AS A PANELLIST during Ennis Book Club Festival, Evelyn Conlon discussed Irish literary feminisms, however she does not class herself as a feminist writer but one who continues to champion women’s rights.

Speaking to The Clare Echo, the Monaghan born novelist recalled that in her lifetime “the battle to legalise contraception” was among the most difficult fights she endured in Ireland and something she regards as “a great achievement”.

In 1979, she was a co-founder of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, over the intervening four decades she believed that “things have changed enormously for the good” in how women can live their lives in this country. “Those battles had to be fought, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s women had to do an enormous amount of fighting and standing up to authority, I think in a way I feel gratified that so much of what we were demanding in the 1980s has actually been achieved, it beholds us not to forget how hard we had to fight for it, nevertheless I also sometimes think we have to be joyful about that”.

Of these fights, one was more difficult than all the others, she detailed. “The battle to legalise contraception was at the centre of a human right, it was extremely difficult to fight for, I consider that one of the great achievements, it is a pity we had to fight so hard for it but that was the problem when the Catholic Church had such a hold on our politicians and our society, it was women who stood up to them and fought that battle, at the same time there was women on the other side but it was mainly women who stood up and fought that battle”.

Women of today have “different battles to fight,” Evelyn felt. “I also think that the battles which have to be fought now, one of the things that people have to do is remember what went before them, in a way the book we’ve been talking about ‘Look at the women writer’ is actually about that, it is about making sure you know what went before and that you don’t reinvent the wheel every decade, when I studied things like the Irish Housewives Association, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, the women’s social and progressive league, when I studied all that and found out about all those things when I was a young woman I was absolutely fascinated and delighted to find it, then of course I was really angry thinking why hadn’t I known all about this before, when we write history we have to include everything, we don’t just decide what becomes history, that is one of the things that I think is really important at the moment to make sure people know how the battles were won and then they know how to fight the next one”.

Feminism is on the agenda for her return to Co Clare, she forms part of the panel for Look! It’s A Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020 in glór on Friday afternoon. She expressed the view that tags and labels such as ‘feminist writer’ are incorrectly attached to women. “There are lots of definitions of feminism. I wouldn’t consider myself a feminist writer, I am a writer who is a feminist, it is a different thing. I am a feminist because I couldn’t not be, what would I be if I was the opposite, I consider feminism one of the stalwarts of the human rights”.

She added, “If I take someone like Marilyn French, she was described as a feminist writer and I suppose you could say that about her simply because she set out to write about that but a lot of times when somebody would describe me as a feminist writer I would say they are not, they are a writer who is a feminist in the same way as they are a writer who is a socialist or a pacifist. The only thing that possibly is one is as a feminist you are interested in more aspects of life, for instance you are not interested in writing work that is just simple and easy and doesn’t question, possibly that might be a difference”.

Returning to the EBCF is “terrific,” Evelyn said. She spoke alongside Niall Williams at the very first EBCF, “I can remember the evening quite well, it was very interesting in that people didn’t know how many people would come because they were opening and they were starting, I remember the room was packed and we had to go to a bigger room”.

She has now appeared at the festival on a handful of occasions, her collection of short stories ‘Moving about the Place’ released in 2021 vividly imagines her characters all over the world, in Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, Monaco, in a house with two drills of vegetables in Skerries. She lived in Australia in the 1970s but also resided in Miltown Malbay, a place she remains very fond of.

Evelyn and her musician husband Fintan Valley built a house in Miltown where they lived for a number of years. “We go to Miltown Malbay every year to the Willie Clancy week, for years I would have spent most of the summer in Miltown and quite a bit of the winter as well, a lot of contact with Miltown Malbay and some with Ennis”. She added, “Willie Clancy is the part of the year which defines what has happened and what is about to happen”.

In the early 2000s, she was elected to Aosdána, the Irish association which honours distinguished artistic work. Reflecting back on her career, she noted, “I’ve written four novels, four collections of short stories, I think when you’re a writer you are always striving to write the next thing, I don’t think any of us are ever particularly happy with our output, it is up to decide that in a way. I would feel, I would have to remind myself that I have a certain amount of work done, writers don’t stop, they don’t retire, they never come to an age and say that is me done now, they stay engaged. This is a thing that younger writers don’t know, unfortunately writers today write one book and then stop or maybe write two, if you’re in it for the long haul then that is what your life is, I remember when I was a younger writer hearing that Eithne Strong had died and she had still been writing, I remember thinking ‘gosh she was still writing at that age’, now I realise that writers do not retire so there is no point at a writer’s life where they can say I wonder how that goes”.

Before she knew what a novel was, she wanted to be a novelist. “Quite often writers realise that they want to be a writer without knowing what that involves, I certainly felt that from a very young age, I was talking about specifically when I wouldn’t have known the difference between what a collection of short stories was and what a novel was because as a child you see a book, you don’t differentiate between the types of books, that’s what I meant by that”.

Her first novel was published in 1989 and her most recent ‘Not The Same Sky’ in 2013. For a writer to better their craft, they must adapt, Evelyn maintained. “There are some writers who go back to the same territory all the time, that doesn’t interest me, when I’ve dealt with one thing that I need to deal with then I move onto to the next thing. Certainly I know that when I did the collection of short stories ‘Telling’ in 2000, one of the things that was interesting there was when I looked back on short stories that I had done before that which ones I thought stood up and would include, I have to say some of them I would have thought ‘gosh no that is not good enough’ but in a way, that is okay for a writer to say that because it means you feel you are getting better, you’re pushing yourself I would feel that as a writer you must be pushing yourself all the time”.

To push yourself, the advice from the Adjunct Professor and Mentor with Carlow University Pittsburgh MFA is simple, keep reading. “When I do creative writing workshops or classes, I am astounded when people say they don’t want to read too much in case they find that they will be derivative of that work, I’m thinking then can you imagine a composer who won’t listen to music, the job of a writer in a way is to be continuously engaging with other writers through their books”.

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If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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