The lesbian in the house: Twentieth-century Irish lesbian fiction

Date of Completion

January 2003


Women's Studies|Literature, English




This dissertation compares the treatment of lesbianism in a range of fiction produced by Irish writers between 1928 and 1997. Beginning with the works of Molly Keane and Kate O'Brien and moving up through more recent fiction, the dissertation traces the evolution of a literary Irish lesbian tradition. All of the works revise the traditionally heterosexual domestic sphere to create a distinctly lesbian domestic sphere. ^ Chapter One begins with a discussion of Ireland's anti-homosexuality laws, explores the women's and gay and lesbian rights movements beginning in the 1970s, and culminates with the current climate in Ireland for gays and lesbians following the 1993 decriminalization of homosexuality. In Chapter Two, I turn to the literature of Molly Keane and Kate O'Brien. Although few Irish writers addressed the subject of lesbianism prior to 1960, Keane's and O'Brien's novels all reveal how difficult it was during this time for lesbian sexuality to be imagined within Ireland's borders. ^ Chapter Three moves forward to the groundbreaking fiction by Mary Dorcey in the 1980s and '90s. In her collection of short stories, A Noise from the Woodshed and her 1997 novel Biography of Desire , Dorcey begins to create lesbian domestic scenarios in her fiction, and she shows the kinds of social struggles that Irish lesbians experience, particularly after breaking away from heterosexual marriages. In Chapter Four, I compare Dorcey's work with that of Emma Donoghue. In her novels Stir-Fry and Hood, Donoghue explores the difficulties of coming out in Ireland, the clash of Catholicism and homosexuality, and the problems lesbians face when mourning a lover's death. Finally, in Chapter Five, I examine fiction by Edna O'Brien, Maura Richards, and Linda Cullen. Read in juxtaposition, these texts depict lesbians in settings at the heart of Irish culture—in familial homes, in the rural west, and in the Catholic educational system. Unlike the earlier works, these texts work to reconcile lesbianism with Irishness as they reflect and respond to contemporary Ireland's increasing plurality and sense of tolerance. ^