Mary O’Donnell was born in Co. Monaghan, an area whose geographical proximity to Northern Ireland turns it into a cultural space of liminality, somewhere in between British influences and the Irish heritage. This ambivalence in the geographical and identity coordinates of her home place is reflected in O’Donnell’s perception of her own position as a writer in the Republic of Ireland belonging to a specific poetic tradition.
The clear-cut categories often established for Northern and Southern writers are blurred in the life and work of Mary O’Donnell, who is highly versed in the poetic idioms of the North and also acknowledges the influence of ‘Ulster’ Irish culture in the making of her artistic self.
O’Donnell’s extensive production is not only varied in genre – she has published poetry, novels, short story and a good number of critical essays and literary reviews – but also in themes and in the treatment of those themes, showing a clear evolution of the writer in the span of her lifetime. Identified as a poet in some critical circles, as a novelist and short-story writer in others, O’Donnell moves deftly and at ease between different forms of literary expression, allowing the subject matter to direct her towards its most adequate medium.
She has published five volumes of poetry so far. The first two collections – Reading the Sunflowers in September (1990) and Spiderwoman’s Third Avenue Rhapsody (1993) – were nominated for The Irish Times Literature Award; then came Unlegendary Heores (1998), September Elegies (2003) and The Place of Miracles: New and Selected Poems (2006). A sixth volume, The Ark Builders, is forthcoming in October 2009 from Arc Publications UK.
She is also the author of three novels: The Light-makers (1992), The Sunday Tribune’s Best New Irish Novel of 1992, Virgin and the Boy (1996) and The Elysium Testament (1999). In 1991 she published her first collection of short stories (Strong Pagans) and her latest, the celebrated volume Storm over Belfast (2008) has been described as a “display of Mary O’Donnell’s immense talent”. Its different narratives become tales of the so-called New Ireland and the volume was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.
Mary O’Donnell started writing at a time when Irish women had to struggle against gender stereotyping within their own literary tradition. The work of her generation contributed to clearing a space for female creativity in Ireland, thus adding an ethical value to the literary quality of the work. All through her production we can perceive a strong emphasis on subjects that had been kept at the margins of the systems of representation for too long a time: the female body, sexuality, desire, the institutionalisation of motherhood, maternity (its pleasures and pressures), the family, and the strong impact of religious and nationalist iconography in the construction of Irishness acquire thematic weight in her poems and narrative.
O’Donnell’s own education in German turned her from an early age to the history, literatures and landscapes of Europe. This interest has impinged on her poetry to date (in ‘Quartet’ (from Unlegendary Heroes), for example, and ‘Turn, Season’ (in September Elegies). However, the treatment of her most recurrent topic is far from stagnant, and constantly renews itself with the addition of nuances and perspectives that result from the interaction between the text and the rapidly changing faces of its context. Hence, in her forthcoming volume The Ark Builders, race, ethnicity, globalisation or multiculturalism are moved to the centre of representation and inscribe on the literary page new subjects that are then incorporated into the Irish literary canon.
Mary O’Donnell has been a member of Aosdana since 2001 and has presented several series of poetry programmes for RTE Radio. Her international influences have resulted in her interest in poetry in translation and in 2005 and 2006 she presented the RTE Radio programme ‘Crossing the Lines’, which focused on European poetry. She has also been a teacher of creative writing, participated in numerous poetry workshops as a facilitator and next spring will be teaching creative writing at NUI, Maynooth.
As she writes in her introduction to The Place of Miracles, words are for O’Donnell “my light burden, my alchemist’s bag, usually open”. Lovers of poetry often wonder where poetry comes from, what makes a poet a poet. O’Donnell’s alchemist’s bag is full of words, all of them the result of what Derek Mahon has described as her “lived experience”, the specificities of being a woman – an Irish woman – and her capacity to wonder with an acute and constant awareness of the world around her.
Reading the Sunflowers in September, Salmon, Galway, 1990
Spiderwoman's Third Avenue Rhapsody, Salmon, Galway, 1993
Unlegendary Heroes, Salmon, Co. Clare, 1998
September Elegies Lapwing, Belfast, 2003
The Place of Miracles: New & Selected Poems, New Island, Dublin, 2006
Strong Pagans, Poolebeg, Dublin, 1991
The Light-Makers, Poolebeg, Dublin, 1992
Virgin and the Boy, Poolebeg, Dublin, 1996
The Elysium Testament, Trident, London, 1999
Storm Over Belfast, New Island, Dublin, 2008
Mary O’Donnell’s website
Mary O’Donnell’s page on Irish Writers Online
Two poems by Mary O’Donnell on dublinwriters.org