[Painting by Constance Markievicz of Eve Gore - Booth]
Of all the trite touristy cultural propaganda that has ever emerged from our fair isle, the representation of Ireland that irks me most are those posters, postcards, calendars, bookmarks and all other paraphernalia depicting ‘Irish Writers’ or even worse, ‘Great Irish Writers’. Never has a mass produced postcard afflicted me in such a way. And no, it isn’t the gaudy design, nor is it the flippant photo of a flutered Brendan Behan downing a pint that gets to me; it’s the sheer sexist ignorant bigotry of producing a piece of work meant to represent Ireland’s writers without mentioning as much as one Irish female writer – not that one would be enough, I would still complain.
I remember being given one of these ‘Irish Writers’ calendars as a present and feeling ashamed that I had played a part in the proliferation of the idea of Irish writer as man and never woman. I remember making my way up the escalator in Easons in Dublin to return this offensive calendar, and realising with a cold hard kick to the senses that the mural of Irish writers I had been admiring contained not one Irish female writer. Not one.
But then, when do we ever celebrate Irish women writers? We dedicate days to our approved literary saint James Joyce and launch year long celebrations of poet Seamus Heaney, but has the same merit ever been offered to any of our prolific female writers? Absolutely not. For example, an exhibition recently opened at the Crawford Art Gallery entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces, described as ‘an exhibition of portraits of Irish writers’. While this exhibition was home to a few interesting portraits by female artists such as Eileen Healy, Sarah Iremonger, Nora McGuinness and Sarah Longley, I was disheartened to find that of the more than sixty works drawn from the collections of the Crawford Gallery, The Abbey Theatre and The Arts Council for this exhibition, only four of the portraits on show were exclusively of female writers: Lady Augusta Gregory, Elizabeth Bowen, Lady Blessington and Violet Martin. The other female writers who happen to get a look in – poet Liz O’ Donoghue, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Jennifer Johnston all share their portraits with the likes of Sebastian Barry and John Montague; male writers who are revered in Ireland.
This exhibition sums up for me all that is wrong with the treatment and perception of Irish female writers in Ireland; they are over-looked, belittled and never respected in the same way Irish male writers are. For a start, look at all of the Irish female writers who are missing from the exhibition. Where are the portraits of Edna O’ Brien, Kate O’ Brien, Leland Bardwell, Mary Lavin, Maeve Brennan, Peig Sayers, Maeve Binchy, Eavan Boland, Maria Edgeworth, Iris Murdoch, Nuala O’ Faolain, Alice Taylor, Emma Donoghue, Anne Enright, Marina Carr, Somerville & Ross, Eva Gore-Booth? As this is an exhibition which embraces the varying art-forms of painting, sculpture and photography, it cannot be argued that there simply are no portraits of the above because I know for a fact that there are. Edna O’ Brien, for one, has never shied away from a photo opportunity as anyone familiar with her will know.
In this exhibition “celebrating the extraordinary range and talent of Irish writers from the eighteenth century to the present day”, where were the bastions of the derogated ‘chick-lit’ genre? Literary snobs like to think that so-called ‘chick-lit’ writers are beneath their esteem. However, if word of mouth and sales figures are anything to go by, then the chick-lit generation has produced some of the most successful, engaging and reflective writers ever born in Ireland, from Marian Keyes to Sheila O’ Flanagan, from Cathy Kelly to Patricia Scanlan. Cecelia Aherne has written best-selling books, screenplays and recently, a one-woman theatrical show. She created the American TV series Samantha Who? starring Christina Applegate, which was the highest rated sitcom to debut in the US during the 2007-2008 season. Cecilia has had the kind of success that most writers, male or female, would boil their own fingers for, but of course Cecelia Aherne is just a ‘chick-lit’ writer who probably only made it because her daddy’s the former taoiseach, right? Wrong. Anyone can write a book, only a real writer can write a good book, and judging by her phenomenal success I’m sure it’s fair to say that Ms. Aherne has talent. If an Irish male writer were to achieve such success in the US, we would never stop hearing about it; this I know.
And what about ‘cock-lit’? Is there such a thing? Does that mean that Irish male writers are not writing about modern domestic life, about the trials and errors of falling in and out of love, careers, family life and society, because that’s what ‘chick-lit’ is essentially. Does this mean that male Irish writers are above and beyond the call of such mundanities, that they are so far removed in their literary sphere that their own domestic settings do not inspire them to see the extraordinary in the ordinary? Or is it that they are still holding steadfastly to the antiquated idea that a woman’s place is in the home, as is a woman writer’s? Poet Eavan Boland battled for much of her early career against such patriarchal posturing, later admitting: “I often read attacks on my work that seemed to address some bias in the commentator on whether a woman poet, writing about the daily life of a woman, should really be considered seriously.”
I even find the image of poets Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky by John Minihan used to promote the Crawford exhibition off-putting. I know this is the year of Seamus Heaney and all that, but for crying out loud, should not a measure of imagination be used in these things? Was the Crawford afraid that the Irish public are so unfamiliar with the faces of Lady Gregory, Elizabeth Bowen or Jennifer Johnston, that we would not have realised what this collection was about if they used their portraits to promote the exhibition? Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be wrong. Ireland’s female writers have always been for the most part faceless. They have never been celebrated or respected in the same way male writers have because we are still an Ireland that babies its sons and shushes its daughters, a country that still wrongly believes that, in the words of Sean O’ Faolain ‘a woman can be a poem and never a poet.’
Nicola Depuis has written a book on inspirational Irish women called Mná na hÉireann, which features some of the writers mentioned in this article. It will be published by Mercier Press in October 2009
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