Fiction by Northern Irish Women

Fiction by Northern Irish women is booming – leading the way against misogyny

Caroline Magennis, University of Salford

As the new year dawned, First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, faced calls to resign over the “RHI scandal”, a renewable energy incentive scheme which failed. Allegations of mismanagement cost the public purse almost £500m. Foster labelled the pressure for her resignation “misogynistic” and suggested that a man in a similar position might not face such opprobrium.

Doubtless, much of the language aimed at female politicians has a deeply sexist dimension, but writers were quick to point out in the New Statesman, The Belfast Telegraph and The Irish News that Foster’s own party – the Democratic Union – has an ingrained culture that fosters inequality.

There is an acute lack of female voices in Northern Irish politics, undoubtedly a legacy of decades of militarised conflict, that has left the region with the lowest amount of women of the devolved parliaments. Of the 18 MPs for the region, only two are female. But the recent appointments of Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin) and Naomi Long (Alliance) to lead their respective parties suggest things might be slowly, gradually beginning to change.

Short stories new and old

This lack of political representation is mirrored in the arts where, for years, women were anthologised and written about as exceptional cases in a literature that was overwhelmingly concerned with literary responses to violent events. In her pivotal work, The Living Stream (1994), Edna Longley detailed the distinctly male atmosphere that hangs over Irish literary coteries. But, as with the political changes noted, women’s voices are increasingly being heard in this sphere, too.

Generations of female novelists have written about Northern Ireland since its inception but have been largely ignored. This writing spans genres and all shades of political opinion since the 1920s, and has offered glimpses into lives that rarely make the evening news. Janet McNeill wrote a number of significant novels in the 1960s which capture this “in-between” period with a sharp, sympathetic eye for the dissatisfaction of some women with home and hearth. The reissuing of her novels The Small Widow, As Strangers Here and The Maiden Dinosaur show a continue appetite for and relevance of her novels.

But despite this history, 2016 was a landmark year for Northern Irish women’s fiction – short fiction, in particular. It saw the digital reissue of the vital anthology The Female Line (1985) and the publication of Sinéad Gleeson’s award-winning collection The Glass Shore, which features both classic stories and newly commissioned work from some of the north’s most vital writers. 2016 also saw new collections of stories from Lucy Caldwell (Multitudes), Jan Carson (Children’s Children) and Roisin O’Donnell (Wild Quiet).

Fictional responses

Northern Irish fiction has often been criticised for relying on realism and not being as formally experimental as its United Kingdom or US counterparts. But recently, women have been leading the way in offering depictions of Northern Ireland that are ripe for critical speculation.

The work of Jan Carson, in particular, is marked by a playful, experimental sensibility as her writing plays with the possibilities of the short story genre. Her strange, deft prose is a much-needed counterpoint to the wealth of weighty Troubles tones. An equal tonic is Roisin O’Donnell’s magical work, which spans continents and species to continually surprise and delight. Bernie McGill’s sensual, visceral writing brings the body back into Northern Irish writing in her painful, beautiful writing.

And Lucy Caldwell has never been afraid to write about complicated topics, such as the Troubles and mental health (Where They Were Missed, 2006), missionary work and sexuality in the Middle East (The Meeting Point, 2011) and double lives (All the Beggars Riding, 2013). Her recent short fiction has seen this impulse continue, as she directly confronts the taboos of “post”-conflict Northern Irish society, such as racism, abortion and homosexuality.

Northern Irish women’s voices have been largely overlooked by critics and readers in favour of novels and short stories which centred male experiences of being perpetrators and victims of violence. But the new political moment has cleared space for new fictional representations.

Looking forward

Looking to the future, there are several exciting works for 2017. Following her heart-wrenching debut, Ghost Moth (2013), Michele Forbes will publish Edith and Oliver in March 2017. And the scapel-like wit of June Caldwell can be revisited in Room Little Darker, published later this year. We await new work from the women featured in The Glass Shore across genres and forms.

If all you know of Northern Ireland is the turmoil of political institutions, you could do worse than to pick up some of this fiction. For decades, Northern Irish women have been writing about their lives with bravery and skill but they have also been imagining different worlds and stretching their imaginations in the most trying of circumstances. To see these generations of women continue to resist established ways of writing and thinking has been galvanising as we seek to find stories outside of the standard narratives of truth and recovery.

