Alluvium Editorial 9.1: Twenty-First Century Irish Women’s Writing

Editors: Orlaith Darling and Dearbhaile Houston

In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Irish literature has been marked by a seemingly unprecedented proliferation of writing by women. From Sally Rooney’s global domination on bestseller lists to Anna Burns’ Booker Prize win, Irish women’s writing is flourishing within and without the borders of the island. This special issue focusing on twenty-first century Irish women’s writing emerges out of a desire to survey and interrogate this literary fecundity.

Given women’s historical exclusion from the literary canon in Ireland, it often feels imperative to celebrate the current popularity of Irish women’s writing. However, there is a need for critical intervention as well as acclaim. At times, mere celebration can be more of a hindrance than a help, with the increasingly marketized lauding of women’s writing in Ireland flattening a range of literature into a narrow set of forms or styles. The purpose of this special issue is to offer some middle ground: a brief but necessary mediation on a range of forms and genres – from crime fiction, poetry, and the “difficult” prose of literary fiction – across a capacious interpretation of the term “Irish women’s writing,” wherein women from the Republic, the North, the diaspora and the group known (not unproblematically) as “the new Irish” provide different and dovetailing narratives on contemporary society.

A focus on the “new” within literary studies has its own challenges. As Paul Crosthwaite has noted, a tendency in contemporary literary studies to “insist on the stark novelty of the practices it identifies” (4) can ultimately be limiting to scholarship. As such, while this issue focuses on a number of writers who have only recently published or gained critical notice, there is also a sense of rootedness in the analysis of emerging writing: a genuine attempt to place writers such as Rooney, Nicole Flattery, or Melatu Uche Okorie in a continuum of Irish writing and discourses, as well as in its present moment.

Across a range of articles, this issue is not only a reflection of the array of contemporary Irish women’s writing but also of the research interests of the contributors, many of whom are early career and doctoral researchers.

There are various areas of thematic overlap in this issue. Several of the contributors, for instance, have highlighted an interest, in contemporary Irish women’s writing, with contemporary economic structures, and with what Aran Ward Sell identifies in his contribution as the “crisis capitalism” of the globalised West. Similarly, issues of social justice also feature in a number of the pieces – from women’s historical oppression to the current and ongoing structural racism of contemporary Irish society. Unsurprisingly, given the recent liberalisation of Irish attitudes to issues like abortion and sexuality, embodiment is presented here as a key concern in Irish women’s writing, and one which features across generic and formal boundaries.

If story-telling and personal testimony was central to the pro-choice movement in and before 2018, much women’s writing has theorised the act of narrative itself. Who tells the stories in society, who is listened to, who writes, constructs and dictates societal narratives, who is appropriated and misappropriated, who represents and who is represented are, as recent conversations have shown, critical questions in any society. Narrative has provided a tool for forging association, belonging and empowerment to many women writers, as per Emilie Pine’s determination to “talk about it, write it, spill it”.

However, there remain sizeable narrative gaps, where voices go unheard and testimony is ignored. As we grapple with reports on the Magdalen Laundries, Mother & Baby Homes and industrial schools, we are aware that state incarceration is still the norm in Ireland. For instance, Okorie’s 2018 collection, This Hostel Life, speaks to the reality of Direct Provision. Explorations of trauma – cultural, psychological, and corporeal – are present in many of the articles in this issue. From Kathryn Hendrickson’s consideration of personal and national trauma in the post-Celtic Tiger context of Tana French’s The Witch Elm to Fanni Fekete-Nagy’s analysis of shared trauma in Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s bilingual poetry volume, The Fifty Minute Mermaid, it appears that various forms of trauma permeate contemporary Irish women’s writing.

In addressing trauma as yet unresolved in Irish society, as well as emerging and sustained traumas, much of the work examined here is part of the culture of care that critics such as Paige Reynolds have identified emerging in Irish Studies, demonstrating “the crucial role Irish writers play in helping readers engage with, and perhaps better understand, the mind-bending complexities of contemporary life” (Reynolds n.p).

