Nathalie Lamprecht
Charles University, Faculty of Arts | Views:

Creative Commons 4.0 by Nathalie Lamprecht. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Ireland has been through several cycles of boom and bust in the last four decades, none as significant as the boom of the Celtic Tiger years (ca.1994-2008) and the following recession, both of which changed the socio-cultural landscape of the island for ever. Even now, following Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, amidst the current cost of living crisis, it is unclear whether austerity measures will once again come into play. Thus, the collection Austerity and Irish Women’s Writing and Culture, 1980-2020, edited by Deirdre Flynn and Ciara L. Murphy, is a timely and important contribution to Irish studies. It is an exploration of the interconnections between the Irish economy, resulting and repeated austerity measures, and the situation of women in Ireland. It delves into how these connections are reflected upon in a variety of contemporary literature, while also giving space to discussions of the social repercussions of austerity and the difficulties women face in the field of cultural production. Indeed, Austerity and Irish Women’s Writing and Culture, 1980-2020 manages to include a wide range of topics all of which combine to show that despite popular discourses of “masculinity in crisis,” it is in fact women who bear the brunt of recession and austerity measures. The collection brings together authors from different backgrounds – be it literary criticism, theatre, or poetry – to provide an overview of how austerity has affected both women in general as well as women’s writing and cultural production at different times over the last forty years. It thus achieves what it sets out to do: namely to show how in almost any area of life austerity functions as violence, leading to societal regression and lingering trauma in those most affected.
In fact, as Flynn and Murphy’s introduction indicates, not only are already meagre state supports cut in times of crisis, but any attempts at improving the social standing of marginalized groups are abandoned too. Throughout the collection, contributors note that while women’s rights were gaining traction in the Celtic Tiger years, in the recession following, a return to a more conservative family model became apparent. Flynn and Murphy observe that overall social progress tends to take place in times of economic prowess, while in times of crisis, these movements often reverse; thus, the collection is dedicated to “seeking out stories of the domestic, unseen labour, and the struggle faced by many women intensified by austerity measures” (10). The collection further notes that Irish women’s writing has tendentially been perceived by canon-making institutions as ‘domestic’ and too limited, not fit to compete with the ostensibly more universal, masculine topics of nation and selfhood. Touching upon all of these issues and more, the collection attempts to answer the questions of “what sort of literature and theatre does austerity produce? And if the effects of austerity are gendered, then what are the gender-specific responses to austerity?” (2).

Poetry scholar Laura Loftus uses her chapter, “Two Opposing Narratives? The Field Day and LIP Pamphlets,” to show how Ireland’s cultural landscape in the 1980s was not ready to welcome feminist approaches. LIP’s collaborative approach challenged the idea of the lone male genius Irish writer, and it was decidedly underfunded, leading to claims of it being an “amateur endeavour” compared to the more established all-male Field Day company’s pamphlets. Loftus shows how those who have money are on the deciding end of who gets forgotten and who gets anthologized, thus offering a belated explanation for how the Field Day Anthology’s exclusion of women writers could happen, despite the already ongoing discussion of feminist literary criticism in Ireland at the time.

In her chapter, “Austerity, Conflict, and Second-Wave Feminism in the North of Ireland,” Ciara L. Murphy discusses the work of Charabanc Theatre Company in the 1980s, concluding that in many ways, Charabanc was actually ahead of its time. The company played with an all-female cast and brought working-class women’s real lived experiences to the stage. Murphy convincingly argues that although Charabanc refused the label “feminist,” as they thought it to be alienating for their audience in the North, they did in fact employ second-wave feminist approaches in their theatre practice. In fact, they could even be considered intersectional feminists due to their focus on the connection between conflict, class, and gender.
The next chapter is “#WakeUpIrishPoetry: Austerity and Activism in Contemporary Irish Poetry – A personal reflection.” In it, poet and academic Kathy D’Arcy uses her poetic craft to convey the struggles of working in Irish poetry today: “In the famed San Francisco City Lights bookshop for the first time, I find the Irish anthology section and ask the manager to remove the books from the shelves. I show him the contents pages. He agrees” (58). An interesting mixture of poetry and extensive data, this chapter becomes an action plan for bringing about positive change, not only to unequal funding, but also hostile work environments in the Irish arts sector.

Claire Keogh, in her chapter, “Kermit, Cows, and Headless Chickens: Women’s Comedy Monologues after the Tiger,” argues that laughter, and moreover grotesque laughter, are the natural response to the paradoxical demands of participating in the workplace, taking care of homes and children and all the while keeping up to date on your beauty routine. This was the situation for many women during and after the Celtic Tiger, and, combined with the lack of funding in theatre, it opened the stage to so-called femologues, i.e., monologue plays featuring women. These plays would often be humorous in the face of adversity and Keogh succeeds in her argument that post-crash theatre is a lived example of Meidhbh McHugh’s concept of “fifth-wave funny feminism.”

In chapter six, “Balancing Acts: From Survival to Sustainability in Contemporary Irish Theatre and Performance,” Miriam Haughton and Maria Tivnan discuss how theatre funding and women’s involvement bear an inverse correlation. They give an almost overwhelming amount of statistics on Irish arts funding distribution, using Galway-based theatre group Theatre57 as an example of an underfunded group working towards change. Theatre57 aims to bring more funding to Galway to make working and living in the west of Ireland more achievable, especially for female theatre-makers who may not be able to travel due to care duties and lack of personal funds, as they are paid significantly less than their male counterparts.