This writing does not simply conform to the Troubles narrative so often replicated in fiction and film. Rather, it challenges it, sometimes directly, but often in subtle, wry acts of fictional insubordination.

The Conversation

Caroline Magennis, Lecturer in 20th and 21st Century Literature, University of Salford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In praise of QUB history

I have three degrees from Queen’s University, Belfast: BA (2003), MA (2004) and PhD (2008). I worked as a Teaching Assistant in the School of English during and after writing my thesis, and I had a Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship hosted by the Institute of Irish Studies. As a small child, when we visited the Ulster Museum or Botanic Gardens, my Mum recalls that I would point to the Lanyon building and declare ‘That’s where I’m going to go to school when I grow up’. I wanted to stay close to my family, and was very lucky to have a world class University on the doorstep where I could study every kind of literature imaginable. I took a course on Irish literature every semester but studied across the curriculum, including writing a long essay on non-traditional sexuality in Medieval Literature. As a member, and later President, of the English Society, I met some of the finest writers alive today and just thought that every department in the land was as collegial and vibrant as Queen’s. On University Square, the physical and intellectual proximity of English to Politics, History and the Creative Arts added such an excitement as we regularly heard magnificent internal and external speakers.

The standards I was raised with academically were high, and filled with rigorous debate grounded in the fact of being in Northern Ireland. This is why the recent news from Belfast has left me so aghast. Not just for the friends who have had their lives made extremely difficult, but also for the remarkable scholarship that so many of us have employed in our work.

The latest round of understandable outrage came with comments made yesterday in this interview:

The responses were swift:

The Arts and Humanities at Queen’s, and History in particular, are remarkable both in Northern Ireland and the wider academic community. The REF return in several departments would be the envy of most other institutions. As a scholar of contemporary Northern Ireland, I rely on the interpretive frameworks and meticulous analysis of historians, and the wealth of insight from this department is truly remarkable. When I was a post-doc, they were some of the most encouraging and generous scholars I encountered, and it is galling to see their work denigrated in this way. QUB draws students from around the world to study literature, history, sociology and politics due to the fine reputation of these scholars.

But, we also all know that Queen’s and UU  (which is facing similar challenges in the current funding situation in Northern Ireland) should be about much more than the metrics of academic reputation. During the worst of the conflict, these institutions offered invaluable interpretive frameworks and cultural responses to political events. They allowed emerging working class academics to intervene in debates on Northern Irish history, society and culture. I was trained to believe that old narratives could and should be contested through rigorous research and debate.

Whether it involves the study of sixth-century history or present-day political life, Northern Ireland is not so ‘post’-conflict that it doesn’t need critical thinkers who understand the interpretation and legacy of the past. When we let elites write our history, we give them power to interpret our present.






Acts of Kindness

Today I asked Twitter for examines of acts of generosity and/or kindness that they had experienced in academia.

The stories flooded in, and I look forward to hearing more of your tales of these moments among the usual narratives of academic life. I have collected them here.

The impulse behind these stories was familiar to me, yet the ingenious ways that people choose to help someone in need were lovely to read. Of course, serious action to tackle the precarious workplace would help alleviate some acute needs that were expressed. We should not have to need each other the way we do.

These small kindnesses were touching. Sometimes a friend cooks us a meal when that hourly paid contract won’t stretch, or sneakily gets a round in when they know we are choosing between staying for another and eating beans for a week. A mentor asks if we are ok when we’ve taken too much on, a friend offers exceptionally thoughtful feedback. They don’t do this for some craven reason of networking or getting ahead, and these acts of kindness happen every day in academia. That person who makes sure you’re getting home ok after a late night at a conference, or talks you through you first interview.

Here’s a few of my favourites:

We are socialised into thinking of academia as the Hunger Games due to the lack of permanent contracts and certain toxic environments encourage extreme competitive behaviour among doctoral students. This is counter-intuitive to both the modern academic workplace, with its emphasis on collaboration, and also any sort of well-being.

