Verbal Magazine: Forgotten Irish Female Writers

Darran Anderson examines the lives of some of Ireland's ignored women writers and asks why so many are all but forgotten

'A land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides for the wisdom of serene old age.' So went President De Valera's vision for the new Irish state, broadcast over the radio to the nation on St Patrick's Day 1943.

By implication, De Valera was also outlining what his Ireland would not be. In effect, cosmopolitanism and enlightenment would be sacrificed for a sleepy parochial version of Ireland. That this idealised land of 'comely maidens' and 'cosy homesteads' had never existed before (nor ever really could, given human nature) was beside the point. It was just the acceptable face of the prevailing puritan streak in Church and State, the same smothering conservatism that had driven the nation's greatest cultural figures to take refuge abroad (Joyce, Wilde, Beckett, Yeats); in the undeclared free-thinking republic that were the bars of Dublin (Behan, Kavanagh, O'Brien) or even in the grave as in the sad case of Charles Stewart Parnell.

Within this blueprint, the role of women would largely follow the German model of Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). The idea of Kathleen Ni Houlihan as Ireland's poetic embodiment had less to do with any high opinion of women and more to do with placing them safely on a pedestal, out of sight out of mind, a sort of silencing by romanticising.

Thankfully, there have been plenty of fearless female writers prepared to subvert stereotypes, create unique visions at great personal cost and who, despite everything, refuse to be written out of history. The fact we have to search hard to find them speaks volumes for the treatment of those who enriched Irish culture immeasurably. And whilst the idea of individuals triumphing over adversity is an attractive one, all too often history proves it to be just a well-intentioned myth.

Today, Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745), author of the satirical classics Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal and A Tale of a Tub, is regarded as the father of Irish letters and a writer of international renown. Less well-known is his friend Laetitia Pilkington (1709 - 1750) yet Pilkington is an essential component of what we know about Swift and a fascinating individual in her own right.

Raised by the talent-spotting Swift into the fashionable Dublin intelligentsia of the time, Pilkington and her reverend husband Matthew were lauded for a time as intellectuals of note yet disaster would soon loom. After relocating to London, Pilkington discovered her husband conducting an affair with an actress and reacted by starting her own dalliance with the hedonistic painter and cad James Worsdale. It would be a costly decision. When news of the liaison (and other reputed incidences with a handsome doctor) became public, the ensuing divorce bankrupted Pilkington and resulted in her being ostracized from high society.

Cast out of her home in the dead of night, she was denied access to her children, later spending a period in debtor's prison and suffering sustained abuse whilst down and out. Her former mentor Swift ditched her as an acquaintance and sought to blacken her name as 'the most profligate whore in either kingdom'. Yet she would have her revenge. Forced to sell ghost-written poems to vain, talentless poseurs, she began to write gleefully salacious accounts of the private lives of the leading cultural figures she'd associated with, terrifying them (yet capturing them in three dimensions, Swift included, forever) and delighting the public in the process.

Whilst undoubtedly a victim of the hypocrisy of the age, her Memoirs were revealing, perceptive and demonstrated an open-heartedness never extended to her and more than earn her a place as perhaps the pioneer of celebrity exposés.

The case of Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860 - 1939) is an interesting and unique one; not only was the County Down-born writer beset by the casual sexism of the literary establishment, she suffered the indignity of becoming their laughing stock. Her overly florid prose in novels such as Irene Iddesleigh and Delina Delaney earned her the dubious honour of being regularly cited as the worst novelist of all time.

Subjected to snide reviews and cruel parlour games (a regular challenge of JR Tolkien and CS Lewis' coterie was to see how long her work could be read aloud without resorting to fits of laughter), she irascibly weathered the storm of criticism long enough to become a curious cult figure. In a similar fashion to her Scottish counterpart, the poet William McGonagall (he of The Tay Bridge Disaster fame - 'Beautiful railway bridge of the silv'ry Tay! / Alas! I am very sorry to say…'), her work is so dreadful that the very beguiling, hypnotic dreadfulness becomes its chief selling point.

