It is almost a crime for one country to produce so many accomplished novelists, memoirists, playwrights, and poets. But Ireland, a small nation with a population that numbers less than five million, has done just this; James Joyce, W.B Yeats, John Millington Synge, George Bernard Shaw barely suggest the hundreds of notable novelists, memoirists, poets, and dramatists Ireland can claim as hers.
But missing from top-of-mind names are women, with the exception, perhaps, of Maeve Binchy. This country of genetically gifted storytellers has produced a huge number of formidable Irish women writers. It would be a pity to miss the beauty and strength of their writing.
At the risk of crossing a “central aspect of Irish identity: our gift for taking offence at others’ perceptions of us,” as the Irish Times warns, we selected four books by Irish women writers that are vastly different but inform the arc from the late 19th century Irish Literary Revival to the contemporary landscape. They will give you a taste, an amuse bouche, of the history, culture, and vast talent Ireland offers readers beyond its shores.
Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., by Somerville and Ross
“Better than a month of nights in a real Irish bar.”
Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. is set at the turn of the century when the whole of Ireland was under British Rule. Written by two female Irish writers, Edith Sommerville and Violet Florence Martin, as Martin Ross, it is a witty, tongue in cheek depiction of late 19th century Ireland. They recount the experiences of Major Sinclair Yeates, an English Resident Magistrate in the west of Ireland, and his interactions with the local inhabitants, ranging from Anglo-Irish aristocrats to colorful local characters.
Somerville and Ross are renowned for their keen insight into upper class Anglo-Irish life in the 1800s and their ability to capture both the vernacular and mannerisms of the classes, portrayed through comedic situations in which the Irish confound the R.M. again and again.
This set of stories is the first of a collection of three books written by the same authors–Further Experiences of an Irish R.M. and In Mr. Knox’s Country. All are set well before the Republic of Ireland became separate from Great Britain. In the 1980s the stories were turned into a television series, The Irish R.M., filmed in Ireland at locations in Kildare and Wicklow.
Somerville and Ross’s first novel, The Real Charlotte, was published in 1894. Beautifully written, with the pair’s signature use of words and language, it is a masterpiece of Irish literature of the Victorian Age.
From Amazon reviews:
Their writing style, timing and turns of phrase are deliciously addictive. I have been entranced by the devious individuality of the Irish mind on visits to both south and north of the Emerald Isle, but set them down how I may, Somerville and Ross have me as beaten as Major Yeates, the unfailingly out-maneuvered Resident Magistrate. This hilarious book is better than a month of nights in a real Irish bar.
Edith Somerville and Violet Martin were second cousins born to distant branches of a prominent Anglo-Irish Ascendancy family. They lived together at the Somerville home in the southwest of Ireland for most of their adult lives, traveling frequently to Europe and collaborating on numerous books and articles. Their most famous novel, The Real Charlotte, was published in 1894. After Ross’s death in 1915, Somerville continued to write and publish under both names, claiming that the partnership endured beyond the grave.
The Last September, by Elizabeth Bowen
“…an elegiac book that continues to haunt.”
The Last September is Elizabeth Bowen’s portrait of a young woman’s coming of age in the early days of the Irish War of Independence. Sir Richard Naylor and his wife, Lady Myra, cling to their upper class lifestyle of tennis parties and dances at their country home in County Cork, largely ignoring the escalating conflict around them. Their house– a house which has been an oasis of Anglo-Irish privilege–now sees Sinn Fein gunmen posted on the periphery of the lawn. They are members of a world that is in danger, but those who have lived for generations are reluctant to acknowledge that their world is changing.
Their niece, Lois, attempts to live her own life and gain her own freedoms from the very class that her elders are vainly defending. But on some level, all know the end of British rule in the south of Ireland is imminent and the end of a way of life that had survived for centuries is approaching.
The story is full of self-involved, privileged people who fail to recognize the tenuousness of their rarified status. This lack of political and personal self-awareness forms both the backdrop and the narrative of the story.
This novel is set firmly in Bowen’s own experiences: she also grew up in a ‘Big House,’ her family’s Irish estate, Bowen’s Court, family property since 1653. Bowen’s keen eye informed her prose, which has been compared to that of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. She uses words and the English language exquisitely, which at times may be off-putting to today’s reader. We urge you to persevere. It may seem that the subject is long-past relevant. But Bowen’s ability to find and expose universal truths is timeless.
In a 2015 review in The Irish Times, Irish author John Banville noted that had she “been a man she would be recognized as one of the finest novelists of the 20th century.”
Her prose is so subtle and allusive that it would be a disservice to quote from her, but read almost any descriptive passage in The Last September and you will understand her greatness.
Elizabeth Bowen, who lived from 1899 to 1973, was the author of some 28 books. She was born in Dublin and spent her summers at Bowen Court, the family home. As a girl she moved with her mother to England. This is where she was educated and where she remained, with frequent trips to Ireland.
In 1923 she married Alan Cameron and mixed with the Bloomsbury Group. In 1930 she inherited Bowen’s Court but was forced to sell it in 1959 for financial reasons. It was demolished in 1960. She is buried with her husband in St Colman’s churchyard in Farahy. Close to the gates of Bowen’s Court, there is a memorial plaque to the author.
