Sex and the Irish mammy

A new novel is invigorating discussion about female sexuality in Irish literature, says Shelley Marsden

Ireland has long been a gendered place, through politics, culture and colonization. Irish nationalism often went hand in hand with the marginalisation of women. W omen’s sexuality was for a long time something that was simply not talked about, never mind written about in books and twentieth century literature, you could argue, has been the favourable home of male writers.

Perhaps the first author to challenge perceptions of women’s sexuality was James Joyce, with Ulysses’ Molly Bloom.  For the most part, Bloom is represented in terms of sexuality. She is not merely an immoral, sex-obsessed young woman – she affirms female sexual agency and self-determination in a world where women are subordinate to male will and desire. However, the book to really break the silence on sexual matters during a repressive post-World War II Ireland was The Country Girls.

Published in 1960, three years before the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the first album release by the Beatles, Edna O’Brien introduced the country to sex with her semi-autobiographical debut about women in love, and escape from a time-warped Ireland to the sexual and ideological freedom of Swinging Sixties England. The reaction was immediate: it was in some places suppressed, in others publicly burned.

Things have changed since those days, of course, but there is still strikingly little literature out there that openly explores the sexuality of Irish women – particularly the Irish woman of a certain age.  If a female in a book has urges beyond middle-age, we’d rather not here about them, thank you.

A caustic, original new novel by Anglo-Irish author Anaka Schofield, who grew up in Dublin to a matriarchal family (there have been no fathers on her mothers’ side for three generations, and her own died when she was five) brings that subject under the spotlight again. What sparked the idea for Malarkey was an essay she read in a collection by an Irish-American woman, who described how she received status from her mother by denying her sexuality amongst other things, almost like a pact between them.

Malarkey introduces us to‘Our Woman’ or Philomena, an Irish mother and housewife who begins to quietly lose the plot after she catches her son having sex with another man, and then discovers her husband is cheating on her.

Then her son disappears (to his dad’s relief) and joins the army in Afghanistan, a choice that will ultimately cost him his life. Our Woman sets aside her prim and proper ways and sets out on her own odyssey– one that forces her to confront grief and her own sense of lust and longing.

Reaction has been favourable but the gregarious author, based in Vancouver (Malarkey won the Canadian First Novel Award), says responses in Ireland have been surprising. She was particularly tickled by the fact that Hot Press sent their sex columnist to speak to her –– perhaps things haven’t moved on as far as we think if a literary sex scene with a middle-aged woman causes such open-mouthed reactions:

“In North America, nobody asks me anything about sex”, she giggles. “In terms of sexuality this book is slightly Early Learning Centre, it’s not particularly risqué. It’s just a conversation that’s very timely in Ireland right now, and possibly it’s also because the book is being read in a cultural context that it hasn’t been read in before (it’s read as Canadian literature in Canadia, though it’s obviously an Irish book). Maybe the content is slightly transgressive, but I don’t think so! I think it’s quite tame.”

Schofield wrote Malarkey, she explains, out of a sense of the absence of depictions of a working-class, humorous, eccentric woman (“You know, that woman at the bus stop who gives the rundown on the local area, the politicians, her daughter…”). For a while, she keeps the book situated within that woman’s normal, everyday life, then goes and inverts all preconceptions. Several people that read the book confessed to her that they thought they were in for a misery tale, and were pleasantly shocked at how it panned out.

What is most shocking about Schofield’s novel is not the sexual content per se, but that you think what you’re getting is a prudish, bored, isolated housewife; then something altogether more eye-opening is served up along with the incessant cups of tea.

Our Woman plays out elements of the sexual couplings of her gay son Jimmy on another man, taken from stolen tableaus as she spied on him with some young man or other from the village. An act that at first repelled and confused her becomes the thing that begins to arouse her, empower her and remind her of the existence of her own sexuality.

“Was he going to the toilet? That would be unusual. Is that why his trousers are down? Lord save us, he’ll catch his death.  He’s up to something. I don’t like it. I must see. I must be sure…”

Says Schofield: “It made me realise perhaps how absent these kinds of women are from literature. Or maybe they’re not absent; maybe we’re just not paying attention to the writers that have written about these kinds of women. There are many Irish female writers who have been writing this stuff for years. I think we tend to focus somewhat on the noisy blokes.

For the rest of this article, see the Irish World newspaper (issue 7 Sept 2013).

Malarkey (One World) is out now.

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