AT HOME IN THE REVOLUTION: Lucy McDiarmid’s book launch

Passion. The word has been hijacked, abused, overused, trampled on and generally depleted to an extent where I can hardly bring myself to use it any more. But it came back to me in force at the launch of Lucy McDiarmid’s latest book At Home in the Revolution: what women said and did in 1916 in the Royal Irish Academy last week. A formidable panel had gathered to talk about the book: Catriona Crowe, Margaret McCurtain, Margaret O’Callaghan and Lucy McDiarmid herself. They were introduced by Mary Daly, who is the current president of the RIA. There was no shortage of impassioned pioneering intellect in the audience either: Margaret Ward, for example. Angela Bourke. And many others – serious contributors to history and cultural studies one and all, known particularly for their work in the retrieval and analysis of the lives and work of women in the past.

At HomeIt would be more efficient to say that they’ve all made significant contributions to Irish women’s history, but after the most recent Abbey spat (#wakingthefeminists) I find myself wondering whether we’ve been too compliant in attaching the label ‘women’s’ to any activity. Why accept the differentiation, if what we want to assert is equality?

I lost the notebook I was using, so this account will be short. I remember clearly that CC introduced MMcC as the Mammy of Irish women’s history, to affectionate cheers. I can tell you that the speakers were knowledgeable as well as entertaining, that their speeches were terrific, that the atmosphere in the fabulous RIA was warm and engaged throughout. But what stayed with me, despite the loss of the notebook, were Lucy McDiarmid’s own closing remarks.

Her book collects and reflects on the personal accounts of women – of all political affiliations and none – of their experience of the Easter Rising and related events. She gives priority to direct testimony: oral accounts, diaries, letters. The spectrum of her interest is broad; it includes physical, material experience as much as ideas and aspiration; it includes comedy and tragedy. Throughout, it demonstrates how women refused to be excluded from participation in events, jumping in and out of windows, finding and slipping through unguarded back doors.

In closing, she told us that her uncle was the first American to die (aged 20) in the Spanish Civil War. She told us how his death devastated and blighted the lives of those who mourned him. Her family. In writing about the Easter Rising, she’d assumed she was actually writing about the tragic death of young, heroic political idealists, a clear parallel with her uncle. It was only when she finished her book about women refusing to be denied their opportunity to participate, climbing in and out through windows they’d had to break themselves, looking for unorthodox ways in where they weren’t necessarily wanted, that she realised she was actually writing about women’s experience of entering the professions.

LucyShe told a very funny story (she tells good stories, and tells them well) about two male colleagues with whom she used to go for lunch. Every day, they’d stand back so she could go through a doorway first. And she felt funny about it. They were colleagues. They worked together. And she used to say no, no, you go, but they insisted.

One day she stood back and said, No. I won’t. You go. And refused to go in front of them. So they went through the doorway – together, side by side. Neither deferring to the other, you see. They made this terrible noise as they collided, their bones striking off each other, a noise like stone. She realised that she’d upset the natural order of things and set off this terrible noise and confusion by her refusal.

Every day, she told us, going about her business – whether at home in New York or here in Dublin – she sees herself in similar situations and has to make a decision: do I upset the natural order here, or not? Sometimes she does and sometimes she doesn’t but she’s always aware of it.

I wanted to post this blog for its own sake, because the launch of At Home in the Revolution was a genuinely stimulating and enjoyable event. But thinking about it now, I wonder: does assigning the label ‘women’s’ to history, or writing, or theatre, or whatever you’re having yourself – does that practice leave the (un)natural order unchallenged? Back in the early days of Women’s Studies it was a way of staking a claim and defining what we were about. It was defiant, clear, proud. I had no problem with it then. But have we outlived its usefulness?

UPDATE:  Here’s a link to a podcast of the event – With thanks to Lucy McDiarmid.