Take this passage from her debut: 'Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!' Amidst the millions of forgotten writers, she is one of the relative few remembered by posterity; the best bad writer there's ever been. Though it comes too late to bring any real solace - in a way she's won.

By any standards, the Dublin-born Lola Ridge (1873 - 1941) was a remarkable character and another who's criminally neglected today. Though mostly remembered for her spirited anarcho-feminist politics and campaigning on behalf of cases of social injustice (the cause célèbre Sacco and Vanzetti case for one), it's her literary achievements that stun, not just for their skill but for their virtually complete disappearance from the canon.

Whilst resident in New York, she constructed the epic poem The Ghetto about the complexities of Jewish life and community in the city, the kind of free-flowing metropolitan masterpiece that Hart Crane would have yearned to have written and which preceded the similarly-toned works of the Beat Generation by decades. With Sun-Up, she turned her skills to capturing her childhood years (spent in Australasia with an Irish mother and a Scottish gold-mining step-father who alternated between reciting the classics and smashing their home to pieces on drink-fuelled sprees) in an innovative impressionistic work that combines art, memory and imagination. It's unlike anything else.

With Firehead, she retold the story of Jesus' betrayal and death with an almost Cubist complexity of viewpoints. All the while, she fiercely and eloquently espoused the rights of immigrants, women and the working class, balancing this with an otherworldly style of poetry. For her efforts, she was arrested several times and monitored as a subversive yet no indignity matches her erosion from shared cultural history. A revival is long overdue.

Such are the numbers of neglected female writers in Ireland and so completely have they been erased that it is frequently only possible to touch on the lost talents. There's the poet Fanny Parnell (1848 - 1882) who lobbied for victims of the famine and roused the peasantry with her anthemic verse 'Hold the Harvest', the best-selling gothic writer Charlotte Riddell (1832 - 1906) whose stories were full of banshees, cursed lepers and tinkers possessed by the devil.

Bearing satirical bite, Henrietta Battier's (1751 - 1813) targets included the clergy and Orange Order whilst Maria Edgeworth (1767 - 1849) railed against absentee landlords and the exclusion of women from education (a literary ancestor of Jane Austen). Then there was the so-called 'singing handmaid' and patriot Ethna Carbery (1866 - 1902) and the haunted, TB-suffering Mary Tighe (1772 - 1810) whose verse, particularly the epic 'Psyche', inspired the Romantics.

Similarly poignant was the fate of the partnership comprised of the cousins Edith Somerville (1858 - 1949) and Violet Martin (1862 - 1915). Having collaborated on a series of remarkably successful works including The Irish RM series, the pair, both hailing from the landed gentry, became household names. Tragedy struck when Martin sustained head and spinal injuries falling from her horse (she was an experienced huntswoman). Her health never recovered and she eventually died from a brain tumour. Devastated, Somerville continued writing using the joint name, always claiming that she was still in contact with her partner through spiritualist séances directed beyond the grave.

The Cork-born author of The Gadfly, Ethel Lilian Voynich (1864- 1960) has always had a much wider appreciation abroad than in her native land. Due to her radical leanings and the book's plotline (which concerns the intrigues of a young left-wing Italian insurgent) the book was officially 'encouraged' by the Bolshevik Regime. Ironically (and somewhat subversively), the book was based on the confessions of Sidney Reilly, a British spy and the real-life model for James Bond, who'd engaged in a brief affair with Voynich and who would eventually be lured into the USSR by Soviet counterintelligence to be executed in a forest outside Moscow. The book sold millions of copies across Russia and the Warsaw bloc and inspired a Socialist Realist film adaptation complete with a score by Shostakovich, yet Voynich is still virtually unknown here.

