The Re-publication of The Female Line

Women’s writing in Ireland and Northern Ireland has been put firmly back on the agenda lately, not least with the publications and success of The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore, both edited by the inimitable Sinead Gleeson.

These anthologies have won awards, brought new readers to women’s literature and shone a spotlight on forgotten writers, however, they had a predecessor.


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 novelws, 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.

The Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement was established in 1975 to act as an ‘umbrella’ for a wide range of female-led organisations from both Nationalist and Unionist areas of Northern Ireland and to support and help women to co-operate over common problems and societal needs.

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?

What the collection did was bring the voices and imagination of women front and centre and provide them with a platform for their shared experiences that had previously not existed.

The themes of female entrapment, identity, abuse, power, motherhood and self-awareness and self-actualisation found in these works are also found in the recent anthologies published which suggests that the voices of women still need to be heard to provide a full and deep knowledge of a culture and place. The Troubles also featured heavily as a theme in The Female Line and gave a different perspective on the much talked about and written about conflict.

Some of the writers included in the original anthology have gone on to great successes, writers like Marie Jones, Medbh McGuckian and Jennifer Johnston. Some were revived by their inclusion, like Janet McNeill, whose books had largely been out of print until the 1980s. Some no longer write.


Others deserve to be read more and with this in mind, The Female Line, long out of print and hard to get second hand, has been republished as an ebook by Herself Press. It is available to download from all major online booksellers and is well worth checking out.

At the recent launch for the republication of the collection, it was announced that a new book, Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland will be published by New Island in autumn 2017, bringing the focus to a new generation of women writers from Northern Ireland.

Contributers to The Female Line are:

Fiona Barr, Mary Beckett, Evelyn Berman, Shirley Bork, Geraldine Bradley, Francine Cunningham, Anne Devlin, Polly Devlin, Dorothy Gharbaoui, Ann W. Cleave, Christine Hammond, Ruth Hooley, Anne Jago, Maura Johnston, Jennifer Johnston, Marie Jones, Eileen Kelly, Jan Kennedy, Kate Madden, Stella Mahon, Patricia Mallon, Sandra Marshall, Frances McEnaney, Mary McGowan, Medbh, McGuckian, Jill McKenna, Blanaid McKinney, Janet McNeill, Elizabeth Miller, Frances Molloy, Sheila Mulvenna, Brenda Murphy, Anne Noble, Christina Reid, Geraldine Reid, Anne-Marie Reilly, Delia Rimington, Bernadette Ross, Carol Scanlon, Janet Shepperson, Laura Shier, Anne Strain, Anne Tannahill, Mary Twomey, Una Woods


The Moon Mother | Medbh McGuckian

Twice-lost colonial, making inroads

On my sleep, till I go round with the

Machinery, however can I trust

Your jagged growing, the gender you assume

On a given day? Unmothered by

This extra weight, and jealous of

Your wiriness, I polish the same

Place on the table over and over,

Not regretful of the huts where

The bloodless, blanched gardenia

Stains around the edge when it’s touched,

But forming messages to wrap

The braided moon in her dwindling,

Deflowered self-possessed, aware

Exactly when the floor would act that way



#WakingtheFeminists – Three plays by Irish Female Playwrights

On Wednesday 28th October 2015, the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre, launched its programme to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Waking the Nation featured ten plays, a mix of newly commissioned work and well-known theatre classics. However, they failed to notice that out of the ten plays programmed in the 2016 programme, only one was written by a woman and only three were being directed by a woman.


Others noticed though, mainly freelance set designer and arts administrator Lian Bell who initiated a discussion on Facebook and Twitter under the hashtag #WakingtheFeminists, coined by director Maeve Stone. In the following weeks, there was an outpouring of testimonies from both women and men working in Irish theatre, highlighting the under-representation of the work of women artists – not just at the Abbey but throughout the Irish theatre sector. Word soon spread and even stars like Meryl Streep got behind the cause.


An unprecedented public meeting was held at The Abbey Theatre in November, gathering together the organisers of the movement and female theatre practitioners from across the country. The Abbey soon made public their oversight and issued a public statement to develop and administer a policy on gender equality and to programme more work by women in the future.

Other venues and organisations have also taken a look at their programming history and representatives from #Waking the Feminists have met with the Gate Theatre, Druid Theatre Company, Rough Magic Theatre Company and the Dublin Theatre Festival, as well as working with the Arts Council of Ireland to ensure parity and equality at a policy level to ensure a long lasting effect.


Ireland has produced some amazing female playwrights. Eva Gore-Booth was a suffragist and sister of Countess Markievicz and friend of WB Yeats. Frances Sheridan, mother of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan had her work produced by David Garrick at London’s Drury Lane in 1700s.

Notable Irish authors have written for the stage, including Jennifer Johnston, Paula Meehan, Eílís Ní Dhuibhne and Emma Donoghue. Many female Irish playwrights are seeing their work produced regularly on the London stage, including Stella Feehily and Ursula Rani Sarma. Northern Irish playwright Abbie Spallen has spoken in the past about her frustration with how women are represented in Irish theatre yet has seen her work produced by the Bush Theatre in London.

