Leland Bardwell: The forgotten woman of Irish literature

When I was doing online research for the compilation of my list of 100 Irish Novels by 100 Irish Writers for Reading Ireland Month, I was struck by the conspicuous absence of Leland Bardwell. An Irish Women Writers A-Z anthology published in 2005 didn’t mention her. Neither did Wikipedia’s list of Irish Female Writers. When the Irish Times recently featured women writers, again, Leland was nowhere to be seen. How has this poet, novelist, playwright and creator of musicals fallen between the cracks in the history of Irish writing?

leland nw
Leland Bardwell

My father was a big Leland Bardwell fan (and Irish literature fan in general) and when I read her novel The House in my early 20s, I actually thought Leland was a man.

Born in India of Irish parents in 1922, Leland was brought to Ireland at the age of two where she spent a bleak childhood. In her memoir A Restless Life, she details the mental and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother who favoured her elder sister Paloma. She longed to attend Trinity College but the money had been spent on her sister’s education and there was nothing left, her parents being unaware of how bright their youngest child was. Left to her own devices, she read and wrote stories from an early age. She escaped her restless existence in Ireland by falling pregnant while in a relationship with her cousin Christopher (who was not the father of the child) and using the ‘war effort’ as an excuse fled to London where she gave birth to the baby and gave it up for adoption.

Her love life continued to be tumoultous throughout her life. She met and married Michael Bardwell (brother-in-law of Kingsley Amis) and they had twins. She left Michael for his brother Brian, with whom she had a daughter before beginning an affair with another man who lived in the flat upstairs. All the while she continued to see her cousin Christopher on and off. It seems that her neglected childhood made it difficult for her to sustain relationships and she says in her autobiography ‘ I, always expecting to be the one to be hurt, never believed I could hurt others’.

In the late 50s she found herself at the centre of the Soho literary scene, with friends like Anthony Burgess and Francis Bacon. Patrick Kavanagh was her lodger and between famous wild drunken parties, she began to write in earnest. She moved back to Dublin with a new partner, Finton McLachlan and had three more children, living in relative poverty for the next ten years, scraping by writing reviews. She created another literary ‘salon’ around herself, with Paul Durcan amongst others in attendance and continued to write, but was not published until the end of her relationship with Finton in the 1970s.
Despite being published later in life, she has written 5 collections of poetry, 5 novels, a collection of short stories and several stage, radio and musical plays. She was one of the founder editors of the literary journal Cyphers and established the Irish Writer’s Co-operative with Desmond Hogan and Neil Jordan and has become an influential figure in the Irish literary world without receiving the accolades of her male counterparts.

Leland Bardwell with the late Dermot Healy
Leland Bardwell with the late Dermot Healy

Now aged 93, Leland lives and works in Sligo and has fulfilled the literary promise that was stifled throughout her life by her sex, and consequently by her relationships and her domesticity. She is a woman who has lived by her own rules often at a time when that was not an easy or acceptable thing to do and she never let go of what she wanted to do. Leland Bardwell is a survivor. I, for one, would love to see her brought out of the shadows.


For Reading Ireland Month, I read Bardwell’s Mother to a Stranger – a tale of a woman whose son whom she gave up for adoption gets in touch after 30 years, with devastating consequences for her marriage. As Bardwell herself gave up a child for adoption, I was interested to see how she would deal with this issue. Nan McDonald, famous concert pianist, lives with her husband Jim, an archaeologist in a small town in Ireland. They have been living the good life – no children, self-sufficient and happy in their marriage. A letter from a solicitor arrives to say that Charles, the son Nan gave up for adoption 30 years previously , a son Jim didn’t know about, wants to meet.

As each of the three try to come to terms with their new relationships, their emotions and mental well being are tested to the limit. Bardwell has a great ability to convincingly portray the mind set of her characters and then explore how a personal crises lays them bare.

mother to a stranger

When faced with being a mother, Nan finds herself unable to play piano anymore, as if she is required to reconsider who and what she is. Jim cannot accept the presence of this son and his jealousy is almost sexual as he sees the live that he and Nan have made being dissembled in front of his eyes. When Nan, Jim and Charles the son, are confronted with the history of their emotional relationships, they can no longer see what defines them as the people they were and they are faced with the need to take apart the fabrications they have built around themselves to create a new cohesion in their lives.

Jim was overcome with a need to put back the clock – not just to last week, but to all those long years ago when everything they did was filled with anticipation…..But before that there’d been this….this thing

Where much Irish writing is lyrical, romantic, Bardwell writes about relationships with a refreshing honesty. Jim and Nan curse like troopers at each other and the breakdown of their relationship is realistically and bitterly portrayed – that gentle chipping away of confidence and trust delivered with stark clarity.

Leland Bardwell
Leland Bardwell

What she also captures perfectly is the nature of life in a small town, a town where you can live for years but still be considered a ‘blow-in’ and where life centres around the pub and the gossip and the news of local deaths.