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Salon Nights @ DLR #2 (GORSE)

Two comments stood out for me at the second Salon organised by Dun Laoghaire writer-in-residence Selina Guinness (4th November). Susan Tomaselli, editor of the fabulous Gorse literary journal, had invited Joanna Walsh and Claire Louise Bennett to join her on the panel. Selina Guinness and her guests covered a lot of ground, but these two remarks struck me forcibly enough that I’ll just put them in front of you and let them speak for themselves.

1: In answer to SG’s statement that her writing resists definition, in itself quite a rebellious act, JW said ‘Plot doesn’t interest me, it seems to stop you looking at things.’ (But there is structure, as well as antistructure, in her writing.)

2: CLB came to writing through theatre, which enabled her to ‘explore things in a non-cerebral way’. During the rehearsal process, she said, you are trying to assemble a person who is believable – ‘as a process, it’s vulgar, really, and not very enjoyable. So much of what we do is about either persuading someone of something or refusing to be persuaded – then that becomes the objective. I began to wonder: why is that so important? Why should it matter to me? I don’t care if you don’t believe me.’

gorseno4For the writers among you, these statements have seismic potential:


Plot stops you looking at things.


Much of what we do (In life? As writers?) is about either persuading someone of something or refusing to be persuaded.

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Worth Less? Some thoughts on the devaluation of writing by women

This piece was first broadcast on Arena (RTÉ Radio One) on 27th October 2015


Recently I asked a friend what she thinks about anthologies of writing by women. Wouldn’t they be worth less than other anthologies? was her – very interesting – response.

There’s a lot of chat at the minute about women’s writing and whether it tends to get overlooked. In a recent experiment, Catherine Nichols sent a book proposal to several literary agents under two different names, half as herself and half as a man called George. George got 8 times more expressions of interest than Catherine did. In one spectacular case an agent who ignored Catherine was excited by George’s – identical – idea.

If you look at what’s happening in Irish writing today there’s little evidence of this. A healthy proportion of our dynamic young and emerging writers are women. Our first Laureate for Fiction is a woman. But the tireless Sarah Davis-Goff, one half of the publishing partnership that is Tramp Press, says that writers can be slow to acknowledge female influences, not because the influence isn’t there but because they’re not seen as authoritative.

Key male writers get name-checked automatically, almost out of habit, the way we tend to wear the socks we keep at the front of the drawer, the ones we washed and put back yesterday, instead of rummaging for a better pair down the back.

Champions of women-only anthologies, the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize and the Read Women hashtag say we need affirmative action, to overcome the unconscious bias that undermines the reception of women’s writing. We all agree that the bias is unconscious, don’t we?

Don’t we?

So where does it come from?

Turns out, there’s a clue in the language we use every day.dale spender MML

In her book Man Made Language first published 35 years ago but still depressingly relevant, Australian theorist Dale Spender suggests that words are devalued as they move across the gender divide from a masculine to a feminine context.

One example is what happens when a boy’s name becomes popular for girls. As names like Leslie, Hilary, Evelyn are adopted for girls, they’re not given to boys any more. The reverse is far from true: Girls’ names that abbreviate to a masculine form – Sam, Alex – are still in use.

Gender-specific words with the same meaning have positive or negative value depending on whether they refer to men or to women. Look at ‘spinster’ or ‘bachelor’, for example. Both refer to unmarried adults, but one is seen as positive and attracts approval while the other implies failure.

Or: look at the difference in status between a governor and a governess.

There’s being dogged in pursuit of a goal and there’s the pointlessness of being bitchy.

Then there’s the infantilising effect. A hen is a hen and a cock is a cock, but a chick is always female.

Spender says the devaluation often has sexual connotations. Don’t laugh.

Take ‘master’, for example. Then: ‘mistress’. An Old Master is one thing, but an old mistress is something else entirely (note those capitals).

I’m only saying. Think about it. And while you’re thinking, watch your language.


