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5th December 2023

The Irish literature renaissance: The need for women’s writing

With the emergence of Sally Rooney, the popularity of Irish literature has only increased. We explore why there is now an urgent necessity for contemporary Irish women’s voices in literature.
The Irish literature renaissance: The need for women’s writing
Credit: Alice McQuail @The Mancunion

It’s no secret that Irish literature has been going through a surge of mainstream popularity. Authors like Sally Rooney and Sebastian Barry are displayed in any bookstore. Irish authors have historically had the most Booker Prize nominees, with the recent winner of the 2023 prize going to Irish author Paul Lynch for his novel Prophet Song.

Ireland has always been hailed as a literary country, most famously for James Joyce’s influential modernist novels that are featured on most English literature degrees. However, in recent years, it is the female Irish authors that have been dominating the industry. Following on from popular authors of the early 2000s, like Anne Enright, the reclamation of the female experience in contemporary novels has been brought to the forefront.

Ireland has a long, complicated history with religion and patriarchal conservatism which led to the restriction of women’s bodies for many years. Contraception was only legalised in 1979 and abortion was shockingly only legalised in 2018 – six years ago.

The new wave of Irish women’s writing fulfils the need for the female experience to be explored in what has been a restrictive environment for women.

Eimear McBride published her debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing in 2013, and it took the world by storm. It won an array of prizes and was immediately hailed as an astonishing literary achievement. With echoes of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the prose is bewildering and masterfully written leaving the reader in a permanent state of awe.

The story follows a young woman growing up with a strict Catholic mother and a brother afflicted with a brain tumour. In a vulnerable and poignant portrayal of girlhood, McBride gives us a brief insight into the turmoil of a repressed protagonist.

It took McBride nine years to get A Girl is a Half-formed Thing published, which could be attributed to the experimental style and the pervasive subject matter. In an interview with The Guardian, she describes how as an Irish Catholic, she “belongs to a long tradition of shame.” It is exactly this internalised shame that she seeks to acknowledge in her novel.

This discussion would be incomplete without mentioning Sally Rooney, who, whether you love her tortured, self-conscious characters or not, is undoubtedly one of the most prominent Irish authors of recent years.

With three published novels, most notably Normal People (2018), Rooney has gained worldwide acclaim and has been nominated for countless awards. Her novels are fiercely character-driven as they explore the experience of growing up in Ireland. Rooney has admitted that she couldn’t write her stories without ignoring her Marxist views on capitalism and problems of class division which feature in all three novels.

Rooney is a self-proclaimed feminist who discusses the topic of gender in her novels with an acute vulnerability. In her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, she portrays an intelligent strongminded protagonist who rejects any notion of emotion. However, after engaging in a relationship with a married man, she is confronted with her own loneliness. It is a raw, emotional portrayal of a young woman understanding the importance of relationships, in all forms, whilst navigating a queer relationship with her best friend.

Normal People is unequivocally Rooney’s masterpiece. It follows Connell and Marianne’s relationship from their last year of school through to their time at Trinity College Dublin. Although it is a beautifully heart-breaking love story, it is also a poignant exploration of the effects of violence on women by men. Throughout the novel, Marianne’s self-worth is grounded in the validation she gets from others. Her sexuality is mixed up with masochistic violence that perhaps reflects a wider conflict.

Although Rooney’s novels are written simplistically, allowing readers to demolish her books in a matter of hours, the depth and complexity of her characters are unparalleled. The BBC show starring Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones is a breathtakingly beautiful adaptation, but it does gloss over some of the important aspects of the novel. So, for those who have not yet read the novel, it is worth delving into it.

Anyone who has been into a bookstore recently has probably seen a display dedicated to Claire Keegan, whose short-form novellas seem to suddenly be everywhere. She is most famous for her short novel Small Things Like These, which was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize. Keegan writes in a beautifully poetic style that makes her stories surprisingly refreshing.

Set in a small Irish town in 1985, Small Things Like These follows a coal merchant in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but he soon encounters the harsh treatment towards an unmarried pregnant woman. The novel is steeped in history as it explores what would later be revealed as the scandal of the Magdalene laundries. A horrific revelation that from the 1700s until 1990, thousands of unmarried pregnant women were incarcerated, forced to work, and abused. After the discovery of a mass grave in 2014, it was understood that their children were often neglected or even killed.

Keegan sought to address this dark part of Ireland’s history to show the power the Church had over small-town communities. She also documents the important heroic actions of the everyman.

These authors represent the voices of a modern Irish generation that seeks to acknowledge the historical treatment of women. They are all unafraid to address harrowing topics that shows the adept capability of their writing.

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