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Opinion: 'Until the 70s, puritanical attitudes of Irish society and State discouraged women’s writing'

Eilis Ní Dhuibhne writes about how women writers in Ireland faced a range of barriers up until recent decades.

Eilis Ní Dhuibhne

1954. WHAT HOPE for a baby girl dreaming of a literary future?

The Marian Year. Blue and white statues of the Blessed Virgin were being raised in grottoes, carried in processions, perched on windowsills.

The 1950s are not associated with gender equality, sexual liberation, artistic freedom. Indeed the clichéd symbols of the fifties are the polar opposite of these lovely concepts: the Censor, busily banning books.

Dour nuns running Mother and Baby Homes. A cranky bishop swinging his powerful crozier, with a hotline to Leinster House. But in 1954 in the literary heavens the stars were aligned, possibly laughing. Hold on a decade or two, bookish baby! The liberated sixties are around the corner.

By 1984, when the Marians were thirty – a good age at which to publish your first book, says Virginia Woolf – Ireland will have changed a lot.

Imagine being thirty in 1954. Like my mother. Born in 1924, she left school aged 14 and worked in a grocery shop. She loved her job; she loved earning money and she loved chatting to customers. But she had to give all that up when she married my father, a carpenter, in 1950, even though she didn’t want to, and although four years passed before she had a baby (me.)

My mother was clever, gregarious, hard working, but circumstances constrained her (well, up to a point.)

My life has been very different from hers. I, and my siblings, went to secondary school and university. We all got ‘good jobs.’ Some of us became artists. We were not smarter or more creative or energetic, than our parents. We simply enjoyed better opportunities in a better Ireland. I could go to college because university grants were introduced just in time for me to avail of them.

I began to publish stories in 1974, books in the 1980s – a time when attitudes to women and women writers were undergoing a quiet transformation in this country.

That women were discriminated against in Ireland in the past is not up for discussion. It’s just an historical fact. Until gender equality reform began to creep, slowly, into our legislation in the 1970s, women did not enjoy the same employment rights as men.

Not only were they denied career opportunities, those who got jobs were paid less than their male colleagues. Women in the Civil Service had to resign on marriage.

Most significantly, the ban on contraception meant that marriage generally meant plenty of pregnancies and children, almost ensuring that most married women would not have time to work outside the home – and also ensuring, probably, that they would not have time to write. I doubt if this was one of the intended effects of patriarchal legislation, but I am fairly sure it was a side effect.

Look Its A Woman Writer

The puritanical attitudes of Irish society, and State, up to the 1970s, effectively discouraged women’s writing. Many writers, male and female, fell foul of the censors in Ireland from the 1920s to the 1960s, if they were considered to have written ‘indecent or obscene’ literature. A hint of anything to do with that taboo and sinful subject, sex, earned the classification. The lists of offenders were long.

I suggest that the slur of banning on account of obscenity or indecency would have hurt women more than men, in a society which placed the highest of values on modesty and sexual innocence, and which, as is all too clear from the ongoing revelations about Mother and Baby Homes, employed a double standard regarding sexual matters.

Women wrote anyway, in Ireland’s dark days. Of course they did, and some achieved great success. But they were a distinguished minority. In the 1950s, the Irish literary stars were mainly male. The canon of great Irish literature was male. The editors and publishers and reviewers and professors were male. The voices of authority, in poetry and prose, government and pulpit, were male voices.

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Some would argue that this is still the case– the image Dublin Tourism promotes, of literary Ireland, is biased. MOLI, the Museum of Literature Ireland, has made great headway in correcting the public, touristic, image of Ireland as a country of men writers.

But until it opened a few years ago all the museums and literary centres around the capital celebrated Irish Men Writers (as I think they should be called. Why not?)

Nevertheless, as an Irish Woman Writer, born in 1954, I do not feel I have experienced discrimination as far as publishing is concerned. I happened to begin publishing books at a time when Irish literary society was opening its doors to women, inviting them in, however tentatively. Sometimes, in those heady days, publishers and agents approached me, looking for ‘a woman writer’. But has every Irish Woman Writer had the same experience?

To find out, a few years ago I invited women writers born in the mid-twentieth centuries to write an essay about their writing lives. I just asked them to describe their own literary journeys. Twenty-one writers, from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, including poets, fiction writers, and playwrights, writers in Irish and English, have written essays for the collection. How they chose to write about their writing lives I left to them, and as a result the essays are fascinatingly personal and delightfully varied, as to style, voice, concerns, and even length.

Most of these writers published their first books in the 1980s and 1990. Several published initially with women’s presses – Arlen House, Attic Press – or with presses which were not specifically feminist but which were very open to women writers, Poolbeg, Blackstaff, New Island, Salmon. Others used mainstream English publishers. (In an Afterword to the anthology, Alan Hayes, the publisher, has provided an invaluable history of women’s publishing houses.)

In their essays, the writers discuss the hurdles they have cleared in order to keep writing: money issues, parenthood, caring for elderly relatives, divorce, bereavement, illness. And they describe too all the positive influences: their parents, good school teachers, writing groups, editors and publishers open to new voices. Prizes and literary festivals. Funding from the Arts Council, election to Aosdana. What the writers have in common is that they started, they finished, they started again. Every one of these 21 poets, novelists, playwrights, are still writing and publishing, in their sixties and seventies. They are literary survivors. The present generation of highly successful female writers stands on their shoulders. This should not be forgotten.

Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020 edited by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is published by Arlen House. It is nominated in the An Post Irish Book Awards in The Journal’s category – Best Irish Published Book. The awards take place on 23 November and the full list of nominees, plus more information on the ceremony, can be found on the awards website. 

About the author:

Eilis Ní Dhuibhne

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