The Hidden Experience: Women's Writing

For nearly 400 years, hardy women pioneers found success in a male dominated world

The development of women’s writing within Belfast's literature shadows the experience of women writers throughout the world.

Mary Balfour was Belfast’s only women playwright of the 19th century. Originally from Limavady, Balfour ended her life being known as Mary of Belfast. Very little biographical information remains but what we do know is that she moved to the city around 1813 and opened a school.

The next year, Kathleen O’Neill was performed, probably at the Theatre Royal in Arthur Square. The first play published by a woman in Belfast, it remained an anomaly until well into the 20th century. In keeping with the times it was a melodrama based on an old Irish folk tale.

This was a theme with Balfour, who also had 'Hope: A Poetical Essay' published by Joseph Smyth in 1810, largely made up of poems translated from the Irish.

In the early 20th century, the position of women within Belfast society was much the same as it had been throughout the 19th century. Men did the writing, with the occasional exception. Up until the 1970s this was still the prevalent attitude.

Marie JonesJanet McNeill, originally from Dublin, settled in Belfast to work at the Belfast Telegraph. During her time in Belfast she was prolific, writing fiction, including The Maiden Dinosaur (1964) and The Child in the House (1955). She also wrote a number of plays which were performed at the Ulster Group Theatre, to much consternation.

This consternation was especially strange as two other earlier writers, Helen Waddell and Patricia O’Connor, had both written for the Belfast stage. McNeill, however, did not allow the shock caused by her presence to distract her.

During a long and successful writing career, McNeill was compared with Brian Moore. Whereas Moore made his speciality the Catholic middle class, McNeill concentrated on the Protestant version of the same.

Women were to have their greatest impact in writing for the stage, with Marie Jones and Christina Reid leading the charge. Jones came to prominence as part of a theatre company which, fed up with the lack of work for women actors, began Charabanc Theatre Company.

Jones, Brenda Winter, Eleanor Methven and Carol Scanlan wrote, with the help of Martin Lynch, the play Lay Up Your Ends that rescued from history the lives of female linen mill workers. It was an immediate hit and the theatre company spent the next 16 years producing work about a variety of subjects.

Jones developed into the lead writer of the company and a high point came in the critical and commercial success of Somewhere Over The Balcony, which portrayed the lives of three working-class women living in the Divis Flats in the mid 1980s.

Jones went on to write other smash hits that dealt with culture and identity, particularly A Night in November and Stones in His Pockets.

Christina Reid was, as the newspapers of the time styled her, ‘a Holywood housewife’ when her first play, Tea in a China Cup, was premiered to Lyric Theatre audiences to enormous acclaim. The play ran in London and has since been seen across the world.

Mary BeckettIt explores the lives of three generations of women in a working-class home, highlighting the joys and difficulties in their lives. Her next play Joyriders saw her analyse the lives of young people on a government-sponsored training scheme.

The play graphically plots their lives, caught in a vicious cycle of violence and employment, and the sense that Belfast was going nowhere. Reid has since gone on to be one of Belfast’s most distinguished playwrights, still writing about the lives of the disempowered.

Medbh McGuckian is a poet who rose to prominence in the 1980s, writing some of the most original verse in the city’s history. Born in north Belfast, McGuckian has made her name by challenging the gender roles and traditional ideas about women’s role in society.

Sometimes a challenging poet to get to grips with, McGuckian has become a role model to many new female poets – Sinead Morrissey, who beautifully conjured up the experience of an out-of-town student at Queen’s University, and Leontia Flynn, being recent examples.

Fiction writers such as Mary Beckett, Mary Costello and others joined this upsurge in women’s writing, and as Belfast turned into the 1990s the picture from the writer’s chair began to look rather more rosy.