Manchester University Press, 2019. 232 pp.
As I write, RTÉ radio is relaying a Drivetime debate about the voting down by Cork City Council, on the grounds of lack of female representation, of a proposal to erect statues on Patrick Street of Michael Collins, Terence McSwiney, and Tomás MacCurtain, to commemorate Cork’s contribution to the struggle for Irish independence. Appropriately, the introduction to Five Irish Women recounts how Edna O’Brien in her memoir Country Girl recalls her first sight of O’Connell Street in terms of its macho commemorative architecture and statuary – Nelson’s pillar, the GPO “where the men of the 1916 rebellion proclaimed the Irish Constitution, and raised the Irish flag, but were soon overwhelmed and summarily executed”, and the statue of Daniel O’Connell – before going on to proclaim on her own behalf, drunk with the excitement of being a modern young woman abroad in the metropolis, “But I was finished with all that, with history and martyrs and fields […] being, as I believed, on the brink of daring emancipation”. It is this “daring emancipation” and its extended cultural moment (even if neither in fact leave history behind, and are, rather, best understood precisely in relation to that history), encapsulated in the life and work of Edna O’Brien and of four other celebrated Irish women, that are the topic of this suggestive, thoughtful book.
Five Irish Women consists of five chapter-length portraits of Irish women across the fields of politics, music, literature, and journalism, who have made their names since around 1960 and after: Edna O’Brien, Sinéad O’Connor, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, Nuala O’Faolain and Anne Enright. Nolan makes it plain from the outset that these women are in no way intended as a “representative sample of accomplished Irish women”, but neither are they an entirely random sample chosen from among Irishwomen who have had exceptional careers in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Nolan’s focus is on the ways in which these women have understood their formative influences as Irish people, and how they in their turn have been received, understood and construed as figures whose lives and work have mounted a pointed critique of modern Ireland, and in whom, as Nolan terms it, “certain liberating aspects of modernity in Ireland have been realised” (1). The recurrent presence of Mary Robinson in several of the chapters almost figures her as a sixth woman, as are the Irish feminists whose activism both facilitated the careers of the five, whose work and personae in turn have made crucial contributions to a feminist analysis of Irish culture.
None of Nolan’s five women would declare, with Virginia Woolf, that “As a woman I have no country”. All engage inescapably, albeit in complex ways, with the entwined conditions of Irishness and femaleness, and negotiate on their own terms with entrenched cultural stereotypes and inherited and commodified ideas of female identity. The vexed relationship to national territory and the discourses of national identity, as well as a direct inheritance from first-wave Irish feminist-nationalists, is perhaps most directly relevant to Bernadette McAliskey, one of the founders of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, giving a voice to marginalised Catholics, and an MP in Westminster at a critical moment in Northern Irish history. All five, however, are to a greater or lesser extent influenced by, while also resistant to, stereotypes of Irish femininity and the persistent woman-as-nation trope which has been key to both romantic and realistic visions of modern Ireland. Sinéad O’Connor, Ireland’s most successful female musician, has infused the male-dominated and often misogynistic cultural form that is rock music with an Irish female musical identity which has, over a career encompassing everything from sean nós to reggae, responded to Irish nationalism and Catholicism in ways that involve ferocious critique but not, ultimately, disaffiliation. With the combination of a singing voice of distinctive beauty, a drawing attention to female sexuality in complex and non-commodified ways, the public negotiation of a difficult private life, and a stubborn clinging to an Irish identity that often comes, for Nolan, “perilously close to stereotype” (50), O’Connor’s work has often been understood as experimenting with and expanding on the trope of the female voice as expressive of the suffering of the Irish nation, as in the aisling tradition. Nolan’s argument is that the success of McAliskey, O’Connor and the other three women, like that of other prominent female figures in Ireland in recent decades, is linked to their “capacity to draw on both archaic and contemporary ideas about women and on their having found the means to express these through media images as well as in their own more specialised fields”.
One of the strengths of the book is its intelligent attentiveness to the personae of these women where it overlaps their work: the contrast between the young McAliskey’s childlike appearance and “electrifying” rhetoric, her reception by Irish-Americans as a latter-day Cathleen Ní Houlihan, the ancestral homeland in revivified youth and beauty; iconic moments such as Nuala O’Faolain’s searingly honest radio interview for RTÉ after she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, her undisguised fear and despair described by John Waters as a “piercing” piece of broadcasting that forced an examination of “the condition of human existence at a frozen moment in Irish life” (121); Sinéad O’Connor ripping up a photo of John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992, or Nolan’s acute analysis of her face in close-up in the video of “Nothing Compares 2 U”; Bernadette Devlin crossing the floor of the House of Commons to strike Reginald Maudling when denied her right to speak in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, to mention only a few.
Despite this attentiveness to public image, however, and to the nuance of O’Connor’s singing, and to McAliskey as orator, Nolan makes a convincing case for her as “by far the most notable female contributor to the tradition of Irish political oratory” (83). Five Women is ultimately a book most comfortable when focused on the written word. Nuala O’Faolain reflects on the proclivity of Irish people to deploy the written word as a tool of self-fashioning, likening women “who use journals to assert the fact of their existence” to a nation “forming itself around the experience of looking back so as to escape the experience of being unvalued by its colonial masters” (149). It is this, for me, that makes the core of Nolan’s book consist of her comprehensive analysis of the three prose writers, with Devlin the politician-activist and O’Connor the musician as outliers, to an extent.
