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Kylie Noble: The era of Northern Irish women writers

By August 29, 2020No Comments

Postgraduate Student Centre Queen’s University Belfast

Kylie Noble is a Northern Irish journalist based in the United Kingdom. Looking back on the North’s rich history in literature, she celebrates the women whose novels have found success at home and abroad…


In Belfast’s lively Cathedral Quarter is the popular and atmospheric pub the John Hewitt. Named after the renowned Northern Irish poet, many literary events and community art exhibitions are held there. Most times I’ve been in, a group of enthusiastic performers are lucidly lost, in a céilidh.

In a cosy corner of the pub, there’s a black and white portrait of an assortment of Northern Irish writers. Not surprisingly, men dominate. I studied an Irish literature module at Queen’s University Belfast around five years ago and most of the authors on the reading list were the great men; Stoker, Joyce, Heaney and such. Sinead Gleeson’s  anthology The Glass Shore covers women writers from the North, over a period of 100 years. It shows the long legacy, which has been overshadowed by men.

A seismic shift occurred in 2018 when Anna Burns won the Booker prize for Milkman, making her the first ever author from Northern Ireland to win the prestigious award. An unsettling, psychologically chilling novel, it is written from the point of view of an unnamed teenage girl, coming of age in the violent, working class streets of  an unnamed city, which is clearly Belfast.

The novel centrally deals with the predatory advancements of “the milkman”, who is in fact a militant republican.  Set in the height  of the Troubles, the theme of misogyny is as relevant in present day Northern Ireland. Amnesty International recently highlighted the increase in domestic violence during lockdown, pointing out that pre-Covid, the rates were the highest in 15 years.

Susannah Dickey is from Derry and lives in Belfast. She is the author of Tennis Lessons, one of the most praised and talked about debuts of the summer. It is narrated in the third person, charting the often dark and difficult becoming of a young woman, from childhood to her late 20s. Milkman had a huge impact on Dickey’s style of writing.

“It’s a novel with a very fixed, idiosyncratic gaze – not entirely user friendly. It implicates you and takes hold of you. It’s a book that, for me, inspired a certain bravery in my approach to voice and characterisation,” she explains.

Has Dickey felt there is a sense of liberation following the legalisation of abortion and same sex marriage? She feels that “this place is still riddled with antiquated thinking”.

“It feels good to see these shifts, I guess, but in the way that it feels good to finally get paid for freelance work you did a year ago. You’re grateful to get it, but why were you ever denied it in the first place?”

Belfast novelist and playwright Lucy Caldwell has lived most of her life in England but she is one of the significant women authors to emerge from Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. 

Multitudes is a short story collection by Caldwell, published in 2016. Moving between Belfast and London, the stories explore girlhood and womanhood but they do not deal with the violence of the State and terrorist groups. Instead they portray the structural and cultural violence towards girls and women in Northern Ireland. As with Burns and Dickey, there is the sensation that the characters are constricted –  lesser – and feel trapped. For Caldwell, leaving Northern Ireland was key to being able to write these stories.

“For years I felt caught between two places – I felt torn.  I kept writing about Belfast, and yet I didn’t live there – it felt so fraudulent.  And then, with the stories for Multitudes, I realised, I couldn’t have written them if I did still live there.  I do feel a freedom and an anonymity in London, but maybe that’s something that every writer has to learn to find or create for herself, wherever she is writing, whatever she is writing about.”

Big Girl, Small Town is the debut novel from Tyrone author Michelle Gallen. Narrated by Majella, who works in a chip shop and enjoys various casual sex encounters with men in her small town, she lives with the trauma of grief, murder and an alcoholic mum. Like Caldwell, Gallen found solace in a life lived outside the North and she is “still trying to unravel the full impact of a Troubles childhood on my life”. 

The influence of the Catholic Church and living with British soldiers on the streets have left an impact that continues into her adult life. “I find I’m most comfortable in myself when I’m alone and unobserved. And even then, I’m still being judged by the nasty little voice in my own head that is a chorus of every critical authority I’ve had to live under. I’d love for my kids not to have that voice,” she explains.

“I have always felt more at home and less constrained in Dublin than in Northern Ireland, particularly in the workplace”, Gallen reflects, noting she still feels surprised at the disconnect between herself and those who grew up in the Republic, with the media being their only knowledge of the conflict.

Dawn Miranda Sheratt-Bado is an academic specialising in Irish literature at Queen’s University Belfast and is one of the two editors of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland, published in 2017. The collection took inspiration from the pioneering anthology The Female Line: Northern Irish Women Writers published in 1985. This anthology gave many Northern Irish women writers their first opportunity to be published. I asked Sheratt-Bado why has it taken decades for women authors from the north to get the attention their work deserves?

“It’s not that women weren’t writing – it’s that a majority of women in the North weren’t being seen, heard, or read. In the immediate post-Agreement period, the literary scene in Northern Ireland stayed closed-off and dominated by men, as it had been during and prior to the conflict. However, with the unfolding of a tentative ‘peace’ came a gradual opening out of the North, and an ability to hear ‘new’ and ‘other’ voices. It also enabled vital cross-border connections which were not possible beforehand due to the hard border.”

“The vibrancy, variety, and volume of contemporary Northern women’s writing evidence a major turning point, and it’s thrilling to behold. I can’t wait to see what they do next.”

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash