Giving Shape to the Moment

The Art of Mary O'Donnell: Poet, Novelist and Short Story Writer

by Maria Elena Jaime de Pablos (Volume editor)
Edited Collection X, 218 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 88


This is the first book to provide a critical assessment of the work of the Irish author Mary O’Donnell. The essays collected here engage with O’Donnell’s writing across multiple genres and explore the themes and preoccupations that have characterized her oeuvre. Alongside her creative work, O’Donnell’s has been a steady and continuing voice for many years within the world of theatre criticism, book reviewing, essay writing, radio broadcasts and cultural commentary.
As a writer, O’Donnell’s principal themes include contemporary Irish society, the position of women in Ireland and the role of the artist. Throughout her career, her approach has been unconventional and her work has sometimes presented a challenge to the status quo. The contributors to this volume illuminate O’Donnell’s role as a humanist writer searching for truth at all costs, through the fictive lives of her often unusual characters, and through the emotional range and depth of her poetry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface (Éilís Ní Dhuibhne)
  • Introduction (María Elena Jaime De Pablos)
  • 1 Mary O’Donnell and the Voices of Our Time (Mary Pierse)
  • 2 Straddling Words: Mary O’Donnell’s Cultural Critique (Manuela Palacios)
  • 3 Gathering ‘Word-Hoards’ into ‘Noah’s Ark’: The Poetry of Mary O’Donnell (Pilar Villar-Argáiz)
  • 4 ‘The Dark Spaces of Our History’: The Fictions of Mary O’Donnell (Eibhear Walshe)
  • 5 ‘Lifting Facades’: Mary O’Donnell’s Short Story Writing (María Elena Jaime De Pablos)
  • 6 Artists, Writers, Intellectuals in the Fiction of Mary O’Donnell (Giovanna Tallone)
  • 7 ‘Only on the Edge’: A Conversation with Mary O’Donnell (Anne Fogarty)
  • 8 ‘The Space between Louis and Me’: A Short Story (Mary O’Donnell)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →



Mary O’Donnell is one of Ireland’s most interesting and gifted writers. Hesitant to designate her profession with a term more specific than ‘writer’, she acknowledges that she is best known as a poet. For once I am in agreement with popular opinion. I believe that the word ‘poet’ most perfectly captures her essence. As Eavan Boland has said, there is a difference between being someone who writes poetry and being a poet. Mary O’Donnell is a poet from top to toe; whether she writes a poem, a novel, an essay or a review, she always exhibits a deep concern for truth, care in choosing the most effective word and the keen eye and sensitive ear which are the marks of the true poet.

As the useful bibliography included at the end of this volume indicates, Mary O’Donnell has published seven collections of poetry, the first in 1990 and the most recent in 2015. In addition, her oeuvre contains four novels, two collections of short stories and many essays, reviews and radio pieces. This volume offers six essays dealing with various aspects of the work, as well as a substantial interview with the author, a bibliography and a new short story. As such, it is both a fitting and timely tribute to a unique writer and an excellent survey and in-depth exploration of her work to date. For those who are not familiar with Mary O’Donnell’s writing, it will serve as a splendid introduction and guide.

The essays engage with writing in the specific genres used by O’Donnell – poems, novels, short stories, et cetera – as well as the most significant themes and preoccupations of her work as a whole. O’Donnell’s first poems and stories were published by the hugely influential David Marcus, in ‘New Irish Writing’ in the Irish Press; the early books were published by Salmon, Poolbeg and New Island, all key publishers who emerged and flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, when a particular flowering of literature by Irish women occurred. Mary Pierse’s opening essay ← vii | viii → contextualizes the writer as a late twentieth- and twenty-first-century female writer. Pierse makes the interesting observation that Irish women writers of this period tend to deal with life in contemporary Ireland, while their male counterparts have a tendency to focus on the past. Although this is necessarily a generalization, illustrative examples spring readily to mind. One thematic concern of O’Donnell’s prose, and poetry, is a focus on the lives and issues of the current day.

Manuela Palacios discusses Mary O’Donnell’s essays, her writing for radio and her other non-fiction writing. The point is made that while there has been an upsurge of women writers in Ireland since the 1980s, they have not, on the whole, received the same serious critical attention, or acclaim, as male writers.

A comprehensive survey and exploration of Mary O’Donnell’s poetry is provided by Pilar Villar-Argáiz. As she points out in her long and thorough essay, the task of summarizing the achievement of such a prolific poet, whose work encompasses a multitude of themes, was challenging. Mary O’Donnell cannot be easily categorized as a poet of rural Ireland, like her fellow Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh, or as a specifically feminist voice or as an urban poet. Rather she engages thoughtfully and poetically with human life as she encounters it in her own life and in art and literature. Pilar Villar-Argáiz charts her aesthetic and philosophical development from the first, more overtly feminist collection, Reading the Sunflowers in September (1990), to the latest, Those April Fevers (2015). Observing that she deals essentially with the important issues – the meaning of life and death – Pilar notes that Mary O’Donnell’s work has two features which distinguish it from that of other Irish poets: ‘her ecological concerns and her interest in contemporary Ireland’s multicultural reality’.

