Writing Northern Irish Women into the Narrative

With the recent announcement of a new anthology of Northern Irish women writers’ work, Patrick Kelleher looks at the exclusion of Northern Irish women from the Irish literary scene.[br]The last few months have been ones of feminist awakenings on the Irish literary scene, with a newfound focus on incorporating women into the arts. From the now internationally acclaimed Waking The Feminists movement to the upcoming documentary Them’s The Breaks (the creators of which are interviewed on page 16-17 of this issue), it seems as though Ireland is finally starting to take note of women writers. And the move has been widely welcomed. Unfortunately for Northern Irish women writers, they seem to have been mostly ignored in this new desire to bring women into the fold of the male-centric literary scene.When The Long Gaze Back was published in September, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, it was heralded as a defining moment for Irish women writers. The book was a collection of Irish women’s writing, designed to address the exclusion of women from Irish literature. The book signalled an enormous leap forward since the publication of the now highly controversial Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, a several volume collection in the 1990s. The collection came under criticism when it first hit shelves for its lack of female writers, and the ensuing controversy in which the Field Day directors, who were all men, commissioned a fourth volume to be edited by women and to feature women’s writing. It became a symbol of the marginalisation of women in Irish literature.The Long Gaze Back was intended to right this wrong, but it only went so far. Recently the collection has come under criticism for featuring an alarmingly small number of Northern Irish women writers. So, in response, a new anthology of Northern Irish women writers is to be published, again edited by Gleeson. The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland is to be released in Autumn 2016 by New Island Books.
“Women Aloud NI has made the rest of Ireland sit up and listen to the excluded Northern Irish writers, and The Glass Shore signals a huge change too.”
While the collection is an attempt to redress the exclusion of Northern Irish women from the sphere of Irish writing, it raises a number of questions for those in the literary scene. Is this attempt to right the wrong enough, and what can we do about Northern Irish women’s exclusion from the Irish literary scene?The answer to this question may well come in the form of Jane Talbot, a Northern Irish writer, and her recent event, Women Aloud Northern Ireland. Talbot and a number of other Northern Irish women collaborated to pull together an event on International Women’s Day for women writers to share their work and to create a space where Northern Irish women could share their creative output. 130 women congregated to read their work publicly.“Women Aloud NI 2016 was a self-commissioned 'live anthology',” Talbot explains. “We didn't have to handle the issue of who should and shouldn't be included: we went for an inclusive policy, with a view to celebrating writing in all its forms.”Perhaps the greatest strength of Women Aloud Northern Ireland was that it opened up a conversation in a very public way about Northern Irish women’s writing. “Not only has the initiative raised the profile of the women's writing scene in Northern Ireland, it's also created a vibrant and supportive community of women who are continuing to work together to celebrate each other's work and reach out to – and engage with – a wider readership,” Talbot says.While Talbot says that being ignored within the sphere of Irish literature is a problem for Northern Irish women, she also acknowledges that this is also an issue for men. “I think there is a sense that we are often forgotten about or that we are not on the Irish literary radar,” she explains. “My instinct is that it might be just as much an issue for men too and that it can be a challenge to get Northern Irish writing to 'travel' beyond NI's borders – whether that be into the South or across the water.”There is certainly a sense in Irish literature that Northern Irish writers remain on the periphery, or perhaps outside the sphere entirely. Dublin has a vibrant literary scene, with various journals, publishers and writers. What’s more is that this community is a small one where everyone knows each other. All you have to do is attend a book or journal launch in Dublin to see that the crowds are always filled with the same faces. While Northern Ireland also has a vibrant literary scene, merging the two is something of a challenge, when the two places feel so far removed from each other. So how can we work on bringing them together?Talbot feels that the work is already underway. Women Aloud NI has made the rest of Ireland sit up and listen to the excluded Northern Irish writers, and The Glass Shore signals a huge change too. “There is a feeling that things are changing now, that the North is back on the radar,” Talbot says. Being back on the radar is one thing, but this issue is as much about bringing the radars of the Republic and the North closer together, to build a new literary scene that incorporates all of those who wish to be included – whether they are north or south of the border.The publication of The Glass Shore will do a great deal to redress the lack of Northern Irish women’s voices in The Long Gaze Back, but it is only the beginning of the solution. Much like the Field Day Anthology had to commission an extra volume to redress their misguided exclusion of women, there is a sense that The Glass Shore is doing the same; putting Northern Irish women as an afterthought, or an ‘other’. While the attempt is helpful, it’s not exactly a solution either.Collections of women’s writing shouldn’t be needed, but unfortunately they are. Women have been systematically excluded from various areas of society, and the problem is there in literature too. If women’s anthologies shouldn’t be needed, then Northern Irish women’s anthologies shouldn’t be needed either. There needs to be much more work done to include Northern Irish women in the narrative of Irish writing, and take on a post-Troubles approach to literature that is willing to incorporate anybody into the vibrant Irish literary scene – whether they’re male or female, from the Republic or the North, or even a part of the diaspora.