Does keep­ing the peace process on track mean sani­tis­ing re­al­ity?

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - MARTINA DEVLIN

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.

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