Voices from the Margins

Gender and the Everyday in Women’s Pre- and Post- Agreement Troubles Short Fiction

by Mercedes del Campo (Author)
©2022 Monographs VIII, 316 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 107


Voices from the Margins explores the particular emphasis that women writers of Troubles short fiction have placed on gender and the everyday, two areas which have often been relegated to the margins of the «official story» about the Northern Irish conflict and peace process. Women’s Troubles short stories integrate the domestic plot into the larger historical framework of political violence, reconceptualizing and blurring the boundaries between the private and the public and capturing the many ways in which the conflict has impacted and been disruptive of the private space. This book shows how these women have rewritten the «official story» with narratives that foreground the personal histories of the Troubles over a public History which has largely been based on the division between the pro-state and anti-state nationalisms in Northern Ireland.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 ‘Almost beneath notice’: Northern Irish Women Writers and Troubles Short Fiction in Context
  • Chapter 2 The ‘Other’ Victims: Women’s Lives amidst Intimidation, Segregation and Murder
  • Chapter 3 Forbidden Love: The Romance-across-the-Divide Short Story
  • Chapter 4 Narratives of Incarceration: Life behind Bars and beyond the Barbed Wires
  • Chapter 5 Perpetrators of Violence: Gender and Paramilitary Characterizations
  • Chapter 6 Dealing with the Past and Moving towards a New Future: Troubles Short Fiction after the Good Friday Agreement
  • Chapter 7 ‘Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless’: Reshaping the ‘Official Story’ through Gender and the Everyday
  • Selected Bibliography of Women’s Troubles Literary Works, 1969 to Present
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

←vi | vii→


I am very thankful to my PhD supervisors, Professor Elmer Kennedy-Andrews and Dr Frank Sewell, for their wisdom, stimulating advice and invaluable feedback while completing the PhD research on which this book is based. I am equally grateful to Dr Stanley Black and Ulster University for their academic support, DEL for the provision of a studentship for my doctoral degree and the Linen Hall Library for their kind assistance during that time. I would also like to thank Laura Juárez García for illustrating the book cover and Estudios Irlandeses and UCD Emerging Perspectives for the publication of two articles which have been integrated into these pages.

I would like to extend my thanks to Drumglass House and all the wonderful people I met there, especially Sharon B., Janet, Eloise, Naomi, Vicky and Sharon C. A special thank you goes to Sharon B. and Janet for their support and kindness when it was most needed and to my dear friend Alberto for his continuous encouragement over the years. Finally, my biggest and deepest thank you is to my parents and brother whom I love with all my heart. Without the support and encouragement of my brother Jorge, my father Aniceto and above all my mother Mercedes, this research project could not have been possible.

This book is dedicated to my beautiful mother as a thank you for her unconditional love, her endless support, and her determination and sacrifices to ensure that my brother and I could have the educational advantages that she and my father could not have.

To all of you I offer heartfelt thanks. ←vii | viii→

←viii | 1→


Harriet was the first to speak. To Millicent she said:

‘We don’t exist dear.’

‘I noticed’, Millicent said.

‘I published two poems in a school magazine over forty years ago, but I expect that’s hardly newsworthy … but you dear are a Bachelor of Arts.’

She paused looking from face to face: ‘Bachelor? … Should it be not a Spinster of Arts … sounds miserable … dog’s nice … who likes bitch … bulls are magnificent … cows stupid … boars fierce … sows eat their young … the language itself is perverse to the female … men only … we’re under sentence and the BBC don’t know we exist.’1

– Eugene McCabe, ‘Victims’

In this extract from Eugene McCabe’s novella ‘Victims’, Harriet and her daughter Millicent protest about women’s invisibility within the ‘official narrative’ of the Northern Irish Troubles. Although the IRA is keeping them and four men hostages, the radio news only broadcasts the male hostages’ names; Harriet and Millicent are unmentioned, ignored and forgotten. The general invisibility of women within Troubles narratives which McCabe illustrates in this passage was, as Gerardine Meaney argues, not ‘a historical reality’ but ‘a construct of literary criticism and history and of a very narrowly defined canon’.2 Literary and historical accounts of the Troubles have usually been thought of in terms of men, whereas women have been generally neglected by literary critics and historians. Despite the large amount of interest that the literature of the Troubles has accrued worldwide over the last forty years and the fact that women writers have produced a considerable body of Troubles-related writing, critical attention has mostly been directed to male authors,3 ←1 | 2→maybe because women writers have primarily engaged with gender issues and the everyday in connection to political violence, a focus that is at odds with the more public discourses of the conflict coming from male-dominated groups and institutions (police, military and paramilitary forces, government, political parties and churches) and with the canonical war literature, which is often based on men’s (direct) experiences of war.