Fanni Fekete-Nagy’s is the sole contribution concerned with poetry, and highlights the continued interest in the Irish language espoused by both writers and critics. Her examination of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s 2007 collection The Fifty Minute Mermaid melds detailed close readings with theorists such as Bessel van der Kolk, Marianne Hirsch and Guy Beiner to emphasise the poet’s interest in repressed pasts, dislocation and cultural trauma. Fekete-Nagy’s article adds to the feminist and psychoanalytic readings of Ní Dhomhnaill’s work by approaching the collection from the perspective of “postmemory” and “disremembering,” concluding that Ní Dhomhnaill’s “complex imaginative framework” enables her exploration of these difficult concepts “without limiting the scope of the sequence to a single historical or cultural context.”

This theme of memory, trauma and disremembering is also key to Kathryn Hendrickson’s analysis of the under-theorised genre of crime fiction, focusing on the representation of memory in Irish-American writer Tana French’s 2018 novel, The Witch Elm. For Hendrickson, the genre’s concern with “reconstitut[ing] into a coherent narrative the scattered and incomplete memories of the past” is inextricable from the context of post-2008 Ireland, in which national narratives of prosperity and growth were unceremoniously debunked and a society was forced to ask itself what had gone wrong. Specifically, the discovery of a skeleton on the grounds of the narrator’s, Toby Hennessy, ancestral home foregrounds the property destabilisation, self-questioning and trauma characteristic of this period for many Irish households.  Toby is forced to recognise his faulty self-perception, as he comes to realise that he is not the hero he thought he was, and he is engaged in a process of “binding the larger stories being told to his own.” For Hendrickson, Toby’s need to reckon with his own past, vulnerabilities and follies also apply to a nation reeling in the wake of economic disaster.

Aran Ward Sell is similarly interested in the literary ramifications and representations of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath. In his analysis of the various modes of what he calls “Celtic Phoenix” writing, Ward Sell suggests that contemporary Irish literature’s preferred forms and genres might overlap with distance or proximity to the watershed moment of the 2008 economic crash. The Irish novel is, he hypothesises, at something of a formal crossroads, echoing the divisions of a nation torn between optimism and despair, between economic growth (at least pre-coronavirus) and social liberalisation on the one hand, and seemingly endless historical baggage on the other. In this context, Ward Sell sees the choice as one between a “reassertion of pre-crash critical politics,” represented by the familiar (albeit “socially liberal”) realism in texts such as Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018) and a “welcome trend towards an interrogative Irish literature,” as in Anna Burns’ Milkman’s perceived difficulty. In this piece, Ward Sell suggests that the Northern Irish context of the latter might go some way in explaining its distance from the dominant mode of Rooney-esque realism, highlights its lateness to the Modernist revival in the Republic represented by earlier texts such as Eimear McBride’s A Girl is A Half-formed Thing (2013) or Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (2016), and concludes that “Celtic Phoenix’s feathers [are] limned by a Realist glow.”

Burns’ Man Booker prize-winning 2018 novel and its “difficulty” is a topic explored at length by Paige Reynolds in her article. “‘Complicating Things with Fancy Footwork:’ The Ethics of Difficulty in Anna Burns’ Milkman” offers an in-depth analysis of the idea, proffered in many critical reviews of the novel, that its formal experimentation, “cascade of prose,” and lack of clear plot and linguistic or semantic specifics make it less readable or enjoyable. For Reynolds, though, “Milkman is difficult because it documents difficult experiences.” The narrative claustrophobia of the text – “the long sentences, the extended lists, the paragraphs that run for pages” – not only reflect, as Reynolds notes, the feeling of being stalked, but also insists on the type of close reading that might bring a reader nearer to understanding middle sister’s marginalised existence in a conflict-torn, patriarchal society. Near the beginning of the novel, middle sister’s French teacher urges the class to rethink their belligerent insistence that “le ciel est bleu,” encouraging them to blur definitional boundaries and identify the sunset for what it is – a diverse spectrum rather than a monolith. Similarly, Reynolds notes how Milkman’s form “demands significant intellectual and imaginative labour, as well as patience and tolerance, thus demonstrating for readers their value.”

