“Where is our book?” This question posed by Northern Irish writer Lucy Caldwell prompted the creation of The Glass Shore, a collection of short stories by women writers from Northern Ireland. Edited by Sinead Gleeson, it follows in the footsteps of The Long Gaze Back, the anthology of Irish women writers Gleeson edited in 2015. It is a marvellous collection, bringing together stories by women from many eras and backgrounds.
Writers from Northern Ireland occupy a unique space. The competing claims on their identity – Irish or British, nationalist or unionist, neither or both – has left many beyond clean classification. It is perhaps this complexity which has led so often to their neglect within the literary canon. Falling between two traditions, it has proved easier to ignore that which cannot be categorised. Overwhelmingly, work by male writers from Northern Ireland has garnered the lion’s share of recognition. The Glass Shore seeks to remedy this double neglect, serving as an essential contribution to the ongoing reevaluation of the art we choose to privilege. Its existence serves as the perfect rebuke to those who have sought to exclude the women featured between its covers.
There is a breathtaking range of stories in the collection. From the eerie, high gothic “The Mystery of Ora” by Rosa Mulholland to the gloriously earthy “The Speaking and the Dead” by Tara West, each story is utterly its own. The brutal experience of a novice nun in “The Devil’s Gift” is exceptionally disturbing, the pathos of which is magnified by the quiet dignity of the prose.
The impact of the Troubles and the meaning of borders is thematically evident in many of the stories in this collection. Evelyn Conlon’s “Disturbing Words” is a magnificent exploration of the disorientation that a border produces. The narrator tells us, “yes, I had gone away. First to Dublin, where they couldn’t stop hearing the headlines in my accent and then to further away, where it didn’t matter.” Can the splintering of self that the imposition of a border causes ever be escaped by running away, or are there other means by which your identity can be reclaimed? Rosemary Jenkinson’s “The Mural Painter” also focuses on division, examining the unique relationship between conflict, identity and art. “The Negotiators” by Annemarie Nevin explores unrest in a land far from Northern Ireland. It takes more than a change of clothes to understand the complexity of another nation’s strife.
The stories in the collection are more than a meditation on the Troubles or the North’s particular past. Ordinary human emotion lies at the heart of “The Countess & Icarus” by Polly Devlin. The undoing of a man by his love for a woman is one of the oldest stories there is. Devlin’s story is a marvellous examination of passion and bitterness. The detached narration grounds this theatrical tale in the tragedy of the everyday. Lucy Caldwell’s “Mayday” is a compelling story of a young woman who takes abortion pills. Its pragmatic, sympathetic portrayal of a young woman pondering the many facets of her decision is incredibly resonant within the current discussion regarding the bodily autonomy of women north and south of the border.
“The Seventh Man” by Róisín O’Donnell ends the collection. This sinister modern myth mirrors the first short story in the collection, “The Mystery of Ora”, in its portrayal of love, mystery and the supernatural. It is a powerful imagining of the Hag of Beara, who is rejuvenated by passion and weakened by love. The grand themes present in this story are balanced with fantastic humour – the image of the Hag of Beara swiping left and right on Tinder will stay with me for a long time.
Sinead Gleeson has put together a magnificent collection of stories by an extraordinary group of women. The 25 writers featured in the collection are each a marvellous testament to writing in Northern Ireland.