Five Must-Know Irish Women If You Like Irish Literature


By Kayla Webb

Ireland: drizzly, grey, and minimal sunlight in the winter.  But who said that was a bad thing?  For the avid reader, this is ideal weather to curl up with a good book.  And if you’re into literature, then the biggest names of Irish literature must have made it onto a few of your reading lists. The plays, poetry, and novels of James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett are considered classics within and outside of Ireland.  But behind every man is a woman, and each of these literary greats have pretty cool women hiding in their shadows who influenced them artistically, contributed to Irish literature themselves, and just raised hell.


Nora Barnacle (bottom right)

If you haven’t had to read Ulysses in school, count your blessings.  This 700-page-long novel by James Joyce all occurs within a day’s time.  The date Joyce chose?  June 16, 1904, the day he and Nora Barnacle (Joyce’s muse and eventual life-long wife) went on their first romantic date.  As his muse, Joyce drew from much of Barnacle’s life to inspire his writings.  For example, Barnacle’s reputation as a man-killer (called thus after the premature deaths of her first two romantic interests) inspired the final short story in Joyce’s Dubliners, “The Dead”.  The best gift a man could give to a woman: her life memorialized in writing.  *swoon*   (Picture: via )


Similarly to Joyce, many of W. B. Yeats’ most popular works were inspired by a woman.  Maud Gonne was not only a great beauty who inspired many of Yeats’ poems, but was also an Irish revolutionary, suffragette, and actress.  But unlike the passive objectified beautiful women captured by the pen of men, Gonne was a beautiful woman of action.  Gonne wrote her own autobiography, organized protests, and was arrested and jailed for fighting for what she believed in, most of which was documented in Yeats’ poetry.  Yet, despite Yeats’ deep (creepy) infatuation with Gonne, “he gave all his heart and lost” and the two never married.  Team Maud.


Gay?  Straight?  Who needs to define Oscar Wilde anyway?  Not his mother.  Jane Wilde, arguably just as snarky as Wilde himself, was an Irish nationalist, women’s rights activist, and poet.  She wrote under the name Speranza and her poetry focused on pro-Irish independence, anti-British sentiment, cried for an armed revolution, and demanded for better education for women.  One of her poems was so fiery, it caused an entire newspaper to be shut down by the government.  #Goals


Charlotte Payne-Townshend (center left)

Charlotte Payne-Townshend: defying societal gender norms since 1857. The wife of playwright, George Bernard Shaw, Townshend wasn’t going to wait around for Shaw to get his act together and proposed to him herself.  Much like the aforementioned Irish women, Townshend was an Irish political and women’s rights activist.  After Shaw’s bicycle accident, she helped him prepare his plays for the public by learning to read his shorthand, typing his work, and taking his some of his most famous pieces (such as Pygmalion, Saint Joan, and Man and Superman) to the press.  Shaw captured their relationship within his play A Village Wooing.  


Like Shaw, some argue Samuel Becket’s wife was also one of the main reasons his work every made it to the public.  With avant-garde tastes, left-wing ideals, and a mean backhand (in tennis), Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil not only captured the heart of the six year younger Becket, but also acted as his agent.  She encouraged him within their home, promoted him and his work, and took his finished work to publishing houses when he was having his dark moods. Dumesnil had no need to wait for Godot.

While the legacies of these renowned authors continues, the necessity of remembering the strong women in their lives provides an intriguing paratext to understanding many of their great works.  Without Nora Barnacle, Jane Wilde, Maud Gonne, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, and Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil would we have some of the most reputed Irish literary geniuses?  I dare say: probably not.

About the Author: Kayla Webb is an English Literature and Creative Writing major at Seattle Pacific University.  After traveling abroad to Spain and Morocco as a freshmen in college, she hasn’t been able to stop dreaming about faraway places and planning a million possible trips around the world.  When she’s not in California, she lives as a blanket burrito in Seattle, creates Instagram captions for the pictures she would take in faraway places, and befriends dogs.

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