You can listen to the podcast here

The-Long-Gaze-BackI’ll be talking to Sinéad Gleeson and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne about the recent anthology of short stories by Irish women The Long Gaze Back (New Island) at the DLR Readers’ Day on 7th November. More information here and here; booking here 

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Salon Nights at DLR Libraries

‘Only the dead are free’ Wayne Jordan’s chorus sang to us from the Abbey stage in his version of Oedipus during the Dublin Theatre Festival. The very next night I was in Dun Laoghaire listening to Mark O’Connell talk about transhumanism and cryonics. (Transhumanism (H+) has the goal of extending current human abilities using technology; cryonics is the term used for preserving the dead in freezing temperatures so that they have a chance of being resuscitated in the future.)

I have my own reasons for being leery of the long drawn-out process of decay so many of us experience at the end of our lives, so the notion that we can be resuscitated and kept in a state of suspended animation into an indefinite future – not to mention at the mercy of whoever is charged with our care – fills me with dread. It’s good to know that Sophocles would be on my side of the argument.


9780992991542-110x150But there’s no denying it’s an interesting topic, the idea of deferring death, or of humans assuming futuristic forms. This was a lively evening, the first in a series of ‘Salons’ convened by Dun Laoghaire’s new writer-in-residence Selina Guinness. Each Salon features a literary journal, with readings by and discussion with contributors and editors. In this one, Brendan Barrington, editor of the Dublin Review explained the rationale behind the journal’s distinctive approach to fiction and non-fiction writing. He wanted the journal to do a few things well. He wants writers to have space and time to explore and express hinterlands of thinking they wouldn’t otherwise have the time or the word-space to explore. He does this by allowing them leeway in terms of length and by paying them a decent fee for their work. This is possible only because the Arts Council supports the journal. BB didn’t mention the generous fee but Selina Guinness did and so will I. It makes a difference.

Sally Rooney read from her provocative essay ‘Even if you beat me’, questioning the ethics of the university debating circuit. There is no apparent link between the two topics, but the degree of intellectual engagement, enthusiasm and critical focus of the panellists made its own sense.

If this is a sign of what we have to look forward to during Selina Guinness’s DLR residency, we’re in for an intriguing, stimulating year.

Next up:

SF Issue_031_cov_04th November: Susan Tomaselli – editor of relative newcomer but already well-known Gorse – with Claire Louise Bennett & Joanna Walsh

2nd December: Declan Meade and Thomas Morris – editors of the well-established, essential The Stinging Fly  – with Danielle McLaughlin & Cathy Sweeney

More info and booking at:

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Two Cities One Book: Dublin, Belfast

It’s official:  Fallen has been chosen for next year’s Dublin: One City One Book festival (April 2016). For the first time, two cities are involved and it becomes Two Cities One Book: Dublin and Belfast.  There’s more information about the festival here.  Huge thanks to everyone who cheered for the selection, online or in person.  I couldn’t respond until after the official announcement yesterday at the Mansion House. Here’s a radio essay I wrote for Arena on RTÉ Radio One.


My grandparents and their parents were not the sort of people history remembers. That’s likely the way they wanted it, they were of the whatever you say, say nothing persuasion. I’d be their idea of the worst kind of nightmare, telling tales into microphones, asking awkward questions, putting unmentionable things in writing.

They lived inner-city Dublin lives, northside and south: Parnell Street & the Moore Street markets, Merrion Row, Camden Street. They laid no claim to having been among the impossible thousands who say they were in the GPO in 1916. I thought they had no connection to the Rising. But one day on Parnell Street it struck me that they were right there in the thick of it, stuck in the middle of the shooting, the looting and the fires, with babies in the house and hundreds of soldiers on their doorstep. And I wondered – what was that like, then? – if you didn’t know what was happening; before anyone knew what the eventual outcome would be.

Sometimes a simple question will stop you in your tracks and send your life in a new direction. That one led to another and then another, and eventually to the publication of a historical novel, Fallen, last year.

The finished novel is nothing like the one I thought I’d write. It took so long that someone else had to point out to me that the centenary was on its way; it wasn’t even on the horizon when I started.

I discovered that I couldn’t write about the Rising without writing about the War that surrounded it, or thinking about people I’d never really thought about before.

I thought: this time, for sure, I’ll have to leave the country.