O’Brien, O’Faolain and Enright have successively taken up the position of national storytellers in an artform dominated throughout the twentieth century by the male modernists whose faces dominated the iconic all-male Irish Writers poster, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and others. Edna O’Brien, in Nolan’s analysis, is “the first iconic Irish Woman Author” (17). A media star, beautiful and outspoken, often conceived of in terms of an incarnation of the colleen or “wild Irish girl”, Nolan’s O’Brien, with her taboo-breaking narratives about women’s lives, sex and marriage, became a herald of a new Ireland apparently poised to overcome its joyless, misogynistic, and repressive past, even as her work, poised between popular romance forms and intense realism, delineated the cost of that past to women. Nolan is acute on O’Brien’s persistent, even troublingly essentialist attachment to ideas of national community and aspects of conventional femininity, and rightly stresses the extent to which she introduced an entirely new idiom into the national narrative.
Concerned to counter her sidelining in Ireland, long after the censorship of her work and smearing of her as an individual ended, Nuala O’Faolain and Anne Enright have been eloquent on what they owed, as women writers, to Edna O’Brien. O’Faolain lamented that no one but O’Brien had ever captured the specificity of Irish women’s experience – no woman was prepared to “accomplish a description of us” – and set about addressing that gap in her own writing, judging finally that she had in fact succeeded in being “more candid than any Irish woman had yet been, outside the less direct forms of poems or novels”. In a sense Nolan’s O’Faolain takes up O’Brien’s baton. Her intensely intimate memoir Are You Somebody? (1996) depended for its effect to a large extent on its power as an Irish female confessional narrative emerging at a time of national confrontation with the scandals of child abuse and female incarceration that could no longer be hidden or denied. O’Faolain’s type of fame was not that of the often pernicious cult of youth, beauty, and celebrity which surrounded her near-contemporary Edna O’Brien or, later, Sinéad O’Connor. After a career combining journalism and TV production, she had her biggest impact on the Irish public when she was already, in her own words, “that specially unloved thing in a misogynistic society, a middle-aged woman with opinions”. Far more uniformly kindly received than the output of O’Brien or O’Connor, O’Faolain’s era-defining work emerged as a unique combination of confessional self-revelation and cultural authority, but also, as Nolan puts it, the oeuvre of “someone who had been […] taken into public ownership by her audience” (121).
Despite this warm response there remained in O’Faolain, as in Sinéad O’Connor, the marks of a vividly remembered traumatic childhood of material and emotional deprivation, whose analysis was key to her reflections on the lives of Irish men and women, and the prevalence of institutional misogyny and child abuse in twentieth-century Ireland. This engagement with trauma is shared by all five women, while the question of how a traumatic national history figures in the imagination of Irish women writers, singers and speakers, irradiates Five Women. If Edna O’Brien’s status as a banned woman writer gives her in a sense the status of a first exemplary victim of church and state, the careers of Sinéad O’Connor, Bernadette McAliskey or Nuala O’Faolain cannot be understood outside the context of national traumas and their exposure, and these women’s positioning as truth-tellers of various kinds.
The achievement in fiction of the final of the five women, Anne Enright, the first Irish female winner of the Man Booker prize in 2007 and the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction, at first seems somewhat different in its relationship to national narratives of trauma and exposure. A public intellectual in a very different style to the other women discussed in Five Women, in no way is she a confessional artist in the style of Sinéad O’Connor or Nuala O’Faolain. Nolan’s attempts to view Enright’s own early life in terms of trauma constitute one of the more strained and unsuccessful moments in the book, while in earlier interviews, Enright was frequently impatient with questions about gender and Irishness. However, if her early surreal novels indicated, for her contemporary Colm Tóibín, a “waning of national themes in Irish writing”, Nolan views her later work, beginning with The Gathering (2007), as a conscious attempt to take part in a national conversation, employing more realist modes, and engaging with familial and historical narratives of trauma against the backdrop of the Ryan report and the Celtic Tiger. The Gathering’s self-reflexive narrator, Veronica Hegarty, who cannot settle to her satisfaction whether or not her dead brother was abused as a child by her grandmother’s landlord, represents a challenge to the way in which the recall of traumatic memories or the exposure of abuse have been viewed as necessarily therapeutic and liberatory; no such easy resolutions are possible.
Suggestive echoes and cross-pollinations, meetings – literal and metaphorical – between the five, echo across the separate chapters: Sinéad O’Connor’s Throw Down Your Arms and Bernadette McAliskey’s engagement with the protest songs of the US civil rights movement at the Folk Music Society at Queen’s; Edna O’Brien’s fictional depiction of the abuses of rural Irish homes while McAliskey fought for the housing for working-class Catholics which would allow them to vote in local elections; Nuala O’Faolain and McAliskey at loggerheads at a Derry Guildhall conference over O’Faolain’s assertion that the men of Sinn Féin were “just another layer of patriarchs” (85); the scandal that dogged Edna O’Brien and Sinéad O’Connor’s public lives; the intense topophilia shared by O’Brien and O’Faolain, two emigrant writers, particularly for rural Clare, where O’Faolain eventually returned to live; the ways in which O’Brien, O’Connor, Enright and O’Faolain all engaged with the revelations of child abuse which, for O’Faolain, “change[d] everything” in Irish society. Ultimately, this book’s value lies in the fact that it is not amenable to paraphrase, and in its specific, granular interest in the particularities of these uncommon lives.