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Storied Women

Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, Sinéad Gleeson (ed), New Island Books, 378 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-1848405578

This collection comes at a time when the precarious global position of Northern Ireland and its border counties is once again headline news in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Once Brexit takes effect, the island of Ireland’s internal border will also demarcate the boundary between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Yet the impact of this further diremption of the island was scarcely addressed by Brexiteers during the lead-up to the vote. Now, talk of a “hard Brexit” begets talk of a “hard border”. Evelyn Conlon’s story “Disturbing Words” is especially poignant when read in the light of this recent turn of political events. Set in the contemporary moment, the tale also hearkens back to the time of partition. The story opens with the death of the narrator’s parents, who lived in the borderlands and who witnessed the partitioning of Ireland from their doorstep when they were children. The narrator explains:

My father had been hurt young by the border; the line ran on the top of their ditch. His mother had mourned the loss of her friends, from both sides of the house.
“That’s making them from a different country. How could that be?”
She stopped to think about it some more.“
So if you were born in the six counties before now, where will they say you were from? You can’t have been from somewhere that never was.”

The stories in The Glass Shore play with this notion of the North as “somewhere that never was”, a contested space whose referent is deferred endlessly. The conflictive cartographies of the North are (re)inscribed continually by competing discourses propagated by government administrations, sectarian groups, paramilitaries, media outlets, art, literature, popular culture, and so on. In response to this, the unifying thread of The Glass Shore is, paradoxically, the diffuse nature of “the North”. As Patricia Craig notes in her introduction, “The North of Ireland functions as a theme, a setting, a background, a place to own or repudiate, to wonder at or take for granted – or simply as the birthplace of the authors assembled.” “The North” is at once elusive and replete – a fact which registers homologically in the plethora of narratological approaches within this collection.

The Glass Shore is a companion volume to editor Sinéad Gleeson’s The Long Gaze Back: an Anthology of Irish Women Writers (2015), which included six short stories by Northern writers within a total of thirty texts. This new collection charts the unique tradition of short fiction by women from the North of Ireland. Gleeson traces its historical arc from the turn of the century to the present. She therefore takes an all-Ulster approach and includes authors from counties Donegal and Monaghan, outwith the post-partition North. The book features texts by ten deceased writers, as well as fifteen new and previously unpublished stories by contemporary authors. Among the earlier writers are well-known figures such as revivalists and collaborators Ethna Carbery and Alice Milligan, and “New Women” writers Sarah Grand and Rosa Mulholland. (Several of these earlier writers used pseudonyms or were known by other names: Ethna Carbery [née Anna Johnston]; Sarah Grand [née Frances Elizabeth Bellenden Clarke McFall]; Alice Milligan often went by pen names; Rosa Mulholland used the pseudonym Ruth Murray, and later in life she became Lady Gilbert when her husband received a knighthood; Caroline Blackwood’s full name was Lady Caroline Maureen Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood; and Erminda Rentoul Esler occasionally used the surname Amica.)

In addition to the familiar names, the collection highlights other prolific authors whose oeuvres have hitherto languished in the archives, such as Margaret Barrington, Catherine Blackwood, and Erminda Rentoul Esler. Gleeson performs what she terms “literary archaeology”, uncovering work by women who were previously overlooked or marginalised and placing them alongside contemporary writers in order to trace the lineaments of the Northern short story form.

The anthology features a broad range of stylistic frameworks and thematic content, thereby showcasing the vibrancy and variety of Northern Irish short fiction. Stories that rewrite Irish myth bookend the collection, which opens with Rosa Mulholland’s “The Mystery of Ora” and closes with Roisín O’Donnell’s “The Seventh Man”. Both tales re-envision mythical Irish sea women, providing an unintentional but fortuitous symmetry to the book’s structure. However, these two stories are noticeably divergent. Mulholland portrays the “wild” woman Ora, who dwells in a sea cave, but the tale has a rather conventional ending since she ends up marrying the narrator, a hapless “gentleman” adventurer. O’Donnell’s story, on the other hand, depicts the Hag of Beara’s multiple love affairs across hundreds of years. She drains her lovers’ vitality in order to sustain her eternal youth – until she meets her soul mate on Tinder. In a further twist of irony, he is a fisherman. She allows him to grow old, ultimately choosing to save his life rather than to steal it.