The marginal position of women within the dominant discourses of the conflict and of women writers within Troubles literary criticism and the Troubles literary canon goes hand in hand with the marginal status of the short story form. Despite its popularity in Ireland, the short story has been overshadowed by other genres which have accrued much more critical interest, particularly in the context of the Northern Irish Troubles. As Eóin Flannery explains:

The Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ have been well narrated within the novel form […]. In equal measure the conflict has been widely poetically mediated, as well as being dramatised theatrically – and each of these differential genres have received considerable literary critical attention, both comparatively and in their own right. However, with a few exceptions, the representation of the ‘Troubles’ in the short-story form has received considerably less critical attention.4

Although there have been various studies on individual Troubles stories, there are only two major studies that look at Troubles short fiction as a whole, Michael L. Storey’s Representing the Troubles in Irish Short Fiction (2004) and Ronan McDonald’s essay ‘Strategies of Silence: Colonial Strains in Short Stories of the Troubles’ (2005). Storey’s book is much lengthier and more detailed, covering stories from the Early Troubles in ←2 | 3→the first decades of the twentieth century all the way to the contemporary conflict in Northern Ireland. He devotes an entire chapter to women, half of which is dedicated to the Early Troubles and the other half to the Northern Irish conflict; however, such limited space only allows for a general overview of women’s Troubles writing. I therefore felt compelled to produce comprehensive research that expands on Storey’s chapter and that complements these two critical studies published over fifteen years ago.

This book covers Troubles short stories published from 1969, when the Northern Irish conflict broke out, to the present day. Stories published during the intra-conflict phase, that is, before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, are referred to as ‘Troubles stories’, whereas stories published after are referred to as ‘post-Agreement Troubles stories’ and are included in the final chapter. The overall objectives of this book are: (1) to challenge and redress the existing gender imbalances in the Troubles literary canon and critical discussions of the conflict, (2) to analyse women’s responses to the conflict and the peace process in short fiction, placing particular emphasis on what economic, social and cultural values they give importance to and what themes, concerns and issues are recurrent in their work, and (3) to recognize the overall literary and cultural significance of their contribution to the historical memory of the Northern Irish conflict and its aftermath. These objectives are reached through a close-reading of their stories and a theme-based textual analysis by which it was possible to identify these women writers’ general preference for a realist narrative style as well as common concerns related to gender, political violence, material conditions and everyday life.

The textual analysis is informed by the social, cultural, political and economic context in which the stories were written. In Michael Parker’s two volumes about Northern Irish literature, he provides ‘a detailed picture of the cultural and political landscape’5 that formed part of the poems, novels and plays he examines. He explains that this is because such knowledge can ←3 | 4→‘considerably enhance one’s understanding of this literature, since, as Yeats observed, a work of art is “no rootless flower”’.6 Thus, by placing women writers within the specific historical and cultural framework of the Troubles and the peace process, it is possible to determine the ways in which political violence and other matters such as gender and socio-economic factors have influenced, impacted and differed from the authors’ own responses to them. Historical, political, cultural and socio-economic details are provided in each chapter along with accounts of specific events when they are important for the overall understanding of the stories. Since history itself functions as a constructed text based on evidence and facts which have been selected and interpreted as ‘relevant’, the historical context of the Troubles and the peace process is not treated as a mere background against which to place the literary texts but as a collection of textual discourses (or co-texts) that parallel the reading of the stories. As expressions of the same historical moment, the literary and non-literary texts inform and interrogate each other, negotiating cultural meanings that help us gain better understanding of these women’s literary works and of the socio-political circumstances which shaped them. The textual analysis is also informed by feminist criticism, particularly by its socially and culturally drawn theories, which help to examine the ways in which masculinity and femininity have been constructed and deconstructed in (Northern) Ireland as well as the possible reasons for women’s marginal position within the ‘official’ grand narrative of the Troubles.