‘Not many sick this weather?’ Matt queried
‘Francie McCarthy’s mother has the shingles’
‘That’s a terrible dose’
‘She must be a quare age’
‘Is she gone into the general?’
‘Is Francie upset?’ Nan asked.
‘Ah, you know Francie’

The sharply drawn local characters provide a warm and often surprisingly amusing back drop to the emotional drama being played out in their midst, yet Nan and Jim allow the shame and embarrassment of being the subject of town gossip to affect their relationship as much as anything else.

But Bardwell is particularly clear-eyed about motherhood and what it means to a woman’s sense of self. It is tempting to read a line like,

Yes. She had borne in her womb a beautiful…what? Viper? What if…She’d wondered once again what he would have been like if she’d kept him, living sordidly, in cheap lodgings, fucking with strangers

and not to wonder if Bardwell is imagining her own child she had given up for adoption. Nan begins to wonder if it is only in the creation of children that a relationship can be substantial and lasting and her inability to think of herself as a mother – a thing she had almost forgotten she was – only increases as Jim and Charles become friends.

This vibrant, earthy and often funny book smartly explores how fragile our sense of self can be and how secrets from the past can never fully be buried.

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24 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I can’t think if I have ever read a book about an adopted child who comes back looking for a biological parent. It would be so interesting to read about the consequences, although, only one take on them. I am thinking of all the possibilities of such a storyline. This book definitely sounds like a tear-jerker.
    The story of the author’s life sounds enough like a good book!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a lovely post 🙂 It’s so sad that some people get so easily forgotten despite being terrific individuals. Bardwell seems like an intriguing person and her life surely was rowdy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Two of Leland’s poetry collections have been republished in a single volume by Dedulus Press


    At the launch at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin last night (27 April 2015) two of Leland’s sons read from the book and received a warm response from a packed audience. In the account of her life above, mention might be added of her very close friendship with Paddy Kavanagh’s widow Katherine. For many years they were like the fairy godmothers of Irish poetry, welcoming young poets to their table in Grogan’s, the quintessential Dublin literary pub, and helping them find their feet with sage advice and with introductions to the prominent figures on the literary landscape.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Cathy, I run a book club at the Liberties Press bookshop Liberties Upstairs, and we have been reading ‘A Restless Life’ this month. It’s a fascinating read, so we should have an interesting discussion next week. Liberties did a reprint of Girl on a Bicycle a few years ago which I will try to read soon. Thanks for the post!


    • I really want to read A Restless Life Chris, she seems like such an incredible woman living life on her own terms. I enoyed Mother to a Stranger and hope it won’t be the last I read of her.


  5. Nice piece! Thought you might like to read my poetical account of reading her work. I also remember first reading a poem of hers in ‘Staying Alive’ which has always stayed with me, one of the few major anthologies that have credited her.

    Leland Bardwell

    night I could not sleep
    I came to read you in lamplight
    poking out the rushes
    of books festooned on my shelves
    that I look upon as family.
    But Leland, you were the least familiar
    of kith and kin, given me
    by your son, Nicholas in Dingle.
    And so, Leland Bardwell,
    I stretched out your pages like arms
    and undressed you
    with my eyes, my ears, my nose, my hands,
    my mouth – watering inside –
    devoured you! Night I could not sleep,
    Leland Bardwell
    I came to you out of the rushes of bed sheets,
    and held your slender spine
    tenderly as the first time I found poetry
    singing in me.
    The lines of your life on Lower Leeson Street
    opened and closed like doors
    in my mind, and the sun and moon rose
    at the same time.
    Leland Bardwell, night I could not sleep
    I came to raise the dead
    weight of my head from its rushes of knots
    and lay it on your lap
    where your lyrics ran like fingers through my locks.
    Night cannot contain
    the strain of thoughts that fly between these walls –
    so I have come
    to settle them in words
    plucking them
    from the air, where all things come.
    Such thoughts
    I had while reading you Leland Bardwell,
    night I could not sleep.

    Adam Wyeth
    from Silent Music (Salmon Poetry)


  6. Leland was also great friends with the late Michael Hartnett, though it is characteristic of her work that no matter who she mixes with her own poetic approach remains unalloyed. The very last time I met Michael Hartnett was actually in Leland’s company, when I came across them having a very earnest discussion over lunchtime pints in the snug of the old Swallow pub at Queen Street bridge in Dublin (I had a flat on Arran Quay about fifty feet away). That would have been around 1978-9.


  7. I lived with Leland Bardwell in Dublin while visiting therein my early 20’s for a few years. She and I were great friends, even though there was a 30 year age difference. I also appeared in one of her plays, Tuesday. or It’s All Your Own Fault. She was a fun lady and introduced me to the world of the Dublin literati.

    Liked by 1 person

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