Burns continues to be of interest in Laura Hackett’s article, which extends focus to the writer’s pre-Milkman oeuvre. Like Reynolds, Hackett examines the gendered contexts of Burns’ writing, in particular the arena of reproduction in the context where women figure primarily as reproducers of nation and community in the sectarian “numbers game” of the Troubles. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s description of biopolitics, Hackett argues that pregnancy and maternity are represented as direct “threats” to the female body in No Bones (2001), Little Constructions (2007) and Milkman. Exploring how the female protagonists in these three novels waylay and project the constant fear of sexual violence and pregnancy through anorexia, binge-eating and obsessive exercise, Hackett suggests that the optimism represented by recent liberalisation of abortion laws in Northern Ireland is mirrored in Milkman, which “offers us a glimpse of a future in which biopolitical control relents, in which heteronormativity relaxes it grip on communities, in which women can dance and run and read-while-walking free from the threat of pregnancy, in which the war against their bodies might finally cease.”

This sense of hope in the wake of a long and traumatic history of female bodily oppression is continued in Taylor Allgeier-Follett’s article on narrative in recent Irish women’s writing. This contribution addresses Notes to Self (2018) by Emilie Pine and “Abortion, A Love Story” from Nicole Flattery’s 2019 short story collection, Show Them a Good Time, demonstrating how writers across genres have “broken the silences” surrounding women’s bodily experiences in Ireland. For Allgeier-Follett, the historic exclusion of female writers and writing from the Irish literary canon is being redressed by the recovery work such as Tramp Press’s Recovered Voices series and the increased academic attention (belatedly) being paid to women’s writing. And yet, narrative can easily be misappropriated and remains a contested site for women writers. Examining the narrative challenges faced by Flattery’s characters and by Pine, Allgeier-Follett reconfigures writing as an ongoing act, suggesting that these texts harness narrative’s fluid and dynamic power “to break from heteropatriarchal standards and silences, ultimately providing new ways to gain understanding, empowerment, and autonomy.”

Oliver Browne’s article continues this concern with narrative, bodily violence, and voice. In “Eimear McBride’s ‘Gob’,” he furthers Allgeier-Follett’s exploration of whether narrative can bring about closure, healing and empowerment. In particular, Browne reconsidersMcBride’s debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, outlining McBride’s implication of her readers in the violence inflicted on the unnamed narrator. He then compares Girl’s form and aims withMcBride’s more recent writing in Mouthpieces, the set of three radio-plays resulting from her residency at the University of Reading. As Browne argues, Girl endeavours to make the reader feel Girl’s pain through its language, semantics and form – to appeal to the reader’s “nerves rather than their intellect,” thereby making “the reader the instrument of its expression.” In Mouthpieces, however, McBride reflects on the limitations of audience and on the problematics of the audience’s role in meaning-making and unmaking. In the three plays of this work, McBride does not use high-modernist aesthetics to attack the reader as she does in Girl,but rather interrogates the “value of exposing an audience to suffering and the audience’s response to that exposure.” In this contribution, Browne frames this “war over voice” (particularly female voice) with reference to McBride’s shifting interest from using language and form to “hurt” the reader or “transform the audience” to asking “a more searching question: what purpose does an audience serve?”

Deirdre Flynn is also concerned with the power of writing and narrative to challenge social constructs and systems of power. In her article, Flynn examines the role that race and racism play in constructions of “Irishness,” analysing Melatu Uche Okorie’s story “Under the Awning” from This Hostel Life. As the 2018 referendum on the Eighth Amendment comprises a lodestone for Pine and Flattery, Flynn suggests that the 2004 Citizenship referendum is central to the creation of “states of exception” in contemporary Irish society. The fact that, since 2004, children born in Ireland to non-Irish parents are no longer entitled to automatic citizenship forces rafts of people into states of precariousness and marginality. For the narrator of “Under the Awning,” this precariousness is inextricable from her race; in contemporary Ireland, her blackness is read as evidence of her otherness and non-Irishness. Unlike Pine and Flattery, Okorie’s narrator is unable to harness writing as a means of exercising some agency; the narrator responds to her writing group’s racist suggestions by altering her story to suit their preconceptions of race and Irishness. As Flynn concludes, “Under the Awning” reminds us of the difficulty faced by many in “escap[ing] the precarious public sphere, even through writing,” and highlights the need for political and societal resistance to systems which uphold racial precarity.

