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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 18°C
PA Archive/PA Images Actress Susan Lynch who starred in the film Nora, with Ewan McGregor, an account of the unconventional relationship between Irish author James Joyce and Nora Barnacle.
Column 'Irish women were writing too, yet we don’t hear half enough about them'
If Irish women hadn’t been so feisty and fascinating the poor men would have had little to write about, writes Eleanor Fitzsimons.

WE CAN ALL do the rollcall of the famous male writers of Ireland: Beckett, Behan, Joyce, Kavanagh, O’Casey, Wilde, Yeats, and the rest of the boys.

Leaving aside the obvious fact that Irish women were writing too, yet we don’t hear half enough about them, why do we also know so little about the women who played muse to these great men?

I’m sure the lads all had wonderful imaginations and could make things up when required but, as often as not, they were inspired by lovers, mothers, sisters, cousins, daughters and female friends.

Oscar Wilde’s mom

By the time Oscar Wilde was twenty-seven, all he had written was one poorly-reviewed book of poetry and a play, Vera, which had not yet been performed. Yet it was he who was invited to tour America where his mother, the woman who inspired him to write poetry in the first place, was far more famous than him. In Minnesota, he was introduced not as Oscar Wilde but as “a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters”.

Writing as Speranza, Jane Wilde was a huge celebrity back home in Ireland and with Irish-Americans too. Yet she didn’t mind slinking into the background.

Being a typical Irish mammy, she wrote to reassure her son:

You are still the talk of London. The cab men ask if I am anything to Oscar Wilde. The milkman has bought your picture! & in fact nothing seems celebrated in London but you.

Oscar, a total literary magpie, often dropped the real conversations he had with friends like Ada Leverson, who was also a writer, into his plays. His best poem, “Requiescat”, didn’t come from his imagination – it was all about his precocious little sister, Isola, who died when she was nine and he was twelve.

Yeats’ infatuations

Most of us have heard of beautiful, fiery Maud Gonne, who was driven demented turning down marriage proposals from William Butler Yeats. It’s a good thing she did since he probably would have been too busy putting the bins out and helping her with her various agitations to write the magnificent poems she inspired.

Yeats was very taken with Oscar’s mammy too. He used to go round her house in London for tea and chat, and he nicknamed Maud “the new Speranza”, not least because she stood over six feet tall just like Jane Wilde.

Yeats had form when it came to infatuation. His early plays, all of them featuring larger-than-life women, were written when he was hanging around with a distant cousin, Laura Armstrong. The reason we’ve never heard of her is most likely because critics dismiss her as “pretty, unstable and already spoken-for” (she was engaged when they met); and a flirt and a tease.

Writing to another of his muses, fellow poet Katharine Tynan who collaborated with him on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (how come we never hear about her?), Yeats admitted that Maud reminded him of Laura but without the “wild dash of half insane genius”. This Laura sounds like a woman we should know about.

It’s important to remember the women

At least James Joyce acknowledged lifelong partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle: “I love you deeply and truly, Nora,” he wrote. “I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours.”

Patrick Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road was written for Hilda Moriarty, a raven-haired medical student from Kerry. She was two decades his junior but that didn’t stop him hanging around at the end of her road. Two women who inspired each other were Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who, as Somerville and Ross, gave us The Irish RM.

By the time Martin died in 1915, they had completed fourteen books together. Somerville, who insisted they had a spiritual connection that transcended the grave, continued to write and publish stories under their joint names. They are buried side by side at St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.

Of course we’re proud of the lads. They put us on the literary map. But it’s important to remember the women too. If they hadn’t been so feisty and fascinating the poor men would have had little to write about.

Eleanor Fitzsimons is author of Wilde’s Women.

International Literature Festival Dublin 2017 presents Herstory Salon: Ireland’s Lost Muses in Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday May 25 at 6pm. The event marks the first anniversary of Herstory, Ireland’s new cultural movement created to tell the life stories of historical, contemporary and mythological women. International Literature Festival Dublin takes place from May 20 – 29. For further details on the extensive programme and to book tickets visit To discover more about Herstory visit

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