversity--youve got poetry; youve got fiction, as its called, short stories and novels; you have biography which I think is really interesting to have as well; you have film. And I think you put mine in there even as artwork, or as symbol system. And I like that because thats what Im trying to break down is these barriers between different kinds of writing. Im really interested in starting to weave those together in my articles.
Also the way youre taught as an academic to write is very controlled, its censoring. Ive been enraged actually at times over the way Ive been restricted and censored through my academic training as a writer. Ive always been fascinated by the way creative writers talk about language and about writing and about the process of writing. Because they have a totally different understanding of it from the way an academic has. So part of the reason why Im here as well is to really take on this issue of writing and really break out of this academic mold. To really mix academic and linear and argumentative writing with speculative writing and bringing in metaphors. I want to have loads of diversity in the kinds of writing styles I can use.
I find it kind of frightening as well because youre really stepping out over a boundary that youre taught to stay inside. And thats one of the ways that were silenced. Youre told you can only use this mode: Thats the mode; you have stick with. Its not OK to mix modes. And thats what Im really interested in.
MT: And do you think that gender enters into that at all? I mean, do you think men have the same kinds of restrictions? I would think women might feel confined to a greater extent because its such an event or an action to speak out in the first place, that I think you have to sort of claim which voice youre using, which style youre gonna be in, and if you vary it at all, youre not in the right genre.
GM: And you wont fit in. Well if I just talk about the academic mode for a minute: I think the academic mode is incredibly disconnected and cut off from feeling. Its designed to be that way. In fact, in psychology you dont use the word I. You use the passive voice. You hide completely behind the mode that youre using. So, the identity is taken out but the feelings are taken out as well. Youre supposed to be in this objective mode where youre presenting a logical, rational, linear argument, and your feelings arent supposed to enter into it as well. Theyre supposed to be totally put aside. And that is typically considered a male mode to write in, that kind of disconnected way. And the female mode is supposedly -- I mean I hate all these male, female kind of terms-- but the female mode is supposed to be more holistic, to have combined the two, to have combined your emotions and your intellect. And yet the academic mode doesnt allow for that. And those academic writers who are considered to be great writers, very often what you find is they do break [the rule], that they manage to bring their emotions in to their writing. But for the most part, especially in psychology, academic writing is supposed to be completely emotionless. So in that sense, its a gender thing.
MT: Any other parts of the conference youre really looking forward to?
GM: Im just really interested in hearing some Irish womens writing. Because, first of all, it just makes me realize that writing should be read! Weve gotten too much into this mode of find a book and read it on your own. And I think its brilliant to hear writers actually reading their work. So in one way thats the part that I would find most interesting. The discussions about the writing, Im not so interested in, as much as the readings and the discussions about the process of writing.
MT: Its very exciting.
GM: And its true, as Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill was saying yesterday, that the size of the program, the diversity of it is absolutely amazing. To think that ten years ago, you couldnt have done a thing like this. We were just saying that last night actually, that the UCD womens studies forum, which was way back ten years ago, we could not have put a program like this on; not with this number of writers and the diversity and the confidence of it. I mean it takes confidence to put your name in a program and say youre going to do a reading of your work. Your work has to have existed for a while and other scholars and other readers have to have read it.
MT: Why couldnt it have happened ten years ago? Was it just because there wasnt the volume of women out there published?
GM: In 1989 there was no womens studies program in any university. In 1987 there was an international conference here which I was involved in organizing. And you could say there was a huge interest. But its the output, its the amount of work thats been done since then; theres a body of written work that has been come out over the last ten years that is really substantial and is out there in the public domain. Theres something about it being in the public domain perhaps thats made a big difference. Up until 1989 there may have been lots of writing that was circulating informally and people knew about and there were women writers, theres no doubt about that but, somehow, when its out there and people are willing to publish it and theyre willing to read it and theyre willing to talk about it, that makes a difference.
MS: Will I start? My name is Mary Shine and myself and a friend of mine, Vincent Canaan, we decided there was was a serious lack of representation of Irish women writers. So we decided to try and put something together just to compete with the other Irish writers poster which is made up of all Irish men (and which calls itself Irish writers). So I decided just to highlight the fact that it is all women in this poster to stay with calling it Irish women writers, though I was very tempted to call it Irish writers. Because, why not? Thats what they are too.
