Does keeping the peace process on track mean sanitising reality?
The year 1985 was a significant one in the north of Ireland because of the Anglo-Irish Agreement: for the first time the Irish government had a consultative role on security, legal affairs, politics and cross-border co-operation. It was a key stepping stone to peace — some unionists were outraged, but more people recognised that the sky hadn’t fallen in.
And 1985 mattered for another reason. It was the year when the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement celebrated its 10th anniversary with The Female Line, edited by Ruth Hooley (now Carr). This was a landmark publication: the first literary anthology by women from the region. Bombs were exploding, but art could still flourish; indeed, the imperative to make art was stronger than ever.
Now, more than 30 years later, its successor makes an appearance — tipping the nod to its lineage in the title Female Lines. The new anthology combines short stories, a novel extract, poetry, plays, essays and photographs, and like its predecessor showcases the work of new and established authors.
Standout pieces include the intriguing short story ‘Egg’ by Jan Carson about a woman whose baby is born holding an egg in his hand. Enthralled and protective, she lavishes more attention on the egg than on her son as she watches over it, hoping it will hatch. In ‘Glass Girl’, the talented Bernie McGill evokes character in less than a sentence: a vulnerable child “carries the wrist of one hand in the other, as if it is not a part of her, as if she is taking care of it for someone else”.
An extract from Deirdre Madden’s 2013 novel Time Present and Time Past contains an incident which calls vividly to life the warped reality of the Troubles. A character walks through Armagh with his grandmother, they turn a corner, and a soldier bumps into her, hitting the old lady with the butt of his rifle — at which the soldier swears. Dignity outraged, granny scolds him for his language, but after he walks on, her legs buckle at the near-miss.
Susan McKay’s insightful essay ‘Thatcher on the radio. Blue lights flashing up the road’ makes excellent use of her diary from the 1980s. Belfast is “one hell of a macho city” and has an “armed patriarchy” to contend with. Her stories from the coalface, after helping to found Belfast’s first Rape Crisis Centre, include battered wives insisting the police can only be called if they arrive in unmarked vehicles, and feminism denounced by senior Catholic figures as a conspiracy against the family.
Another essay, by feminist historian Margaret Ward, describes the decades-long determination by academics and others which led to an overdue focus on female participation in the Easter Rising. As a young postgraduate student at Queen’s in the 1970s, a professor told her “women had not done anything in 1916, which was why nothing had been written about them”.
There are extracts from three plays, by Rosemary Jenkinson, Lucy Caldwell and Anne Devlin, with their authors reflecting on the process of staging them. A common theme emerges as they consider the “hostile structures”, as Devlin puts it, which deter playwrights in general and women in particular. Rosemary Jenkinson, whose black humour is always a joy to experience, admits she is kindled by theatre’s “gladiatorial” element — Lucy Caldwell also references the immediacy of the cut and thrust. But Rosemary warns that “a degree of suppression of plays connected to the Troubles and its aftermath” is happening: does keeping the peace process on track mean sanitising reality?
The poetry section is powerful, with strong work from all participants, including Celia de Fréine, Moya Donaldson and Jean Bleakney. In ‘Fathom’, Paula Cunningham introduces herself to her father, who has dementia and is no longer able to recognise her: “When I leave I am borne/on the keen conviction/he liked me”. Maureen Boyle also takes the father-daughter relationship as her inspiration, and in ‘Bypass’ the reader joins her in London — invested in the human drama — as she keeps vigil during his operation.
At times, reading Female Lines felt akin to dipping into a literary magazine rather than a book, and the shape-shifting format won’t appeal to everybody. But keep an open mind, continue turning the pages and there’ll be something to charm or challenge you.