Irish Women Writers for International Women’s Day!

For International Women’s Day, I have decided to turn the spotlight on three fantastic anthologies of women’s writing that have come out of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the last few years.

Women writers have often been excluded from Ireland’s canon of literature, as the now infamous Irish Writers poster attests, but a ground swell is pushing these overlooked women to the fore and writers such as Maeve Brennan, Norah Holt and Dorothy McArdle are having something of a renaissance.

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The Long Gaze Back was published in 2015 to display the many women writers in Ireland whose work has been overlooked in the past. The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories was published in 1989 and included only seven women writers out of 39 stories. Worse still, the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing published in 1984 contained no women writers at all.

In 2001, Evelyn Conlon and Hans Christian Oeser edited a collection that aimed to redress the balance. Cutting the Night in Two featured short stories from 34 Irish female writers that made it clear that these writers had always been out there, they just were not being heard.

The Long Gaze Back followed on from this, featuring 34 writers and spanning 218 years. The collection includes stories from Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Riddell and Norah Hoult and includes 22 living writers, all of whom have included stories never before published.

The Long Gaze Back is a substantial harvest, a seriously comprehensive and celebratory volume. The Irish Times

Sinéad Gleeson described the anthology as a triptych, featuring deceased classic writers; well established writers from the last decade like Anne Enright and the new voices currently emerging from Ireland – Belinda McKeon, Mary Costello and Lisa McInerney. The themes covered in the anthology show the breadth and depth of issues facing women today and throughout history – emigration, pregnancy, loss, capitalism, motherhood, ghosts, art and much more

The Long Gaze Back was the winner of the TheJournal.ie Best Irish-Published Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2015

There’s nothing girly about these stories; there are no clichés, no Mr. Rights, no wedding bells, no evenings with Chardonnay. Instead, this collection represents the richness of women’s lives, past and present. The joy, the compassion, the anger, the sadness. It’s all there.

Sunday Independent

The Glass Shore, also edited by Sinead Gleeson, followed in 2016 and aimed to do the same for women writers from Northern Ireland. Spanning three generations of writers, the anthology featured both emerging and established writers along with deceased and often forgotten voices.

The anthology featured writers such as Jan Carson, Lucy Caldwell, Evelyn Conlon, Danielle McLaughlin, Bernie McGill, Anne Devlin, Helen Waddell, Martina Devlin and Rosemary Jenkinson to name but a few.

I was particularly pleased to see the inclusion of Ethna Carbery in the collection as she was born not far from my house and was one of my father’s favourite writers.

The attempt to bring women writers to wider attention is obviously not a new one. The Female Line was launched on 28 November 1985 at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and was the first anthology of women’s writing from Northern Ireland ever published.

The anthology included women who were already professionally writing and those who had never been published before and it featured extracts from novels, short stories, poetry and drama. Spearheaded by Ruth Hooley (now Carr) and published by the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement, the book sold out in a month and immediately went into reprint.

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Inspired by Virago and the Attic Press in Dublin, The Female Line attempted to address the massive under-representation of women writers in Northern Ireland, in both publishing and in inclusion in academic courses. The anthology also aimed to encourage more women writers towards publication. At the time, Ruth Carr asked,

This silence is ambiguous. Does it mean an absence – there are hardly any women writing? Is it due to suppression – women lack confidence and opportunities to develop their writing? Is it a result of oppression – women are discriminated against in terms of what is taken seriously and which material matters? Or is it a passive resistance by those who find the language so steeped in gender-biased values as to be alien and inadequate to express their meaning?

Thirty years later, in 2017, Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland appeared, wonderfully edited by Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado and Linda Anderson – a stunning collection of work by some of the best contemporary women writers from Northern Ireland. Published by New Island Books, Female Lines – ‘acts as both a new staging post and a sequel to its vibrant feminist predecessor.’

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Like its predecessor, Female Lines is a trans-genre collection, including both experienced and newer women writers and celebrating fiction, poetry, drama, essays, life writing, and photography. It considers how much has changed or stayed the same in terms of scope and opportunity for women writers and for women more generally in Northern Irish society (and its diaspora) in the post-Good Friday Agreement era.

Northern Irish women’s writing is going from strength to strength and this anthology captures its current richness and audacity.

‘…The task of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland is nothing less than the preservation of memory and experience itself, in a… society that is all too practiced in the matter of forgetting and expunging…We need a multitude of voices to be heard, acknowledged, honoured – for they remind us that our collective history and our lives are multi-faceted and complex in ways that must not be disregarded or casually dismissed.’ Neil Hegarty for The Irish Times

These anthologies are an achievement in their own right, but have also opened a wider conversation about the gender balance in collections and discussions in general.

As Lucy Caldwell has just edited Faber’s new collection Being Various: New Irish Short Stories and Sinéad Gleeson is editing a collection of 100 Irish short stories for Head of Zeus to be published in 2020, women’s voices are slowly, but surely being heard.


Further Reading:

If you would like to check out some short stories by women writers from these anthologies, the following are available online:

Jan Carson – We’ve Got Each Other and That’s A Lot

Danielle McLaughlin – In The Act of Falling

Bernie McGill – No Angel

Ethna Carberry – The Pursuit of Diarmuid & Grainne

This is an excellent article on why writers and women writers in particular are ‘lost’ in the first place from the New York Times

An interview with Female Lines editor Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado in the Irish Times

Listen to Sinead Gleeson talking about The Long Gaze Back on the Irish Times podcast

The Irish Times ran a fantastic series of articles a few years ago celebrating Irish Women Writers. There is a lot to read here, but it is all fascinating.

Today in the Irish Times, Irish writers and critics choose their favourite novels by women since 2000

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Ireland Month Irish Literature

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17 Comments Leave a comment

  1. What a fantastic post, full of interesting information and links (the NYT article sounds particularly enlightening). I’d forgotten about the first two anthologies, so thank you for the reminder – they’re a great way to try out some unfamiliar writers.

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  2. I love this post so much! I have a copy of The Long Gaze Back and was already planning to buy Gleeson’s other anthology, but you’ve just put so many other great titles and authors on my radar. Definitely want to track down a copy of Cutting the Night in Two and The Female Line and/or Female Lines at some point. As always my TBR doesn’t thank you, but I love your knowledge and passion for Irish lit so much. I’m learning something new every day here x

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  3. I won a copy of The Long Gaze Back in your giveaway in, I think, your very first Begorrathon. I’ve dipped in and out of it over the last couple of years and have enjoyed what I’ve read, but I really must read it properly and review it sometime. I was a bit surprised at how many of the stories, especially from the older writers, aren’t actually set in Ireland. The same thing often happens with Scottish authors – they seem to either be drawn to London, or perhaps they had to write about there in order to get published…

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