Everyone knows what Ireland was like in the 1950s: poor, patriarchal, puritanical. A dark Baile Gan Gáire sort of country, one imagines, symbolized by tyrannical bishops, craw-thumping peasants, penitential Mother and Baby homes. Censorship. It wasn’t a country which treasured its writers, male or female. Indeed it was more likely the ban than to celebrate them if they were capable of an original thought. The important editors, publishers, critics – the literary establishment – were almost invariably men. And as for women writers? They existed, of course they did, but heavily outnumbered by their male colleagues. Samuel Johnson’s sexist and oft cited quote would not have sounded amiss, if applied to Irish writers in the 1950s. “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
And yet most of the 21 women who contribute to this anthology were born in this benighted decade – the youngest as it ended in 1960, the oldest some years before it started, the majority right in the middle. That meant they became teenagers in the 1960s, quite a good decade in which to be a teenager in Ireland. ‘The sexual revolution began in 1963/which was just too late for me’ wrote Philip Larkin. But it was just at the right moment for women born in the 1950s. They came of age in the 1970s, when the winds of feminism were blowing fresh ideas and attitudes to Ireland. They published their first books mainly in the 1980s, when publishers and editors in Ireland began to notice that what we then called ‘the woman’s voice’ was not heard very often in Irish letters.
There have been great changes in Irish life and Irish attitudes over the past fifty years. The literary scene has changed too. Serious fiction and poetry is no longer dominated by the male voice, as it was to a degree which now seems almost bizarre in the 1950s and 1960s. A woman writer is no longer a rara avis, someone who surprises, like a dancing dog, because she does it at all.
This book maps the changes which have occurred in Irish literature over the past fifty years or so, from the point of view of those who create literature, the writers themselves. 21 writers, poets, fiction writers, playwrights, writers in Irish and English, from the North of Ireland and the South, tell their own stories. They are funny, tragic, angry, philosophical, but all are vivid personal accounts of what it has been like to be a woman writing in Ireland during a pivotal period in the history of Ireland in general and Irish literature in particular.
With a foreword by Martina Devlin, and an introduction by the editor Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, and an Afterword by Alan Hayes, the anthology includes exciting and brilliant essays by
Cherry Smyth, Mary Morrissy , Lia Mills, Moya Cannon, Aine Ní Ghlinn, Catherine Dunne, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne , Mary O’Donnell, Mary O’Malley, Ruth Carr, Evelyn Conlon , Anne Devlin, Ivy Bannister Sophia Hillan, Medbh McGuckian, Mary Dorcey, Celia de Fréine, Máiríde Woods, Liz McManus, Mary Rose Callaghan and Phyl Herbert.
ISBN 9781851322510, €25, paperback, 354 pages, 500 colour images.
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