The legacy of women’s writing in Ireland – The Irish Times


One caused an outcry and her books were banned, the other was a beloved and praised national treasure – but now Edna O’Brien and Maeve Binchy are somewhat surprising bedfellows, regularly cited as inspirations by the latest generation of Irish writers.

Burned, banned and reviled in 1960s Ireland, Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls was rejected by Irish censors for its sexually explicit content, allegedly set on fire by her local parish priest and condemned as filth by everyone from politicians to archbishops. Published 22 years later, Maeve Binchy’s first novel, Light a Penny Candle, had a rather different birth, selling for the then highest sum ever paid by a UK publisher for a first novel – £52,000 – and quickly becoming an international bestseller. Today, the two women are icons for many writers who follow in their footsteps.

“I don’t think people realize the huge debt that Irish writers owe Edna O’Brien,” says Kildare author Louise Nealon, whose debut novel Snowflake won the Newcomer Award from the year 2021 at the Irish Book Awards. “She sacrificed so much in her personal life to become a writer. When her mother read her work, she buried her book in the garden, not before erasing the parts deemed guilty. Her husband read his first novel and said, “You can write, and I’ll never forgive you.” I read O’Brien’s memoir, Country Girl, in a fit of admiration and rage.

O’Brien’s works have not only stood the test of time, but have grown in stature over the years. However, the acclaim has been fairly slow in coming, says Louise Kennedy, the Sligo-based author of the 2021 short story collection The End of the World Is a Dead End and the novel Trespasses, published this month.

“She certainly didn’t get the attention and respect she deserved until very recently in Ireland she was completely vilified. I don’t know many writers in the country who have received a public apology from the president, which Edna O’Brien did a few years ago because of the way she was treated. She is considered a literary giant overseas, but has she ever been sufficiently appreciated here?

International reputations

Dublin writer Anne Griffin, with two bestselling novels to her name – When All Is Said won Newcomer of the Year at the 2019 Irish Book Awards, Listening Still was published last year – credits O ‘Brien and Binchy deserve credit for giving the current crop of new Irish writers a head start.

“Our opportunities have come through great writers like Edna O’Brien and Maeve Binchy, to everyone who’s been overseas. We sit on their coattails and they lifted us up, they really did, their level and ability to reach a wide range of readers made people come looking.

Other more recent writers are also credited with the cover. “I think there’s a very warm, healthy culture of writers reaching out and pulling others behind them,” says Louise Kennedy. “I had great help from Sinead Gleeson, Liz Nugent and Marian Keyes, and they’re writers of all kinds of genres.”

Of all kinds of genres is right. O’Brien and Binchy might once have been considered poles apart, one writing “literature”, the other cozy “chick bed”, but these days it seems the lines are becoming more blurred between “literary” fiction and “commercial”. And that’s not a bad thing.

Marian Keyes has notoriously echoed the derogatory categorization of books written about women’s lives for a mass market, saying the term “chick bed” is almost an insult – “Books about men’s lives don’t are not diminished or humiliated in the same way. way.”

These days, writers of many different genres take pride in naming female commercial fiction writers as paving the way for them all. Take Dublin’s Fiona Scarlett, whose debut novel Boys Don’t Cry, published by Faber and shortlisted for the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards last year, is a gripping, gritty story of two young brothers growing up in a Dublin-class workplace where poverty, violence and drugs are no strangers.

“Luck as a Nation”

“I think we’re incredibly lucky as a nation to have had the wealth of great women writers, like Edna O’Brien, Anne Enright, Marian Keyes and Maeve Binchy,” she says. “We have always been lucky to have this writing in our country. Any woman writer’s success in Ireland is everyone’s success, because I sincerely believe it brings readers to Irish women’s fiction.

Publishing phenomenon Sally Rooney’s books have further blurred the lines between literary fiction and commercial bestsellers, attracting critical acclaim and awards galore while selling millions of copies and accelerating. being adapted for television – twice. Normal People not only got us through the first few months of the first lockdown of 2020, they also hosted endless Liveline – yes, it was the longest sex scene ever shown on RTÉ. Suddenly we were back in Edna O’Brien’s 1960s Catholic Ireland, with howls of indignation against teenage ‘fornication’, premarital sex and Bishop Michael Cox calling for the show is abandoned. Next, Conversations with Friends will air on RTÉ, BBC and HBO in May.

Hailing from Westport, Rooney named JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey as the book that had the most influence on his own writing, and reveals his heartwarming read is Jane Austen – the original author to chicks if all you read online is to believe. .

But Rooney is not the cause of this massive increase in attention for Irish authors, she is simply part of it, says Louise Kennedy – “Marian Keyes had sold 35 million books by the time Sally Rooney was published.”

“I think there has been a growing interest in Irish writers over the last decade and although Sally Rooney has been an incredible ambassador for Irish women’s writing, there was also a path opened up for Sally through those who came before her,” says Una Mannion, the Sligo-based author whose Faber-published novel The Crooked Tree won the 2022 Kate O’Brien Prize.

Those “before her” go way back of course, from Edna O’Brien to Norah Hoult, Maeve Brennan, Kate O’Brien and Mary Lavin, to name but a few.

male poster

Mary Lavin’s granddaughter, Alice Ryan, is the latest to join the rising stars of new Irish writing. The Dublin author’s debut novel, There Was a Little Incident, will be published by Head of Zeus in September.

“Although female Irish writers have in the past been less acclaimed than their male counterparts – we all remember the infamous all-male ‘Irish writers’ poster that hung in our classroom – readers who knew their work cherished them like stones. When I meet people today who love my grandmother’s work, we talk as if we’re in possession of a big secret, insider trading in the dark story market.

Ryan says she was inspired by many female Irish writers, in particular Christine Dwyer Hickey and also Deirdre Madden, Maeve Brennan, Binchy and Keyes. She loves the wry, witty insights Irish women offer into everyday life – “In Maeve Binchy’s evening class there is a man named Pillow Case for a reason they had all forgotten. In Marian Keyes’ Grown Ups, the woman who loves to cook for her family hires caterers.

Kathleen Murray of Carlow, whose first novel The Deadwood Encore came out in late April, says she loves seeing someone read a Keyes book when she goes on vacation.

“I feel so positive when I think of the popularity of Irish women’s writing around the world. I imagine what it’s like to be in another country and have an Irish book, to read about life in Ireland. When lots of people read good stories, it opens up space for other writers.

The generosity the writing community shows to those just starting out has done a lot to open up that space, she says, citing Stinging Fly editor Declan Meade, “who’s been hugely supportive of new writing and very concerned that women get equitable representation”.

From a rich heritage to the continued support of an established community of authors, it looks like new Irish writing is in a strong position to continue its global dominance. Make Binchy and O’Brien proud – long may it continue.


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