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Hopefully this will be the start of a change and we will see the work of more female playwrights being produced at home, writers like Rosemary Jenkinson whose new play Here Comes the Night will premiere next month at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and Ali White, whose play Me, Mollser was the only play written by a woman to be included in the Abbey’s Waking the Nation programme,

You can find out more about #WakingtheFeminists at their fantastic site here or follow the hashtag on Twitter.

With this in mind, I decided to have a look at three plays by Irish female writers, two of which have been languishing in the 746 for a while!

No 634: B For Baby by Carmel Winters

b for baby

Winner of the Irish Times Best New Play in 2010, Carmel Winters play is set in a residential care home. B, one of the residents, dreams of being a hairdresser and hopes for real scissors for Christmas. His friend D would love a ‘big head of dirty auld curls’ and a snow globe. Mrs. C, their carer just wants a baby with her husband Brian and this tender, funny play explores the extent to which these characters will go to get what they want. Two actors play four parts, adding to a sense of make-believe and play-acting that makes the audience and reader question what is real and what is made up and the play poignantly and subtly explores issues of sexuality, consent and disability in a thought-provoking way.

Read on: Book, Number Read: 113, Number Remaining: 633


No 633: After Easter by Anne Devlin

after easter

In Anne Devlin’s After Easter, Greta, an ex-Catholic from Northern Ireland now living in London, has reluctantly started to have religious visions. When her father suffers a heart attack, she is called back to Northern Ireland to be with her mother, a maker of children’s communion dresses and her sisters and brother, the only one of the siblings to have remained at home. Devlin touches on a variety of themes in this funny and sharp-witted play, including notions of exile and faith and while the Troubles feature in the form of a friendly police officer and her brother’s almost arrest over a parcel containing communion veils, the play is ultimately about making peace with your past, both personally and collectively.

Read on: Book, Number Read: 114, Number Remaining: 632


This May Hurt A Bit by Stella Feehily

this may hurt

Stella Feehily wrote This May Hurt A Bit after her husband, the director Max Stafford- Clark suffered a stroke and was treated by the NHS. The play is a vivid and hilarious polemic in favour of the NHS and a passionate defense of a public health service fighting against privatization. The play follows one family’s experience of the UK’s health service. Nicholas has been diagnosed with prostate problems and fights with his sister who is now living in America and is a convert to the idea of insurance led health care.

When their mother Iris is taken ill and moved to a geriatric ward, their theories are put to the test. What Feehily uncovers is an organization full of people working tirelessly for their patients, but bogged down in an administrative quagmire.

Before you think this play is a dry polemic, it’s not. It is filled with humour and scenes involving bumbling prime ministers, the NHS itself appearing on a stretcher and Winston Churchill and Aneurin Beven arguing in the stalls make this a passionate and appealing call to arms.


No 636 This is Not a Novel by Jennifer Johnston

Reading Ireland Month continues and all this week I will be focusing on women writers from Ireland to maybe introduce you to some you may not have read or known too much about.

Like many female writers from Ireland, Jennifer Johnston is not as widely read as she should be as is often underestimated given the amount of critical acclaim she has received.

Born in Dublin in 1930, she didn’t publish her first novel until 1972 when she was 42. Since then she has published 18 novels and written numerous plays and has won the Evening Standard Best First Novel Award in 1972 for The Captain and The Kings, The Whitbread Prize in 1979 for The Old Jest and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977 for her fourth novel Shadows on our Skin. In 2012 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards and was nominated for the position of first Irish Laureate for Fiction in 2014 – which was eventually won by Anne Enright.

JJ Collage

Johnston was born into the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and many of her novels are set in this world, which may go some way to explain the sometimes lack of interest in her work. Her milieu is not a fashionable one, her themes not edgy or gritty. She is often considered to be a ‘Big House’ writer, exploring the social and cultural life of the Anglo-Irish and Protestant ascendancy in the manner of Maria Edgeworth or Elizabeth Bowen. Although she draws on this tradition, Johnston’s novels instead nearly always centre on the Irish family and the relationships between children and their parents, siblings and lovers played out against the backdrop of Irish history, but never overwhelmed by it. She often explores the damage of hidden secrets and the influence of the past on the present, both from a personal and a historical point of view.

She is often described as the ‘quiet’ woman of Irish literature and has joked that the literary establishment think of her as a second rate writer, but this does her a great disservice. Her books may be ‘quiet’ in terms of their exploration of inner lives and the formation of identity, but her prose is lyrical and elegiac and her focused taut storylines which deal with gender, class, religion and politics, create a distinctive and memorable body of work.


The unusually titled This is Not a Novel deals with Johnston’s main themes of memory, loss and an inability to come to terms with the past, but the structure is what elevates a seemingly straightforward tale of the damage that family secrets can do into a subtle musing on identity and meaning. The narrator, immediately tells us;

This is not a novel. I want to make that perfectly clear. Normally when I set out to write a piece of fiction, I invent a setting, a landscape, a climate, a world, in fact, that has no reality outside the pages of the book, and into the world I insert my characters.

