In late 2016, novelist Anne Enright chose The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinead Gleeson, as one of her best reads of the year for The Guardian newspaper. She said memorably that Northern Irish women writers were “a neglected group if ever there was one. No one outside Ireland could believe (…) what things are like for female writers here”.
This struck me forcibly as I was at that point immersed in co-editing Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland, another anthology of literature by Northern Irish women but this time expanding into a full range of genres: besides fiction, we commissioned drama, poetry, photography, personal essays and life writing.
The contributions we were receiving were talented, often risk-taking, witty and far-seeing — a stunning display of writing by any standards. One of the pleasures of reading the book as it grew was the sense of flitting from mind to mind, or voice to voice, though sometimes a piece of writing could pack such a punch, it would halt me in my tracks.
A fascinating thing to observe was the way that sometimes the pieces in Female Lines could have connections or echoes. There are several personal poems about beloved fathers becoming frail or ill; others about the incessant anxiety of being a parent.
There is a real reach beyond the Ulster province — for example, pieces about global warming or a love affair unravelling in Lisbon — as well as a treasuring of local things: a grand old house in Ballynahinch, a sighting of an otter near a beach. The anthology features innovative work showing a range of forms and styles such as magical realism, surrealism, humour, anti-story, memoiristic essay. Something for everyone.
My work on the anthology, which is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, came about initially as an email dialogue between strangers. It was just after Christmas in 2015 when I was contacted by Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, who was teaching at Maynooth University. I realised quickly that she was very knowledgeable about Northern Irish writing, including a couple of my novels set in the Eighties. She invited me to co-edit an anthology as a follow-up to The Female Line: Northern Irish Women Writers, the pioneering anthology edited by Ruth Carr (then called Hooley) that came out in 1985 at the height of the Troubles.
Dawn proposed a celebration of women writers across multiple genres along with an exploration of how much conditions have changed in the past 30 years and what sorts of obstacles might still remain.
I was also an admirer of The Female Line. It was a breakthrough publication at the time but, of course, could not single-handedly overturn a custom of marginalising women. A stream of Irish poetry anthologies with almost all-male contributors continued to be published in the nineties. In 1991 Seamus Deane brought out the first three volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, which caused a furore because of the relative absence of women. As recently as 2015, the Waking the Feminists movement began in response to the Abbey Theatre’s programme for the centenary of the 1916 Rising, which included nine plays by men and only one by a woman. The women playwrights featured in Female Lines write about the galvanising impact the ensuing protest has had on them.
One of the questions we wanted to explore is how much things have changed for women writers and whether the change is reliable or a flash in the pan.
There are some signs that we may be in a moment of substantial breakthrough. Several Irish publishers are promoting women’s work, both individual debuts and anthologies.
New Island Books have brought out three anthologies in the last three years, including Female Lines. The original anthology The Female Line was republished as an e-book by Herself Press in late 2016 and is being acknowledged for its role in cultural change. The Glass Shore won the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book of the Year Award in 2016.
All of the writers included have thriving careers, many with other publications or productions currently happening.
To mention just a few, artist-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre Rosemary Jenkinson had a sell-out play staged recently, Rapid Response: Michelle and Arlene, a political satire inspired by the Hollywood hit Thelma and Louise. Bernie McGill and Heather Richardson both have their second novels out: The Watch House, set on Rathlin Island, and Doubting Thomas, set in 17th-century Edinburgh.
Wendy Erskine’s debut collection of short stories will be published in 2018 by The Stinging Fly Press. Eight of our featured poets have books coming out this year or in 2018. Sinead Morrissey’s collection On Balance has just won the prestigious Forward Prize.
There is a powerful sense of momentum around Irish women’s writing and I dare to hope it will last. Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland is both a celebration and a promissory note for more good things to come.
Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland edited by Linda Anderson and Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado, is published by New Island, £17.99