When the 2019 Windham-Campbell Prize was announced on March 13, Danielle McLaughlin, 50, a former solicitor and author of a collection of short stories, became the first Irish woman writer — and the third from the country’s thriving literary circuit in four years — to win one of the world’s richest literary awards, worth $165,000, for her debut anthology Dinosaurs on Other Planets (2015, Stinging Fly Press).
Set in rural and suburban landscapes, the eleven stories in Dinosaurs… revolve around themes of isolation and alienation, both psychological and geographic. Its characters try to make sense of the spaces they inhabit as well as those who share the spaces with them. “I was concerned with such questions as how successfully we can bridge the gap between ourselves and others, how well we can ever know our fellow human beings,” writes McLaughlin in an email interview.
As a writer, McLaughlin endeavours to “invite the reader into the story” to make the reading experience interactive. “The writer has to allow gaps and spaces, stand back, and let the reader engage directly with the characters,” she writes.
McLaughlin is among a clutch of Irish women writers raring to claim its place in the country’s literary pantheon. One that gifted to world literature past greats like James Joyce, GB Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, William Trevor and John McGahern, and, later, John Banville, Roddy Doyle, Colm Tóibín, Sebastian Barry and Colum McCann. They have been predominantly men, although the first Irish writer to win the Man Booker Prize was Iris Murdoch for her novel The Sea, The Sea (1978).
Today, Irish women writers are finding international recognition, and are being assessed on their own terms. They are being published and awarded, and young women writers are succeeding early on in their career. Like Sally Rooney, 28, who was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker, became the youngest novelist ever to win the Costa Prize for her coming-of-age second novel, Normal People (2018), this January. Some of this year’s sterling debutantes include Anne Griffin (When All is Said, Hodder & Stoughton), Nicole Flattery (Show Them a Good Time), and Sarah Davis-Goff (Last Ones Left Alive). Anna Burns, 57, won the Man Booker award for her third novel, Milkman (2018), about a teenage girl’s struggles to evade the sexual advances of a paramilitary personnel — 11 years after Anne Enright won it for The Gathering (2007).
In November last year, the list of winners at Dublin’s Irish Book Awards was dominated by women. While Rooney won the “novel of the year” award, Lynn Ruane (People Like Me), Emilie Pine, (Notes to Self), Liz Nugent (Skin Deep), Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen (Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling, 2017) won in different categories.
Not too far back, in 2013, Eimear McBride, then 37, won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, set up to award innovative works, and the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for her debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (2013), the story of a girl’s turbulent journey into the adult world stood out for its experiment with form. In 2010, 41-year-old Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue’s novel Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
“Ireland has always had lots of great women writers. The trouble was that they weren’t being published, or reviewed, or weren’t receiving due recognition of their work,” says McLaughlin.
Davis-Goff, who co-runs Tramp Press, which has published new women writers, including Sara Baume, agrees: “The quality of writing has always been there — what we’re really seeing in terms of ‘flowering’ is the support structures to back it up and give it a platform, like the Irish Arts Council, which funds writers and artists,” says Davis-Goff, adding that abroad she still comes across a lot of the senior male writers who still don’t take women writers seriously.
Eleanor Hooker, 55, whose debut collection of poems, Shadow Owner’s Companion (2012), was shortlisted for the Strong/Shine Award for Best First Irish Collection in 2012, writes that now writers and publishers seek to address the issue of neglected Irish women writers. “This applies across genres. For decades, anthologies have skewed the perception of Irish women writers, and in many cases, erased them entirely from the canon,” she says.
Cecelia Ahern, 37, and Sheila O’Flanagan, 61, are counted among the best-selling authors. “I wanted to write so that I could give a voice to women who had generally been represented in novels as a wife, a mother, or a daughter, who is influenced by the choices of the men around her, but not as a person with hopes and dreams who can make her own choices,” says O’Flanagan, adding that the differentiator between literary and commercial fiction is in “the way a story is told”.
In her novel, Griffin, 50, portrays the grief, loss and regret of an 84-year-old Irish man, Maurice Hannigan, who looks back on his life even as he raises five toasts over five hours to the five most important people in his life. “The quiet uncommunicative man, holding all that is important inside, unable to express to those he loves what they mean to him until it is too late. I think that is an Ireland of a particular time and generation. The gender dynamics are changing here,” writes Griffin in an email.
Davis-Goff’s dystopian debut novel tells the story of young Orpen and her survival against skrakes. “While writing, I was also thinking about trauma — Orpen’s guardians are carrying past traumas, and I was wondering how trauma gets passed down generations, and affects those who are close to whoever has been affected,” says Davis-Goff.
In their stories, Irish women writers explore themes of relationships, the struggle to meet expectations, workplace dissatisfaction, financial instability and an uncertain future. “They are both personal and, in their own way, political,” says Flattery, whose collection of stories, written over four years, is a dark, surreal twist to personal and familial relationships and friendships.
Sexuality is a recent exploration, too. “We have much more freedom to explore that topic now, without judgement or shame. Writers such as Enright and Edna O’Brien paved the way for this and we’re indebted to them,” she says.
An interesting development in the Irish literary scene has been the resurgence of forms other than novel — short stories and essays. Sinead Gleeson’s essay collection ‘Constellations’ is a searing investigation of the female body. The characters that some contemporary women writers create are more outward-focused than inward-looking. Hooker, however, says that the joy is that there are no dominant motifs, no plodding “Oirish” themes.
As independent publishers and feminist literary editors push the envelope, and organisations like the Irish Writers Centre and Words Ireland advocate for women, Griffin says, this has taken many strong women “shouting loud and proud”. “The emergence of writers like Rooney and McBride is testament to the work of so many in demanding women finally find their place at the same table as the men,” she says.
Life has improved because women fought hard for change, regarding their position in society, bodily autonomy, etc., says Nuala O’Connor, 48, whose fourth novel, Becoming Belle (2018), has received critical acclaim in Ireland, the US and Canada, and will be published in the UK in June. The novel is the story of a gutsy woman who rewrites the script on a stage where the spotlight is always on the man. “We are still fighting but at least more women now identify as feminist instead of shying away from it. That has taken a long time,” says O’Connor, who is working on a bio-fictional novel about Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife and muse.
“I suppose we got fed up being invisible and we motivated ourselves and claimed our space,” says O’Connor.
This article appeared in the print edition on April 21, 2019, under the title ‘Telling Their Own Stories’.