In her chapter, “Intersectionality in Contemporary Melodrama: Normal People (McDonald/Abrahamson, 2020) and Kissing Candice (McArdle, 2018),” Zélie Asava points out that melodrama, although often disregarded in academic circles, is not only the most popular form of mass media, but also uniquely equipped to capture rapid cultural change. This change is visible in both, Kissing Candice and Normal People; however, the multicultural, multiracial Ireland portrayed in the latter especially occludes discussions of racism. The white main characters talk about racism, but only amongst their white peers. Class issues seem to take prevalence over racism and the effect is one of colour-blind storytelling. On Irish screens, racialized characters rarely feature as part of conversations about their own lives and experiences in Ireland.

“Austerity and the Precarity of Whiteness: Polish Characters in Stacey Gregg’s Shibboleth (2015) and Rosemary Jenkinson’s Here Comes the Night (2016)” is Justine Nakase’s chapter on levels of whiteness in Northern Ireland. In it she argues that Ireland’s belonging to Europe is precarious and so is the whiteness associated with being European. In Northern Ireland the situation becomes even more complicated due to the construction of Catholic and Protestant as two distinct ethnicities. Nakase eloquently explains how, based on this background, some may consider themselves to be whiter than others. She finally concludes that both plays analysed seem to argue that in Northern Ireland, it may be easier to integrate new communities than to reconcile old ones.

In chapter nine, Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro gives an overview of “Black Irish Culture” and the issues facing Irish people of colour. A partly personal appeal to take racism in Ireland seriously, the chapter asks the question: “Who gets to be Irish?” (157), and this is not easily answered. Seemingly, though, Blackness is only represented in Irish media in a positive light when it benefits Ireland by, for example, making it seem progressive and open to the world. However, when the ethnic landscape of Ireland started to change with the arrival of the Celtic Tiger, the response was a heightened desire to cling to traditional identity constructions, in turn leading to racism.

In his chapter, “Austerity, Irish Literary Tropes, and Claire Keegan’s Fiction,” Yen-Chi Wu counters arguments that Claire Keegan’s writing is anachronistic due to her use of a sense of entrapment typical of mid-century Irish writing, which is out of step with the rapidly modernising Ireland of her early career. Wu indeed argues that the reappropriation of familiar tropes becomes a way to comment on and criticize literature and culture. Austerity in Keegan’s stories is configured “not just as material wanting but spiritual emptiness” (185). As she celebrates the development of the nation by counteracting the anti-development plot of the Irish bildungsroman, Keegan is also wary of the capitalist system that brings about positive improvements in terms of gender equality.

Chapter eleven, written by Margaret O’Neill, is entitled “Celtic Tiger Saga Fiction: Patricia Scanlan’s City Girls and Marian Keyes’ Walsh Family” and shows how Patricia Scanlan and Marian Keyes recognised a lack of writing for and about women in their own times and set out to create literature that was relatable to the women of Ireland because it dealt with issues facing them in their everyday lives. This meant that they depicted not only consumerism and new lifestyle opportunities, but also the dark underbelly of the economic boom, touching upon, for example, domestic violence, drug use, divorce, and abortion. The financial crisis here is depicted as a renewed move towards traditional gender roles, in which women take over caring duties and cannot leave broken marriages due to financial concerns.

In her chapter “‘Just the Way It Is’; Portraits of Austerity in Short Fiction by Women from the North of Ireland” Orlaith Darling discusses traces of austerity visible in short story collections by Louise Kennedy, Lucy Caldwell and Wendy Erskine. In their short stories the writers focus on those most affected by austerity, namely mothers and young people. They thus allow readers to understand the effects of austerity on a personal level, highlighting how no amount of personal responsibility can make up for a lack of state support. Darling closes her chapter with a concise argument about the short story form in Northern Ireland, namely that it “captures the fragmentation of individual lives apropos of the collapse of a larger system” (220).
In the final chapter of the collection, “Motherhood, Referendums and Austerity in Contemporary Irish Women’s Writing,” Deirdre Flynn examines the situation of women in Ireland with the help of three referendums – the 1995 divorce referendum, the 2004 citizenship referendum and the eight amendment of 1983 – and several works of fiction reflecting on those referendums. Flynn concludes her chapter and thereby the collection by once again emphasizing how the lingering religious influence on state institutions, the Irish constitution, and the lack of state support work together to keep women in place and to leave them to carry the burden of austerity.
Overall, the collection eloquently points out that it is women who have to deal with the social fallout of austerity. It shows that there is much still to be done until equality, safe and secure working conditions in the arts and acceptance of diverse Irish identities can be achieved. The editing errors that appear throughout the volume are perhaps a perfect allegory for what many of the essays observe: the culture of overwork, overextension, and underpayment so prevalent not only in domestic labour, but also in the arts and in academia. Flynn and Murphy created a valuable contribution to the study of Irish women’s writing and culture, while also taking care of numerous other responsibilities. The content of the various essays more than makes up for the occasional slip in grammar, spelling or editing