The Last September, by Elizabeth Bowen is available on Amazon.com
To School Through the Fields, by Alice Taylor
“transported to a time and place where being present in the moment would fill you with joy.”
To School Through the Fields is Alice Taylor’s classic account of growing up in a large family on a working farm in Ireland. When it was published in 1988 it became the biggest selling book ever published in Ireland and made Alice herself the most beloved author in all of the Emerald Isle.
Her tales of childhood in rural Ireland hark back to a timeless past, to a world now lost, but ever and fondly remembered. The colorful characters and joyous moments she offers have made To School Through the Fields an Irish phenomenon.
Taylor’s memoir is told through a series of stories that take place in the 1950s when the author and her friends were budding teenagers. While their elders were wary of change, the young were eager to discard the oil lamp and toss out the chamber pot, as electricity and indoor plumbing changed home and farm forever.
She describes with fondness the hard labor that farm life entailed. The main form of transportation was by horse cart, at a time when automobiles were practically universal in the States. She makes clear, though, that the days were also full of fun shared with neighbors in the close-knit community. She recalls when she first discovered books, which became a lasting love, and the glorious night when she was allowed to attend her first dance at the county fair. While she also reflects on sad occasions, the overall emotion is one of joyful exuberance.
One of our editors is only a generation away from a similar life; reading her stories echo those she heard from her first generation American parents and aunts and uncles around the table during the holidays. Many of her experiences reflect a childhood in a semi-rural area of Western Pennsylvania with the notable exception that her family had a car and their little ranch house was built with indoor plumbing.
As one Goodreads reviewer put it, the stories are like “a warm wool blanket, a hot cup of Irish Breakfast Tea, scones with butter and jam, and your favorite view out the window.”
Alice Taylor was born on February 28, 1938 in Newmarket, Country Cork, and was educated at Drishane Convent. She and her husband, Gabriel Murphy, lived in Innishannon where they ran a guesthouse, the local grocers, and post office. To School Through the Fields was published in May 1988. It was an immediate success, and quickly became the biggest selling book ever published in Ireland. Since then, she has published more than 20 books and continues to write at her home.
The Country Girls: Three Novels and an Epilogue, by Edna O’Brien
“The most gifted woman now writing in English.” – Philip Roth
Edna O’Brien was barely 30 years old when her first novel, The Country Girls, was published. About the sexual awakening of two country girls, the book was hugely successful and feted in England, where O’Brien was living at the time. But in Ireland, her homeland, the book was “banned by the Irish censor for sexually explicit content, publicly burned by a local parish priest in search of some post-rosary drama, and O’Brien herself subjected to a series of anonymous, malevolent letters,” recounted The New Statesman in 2017.
The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). The trilogy was re-released in 1986 in a single volume with a revised ending to Girls in Their Married Bliss and the addition of an epilogue. O’Brien is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War II.
Set in Western Ireland, Dublin, and eventually London, the books follow the lives of Caithleen (“Cait/Kate”) Brady and Bridget (“Baba”) Brennan as they leave their childhood and rural Ireland behind to search for life and live in the big city of Dublin. Their lives are full of contradictions: at once wanting the freedom to explore sexual freedom but torn by ingrained Catholic religious beliefs. In true Irish style there is plenty of humor—and darkness.
By populating the books with Protestants, Jews, and migrants she challenges the fallacy of a monocultural Ireland and the dominant Catholic male chorus of Irish life in the 1940s–1960s. The Country Girls, in particular, shows the influence of James Joyce in the humane attention to detail and thought and the rather lyrical prose of the narrator Cait.
In his review of the book for The New York Times, Anatole Broyard writes, “Her people’s houses are always damp; their teeth are bad; they have no charity; their pleasures are tainted. The women in this stage set of a village are traditional figures, but without the dignity of ritual or an emblematic role. Everywhere one feels the growing ineffectuality of God.”
Of her influences she writes, “Ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”
Today Edna O’Brien is considered a giant of twentieth-and twenty-first-century literature, called “The most gifted woman now writing in English” by fellow giant, Philip Roth.
Josephine Edna O’Brien was born in 1930 in Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland. The family lived in a large brick house on a thousand acres, which her father had inherited. But he was a hard drinker who gambled away his inheritance and the land to pay debts. From 1941 to 1946 she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy at the Convent of Mercy boarding school at Loughrea, County Galway.
She rebelled against her strict religious upbringing and in 1954, met and married, against her parents’ wishes, the Irish writer Ernest Gébler. They moved to London, where she has spent the greater part of her life.
Since the publication of The Country Girls, O’Brien has written more than 20 works of fiction. Her most recent novel is Girl: A Novel, which imagines the lives of the young women abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014 .
In 2015, O’Brien received the Saoithe of Aosdána, Ireland’s highest literary accolade, and Irish President Michael D. Higgins officially apologized for the pious, envious scorn often heaped on O’Brien by her native land, and the banning of her books.
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