These bookending stories demonstrate the vastly different approaches to narrativising women’s experience which characterise the collection. Margaret Barrington’s gripping “Village without Men” is a fable about a tiny island village whose fishermen are lost at sea. The women are forced to carry out the work traditionally performed by men, in addition to their own tasks. They are greatly aggrieved by the loss of their husbands and of sexual intimacy until a wayward ship manned by Danes washes ashore, repeating an old legend that the women tell by the fireside for comfort. Other stories of women’s embodied experiences address issues such as: cancer of the womb, in Linda Anderson’s “The Turn”; abortion, in Lucy Caldwell’s “Mayday”; and giving up a child for adoption, in Bernie McGill’s “The Cure for Too Much Feeling”. Moreover, in addition to the bookend stories by Mulholland and O’Donnell, there is also a serendipitous dialogue between Alice Milligan’s “The Harp that Once –!” and Martina Devlin’s “No Other Place”. The latter reimagines Milligan as a character and portrays her as an elderly, but still fiercely intellectual and independent woman.

The collection also features women’s disembodied experiences in the form of ghost stories. Ethna Carbery’s “The Coming of Máire Bán” portrays a widower’s watch on All Soul’s Night for the ghost of his dead wife. He waits for her spirit to return to him, only to witness it visiting a rival lover. The title of Tara West’s story “The Speaking and the Dead” plays on the last line of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” from Dubliners (1914): “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” West transposes this image onto contemporary Belfast, where three women visit a dodgy celebrity psychic in an attempt to reconnect with their deceased loved ones. Jan Carson’s story “Settling” depicts a young woman’s surprising run-in with the ghost of her dead grandmother, which resides in the wardrobe at her new London flat.

Many of the stories in The Glass Shore are set in the British and Irish Isles; however, several narratives also take place across the globe. Sheila Llewellyn’s “Capering Penguins” depicts a traumatised soldier’s return from Burma after the Second World War. The narrator of Anne Devlin’s “Cornucopia” leaves Co Antrim to teach literature at a German university. Mary O’Donnell’s “The Path to Heaven” references Poland during the Second World War, as well as the contemporary moment. In “The Negotiators”, Annemarie Neary portrays a Northern Irishwoman who travels to Algeria to make a business deal during the upheaval of the Arab Spring. The story which ranges the furthest afield in terms of perspective, however, is Úna Woods’s highly inventive postmodern fable “The Diary”. It is the narrative of “an iron thing”, a piece of scrap metal that once formed part of something, but which has now lost all knowledge of its function, its memory only returning in “scraps”.

In her introduction to the book Gleeson observes that its stories “engage in a broader kind of politics, of the personal, of bodies, of borders”. Correspondingly, Margaret Ward argues that following partition, women from both sides of the border were faced with “anti-woman” states. Suzanna Chan and other critics remark that the continued “dominance of the sectarian divide” in the North of Ireland has “marginalized concern over gender inequality”. This connection between sectarian conflict and gender inequality emerges in Mary Beckett’s story “Flags and Emblems”, originally published in the journal Irish Writing in 1955. It also manifests in some of the new stories in The Glass Shore, such as Anderson’s “The Turn”, which explores this issue via flashbacks to childhood scenes between the (now middle-aged woman) protagonist and her domineering father in Belfast during the Troubles. Rosemary Jenkinson’s “The Mural Painter” also addresses this link via the eponymous protagonist – whose work is commissioned by a Loyalist paramilitary group – and his obsession with a (potentially imaginary) Eastern European woman.