I have experienced regular, remarkable generosity from colleagues at every level at every institution. Anonymised, here are a few acts of kindness I will never forget:

  • A colleague who patiently explained medieval castle structure to me over tea and biscuits
  • A late stage PhD student friend who offered me amazingly helpful feedback despite being at the sharp end of a few deadlines
  • The senior academic who found the tail end of some project funding for me to work on between contracts
  • The mentor who offers a mix of astute feedback and a kick up the backside
  • Every colleague who has been kind to me on those days when I’ve been overwhelmed
  • The academic acquaintances who helped me with every stage of my move to Manchester and who have become firm friends
  • The lecturer, then supervisor, then friend, who has believed I had something to say since I was 19 and will still give good argument over a glass

What brought this home to me this week is draft of an article that I’m finishing. This has  benefitted from coffee shop chats with two certain friends, the questions of a seminar room full of thoughtful people who came out on a Friday night and the careful eye of three mates. All our work is collaboration and hopefully in our busy schedules, we’ll learn to take the time someone once made for us.

After #DeleteAcademiaEdu

“I can’t code. And I think the drones are coming for our young.”

That was how I began a talk to a group of PhD students about social media on Monday: PGR Jan 16. Of course, this was for dramatic effect (but those drones do have some beady eyes on them). I use technology for my academic career when it suits me and when it makes things easier. But, I am not what you might call an Academic Tech Hipster (ATH): I do not always know the latest platforms or have a massive clue what goes on underneath the bonnet of a lot of sites to produce metadata.

At this event, I spoke about how I had managed to use different sites to get my work out there when I had lived in places that were not well connected, often with very limited or no funds to travel. If you are in a similar position, whether a late stage doctoral student or in precarious employment, I suggest that you use every tool at your disposal. I remember the uncertainty of the Hunger Games-style winnowing process.

However, if you are like me and now have a good job you are happy in, it might be time to reconsider the ways in which your participate in certain kinds of platforms. I’m not a hair-shirted ascetic who makes her own yoghurt, but we need to use the same consideration with our intellectual labour as we make in our consumer choices. There might be times when a certain mode of transmission is all we have (the equivalent of there only being a chain coffee shop in a train station) but when there are options, it is time to educate yourself about the approach to knowledge that you are perpetuating.

On Wednesday evening I flicked through Twitter absent-mindedly and saw this. The discomfort that had been bubbling in me over the way this site was funded and the fact that so many academics were uploading their work, copyright bedamned, turned into umbrage. Now, I had been an active user in my time (feeling that narcissistic pride of being top 0.5-3% of academics and seeing hits across the world), uploading everything from conference abstracts to PowerPoints. But bringing cash into peer-review turned my discomfort into indignation, and I deleted my  account, spawning the hashtag #DeleteAcademiaEdu

My decision was almost immediately confirmed by staff from the site and a boatload of ATHs telling me why I was wrong and it was fine for me with my privilege to work outside their behemoth. But I don’t believe in encouraging ECR academics to give away their hard work for free to a site like this. I can’t see a site where people pay to have their work recommended be the academic gold standard when an ECR is sitting in front of a tough interview panel.

We still have a ton of problems in academic publishing: the thought of the sums paid by libraries to the big publishing houses makes me ill. Paying for Open Access is a shame and a disgrace. But, going back to those of us who work in the British system in particular, we want to get and keep our jobs so we can change the system and that means top-quality publications. I recommend Martin Eve’s book, which is itself Open Access, as a good primer to some of the issues involved.

So what now? Early Career folks: you have a pass on this, and I wish you nothing but solidarity and the best of luck. I will buy you a pint or a small cake next time I see you. For everyone else: we need to first work out what made this site so seductive and think what we actually used it for. Here are some alternatives:

  • Hosting Publications: Instead, get friendly with your institutional repository. Now, as REF2020/1 is underway, most of our workplaces are using this to see the goods for the exercise but I don’t think yours will stop you putting other material up there and setting an appropriate embargo. Make friends with the person in your library charged with enforcing the Open Access policies or check individual journals here.
  • CVs and other documents such as CFPs: Set up a cheap and cheerful blog site (mine is exhibit A: remember I can’t code and I’m afraid of drones). You’ll get shortlinks, viewing metrics, all that jazz. Most of us used that site a lot because it often takes a while to update institutional sites and it was easy to use. A quick blog can be the same: no need to code and things updated in the blink on an eye.

Systemic change needs to happen in academic publishing so that we can have robust, ethical peer review coupled with Open Access. We need the best journals accessible to everyone, with a sustainable funding model. In the meantime, find the way of being online that agrees with your values as an academic.