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The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation

The PhD Diaries is a series of pieces written by PhD candidates who work in areas associated with the Identities in Transformation research theme. Over the course of several weeks, they will examine their relationship with their research and how it has changed them. Orlaith Darling is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of English where she is researching contemporary short fiction by Irish women.

When I first proposed to undertake PhD research on Irish women’s short fiction, I wanted to focus mostly on debut collections from the last decade. While this was instinctual, it arose from a desire to approach literature as a lens on contemporary Irish society in what has widely been acknowledged as an era of sea-change. Heather Ingman has noted the link between the short form and cultural commentary: “the short story, on account of its brevity, is able to anticipate themes that take five years or more to make their appearance in other genres” (A History of the Short Story in Ireland (2009),226.) James Patterson more generally attests to the raft of artistic responses to the boom, the crash and intermittent social movements which have flooded the publishing scene since about 2012 (‘Fail & Fail Again: How the Celtic Tiger changed Irish Writing’, RTÉ, 17/03/20).

This is exciting to me as a former undergraduate history student.  Perhaps obtusely, I never fully grasped history as tradition and, therefore, as a material and ideological shaping force on the present. The pragmatic temptation to atomise the various wars, battles, parliamentary occurrences, characters and movements studied as an undergraduate means that ideology is at once condensed and simplified and obscured and missed. Of course, social history is an established field with many important Irish historians working on previously neglected areas like economic and women’s history. For me, the strands of revisionist, social and nationalist history have begun to converge in very interesting ways in Irish society.

A few years ago, Anne Enright noted a new “confidence in female voices” (Qtd. Ingman, 227). For me, this confidence is found in both writing and social movements. Awareness is growing regarding the endemic societal gender injustices prevalent during the time of my maturation. The recent dovetailing of personal conviction with feminist literature, scholarship and activism has been illuminating. This month, for instance, I had the opportunity to reflect on the relationship between story-telling and social change in Rejoinder, examining how women’s stories were central to reproductive activism around the 8th Amendment and questioning whether this continues to construct women as beings who should suffer for the “common good”. Exploring women’s relationships with their bodies – as mediated by legislation – and their identity as citizens is always going to be immensely personal, as a woman. This becomes more so when contemporary instances of social injustice or social change are contextualised within historic ideology. Knowing that you, as a woman, could have basic rights so easily curtailed and denied by virtue of identity in the face of ideology can be unnerving, as can an understanding of yourself as a political object rather than subject, a parliamentary pawn rather than citizen. The nuance this brings to identity is reflected in recent women’s short fiction, wherein history is linked to the present and ideology is connected to material circumstance. In this literature, historic contemplation of unmarried mothers, forced adoption and Magdalene Laundries sits alongside stories of incest and sexual abuse. Reflections on the 8th Amendment and real-life cases (a brain-dead pregnant woman kept on life-support in the Republic and a student convicted for taking abortion pills in the North) demonstrate Ingman’s theory. Meanwhile, millennial writers articulate an Irish female sexuality perhaps uncommented on before, wherein sex is used to interrogate protagonists’ relationships to global capitalism, and as a means of forging connection in an individualised, atomised world.

To circle back to the contemporary, then, it is personally affirming and fulfilling to work with new women’s fiction engaging previously fraught topics in Irish culture, politics and society. More and more, I feel myself to be deeply entwined with my research. Of course, there is a strong tradition in Irish writing of interrogating past and present ideologies, beliefs and sacred cows. This critical bent has recently turned its attention to several issues close to my own heart – the endemic misogyny on which the Irish state was founded and the sexism which continues to circulate in society for instance, but also Ireland’s uncritical embrace of neoliberal, free-market capitalism and the parallel dismantling of better aspects of Irish history like collectivism, community, and strong labour and socialist traditions. If this writing interrogates the distant past and foundational ideologies, in so doing it challenges the basis for a recent past I have lived through and the material conditions of the present I am living through both as a situated being in Dublin, Ireland, and an Irish citizen / woman / millennial / researcher / object-of-capitalism.

Rosie Meade and Fiona Dukelow note the “pluralised forms” resistance has taken in twenty-first century Ireland (‘Introduction’, Defining Events (2015): 1-12, 3). Similarly, the beauty of short fiction as a vehicle for disruption is its “being various”, as Lucy Caldwell’s recent anthology put it (Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (2019)). This field is not calcified in one approach, but reflects the divergences and nuance of contemporary Ireland. It is profoundly exciting to know that there “are more collections to be written yet” (Patterson), to trust that the burgeoning indie press will publish them in real-time, and to know that they will both reflect and shape further machinations in Irish society. I have a firm sense that I am growing as a researcher in tandem with a reflective, varied and socially-informed canon.


Orlaith Darling

Orlaith Darling is a Ph.D. candidate in Trinity College School of English where she is researching contemporary short fiction by Irish women, supervised by Dr Paul Delaney. In particular, she is interested in how contemporary women writers relate to history, engage with foundational ideologies of Irish society, and challenge gendered traditions. She previously completed an M.Sc. in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh (2019) and read English Literature and History in Trinity College Dublin (2018), where she was elected to scholarship in 2016. In general, she is interested in the intersection of contemporary politics and literature.