The reader is immediately wrong footed. If this is not a novel, then what are we reading? Is it fact? Is it fiction? Is the main character, Imogen Bailey herself a writer actually Jennifer Johnston? Johnston has admitted that inspiration for the novel’s title takes came from Magritte’s famous ‘Ceci n’est pas une pomme’ artwork;

So I thought, well if that’s not an apple, this is not a novel. Instead of working the joke into the text, I decided to put it on the cover. Of course a novel can be almost anything, but I did want this to be somewhat different to my previous novels. It is, in some ways, a sideways look at my family history, which is not to say that it’s autobiographical, but there are some strong references to my family.

Johnston as always is interested in echoes and layers. Here is a novel that we are told isn’t a novel. We have a lead character, Imogen Bailey, a writer, who is looking back and her inability to reconcile herself with the death of her brother Johnny, thirty years earlier. Johnny, a potential Olympic swimmer, was believed to have drowned at sea, but Imogen has never accepted this. His loss was traumatising for her and she stopped speaking before being admitted to a psychiatric hospital but she is now trying to find the words that she lost, by writing this book in the hope that it will lead Johnny back to her.

I would like to think that rather than a scrappy memoir, it might be a cri de coeur, a hopeful message sent out into the world, like a piece of paper in a bottle dropped into the sea; my hope being that my brother Johnny, somewhere in the world, I believe, may read it and may pick up the nearest telephone

The story is addressed to Johnny and in order to construct her narrative, Imogen trawls through old photographs, letters and diaries, the ephemera of her family life and discovers echoes and reflections between the life of Johnny and the life of her great Uncle Harry who was sent to fight in WW1 when his homosexuality threatened to bring shame on the family.

I am constantly astonished by the fact that once you start to trawl through the waters of memory the strangest things get caught in your net. Are they true or false these recollections that suddenly seem so clear in your mind?

Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston

In trying to find a solid truth of what happened to her brother, Imogen explores the life of her Uncle Harry and sees how family expectation led to his downfall, in a similar way to Johnny. As she pieces together her family’s past, she becomes aware of the tragic echoes that sound down the generations. Of fathers who push too hard; mothers who don’t care enough and young men struggling to come to terms with who they are. This is not a novel about the past, but about how we interpret the past and as such it becomes clear that Imogen will only ever find the proof that Johnny is still alive, because it is the only truth she can believe.

Are we all condemned to be infected by our past?

Her whole identity is tied up in Johnny’s continuing existence so her memory must always lead her to the same conclusion. There will be no dramatic ending for Imogen, as the drama is in the past, rather she needs to find a kind of inner peace and by accepting Johnny may still be out there, she is also paradoxically, letting him go.

This is Not a Novel is, to be fair, a quiet book but Johnston doesn’t need high drama or tension to make this story more compelling. The writing has an intimacy and complexity that creates a very personal narrative without succumbing to sentimentality. Of her work, Johnston says,

I’d like people to find the small truths in my work and go on doing so

That is the great achievement of This is Not A Novel. It is a work that lights on the small truths to illuminate a greater understanding of families and the damage they can do.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 111

Number Remaining: 635


Putting Irish Women Writers back in the picture

Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, anyone interested in reading would be familiar with the Irish Writers poster. My Dad had the poster framed in his study and I had one on my bedroom wall, along with a set of Irish writers coasters. For several years I even had an Irish Writers calendar.


What is striking today about the poster, is the lack of women writers. Twelve writers were included, all were male.

To mark International Women’s Day, the Irish TImes has produced a female version of the poster, celebrating the rich and diverse tradition of women writers in Ireland. The poster features Maria Edgeworth, Augsta Gregory, Somerville & Ross, Kate O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, Mary Lavin, Maeve Brennan, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston, Eavan Boland and Anne Enright and youcan download it here.


For the last few weeks the Irish Times have been asking leading Irish writers, commentators and academics to produce short essays on their favourite female writers and the results are intriguing. You can read them online at The Irish TImes women’s writers page, but here are a few of those included;

Margaret Kelleher on Maria Edgeworth

Colm Toibin on Lady Gregory

Anne Haverty on Somerville & Ross

Eilis Ni Dhuibhine on Kate O’Brien

John Banville on Elizabeth Bowen

Belinda McKeon on Mary Lavin

Ane Enright on Maeve Brennan

Eimear McBride on Edna O’Brien

Eileen Battersby on Jennifer Johnston

Gerard Smyth on Eavan Boland

Claire Hennessey on Marian Keyes

Sinead Crowley on Maeve Binchy

Joseph O’Connor on Emma Donoghue

Nuala NiChonchuir on Anne Enright

As Martin Doyle, in his introduction to the Women’s Writers poster says, ‘This is not the end of the story but, with luck, the start of the conversation.’

In th next few weeks I’ll be continuing that conversation in my own little corner, focusing on women writers from Ireland, with reviews of Edna O’Brien, Leland Bardwell and Eimear McBride, alongside an interview with Nuala NiChonchuir.

Long may the conversation continue.