The women shaking up Ireland's literary scene

Bernadette Fallon 19 April 2022

The runaway success of Sally Rooney has shone a spotlight on Irish women's writing. Here are the most exciting female writers Ireland has to offer

Winning the 2018 Costa Best Novel, Irish Novel of the Year, Waterstones Book of the Year, nine Irish Film and Television Awards and a BAFTA, it’s fair to say that Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People—and subsequent TV adaptation—caused a bit of a stir.

Rooney, who comes from the west of Ireland, was the youngest ever winner of the Costa Prize at just 26. By the time she was 30 and publishing novel number three, Beautiful World, Where Are You, she was the most talked about novelist of her generation.

Now, as her first book, Conversations with Friends, prepares to make its eagerly awaited TV debut in May, the fuss is set to start all over again. But while she might look like she’s owning it, Irish writing has much more to offer, with Irish women writers having a heyday right now. And they’re not all millennials either.

Louise Kennedy

Take Louise Kennedy whose second novel Trespasses, an unconventional love story set in 1970s Troubles-ridden Belfast, has just been published by Bloomsbury to a raft of critical acclaim. Now 54, Louise’s first book, a collection of short stories called The End of the World is a Cul de Sac, was only published last year and she didn’t start writing until she was in her mid-forties.

“In 2014, a friend asked me to go with her to a writing group here in Sligo and I thought it was the most hilarious thing ever as I had never written anything and didn’t intend to write anything. So I said no a lot but then eventually, I don’t know why—I must have been curious I suppose—I got into the car with her and went.”

Louise had worked for 30 years as a chef—“at the time, myself and my husband had a restaurant that was slowly going down the tubes, and maybe I had to be at a very low ebb to even consider writing. But from the time I sat down to write my first short story, I found I didn’t want to do anything else.”

"From the time I sat down to write my first short story, I found I didn’t want to do anything else"

Una Mannion also started writing in 2014; then 48, she tried her hand at fiction. American born and living in Sligo, it was Una, with her history of academic publishing, who set up the writing group that attracted Louise Kennedy. Her first novel The Crooked Tree, a dark coming of age story set in rural Philadelphia, was published by Faber in 2021.

Una Mannion

“I think reading is the basis of wanting to write and I’ve always been a reader. Now when I’m not writing I don’t feel good about myself, when I’m not doing it, something isn’t calibrated for me.”

Another Irish writer who started writing in her mid-forties also came to it as a sort of therapy. “I was at a crossroads in my life,” says Anne Griffin. “But I was never one of those people who from birth thought they wanted to write.”

And for the first few decades of her life she didn’t, working as a non-fiction buyer at Waterstones following a history degree, later moving into the charity sector and getting an accountancy qualification. A friend suggested that she tackle her “crossroads” by writing—“see where your brain takes you”.

Anne Griffin, credit: Ger Holland

It took her to two best-selling novels—When All Is Said, published when she was 50 and winner of the 2019 Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year, and Listening Still, published last year, both by Sceptre.

Bucking the trend, Fiona Scarlett from Dublin, author of the gritty and moving Boys Don’t Cry, published by Faber to huge acclaim in 2021, started writing her in mid thirties. “I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer, but I was a massive reader, I devoured absolutely everything. I remember reading Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart and it was a light bulb moment for me—he’s been a massive inspiration in terms of writing about ordinary people going through extraordinary times, as has Roddy Doyle.”

Her story of two young brothers growing up in a drug-ridden Dublin council estate is another tale of ordinary people going through extraordinary times and was shortlisted for the 2021 Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year.

"Another Irish writer who started writing in her mid-forties also came to it as a sort of therapy"

Closest to age and background to Sally Rooney—both from rural Ireland, they studied at Trinity College Dublin and started writing short stories as teenagers—Louise Nealon’s debut novel Snowflake was published by Manilla in 2021 when the author was 27. Like Normal People and Conversations with Friends this coming-of-age story is also set between Trinity and the darker elements of the Irish countryside and won Newcomer of the Year in the 2021 Irish Book Awards.

“I always wanted to write but I saw it as a magical ability gifted only to a few chosen ones and never believed I would be good enough or brave enough to dare to sit down and write a story with the intention of getting it published.”

But after a teacher at her secondary school liked a story she had written so much that she photocopied it for the whole class to read, Louise started to enter writing competitions, winning the Seán O’Faoláin International Short Story Competition in 2017.

Louise Nealon

All of these authors credit the Irish writers who came before them as the harbingers of their success, citing the influence and inspiration of women such as Edna O’Brien, Anne Enright, Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes.

“I do think there is a warm healthy culture of writers throwing their hands out and pulling other people up behind them,” says Louise Kennedy.

“There is strength in numbers,” adds Louise Nealon. “When I was starting out, I read interviews with other Irish women writers just to see how they did it.”

Anne Enright wining the Booker Prize for The Gathering in 2007 is cited as a big moment for Irish women’s writing as is Anna Burn’s Booker-winning Milkman in 2018.

“But you can go back long before that, back to Edna O’Brien, Mary Lavin and Kate O’Brien,” says Anne Griffin.

"I do think there is a warm healthy culture of writers throwing their hands out and pulling other people up behind them"

In this world, Sally Rooney is not the kick-starter of this current phenomenon but part of it. “Marian Keyes had sold 35 million books by the time Sally Rooney’s first novel was published in 2017,” Louise Kennedy points out.

She has been an amazing ambassador for Irish women’s writing, says Una Mannion, “but I think there was also a path cleared for Sally as well by those who came before her”.

Her success, however, has had some effect Fiona Scarlett believes.

“I think we’re incredibly lucky as a nation, we’ve always had a wealth of writers and great women writers too,” says Fiona Scarlett. “And obviously Sally Rooney has had massive success and millions of readers—and a lot of her readers will go on Google to search for other Irish writers. I think in that way it has encouraged more readers in particular to female Irish fiction.”

These days writing has become more accessible, they believe, through writing groups and courses—all six writers were either part of writing groups or gained academic qualifications in writing. There are also more platforms for publishing fiction, including leading Irish journals The Stinging Fly, The Tangerine, and Banshee.

And there are more Irish women on the way. Notable debuts to look out for in April include Olivia Fitzsimons, The Quiet Whispers Never Stop, Catherine Prasifka, None of This is Serious and Kathleen Murray, The Deadwood Encore. May sees the publication of Emilie Pine’s first novel Ruth and Pen, and in June watch out for Niamh Mulvey, Hearts and Bones: Love Songs for a Late Youth and Aingeala Flannery, The Amusements.

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