Martina Devlin: ‘Truth & Dare’
I am delighted to welcome Martina Devlin to my website, to celebrate the publication of her latest work of fiction ‘Truth & Dare’.
Martina Devlin on ‘Truth & Dare’
Martina is a well-known journalist, a prize-winning short story writer, and the author of three novels.
This is her first collection of short stories, launched recently at the Irish Writers’ Centre where she currenlty serves as a member of the Board.
What was your inspiration for the collection?
I knew that trailblazing women drove change in Ireland more than a century ago. Their courage and determination are the reason women today have the vote, access to education and the professions.
I also knew they had become invisible women – either deliberately written out of history, or minimised by being reduced to two-dimensional figures.
Countess Markievicz, for example, is remembered as a 1916 revolutionary, spared execution because of her sex – but she was also a labour activist who believed in social justice. Maud Gonne is known as Yeats’s muse – but she was a lifelong advocate for prisoners’ rights.
I felt our history was distorted by their neglect, fumed about it, and had an epiphany: I should write about them in an attempt to breathe life into their stories. I saw it as a deliberate way of reclaiming them. So Truth & Dare was born.
Why did you fictionalise their stories rather than write the book as biography?
To humanise them.
Otherwise their lengthy roll call of achievements risked sounding like a shopping list. Also, to give me the freedom to imagine the thoughts inside their heads.
So I inserted myself into their lives, tried to walk in their shoes – each story is told from the woman’s perspective, whether Cork’s Nano Nagle who risked her life to educate poor girls despite the Penal Laws (I show her at lessons in a hedge school as a little girl), or feminist activist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington on hunger strike in a London prison, fantasising about fancy cheeses.
I spoke to a former hunger striker to get a feel for how it affects body and mind and I was fascinated to learn you don’t stop longing for food. The mind-over-matter battle is constant.
What makes them extraordinary human beings – regardless of gender?
They wanted to change the world not just for themselves but for others, too – for women and men. Many of these women were conscious of how tough life was for those born into less fortunate circumstances.
Some of them could have led very pleasant lives as society hostesses – instead they chose to direct their energies into a variety of causes.
Belfast-born Mary Ann McCracken is someone I find inspirational, although she’s barely known today.
She was involved in all sorts of campaigns, from a movement to stop children being used as chimney sweeps to opposition to the slave trade – a few days short of her 89th birthday she was handing out anti-slavery literature at the docks to emigrants boarding ships bound for the US.
Anna Parnell is another hero.
She found ways to subvert unjust laws during the Land War and helped evicted tenants in practical ways, building temporary shelters, for example. These women wanted equal rights and opportunities for all people regardless of class or colour.
They realised that by collaborating, being persistent and having faith in their capacity to effect change, they could chip away at opposition to equality.
That’s a lesson for us to remember today, with the workplace remaining unfair and political power still not shared.
Your stories run from the 1720s to the 1920s. Did you find yourself drawn to any particular period?
The lead-in to (some) women winning the right to vote in 1918 struck me as an intense and fascinating period.
Three great movements were unfolding: nationalism, the struggle for the vote and labour rights. The possibilities must have seemed enormously exciting to these vibrant women.
But the reality was surely disappointing. Women were sidelined by the authoritarian, conservative State which developed post-independence – one not representative of the community as a whole, either female or male.
Where did your research lead you?
The research had a snowball effect. Once you start digging into their stories, one woman guides you to another.
Countess Markievicz led me to Dr Kathleen Lynn, also out in 1916, but she went on to co-found St Ultan’s Hospital in Dublin, one of the first children’s hospitals, and inoculated thousands of children against TB.
She shared her life and work with a fellow revolutionary, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen. I made sure to include Madeleine in the story about Kathleen because she was a significant part of her life.
Were you thinking about the collection for a long time before writing it?
I think the seed may have been planted as far back as 1990.
I’ve never forgotten my annoyance when Pádraig Flynn attacked Mary Robinson during that year’s presidential campaign – accusing her of “having a new-found interest in her family”.
The fact that a government minister thought he could make such a sexist remark with impunity showed an inherent lack of respect for women.
However, not only did Mrs Robinson have the last laugh, she famously attributed her election to Mná na hÉireann: she said she was elected by other women who, instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.
And that reminded me how we can make a difference.
I’ve always believed in activism, using my platform in journalism to highlight issues I see as important or neglected, and I’ve tried to move my fiction in the same direction.
One of my previous novels, The House Where It Happened, is about a mass witchcraft trial in Antrim in 1711.
I’ve been campaigning for four years to have a plaque put up to the women who were unfairly accused and convicted in Islandmagee, and I’m hopeful a ceremony to honour them will happen soon.
They’ve been overlooked and silenced for too long.
We’re adept at looking away, at ‘forgetting’ in Ireland. It’s high time women made a lot of noise about and on behalf of other women.
You’re doing a PhD in literary practice at Trinity College Dublin. Is it difficult to separate your PhD work from writing fiction, or do they each influence the other?
I have to confess the juggle can be a challenge. I’m still involved in journalism and I continue to write fiction…there are quite a few balls tossing about in the air.
I just try to manage my time effectively. I don’t always succeed, but it’s something I’m conscious of.
I’m freshest in the morning so that’s when I do creative work. I’m researching Somerville and Ross for the PhD and spent all last year reading their letters so I’ve used some of them to shape a short story in Truth & Dare.
The letters were funny and witty (they called payment reminders to their agent ‘stand and deliver’ notes), packed with social detail, and I felt I knew the two women well enough to imagine myself inside their heads.
So yes, the PhD has influenced the fiction.
What writing style did you decide to adopt – are there echoes of late 19th or early 20th century language, or is your ‘take’ a completely contemporary one?
I wasn’t conscious of any particular method or manner for the most part.
+Often the stories are in the first person voice, or close third person, so the reader enters each woman’s perspective.
With the Dorothy Macardle story, however, I did set out to write a spooky tale in her style.
Dorothy, who was president of the organisation which was a forerunner to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, was a talented ghost story writer. Among her novels and short stories is the classic Uneasy Freehold, later renamed The Uninvited.
I’m a fan of ghost stories, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are favourites.
Overall, what I’m doing with Truth & Dare is an act of ventriloquism but with a purpose underpinning it.
I want readers to be as gripped by the women in the collection as I am – to throw down my book and race off to do their own research on these exceptional, stirring women.
Martina Devlin biography
Her latest book is Truth & Dare, a short story collection in which she brings to life some of the women who shaped Ireland – from Maud Gonne to Countess Markievicz to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.
Her novels include About Sisterland set in the future in a world ruled by women, The House Where It Happened about Ireland’s last witchcraft trial and Ship of Dreams about the Titanic disaster, with which she has a family connection.
Her work has won a number of prizes including the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Memorial Prize and a Hennessy Literary Prize, while she has been shortlisted three times for the Irish Book Awards.
She writes a weekly current affairs column for the Irish Independent and has been named National Newspapers of Ireland commentator of the year.
She is a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin researching Somerville and Ross.