Fallen Penguin

Instead, Fallen is the Dublin: One City One Book selection for April 2016. Not only that, but for the first time we’ll have Two Cities One Book: Dublin and Belfast. The festival is part of the Decades of Commemorations programme.

One City One Book encourages everyone to read a chosen book connected with Dublin in the month of April. It began in 2006 with Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. Since then it has looked as far back as Swift, as deep as Oscar Wilde and as wild as Bram Stoker. Its wonderfully appropriate choice for 2013 was Strumpet City. It has featured novels by contemporary writers Sebastian Barry, Joseph O’Connor and – last year – Roddy Doyle, before that the anthology If Ever You Go, a Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song (edited by Pat Boran and Gerard Smyth). And, oh, did I mention the obvious? Dubliners by Somebody Joyce.

I’m stunned that a novel of mine has been included on such a list. Anyone would be. But the festival is about far more than the selected book in any given year. It’s a celebration of reading and of the fact that we live on an island that celebrates reading. It’s about cities full of readers finding new ways to think about and enjoy books. It celebrates libraries and librarians, the unsung heroes of the book world.



Thanks to everyone involved in selection and programming: to Lord Mayor of Dublin Críona Ni Dhalaigh; Minister for Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys; Dublin City Libraries and Dublin City Council and Margaret Hayes, Dublin City Librarian; Libraries Northern Ireland and Irene Knox, CEO; and the 1916 Commemoration Committee, especially John Concannon.

Very special thanks to Jane Alger, Liz Cuddy and Jackie Lynam of the UNESCO City of Literature office.

#Fallen2016  14th October, 2015

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What I wish I’d said …

To the woman sitting in the front row at the ISLA festival yesterday, who’s writing a chronicle of grief and asked how to write her pain – I wish I’d got the chance to speak to you after the session, but since I didn’t:

Writing something big like that – it doesn’t happen all at once. Like the illness and treatment, it’s so enormous it threatens to drown you, but you don’t have to deal with the whole enormous weight and heft of it at once. Try breaking it into manageable bits. In my case: the big thing (operation) is not happening now, today. This is just a scan, I can do that, I’ve had scans before. All I have to do now is go down the stairs; all I have to do now is wait in the x-ray department; now let them give me this injection – and I’m so used to those; now lie down on this machine and let my mind drift while it whirrs and clicks around me …

Try writing it in small, manageable increments like that. One word at a time. Think of Hemingway’s question: What’s the truest thing you know, right now? Write that.

When I wrote the notebooks that grew into In Your Face, it began as letting everything stream out onto the page uncensored. But writers can’t keep that sort of thing up for long. Next thing you’re looking for better ways to say it, how to capture this nuance, this precise shade of feeling; how to shape an image, a phrase, a sentence. When I was ill and in danger this way of writing felt like the most urgent task that faced me. It was the only thing I could do to help myself in a hospital/emergency situation. I had to find my way inside the experience and claim it. The only tool I had was language.

When I found the right words to express whatever nightmare was riding me at that time, I felt the balance of power shift in my favour. For example, when I understood that My mouth is eating me I was less afraid. I was in charge of this at least, the order and meaning of words in that sentence.

I hope that makes sense to you. I hope it helps.


And to lovely David, who asked about the title of In Your Face (and thank you for your questions), what I should have said is this:

One day when I was home again but still a bit of a mess after surgery etc, I slipped out to the bins with my head down, hoping no one would be about on the street to see me. This is the kind of thing you must never allow to creep into your fiction, but I swear it’s true: the sun came out and touched my head, my neck, my shoulder – and yes, my face. It was a cold winter’s day but light and warmth came out to find me. And I thought – you idiot. You’ve been given a second chance, what are you going to do with it, hide behind the curtains for however long you’ve got? Take it with both hands and a whole heart and go out and face the world. The title, In Your Face, was a kind of inner standing up and saying, yeah my face is wrecked, so what?


