Because the British Empire has a way of co-opting its colonial writers, we’re often surprised to learn that many of the great writers we’ve been raised to think of as English are, in fact, Irish. While male Irish writers tend to get the bulk of the attention, the country has also produced an impressive number of female writers, from seventh century Saint Samthann to Maeve Binchy, and beyond.
In an attempt to narrow the list, here are a few of our favorite, mostly 18th- and 19th-century, female Irish writers:
Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan)
Owenson is most famous for her spectacularly wacky novel The Wild Irish Girl : A National Tale (1806). Part love story, part Irish historical/cultural/literary apologia, The Wild Irish Girl tells the story of Horatio, an underachieving English man who discovers the wonders of Irish life and love in the form of Glorvina, the titular Irish girl. Full of tender glances, anguished silences, and overflowing amounts of tears, the novel was so popular that the diminutive (she was just over four feet tall) Owenson took to dressing up as Glorvina to entertain London society. With her proto-cosplay, Owenson proved herself adept at navigating early fan culture.
It’s a sadly all-too-familiar story: Pilkington—a talented poet—put up with her good-for-nothing husband’s string of affairs, but found herself divorced and destitute after she took up with a lover herself. She turned to writing (poetry, plays, ghost-writing) to support herself, but became most famous for her scandalous Memoirs, which were published in installments in the late 1740s, and financed in part by subscriptions from people who didn’t want to appear in a bad light in her autobiography. As a former member of Jonathan Swift’s circle in Dublin, and friend to many literary and theatrical London luminaries, Pilkington had lots of juicy anecdotes for her Memoirs, which are full of indignation for the way women of her time were treated.
Although Edgeworth is sometimes faulted for her didactic tendencies, she was a prolific and eminent writer, a defender of women authors, and an important innovator in the history of the novel. Her influence on Jane Austen is clear, perhaps most obviously in her mad romp, Belinda (1801), which includes female dueling, cross-dressing, a pig vs. turkey race, and a mysterious breast injury. Although Belinda takes place in London, Edgeworth also published several successful novels set in Ireland, where she lived for most of her adult life, primarily on her family’s estate. She also wrote educational treatises and children’s literature.
Gore-Booth was a poet, a campaigner for women’s suffrage, a pacifist, a playwright, a labor organizer, and an animal rights activist, among other things. Born into the wealthy, Irish Protestant elite, Eva and her sister Constance both rejected their upbringing. Constance became a militant advocate for Irish independence, while Eva turned to poetic composition and the suffragist cause. In addition to publishing multiple volumes of poetry influenced by her progressive political beliefs, love for Ireland, and Christian mysticism, Gore-Booth edited the journal Urania, which advocated for the elimination of gender distinctions.
Born Mary Chavelita Dunne, Egerton is better known by the pen name she adopted when she became one of the best known “New Woman” writers in fin-de siècle England. Egerton was a prolific and successful writer of short stories, some of which were published in The Yellow Book, the scandalous aesthetic periodical of the 1890s. Although Egerton’s stories notoriously explored female sexual desire, she disavowed her connection to the feminism of the time, and seems to have opposed woman’s suffrage. Check out “A Cross Line,” the first short story in her 1894 collection Keynotes, to get a sense of her innovative style.