Mary Ellen Flynn reviews Nell by Nell McCafferty, in which a Catholic lesbian feminist recounts her experiences growing up and living in Northern Ireland. Flynn finds inspiration in McCafferty’s mantra: "When women rise up, giving authority to their children to do likewise, the revolution is unstoppable"
As watchtowers are being taken down in Belfast and Derry and the violence in Northern Ireland comes to a possible end, Nell by Nell McCafferty is of particular interest. In it she chronicles her life as a child in Northern Ireland, which leads to her experience as a member of the struggle for Catholic equal rights in her native Derry as an adult. Most importantly, she tells it from a woman’s point of view. This is not simply a version of the troubles in Northern Ireland, however. McCafferty chronicles her life as a feminist, journalist and lesbian. It is a story of passion and lonesomeness which inspires as well as entertains. Often while reading it, I felt as if I were on a stoop with McCafferty and other women on the block, having a cigarette and exchanging stories of our history and our life as women.
Born in 1944, McCafferty was raised in Derry’s Bogside, a sliver of land relegated to the Catholic residents of the town. She was bright as a child and easily found a place at the university, being the first in her family to go there. She travelled to France and went on to live on a kibbutz in Israel where she experienced the realities of living in a socialist constructed life. She wanted to be a teacher in Derry to save for travelling but was unable to since, “(t)he state or Protestant schools would not hire me because I was Catholic, and the Catholics would not hire me because I was not a proper Catholic.” She was forced to take short term teaching stints and live on the dole.
Were it not for the circumstances of the times she lived in Derry, it seems doubtful she would have become a revolutionary. She proclaims: “I was not a nationalist. I was not an Irish rebel. My future career, such as I thought about it, would be in England. And yet, I was having none of this nonsense about subservience to the British throne.” In fact, she claims that the most “sustained political gesture,” she made at Queen’s university was to attend bread-and-cheese lunches held by Oxfam in support of famine relief in Third World countries. In 1965 she participated in a protest against the Stormont government with Derry teacher John Hume because she was “(b)ored, and with little else to do.” In 1967, she ran into her old friend Eamonn McCann who asked if she wanted to come down to the Londonderry Labour Party headquarters to help prepare for the general election. She welcomed the chance to participate in the community, which provided her with plenty of stories to bring back to her mother, father and brother and sisters at home.
Through McCafferty’s eyes the reader is privy to an alternate version of the movement for Catholic equality in Northern Ireland. Their protests were not for a united Ireland, but for access to the means of a good living: jobs and housing. She describes the hopelessness of Catholics in 1966 as exemplified by her brother who was, “married with two children, (and) was living in an attic flat, in a slum dwelling.” No construction of new housing stock was occurring, despite the growth in population in Derry. There was a long waiting list made up primarily of Catholics which was seen by Catholics as a “matter of pure sectarianism.” McCafferty felt this was puzzling since, “the pious aspiration of the Nationalist party apart, none of us was looking for a United Ireland. That was up there in the pantheon, with heaven, and we, meanwhile, had to get on with it, on earth.”
Unable to find work in war torn Derry, McCafferty went to Dublin to obtain a position as a journalist at the Irish Times. She was placed in the Women’s Section where she worked with soon to be prominent writers such as Maeve Binchey, Mary Maher, Mary Cummins and Mary Kenny. She made a reputation for herself writing a series about the Children’s Court in Dublin and later the “In the Eyes of the Law” column.
From a young age McCafferty astutely observed the inequalities between the sexes. Her mother had to make do with the money she was given by her husband on Fridays when he would “give a certain amount to my mother, while concealing how much he kept back for himself.” Her mother never knew how much her husband made or whether he was saving for a rainy day, and her mother couldn’t save money herself because the money he gave her went entirely to the expenses of the family.
This patriarchal experience is mirrored in McCafferty’s time in the activist movement for Catholic equality, where women were not allowed to attend meetings of the leadership running the protest movement. Despite this, McCafferty is careful to convey the importance women played in the conflict. She includes stories of the young Bernadette Devlin rousing Catholics to fight for their rights. McCafferty’s mother and her friends participate as well by providing the support needed to sustain the movement with the simplest gesture of setting a bowl of vinegar outside their doors so protesters who’d been doused with CS gas could douse their eyes with it. She repeats several times the mantra that, “(w)hen women rise up, giving authority to their children to do likewise, the revolution is unstoppable.”
McCafferty clearly has an appreciation of the interactions that take place between women. As a child, she observed the women of her block tell stories to one another as well as support one another. She seems to revel in their very language, inserting it as a way to preserve their voices forever. One of my favourites is: “He poured tea leaves over her scone bread, the cruel git.” The women never condemned each other during these sessions, often coming to the aid of a woman when she needed it. This sense of community would surface again in McCafferty’s work as a founding member of the Irishwomen’s Liberation Movement. I also think the sisterhood between the women McCafferty grew up with, as well as the women she struggled with in the Irish movement, serves as a beneficial model for today’s feminist movement.
Finally, McCafferty’s development of a lesbian identity is conveyed honestly; she spares no one, not even herself. The book begins with her crisis as a heartbroken seventeen year old trying to sort out her feelings with her parents who are nothing but perplexed. In the end she consults Mother Gertrude who is not at all dismayed by her difficulty, telling her she “was not to be condemned.” However, Mother Gertrude also makes clear that McCafferty would have to live with it for the rest of her life. Her loneliness she felt is palpable as she relates the dry spells she has in relationships without even a kiss.
McCafferty also struggles with her identity as a lesbian. She is challenged by the feminist Katherine Millet who calls her a “baby dyke,” a term which bristles McCafferty and one which she initially rejects for herself. Even through tumultuous long-term relationships with women, including the well documented fifteen year affair with author Nuala O’Faolain, she hesitantly took the label of lesbian. By the end of the memoir though, she has firmly adopted her identity along with the blessing of her mother who loved her and insisted her daughter was not a freak.
If there is a critique I have of the memoir, it’s that McCafferty disappoints when she tells that O’Faolain is the reason she wanted to write this memoir. The reader is left to conclude that it’s her way of getting back at O’Faolain for snubbing McCaffferty in her own memoir. She writes, “I knew I would write this book when an American magazine sent me an interview it had done with Nuala.” This limits the scope of this work greatly since it is so much more than that. However, the story of the two illustrates a relationship between two strong women with brilliance to spare. It was a relationship doomed from the start.
In the end, McCafferty’s memoir’s power lies not only in the history it describes in beautifully flowing prose, but in the honesty to retains not only for the circumstances of her life and the people who inhabited it, but also for her own foibles.