In “Flags and Emblems”, Mary Beckett explores how the sectarian divide affects family dynamics within a nationalist household on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation visit to Northern Ireland. The royal visit took place from July 1st to 3rd, 1953, thus coinciding with the build up to the Twelfth of July. Historically, early July is an unstable time of year in Northern Ireland, with the potential for outbreaks of sectarian violence. Beckett’s story opens with the image of a glowing sunset, which belies the heightened sectarian tension in the aftermath of the queen’s arrival. She writes: “The flags were all hanging still, their colours softened beside rose brick and flaming glass, reflecting a bar of red below a cloud at the mountain.” This mention of the “softened” colours of the Union Jack implies that the royal visit is a peaceable one and its impact on Northern Ireland is relatively harmless. However, the juxtaposing imagery which she describes next indicates that this afterglow has the potential to burst into a dangerous flame. For instance, the “rose”-hued bricks that she describes form the edifices of the ostensibly safe homes in the seaside working-class neighbourhood. However, when loosened, these bricks can be hurled as weapons. Moreover, the “flaming glass” of the windows facing the street calls to mind petrol bombs, which are made using glass bottles. This description can also allude to the reflection of contentious Eleventh Night bonfires in the windows of nationalist homes, where the blaze can be perceived as a territorialising threat on the part of Loyalists.

The tale is focalised through the perspective of an adolescent Catholic girl, who makes her way home after deliberately avoiding the royal procession:

Knots of women gossiped to prolong sensation in the littered street. All day, deafened with drums beaten loudly in greeting to sleek, roped cars, crushed and dazzled with the brightness of silk and gold braid, they had flapped little triangles of bunting, or ranted at home against them. They brushed against the girl, not noticing her, and through the flitters of their excitement she could see her own emptiness.

It soon becomes apparent that the source of the girl’s sense of “emptiness” is her father’s overbearing presence, itself a metonym for the pervasive patriarchal culture in the North. Her father is enraged by her brother Fergus’s supposed betrayal, for he allows his young son to watch the royal procession while waving a miniature Union Jack. Her aunt chimes in: “But it wasn’t his fault. It was Rachel’s. Blame Rachel. Her people were Loyalist, always. She had given Michael the flag to carry and Fergus wouldn’t wish to go against her.” Her father retorts: “Lord God, before I’d disgrace my name and my people I’d have him rip the flag from the child’s hand and hurl it in her face, and if she didn’t like it she could leave him. A man’s got to live up to his ideals.” The girl challenges this assertion: “‘Is that the way an idealist should act?’ she considered. ‘Perhaps it’s because his ideals dignify his mind that Fergus is gentle, unlike most men around here. Dead words and empty venom are all I can hear in what passes for idealism nowadays.’” Throughout the story, she makes perspicacious observations regarding masculinist ideology which continue to fall on deaf ears.

Her father overrides this comment and ploughs onward:

“Damnation take these Unionists,” he said out of a few moments’ silence, “with their visitors over from England and their lunches and processions. What right have they to wreck us? And why couldn’t he keep to his own sort instead of marrying one of theirs in such a big hurry?”
“Well, he loved her,” the girl said.

The girl remains unnamed within the story, thereby underscoring the fact that she is unrecognised by her father, her aunt, and the local women, whose viewpoints are distorted by overdetermining cultural codes. Witnessing Fergus and Rachel’s love across the sectarian divide, she comprehends that love has the capacity to traverse boundaries. However, this belief crashes repeatedly against the Northern patriarchal monolith, causing her to question the potential for social progress.

Frustrated, she retreats to her room to gaze at the shoreline and reflect upon the events of the day. Beckett writes:

The distant, lipping whisper on the sand and the sucking puffs of little breezes from the hills taunted her with their lack of violence. She closed her eyes, and across the darkness came the staid line of wobbling foam rings that would never reach the open sea. “The shots,” she said to herself, remembering. “The shots were only an echo. The fuss of the visit has happened before and will happen again, and it is so arranged that nothing happens at all. The only real thing today is between Fergus and Rachel.”

Within the compressed space of a six-and-a-half-page story, Beckett is able to examine the ricocheting effects of a transgenerational legacy of social violence and division. The compact framework of the short story makes it an apposite form in which to analyse the small space of the Northern household, itself a metonym for the Northern Irish statelet. However, the story’s scope expands via its multigenerational narrative and its coastal setting, which faces outward rather than inward. Beckett’s depiction of “the staid line of wobbling rings that would never reach the open sea” metaphorises self-replicating patterns of violence. It also symbolises the successive generations of people in Northern Ireland who, Beckett perceives, will never reach the point of cultural openness or becoming. Even so, the fact that this image is framed by the girl’s purview allows for the possibility of hope. At the story’s close, she discerns that Fergus and Rachel will instil their more open and accepting cultural outlook within their son. Beckett thereby signals the possibility for social change via the younger generations in her story.