Since terminology can be rather controversial when discussing the Northern Irish conflict, it is important to clarify the use of certain words in this book. The term ‘Troubles’ was first used as a euphemism for the violent events that happened between 1916 and 1923 in Ireland (the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and Irish Civil War), but it was later applied to the renewal of political violence in the north of Ireland. Although this euphemism softens the reality of what was arguably a civil war, it has been widely used and accepted in the academic and public domains. The term connects the two periods of major political upheaval in the island of Ireland in the twentieth century and presents the second period as a ←4 | 5→continuation of the first due to the unresolved consequences of partition. I refer to the conflict in the early decades of the twentieth century as the ‘Early Troubles’ to differentiate it from the conflict in Northern Ireland, to which I refer to as ‘the Troubles’. A similar example of controversial terminology is found in the naming of the region. Whilst Irish nationalists and republicans usually have referred to it as the north (of Ireland) or ‘the six counties’, unionists and loyalists have called it Northern Ireland or Ulster (even though the province of Ulster has historically included the counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan, which are in the Republic of Ireland). In this study, the official name ‘Northern Ireland’ is given preference, but ‘the north’ is also occasionally used to avoid repetition and political controversy.

The two political movements involved in the conflict, Irish nationalism and unionism, and their more extreme versions, republicanism and loyalism, are all considered nationalisms. Although the term ‘nationalism’ has normally been applied to the Irish, unionism and loyalism are also examples of this concept, with the difference that they are pro-British state movements. As Rachel Ward states, Irish nationalism is a ‘counter-state’ nationalist ideology and unionism a ‘state-framed’ one.7 Both ideologies use a ‘nationalist rhetoric’ which is ‘heavily dependent upon myth to fill in the gaps between the factual events that occurred in the nation’s past’, both insist on ‘the idea that the nation is a primordial entity’, and both promote ‘blood ties’ and ‘cultural distinctiveness’,8 all elements which connect them to nationalist models. In this book, the words ‘nationalism’ and ‘ethno-nationalism’ refer to both sides indistinctively, but when a side needs specified, the adjective ‘Irish’ or ‘unionist’ is added. The capitalization of these nationalisms is used only in reference to political parties, but they appear in lower case to refer to the general political views of the people. This is also the case with the religious denominations ‘catholic’ and ‘protestant’, which are only capitalized when referring to churches and religious beliefs but appear in lower case when used to identify either side of the divide.←5 | 6→

Bruce Hoffman’s definition of the term ‘terrorism’ in Inside Terrorism (2006) corresponds with much of the political violence that took place in the Northern Irish conflict. However, the use of this word in academic research has been problematic due to the negative overtones it carries. As Martha Crenshaw explains, scholars have to navigate ‘the need to develop a bounded concept on which theoretical explanation can be built and the desire to avoid the appearance of taking sides in the political conflict that motivates the activity or the label of terrorism’.9 Thus, although I am a firm advocate of peace and condemn terrorism or any other form of violence, the words ‘paramilitary’ and ‘paramilitarism’, which have been more frequently used in the context of the Troubles, are favoured to avoid subjectivity as much as possible. ‘Terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ appear when citing authors who have used the terms in their own research studies.

There are also parameters of definition specific to literature that need clarification. Although not in a political sense, the phrases ‘Northern Irish literature’ and ‘Northern Irish writing’ can also be controversial. Laura Pelaschiar explains that there are two main reasons why critics are reluctant to talk about ‘Northern Irish literature’:


VIII, 316
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
women writers short fiction Voices from the Margins Mercedes del Campo The Northern Irish Troubles
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. VIII, 316 pp.

Biographical notes

Mercedes del Campo (Author)

Mercedes del Campo holds a PhD on women’s Troubles short fiction from Ulster University. In 2017, she won the Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in the field of Irish Studies.


Title: Voices from the Margins
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326 pages