Its 12 women. We decided to go back and begin with Frances Sheridan, who is very little known in this country, even though she was born in Ireland and spent most of her early life in Ireland. At the moment theres a play on of hers in Dublin. I went to it last week -- its called The Whisperers. The end of it was finished by another woman who found the play unfinished and decided to complete it, and its an excellent production. Will I go to each of them [the 12 writers]?
MT: That would be great.
MS: Well Maria Edgeworth is one of the most famous of them because, for some reason, shes included in a lot of academic studies. So, she has a high profile, one of the very few, and yet she still wouldnt make it into an Irish poster, or a poster of Irish writers. Shes most famous for Castle Rackrent, her novel, which covers landlordism in Ireland. Its quite a humorous book as well and its written in a modern style. So it has a lot of appeal.
Another one is Lady Morgan and, again, she wrote prolifically and was determined to become a writer and set about it very sensibly. She wrote a lot on Irish themes and particularly the plight of the oppressed Irish. I dont know too much about her so Ill move on.
Emily Lawless: Well I wanted to get some poets in as well. We know from this conference theres a huge number of Irish women writing poetry now, and there always has been, but theyve had very little acknowledgment, and to be honest I knew none myself. She was both a poet and a novelist. I did my MA thesis on Emily Lawless. I think she deserves a lot more attention.
Lady Gregorys quite well known but shes again I think shes mostly known because shes associated with a lot of important male writers like Yeats and George Moore and different people at the turn of the century--and also because of the cultural revival and all that. Of course she did play a big part and she does get some acknowledgment (you would probably see more of her than most) because of the Abbey theatre and that.
Then theres Somerville and Ross. I didnt know that they were women until a few years ago, and I think a lot of people dont. They come from the Anglo-Irish background. They had a literary partnership. Their Real Charlotte is a really good novel and some of their other work is very good as well.
And then Katherine Tynan, again, terribly neglected, only really referred to because she was part of the early literary revival movement. And, yet, she wrote a huge number of novels and some very good poetry as well. I think she deserves to be known more.
Kate O'Brien, of course, again, neglected a lot up to recently , but I think shes having her comeback as well. She wrote some excellent novels, about particularly Catholic middle class Ireland and women in particular. Theres even a film of one of her books going around at the moment.
Theres Elizabeth Bowen. Again, she wrote a lot of novels, some of them set in Ireland. And of course she kind of straddled the two traditions, Anglo-Irish. And she has a much better international reputation than she has an Irish reputation, shall we say.
Molly Keane: Well, she herself kind of disappeared off the scene for a number of years, and then she came back about 1982 or 1981 with her novel Good Behaviour, and thats brought her back into the spotlight. But, you know it can fade very quickly again and its important to remind people that shes there.
Mary Lavin would represented the short story because, again, there arent that many but she certainly has a huge international and Irish reputation, and its a good time to be putting her back up there.
Eilis Dillon: I don't think shes at all gotten the attention that she might deserve and shes written quite a lot of novels and was considered quite a good writer.
We had to make choices obviously. We had to pick people who were, shall we say , gone from us. It seems to be going very well and Im delighted. I hope people like it and have it as a good momento from the conference.
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- Attic Press: http://www.iol.ie/~atticirl
- Books Ireland: http://www.booksirish.com
- Women's Education, Research and Resource Centre: http://www.ucd.ie/~werrc
- Irish Writers list with links: http://www.irishwriters-online.com
- Bio sketches on writers: http://www.ireland.com/dublin/entertainment/books/profiles_contemporary.html
- Bibliography of Irish Literature http://www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/~jmwright/irishbiblio.html
- Association for the Study of Irish Literature http://www.ulst.ac.uk/faculty/humanities/lang+lit/iasil
- Irish Women Writers http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/_generate/IRELAND.html
- The Munster Literature Centre: http://www.sleeping-giant.ie/literature
- Irish Writers Center (with database of writers): http://www.writerscentre.ie
- Dublin Writers' Museum http://www.visit.ie/dublin/top_at/10_dublinwriters.htm