A poem that comes in a dream is “a wonder the awakened mind has lost,” says poet Cherry Smyth who once dreamed that she was taken to a deserted house by the IRA and tied to a chair, about to be shot.
“I cannot die,” she reproached her imaginary captors. “I have more to write.”
In many ways, the Ballymoney-born poet and writer speaks on behalf of the 21 female authors – all of “a certain age” – from across Ireland who have helped See! She’s a woman writer! which documents individually loaded, funny, desperate, inspiring and revolutionary journeys to the holy grail of publishing.
In Belfast on Tuesday 5 October, three of the contributors – Sophia Hillan and Ruth Carr from Belfast and Antrim-born author Máiríde Woods from Dublin will be invited to a special event and reading at the Irish Secretariat.
The aforementioned Smyth, now based in London and whose fourth collection Hungry explores the Irish famine – “and how imperialism helped provoke the greatest refugee crisis of the 19th century” – was expected to be present but not able to make an appointment due to educational commitments.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, editor-in-chief of See! and one of the collaborators herself, traced her idea for this unique collection of essays back to the aftermath of the Waking the Feminists movement in 2015.
Created to protest the low representation of women playwrights in the Abbey Theater Dublin’s ‘Waking the Nation’ program commemorating the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Ni Dhuibhne points out that many of the complaints raised were the same as ‘she and her “writers sisters” had been making since the 1970s and 1980s.
“Although we have fully supported Waking the Feminists and aware that in the Irish theater world, in particular, gender equality has not been achieved, I felt that the previous revolution regarding gender issues in the Irish literature had already been largely forgotten, ”she said. .
“Women have been creating literature for a very long time, in Ireland as elsewhere, but until the end of the 20th century they were in the minority.
“Now, in 2021, the fiction scene in Ireland appears to be dominated by women, but the scene in which these writers rightfully thrive was created by the previous generation; writers who emerged in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in an Irish literature lounge that was male-dominated to a degree that seems almost unbelievable today. “
She did not ask her contributors to answer the question “What has changed?” – “because we know the answer: a lot” – but simply asked them to write about their own literary journeys.
In many cases, the results are as moving and turn the page as their best fiction. Writers in Northern Ireland, in particular, draw on themes of death and terror, writing against the backdrop of turmoil, and the “macho” reality of a glass ceiling which, like the ‘Co award-winning novelist Tyrone Martina Devlin says in her catchy foreword, can now crack, but “could still use some hard knocks.”
Certainly, the prospect of a grim reaper waiting around the corner has spurred a number of authors, including Sophia Hillan who paints a paradoxically beautiful and painful portrait of her battle with rare cancer – a momentous life event that turned out to be the unexpected catalyst to “get published” before she turned 30.
An academic, teacher and author of books including Cocktail hour, The way we danced and Friday tree, she writes her story with honesty and humor, revealing how she made her way into fiction via a hospital bed at Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin, waking up one day to find she was lying under a sign indicating: “Sylvia King: Fluid’s only”.
“I can read backwards and backwards: Lewis Carroll taught me how,” she jokes.
“What is it for, I don’t know anymore: all I know is that my name is not Sylvia King but Sophia Hillan and that I did not put that apostrophe there.”
It was 1975 and she was 25, about to learn she had a rare neuroendocrine tumor – cancer that would reappear 33 years later and lead to a new wave of “five-year plans” of writing targets.
It is interesting to note that Hillan, former associate director of the Institute of Irish Studies at QUB, does not see himself as a cancer victim or even as a “person who fights it”; rather, “It’s right there. I’m also here. We co-exist.”
It’s almost like holding a mirror in front of her; a portal to the Lewis Carroll-inspired “mirror” world of his childhood – “the non-world where non-people who almost looked like us, but not, lived their parallel and mysterious lives”.
But as the scholar-turned-novelist recalls a “glorious time” at Queen’s University in the 1970s, when Seamus Heaney was on the teaching staff, another then-unknown Belfast student, Anne Devlin, walked away. approached the Troubles.
A student at the new Ulster University (as it was then called), she was participating in a civil rights march from Belfast to Derry in 1969 when the march was attacked by loyalists.
Devlin was hit on the head, lost consciousness, fell into a river, and was taken to hospital with a concussion. The march was then repeated in his 1994 play, After easter.
Reflecting on her days as an activist in the book, she simply says, “If I had stayed in politics in Belfast, I would have died. And I wouldn’t be a writer. I started writing plays because my dreams (nightmares) didn’t tell me the events I had experienced to go down in history. I used the plays to find the way to live a whole me. “
For collaborator Ruth Carr, who edited the first collection of writings by women, The feminine line – published in 1985 by the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement – The Troubles meant that the first time she won a literary award, the awards ceremony was called off.
“It was 1969 and due to the state of turmoil, the awards ceremony at the new Ulster University (as it was called then) was canceled,” she wrote.
“I received a letter with a check in the mail. I also remember that when the poem was published later in the school magazine, it was a sobering experience.
“The topic was my father and our struggle to communicate with each other. This difficulty was confirmed by the fact that he was very proud of my success but ignored what the poem asked of both of us.”
Meanwhile, the family tragedy is tackled by Hennessy Prize winner Máiríde Woods, who happily writes about early inspiration from the fantastic tales of goblins inhabiting the woods around Glencar, County Antrim, but s’ also opens up on excruciating pain later in life.
“In the early 2000s, my eldest daughter died suddenly,” she says.
“My husband is gone. In the face of such events, being published seemed irrelevant.”
Yet she continued to write obsessively to “hold back the obscurity”, her current work still reflecting these losses.
“Today I can see how much my individual voice belongs to a generation and a place,” concludes Woods.
“Maybe I just have one story that I keep telling in different forms. It never comes out quite the way I want it to. Our creations float beyond us, trying their luck on the waters of the wealth.”
See! She’s a woman writer! Irish Literary Feminisms 1970-2020 is published by Arlen House (arlenhouse.ie). Contributors include: Martina Devlin, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Cherry Smyth, Mary Morrissy, Lia Mills, Moya Cannon, Áine Ní Ghlinn, Catherine Dunne, Mary O’Donnell, Mary O’Malley, Ruth Carr, Evelyn Conlon, Anne Devlin, Ivy Bannister, Sophia Hillan, Medbh McGuckian, Mary Dorcey, Celia de Fréine, Máiríde Woods, Liz McManus, Mary Rose Callaghan, Phyl Herbert.