Jan Carson’s “Settling” also features a transgenerational tale about a Northern family; however, this story is set in contemporary London. The protagonist is a young, unnamed Protestant woman who emigrates from Belfast with her husband, Matt, in an attempt to start a completely new life. Once in England she tries, unsuccessfully, to suppress her guilt and to ignore her father’s voice in her head. She recounts:

For weeks he’d been running a kind of sales pitch every time we mentioned moving. He wanted us to stay put. He couldn’t bear the thought of grandchildren he would hardly ever see. He’d read in the paper that Belfast was one of the best cities in Europe now, maybe even in the world.
“For what exactly?” Matt asked every time he said this, and Dad couldn’t remember but he thought it was either young people or restaurants.
“No offence, Mr Campbell,” said Matt, “but Belfast’s shite. We’ll never get anywhere here. If you’re at all serious about your career, you’ve to move to London.”
“There’s nothing for us in Belfast,” I added. This was not entirely true. It was also cruel. But Matt demanded solidarity on the important issues such as politics and moving to the Mainland, and the way he’d taken to wearing a suit jacket, casually, with jeans.

“Settling” continues the thematic paradigm of Carson’s short fiction collection, Children’s Children, also published in 2016, which examines the contemporary space of post-Agreement Belfast. In this story, as in her collection, she considers the transgenerational inheritance of a putatively “post-conflict” society in Northern Ireland. Similarly to “Settling”, a number of the tales in her collection are concerned with the implications of this legacy for the younger generations in the North. However, “Settling” explores this concept at a distance, from the perspective of the emigrant. The narrator’s father tries to talk her and her husband into staying in Belfast, but he cannot think of any reasons for doing so beyond those which circulate within the discourse of tourism, such as the draw of “young people” and “restaurants”. Matt is not fooled by Mr Campbell’s tactic and he contends, “We’ll never get anywhere here” because he observes that post-Agreement Belfast is suspended in a politico-cultural stasis. Nevertheless, he is still lured by the glossy trappings of bourgeois life in the London metropole; thus he is not entirely immune to the corporate branding and selling of a city.

The narrator is not only haunted by her father’s pleading – she is also haunted by the ghost of her dead grandmother, which dwells in the wardrobe. In the passage that depicts the narrator’s first encounter with “Nana’s ghost”, Carson’s magical realist style is at once humorous and disquieting:

I go rooting through the jumble and pull out Matt’s blue sweater. It still smells of our old flat in Belfast. This can be fixed with washing. I slip it on a hanger and hold it up to the window so the last, frail fingers of sunlight go prickling through the fabric. In this moment it is more beautiful than a sweater should be. One-handed, I carry it across the bedroom and slide the wardrobe door open. My grandmother is in the wardrobe, sitting on a deckchair. I think she is reading the Belfast Telegraph. It is hard to tell in the dark.
I am very surprised to find my grandmother in our wardrobe. I had been expecting emptiness, maybe some coat hangers left by the previous occupants. I am particularly surprised because my grandmother is dead. Even if she wasn’t she would not be in London on account of her pains and an ill-defined fear of the other sort which, in her latter days, covered everyone who didn’t live on the Beersbridge Road.

On the surface, “Settling” is a story about the ambivalences of the emigrant woman subject; however, it also performs a coruscating critique of post-Agreement Belfast. Carson’s tale is spectralised via the ghost of the narrator’s grandmother in the wardrobe – a narrative strategy which obliquely addresses contemporary Belfast’s ghosts, or its skeletons in the closet, which were buried by the peace process. The narrator is “expecting emptiness” when she opens the wardrobe, and is “surprised” to find something – or someone – in there. Carson implies that the narrator’s hope that she will be able to “fix” her situation by “washing” out the “smell” of Belfast is in vain, for the city’s “dirty” past is deeply engrained within her psyche.

