As Éilis Ní Dhuibhne prepares to accept the PEN Award for her Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature, Patrick Kelleher sits down with the writer to discuss the Irish language, feminism, and her beginnings in UCD
Sitting down to talk to Éilis Ní Dhuibhne is a somewhat intimidating experience. Regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest living writers, she is due to receive the Irish PEN Award for her Outstanding Contribution to Literature on Friday 20th February, and join the ranks of previous winners, such as Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel. What is discovered almost immediately in Otwo’s conversation is that she is incredibly down-to-earth and highly intelligent. The Dubliner explained that her background in the capital city, and as a graduate of UCD, have been nothing less then defining.
During her time studying in UCD she launched her literary career. “While I was here I had begun to write short stories for the New Irish Writing Page in the Irish Press,” she explains. “I wrote my first short stories while I was a student here, and published the first one in 1974, when I was in third year.”
Having come to UCD to pursue a degree in English, she became interested in folklore, which would go on to become a major feature of her writing. “While I was doing the degree in English I took what you would now call a module, an optional course on the folk tale and medieval literature, and I became extremely interested in folk narrative.”
While her first publication came during her final year at UCD, her ambition to write was a lifelong goal. “I had an ambition to be a writer from a very early age because I liked reading very much as a child,” she says. “And when you like reading, when you read a lot as a child I think it does nurture your imagination and it certainly improves your writing skills. You learn by imitation.”
Ni Dhuibhne, who cites writers as diverse as D.H. Lawrence, Alice Monro and James Joyce as inspirations, has famously written across multiple forms, genres, and even languages, having written work in both English and Irish. “I’ve written in an awful lot different genres, and I think, you know, sometimes that looks a bit flaky or something!” she laughs.
Central to what she calls her perceived “flakiness” is her decision to start writing in Irish. “I was bilingual really as a child,” she explains. “I went to an all Irish school. But when I had my dream of being a writer, it didn’t occur to me that I would do it in Irish. It is my second language, not my first language, I’m more at home in English, and of course read much more in English than in Irish.”
Despite this, she agreed to write a play in Irish for an Irish-language theatre during the 1990s. “It went down very well,” she says, having enjoyed the process. Soon afterwards, her play was published. “They published that play and another play, and then they asked me if I would think of writing a novel. And I thought I sort of almost owed it to them to try this because I knew nobody buys plays.” Her sense of owing the publishers something paid off. She ended up writing a detective novel in Irish, called Dúmharú sa Daingean, which ended up being an Irish-language bestseller.
One major feature of Ní Dhuibhne’s writing is the prevalence of female characters, something she feels strongly about. She explains that when she began writing, she didn’t understand the extent of the problem. “I didn’t have a clue about feminism, or women writers or women’s literature or anything like that. But neither did anybody else in Ireland, I would think, and certainly not in UCD where when I was studying English for instance there would have been about one or two women writers on the course over the whole three years. There was just no consciousness of the woman’s voice.”
By the 1980s, she, like most of the world, became increasingly aware of feminism, and as she describes it, “the dearth of women’s voices in the history of Irish literature.” Issues persist, however. She cites a poster which circulated several years ago about Irish writers, all of whom were men.
The issue of feminism is close to Ni Dhuibhne’s heart, and she explains that studying Jane Austen is simply not enough. “Once you begin to question these things, and ask, is this right, then I began to think, well, no, I’m not going to write about men. They can write about themselves,” she laughs. “And I began to position myself in the – this sounds like a very arrogant thing to say in one sense – but I began to position myself as a woman writer in the history of Irish literature, at a very crucial moment in the development of Irish literature, but of every other aspect of Irish life as well.”
It is perhaps in this respect that she is most proud to have received the PEN Award this year. “It’s so great to get something like the PEN Award, because it hasn’t been given to that many women!” Despite the feminist movement constantly moving forwards, it’s obvious that there is more to be done.
“It’s definitely not an equal balance, and you do have to ask, what’s going on there. Is there somehow a greater respect for men who achieve something than for women who achieve something? And probably I think that is the case in every sphere of life. Because I think we all have an inbuilt bias, I mean women as well, somehow. And that it’ll take a long time to overcome that and to really respect women’s work as being equal to men’s.”
Otwo’s interview finishes on the discussion of feminism and the need to see women as equals in the literary world as much as in other spheres. Right now, however, she is focused on the joy of having been awarded the PEN award: “It’s a huge honour, I feel really great!” she smiles. The award will lend further credence to the career of a writer who is distinguished, and will undoubtedly continue to be so for many years to come.