We'll never know how many women were prevented from committing words to paper or how much limitless potential was wasted, yet even against adversity, there were signs of ingenuity. Despite being unable to read or write, the County Cork poet Máire Bhuí Ní Laoghaire (1774 - 1849) weaved tales of political skirmishes and immortalised local areas in spoken verse and song, fuelling a rich oral tradition in the region.

Many revered male figures have owed great debts to women writers for which little credit has been shown. Where would WB Yeats be without his muse the fiery Maud Gonne? Or the theatrical dynamo Lady Gregory? Or those in his inner circle like his wife and automatic-writing pioneer Georgie Hyde-Lees, the occultist and gunrunner Ella Young, his beloved Eva Gore-Booth who balanced elegiac verse with progressive politics (she was the sister of Countess Markiewicz), the balladeer Katharine Tynan or the poet Mary Devenport O'Neill whose imagist writing and psychic dabbling informed his esoteric A Vision?

The startling experimental poet Blanaid Salkeld (1880 - 1959) is chiefly famous for nurturing the writing of Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O'Brien but her early verse ('Hello, Eternity' especially) is notable in itself and deserves to emerge from out of their shadows.

Then there's Oscar Wilde's mother - the poet, translator and folklorist Speranza (1821 - 1896) from whom he inherited socialist and republican tendencies (her poetry often revolved around famine victims and impoverished street children), a love for ridiculing the British establishment and a magnetism for scandal (she called for uprising to overthrow British rule resulting in her paper The Nation being forcibly shut down). As far ahead of her time as her son was, she lived to see him dragged into disrepute and imprisonment for his homosexuality. With her health destroyed by the episode, she passed away before he was released, a victim of the Victorian moral orthodoxy and an establishment her son had lampooned too many times.

Acting as a counter-balance of down-to-earth realism to her husband's wilfully obscure and obsessive traits, Nora Barnacle (1884 - 1951) was an essential part of James Joyce's life and work. She provided him with a solid foundation when he could easily have drunk himself into an early grave or vanished into academia. She also inspired the greatest female character in Irish fiction, Molly Bloom, whose incredible erotically-charged stream of conscious passage added intellectual weight to the coming Sexual Revolution and the age of free speech (banned for many years and published abroad, it took court cases, prosecutions and intrepid individuals like the writer Anthony Burgess literally smuggling it in before it could exert its liberating influence). Nora gave him Ulysses.

Not all the tales end so rewardingly. The stunning society beauty Caroline Norton (1808 - 1877) whose melancholy verse such as 'The Sorrows of Rosalie' and 'The Child of the Islands' and her activism for gender equality belied an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband, while Mary Davys (1674 - 1732) whose striking parodies of social convention were endlessly mauled by the hacks of the day (a sure indication of their effectiveness).

Some had the audacity and bravery to fight back. When slurred as a revolutionary by the Quarterly Review for advocating the rights of the poor in her novel O'Donnell, Lady Morgan (1776 - 1859) reacted by undertaking a painstaking, thinly-veiled character assassination of the said critic in her next novel. The aforementioned Amanda McKittrick Ros would accuse detractors of secretly being smitten with her.

Not all writers could endure the often savage attacks by a misogynist press and the more subtle but equally manipulative social pressures to conform. The playwright Elizabeth Griffith (1727 - 1793) initially struck a strident feminist tone but soon acquiesced into dour plays featuring saintly long-suffering wives and diatribes against immoral behaviour. When the alternative to toeing the line is ruin who could blame her?

We can unearth those who've been buried in the vain hope it will redress the injustices of the past. Most importantly though, by fostering neglected talent here and now, we need to ensure we'll never repeat them.

This article originally appeared in Verbal Magazine (Verbal Arts Centre, Derry). Verbal is distributed to 100,000 homes across Northern Ireland each month inside the Belfast News, Newsletter and Derry Journal. A full pdf version can be downloaded for free from the Verbal Magazine website.