Contemporary Belfast’s shiny new self-image is simultaneously, and paradoxically, supersaturating and vacuous. Colin Graham remarks that “the future into which Belfast is being projected will have to be cast adrift from the whole of its past” as the city’s corporatising discourse “rolls history into unspecificity and veneers it with a neutralising gloss”. The smooth violence of Belfast’s rebranding and its unagreed upon “Agreement” flattens the city’s fraught historical narratives into a single, ahistorical and amnesiac metanarrative. Carson counters this de-particularising effect by figuring the past at a personal level in the form of the narrator’s deceased grandmother. Nana’s ghost is a figure which gestures beyond the current post-Agreement dispensation in the North, for it represents its unconscious. This revenant exists in the “beyond” in the sense that the narrator’s grandmother is dead, but also in the sense that her ghost signifies sublimated cultural memory. As Aaron Kelly argues, “Urban space will always produce this otherness, even as those in power attempt to control it; it will offer counter-narratives, resistances, ambiguities, connections.” Therefore the title of Carson’s story can also refer to the notion of Belfast’s “settling” for less via the peace process and the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Similarly to the girl in Beckett’s story, Carson’s young woman protagonist also remains unnamed. The men in her life do not expect her to have her own opinions or sense of identity and purpose. Seemingly compliant, she mimics her husband, Matt’s, speech, repeating phrases such as “There’s nothing for us in Belfast,” despite the fact that she knows “this [is] not entirely true”. She also follows Matt’s example of attempting to buy a new identity as though it were a commodity – something that can be worn lightly, like his newly adopted business casual style of “a suit jacket with jeans”. The appearance of Nana’s ghost in their new flat is the haunting antithesis of such materialism. Her spectre is an immaterial, absent presence which nonetheless can be felt – much like a memory. As the narrator muses:

She will be just as I remember her, even the wet click of her dentures slipping in and out when she laughs. I will curl myself around her gnarly ankles and use her slippers for a pillow, angling my cheek against the fluffy parts. I will make an anchor of my grandmother and hold on.
In the morning she may be gone or we may drink tea together and say it does not taste the same without a teapot.
Either way, I will be splitting in two.

Although she moves to the British “Mainland” in search of a sense of grounding and an escape from the liminal space of Belfast, the narrator remains “split in two”, caught in between identities. She is part of the post-Agreement generation from Belfast, a place which has become defamiliarised and which has therefore lost its bearings. In response, the narrator declares, “I will make an anchor of my grandmother and hold on.” She attempts to grasp her grandmother’s ghost because she feels the effects of what Miriam Gamble terms “the destabilisation and disempowerment of a populace unmoored between historical identities”. Carson’s story implies that this predicament is compounded further by the fact that the narrator is a woman caught within a patriarchal culture. Her father and Matt pull her in different directions, each dictating where and how she should live her life. However, her choice to remember and to hold onto her matrilineal inheritance signals an act of resistance and offers a glimmer of hope.

Just as The Glass Shore eschews the construction of a totalising account of “the North”, so too does it forgo a totalising narrative of women’s experience, or of literature by women. This is a book which recognises differences between women writers and between women’s experiences, lived and imagined. The homogenising drive which determines canonicity and which prescribes gender roles attempts to contain women’s cultural production within a circumscribed position. However, the transversal structure of this collection criss-crosses the boundaries of gender, genre, geopolitics, sectarianism and temporality. The scope of its treatment of the North ranges from the realm of ancient Irish myth through partition, the Troubles, and up to the post-Agreement, post-Brexit referendum present. It also includes two of Northern Ireland’s sister counties, gesturing towards a more inclusive vision of the North. The authors in this collection rightly view narrow concepts of “the North” with circumspection, motioning instead towards ambiguity, heterogeneity and multiplicity. The global extent of their reach is particularly significant at a time when the island of Ireland’s internal border is set to become a hardened frontier once more.

1/2/2017

Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is an academic specialising in Irish and Caribbean Studies, with particular interests in literature and visual culture. She is co-editor (with Dr Linda Anderson) of the anthology Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland, forthcoming with New Island Books in 2017.

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