It is possibly to O’Donnell’s disadvantage that she is not so easy to summarize or sum up as a poet and O’Donnell suggests in her interview that she feels she has been, to some extent, neglected by the establishment and by reviewers. But Villar-Argáiz’s outstanding essay on her poetry does much to redress the balance, as do the others in this critical collection.

Eibhear Walshe provides a wonderful, incisive commentary on the novels and María Elena Jaime de Pablos, the editor of the volume, has written a thoughtful and valuable analysis of the short stories. Giovanna ← viii | ix → Tallone, in a typically imaginative and original essay, writes authoritatively about an abiding motif in O’Donnell’s fiction, the figure of the artist – an interest in visual art, as well as literature, is evident in much of O’Donnell’s work, to the extent that it can be considered a dominant characteristic of her oeuvre.

The wide-ranging interview, conducted by Anne Fogarty, completes the critical section of the volume. Mary O’Donnell’s own commentary on her life and work confirms the insights of the other contributors. In the first place, she is impressively articulate and clearly naturally and perhaps spontaneously concerned with finding the best and most precise possible way of expressing any idea or emotion – which is, I believe, the mark of any real writer and to my mind evidence that in a sense every good writer must be a poet. The ladders start in the rag-and-bone shop of the heart, but also in the intricacies and riches of the lexicon. This poet confesses herself that she has been obsessed with language from the start: ‘I enjoy good sentences, I have a passion for just the right adjective […]. BUT […] my aesthetic is largely informed by a belief that good art reflects human striving towards “the good” (in philosophical terms).’

This interview is a valuable documentation of O’Donnell’s thoughts about herself and her work and thanks to the searching, and appropriate, questions put to her by Anne Fogarty, it provides a precious record of a writer who is simultaneously representative of her generation and utterly unique.

The opening section of the interview, dealing with the writer’s childhood, is delightful. As Anne Fogarty says, O’Donnell is unusual in that she does not write, or write much, about her early life – in an old house in the inspiring countryside of County Monaghan. Her work reveals a knowledge of and interest in nature, but it is a surprise to learn, in this interview, that she knows a great deal about dairy farming, the Co-operative Movement and the less lyrical aspects of country life. The account here is doubly valuable, therefore, and it suggests that there is rich raw material waiting to be drawn upon. I, for one, would like to hear more about the childhood in Monaghan.

Mary O’Donnell has been a friend of mine for many years. We are literary friends – born in the same year and members of the generation who ← ix | x → started their writing life on the pages of ‘New Irish Writing’ and continued with the plethora of Irish publishers who established themselves just as we were establishing ourselves as writers of books – not a coincidence. I met Mary where I met many now life-long friends – at a book launch in a Dublin bookshop. The shop was Books Upstairs. I forget, I am afraid, what was being launched, and the date, but it was probably in the mid-1980s. Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Books was there. She had not met Mary before either, although she had read her poetry. With typical frankness, she took one look at Mary and gasped, ‘But … You’re beautiful!’ We all laughed heartily, because we knew that as well as being a mildly eccentric comment in the context of a feminist book launch, the observation was perfectly true.

Since then, we have often met at literary and other social events. We have had many interesting, not to say libellous, conversations about Irish writing and writers and, in times when we feel despondent about the literary scene and the point of it all, have encouraged one another to keep going.

Mary O’Donnell is beautiful, in body, but also in mind. By that I mean that she is exceedingly honest; she seems to me to live and write in what Jean-Paul Sartre called ‘good faith’. She engages with life and observes it in its reality: she records its complexity, terror and beauty. Which is what we should be doing, as writers.

The editor and writers of this volume, our Irish friends in Spain, deserve our heartfelt gratitude for honouring Mary O’Donnell in the best way, with this excellent collection of essays. While demonstrating the diversity of theme and genre in her writing and engaging with it as individual scholars, according to their own interests and theories, the contributors have produced a collection in which the various pieces complement one another. The result is a beautifully unified book which leaves us with a strong sense of who Mary O’Donnell, the poet, short story writer and novelist, is and a good understanding of the nature and importance of her achievement in the field of Irish literature.

As María Elena Jaime de Pablos states, ‘As a humanist, feminist and multicultural writer who “lifts facades” in search of truth and social justice in a nonsensical and post-modern world, Mary O’Donnell deserves a place of honour among the most avant-garde of contemporary writers’.

← x | 1 →



In May 2006, Mary O’Donnell gave a reading and took part in a discussion during the annual AEDEI Conference, which took place that year at the University of Alcalá, Madrid. It was the first time I had heard her read or speak. The reading was impressive, to say the least, and it struck me that this voice, which was a new discovery for me, combined dynamic force with a wide-ranging fearless lyricism: it was also aesthetically sensitive in its linguistic pursuit of creative expression. The following morning, I and two other colleagues approached Mary O’Donnell with the idea for this book, the aim of which is to present her work and achievements to a wider audience.


X, 218
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (March)
Ireland Women Cultural critique
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. X, 218 pp.

Biographical notes

Maria Elena Jaime de Pablos (Volume editor)

María Elena Jaime de Pablos is a senior lecturer at the University of Almería.


Title: Giving Shape to the Moment
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229 pages