Eva-Maria Windberger’s article, “Remember me”: Significant Absences and the Fragility of Family in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet“, focuses on various forms of absence in O’Farrell’s 2020 work of historical fiction; a reimagining of the death of Hamnet Shakespeare. Windberger considers Hamnet as part of O’Farrell’s career-long concern with “loss and bereavement […] the preciousness and fragility of life itself”. Spectral presences imbue the novel, according to Windberger, both before and after the central traumatic event of Hamnet’s premature death. Drawing on Roland Barthes’ and Thomas Fuch’s respective ideas on the nature of absence, Windberger argues that the absence inherent to the loss of a familial relation in Hamnet is negotiated by different means by the various characters in the novel. Given its wide-ranging focus and omniscient narration, Hamnet, Windberger also postulates, is a text which centralises certain voices that have been traditionally disregarded and even obscured within a wider cultural history—namely, those of William Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes (Anne) Hathaway and their children, including Hamnet’s sisters, Judith and Susanna—which amounts to a feminist revision of “the historical record […] inverting Shakespeare’s omnipresence and the absence of information about his family”. While focusing on the motif of absence and the many forms it takes in Hamnet, Windberger’s article similarly fills a critical absence with regard to a striking lack of scholarship on the popular and prolific Northern Irish/British writer. Windberger, in the same manner as other contributors to this issue, indicates the way in which the study of twenty-first century Irish women’s writing is well placed to highlight and fill-in critical gaps. 

Across these articles, we see not only a reflection of contemporary political and personal concerns in twenty-first century women’s writing, but also the range of approaches employed by individual writers to give voice to such concerns. In focusing on a multitude of texts—some that are at the centre of mainstream attention and acclaim, others that are not—the articles in this issue figure the broader implications of Irish women’s writing undoubtedly thriving and having its literary “moment,” all the while foregrounding the ways in which this moment is complex, fluid, and always open to new direction.


Orlaith Darling, Dearbhaile Houston, “Alluvium Editorial 9.1: Twenty-First Century Irish Women’s Writing,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2021): n.pag. Web 8 March 2021. DOI:

About the Authors

Orlaith Darling is a PhD candidate in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where she researches representations of neoliberalism in contemporary Irish women’s short fiction. She is a co-founder of the Contemporary Irish Literature research network, and co-convenor of the School of English Staff-Postgraduate Seminar Series 2020-21. She is currently based in Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute, and her research is funded by the Irish Research Council.

Dearbhaile Houston is a PhD candidate in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, researching domestic space in contemporary North American and Irish women’s fiction. Her research is supported by the 2020/21 Pyle Postgraduate Bursary. Alongside Orlaith Darling (TCD) and Liam Harrison (University of Birmingham), she is one of the co-founders of the Contemporary Irish Literature (CIL) research network ( and an editor of the network’s blog, Spit the Pips.

Works Cited

Crosthwaite, Paul. The Market Logics of Contemporary Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Reynolds, Paige. “Introduction.” Ed. Paige Reynolds. The New Irish Studies.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021, n.p.

One Reply to “Alluvium Editorial 9.1: Twenty-First Century Irish Women’s Writing”

  1. Dia duit from North Wales, it is wonderful to see the vigour and vibrancy of the latest crop of literary magazines coming out of Ireland. I wish you all well and hope you get noticed outside of Ireland too, such a long wonderful tradition of literary journals still growing – my shelves are full of them – now I need more space. It is nice that your interconnectedness as writing communities mean that you can easily jump from journal to journal, blog to essay around the internet. Sad that Wales is consistently unable to develop its writers’ world, especially when we are at such a critical moment in terms of the future of our communities. There has been a major rupture in the UK and there is much to be done to find new voices and new directions.

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