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Margaret Atwood at the Royal Marine Hotel Dun Laoghaire (DLR Library Voices series)

AtwoodMargaret Atwood was in Dun Laoghaire on Wednesday (30th September) to talk to Paula Shields about her new novel The Heart Goes Last.

Introducing The Heart Goes Last, Paula Shields said that the characters don’t know they’re living in a Margaret Atwood novel. On a second reading, she said, she began to think that we’re all living in a Margaret Atwood novel.


The Heart Goes Last: Stan and Charmaine are a couple who have been reduced to living in their car by the economic crash. When they see an advertisement looking for people to take part in a social experiment that will guarantee them work and a place to live, they think they have it made. But the Positron Project is an alternating prison system cycle: live at home one month, go to prison the next.

Things go wrong. Obsessions develop, secrets ensue.

Heart Goes Last

Asked about the novel’s starting point, MA said that she’d been half-in and half-out of the idea for a while, thinking and reading about prisons (since Alias Grace): what were they invented for? When? How have people thought about them at different times? Quite differently, it turns out.

PS said that when she googled Prisons, the first returns were ‘for Profit’, which surprised her. She was relieved that an Irish search referred to services.

MA said that the US Constitution prohibits forced unpaid labour (slavery) but that law doesn’t apply to convicted criminals. It’s easy to see that there is potential for a sizeable profit margin there. The worry is: if people are making money from something, they’ll need a constant supply of young people to keep it going, people in their prime.

PS: Why is it set in the US and not Canada?

MA used to think those kinds of dystopian scenarios wouldn’t happen in Canada. She’s not so sure about that any more.

She directed us to the epigraphs at the front of the book, they offer a kind of key signature for the novel. The first is a quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (“Pygmalion and Galatea”); the second is an extract from Adam Frucci’s blog Gizmodo: “I Had Sex With Furniture”; and the last is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This is where things began to get alarming and entertaining in roughly equal measure. MA told us that a robot with a convincing skin has been launched in Taiwan; this robot comes with instructions not to have sex with her. She (MA) talked about new trends in furniture, with sex apps.  I mean, she said, would you have that in your living room? Everyone roared laughing but a few of the faces around me showed definite signs of unease.

She talked about the trickery at the heart of MND that creates a love scramble, where people fall in love with people/beings disguised as other people/beings. This is hilarious for Oberon and Puck, who set the whole thing up, but a nightmare for the characters who enact it.  She reminded us that these things are not as fantastical as we’d like to think. Look at Comic Con, for example, where people dress up as people/creatures who don’t exist and go off to meet other people dressed up as different people/creatures who don’t exist. She was at a book fair in Leipzig recently where very tall Germans walked around wearing antlers and blue wings. It’s not just me, she said. Look at Las Vegas – you can get married there by a clerk dressed up as Elvis. You don’t even have to get out of your car. There’s no need to make anything up – it’s all already out there.

She talked about surveillance, and how there is general laughter at conferences when anyone tries to give a talk about internet security. It’s such a touchingly naive concept, online security. PS asked, have we given too many rights away?

MA: We haven’t given them away. They’ve been subtracted from us.

She said the first time she saw a mobile phone as pivotal in a movie was in The Da Vinci Code. The second was in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when Rooney Mara/Lisbeth takes out her sim and crushes it to powder so she can’t be tracked.  She pointed out how much we learn from novels that aren’t considered high art. How things have changed. She asked if anyone remembers Dial M for Murder (I do – vividly), where the entire plot turns on a telephone ringing on a desk. It wouldn’t work now.

Asked what advice she would give to her younger writer self, she said: Learn to touch-type, you idiot. You should have taken those secretarial courses.


Up next in the DLR Library Voices Series (curated by Bert Wright and Marian Keyes): Edna O’Brien talks to Sinéad Gleeson on Tuesday 27th October at 8:00pm

Here’s a nice crossover image:

Sinéad Gleeson & Margaret Atwood hold each other's most recent books (via Sinéad Gleeson)

Sinéad Gleeson & Margaret Atwood hold each other’s most recent books (via Sinéad Gleeson)

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