The Irish literary scene has always been one which has served as a sphere of revolution. At the genesis of our country’s independence were the writings of W.B. Yeats; from the harrowing years of the Troubles, the words of Seamus Heaney still echo. Feminism is its own unique brand of revolution, and critically-acclaimed author Louise O’Neill proudly fights the good fight. O’Neill read an extract from her critically-acclaimed debut novel, Only Ever Yours, in Maynooth University’s Callan Hall on Wednesday the 2nd of March. This was followed by a Q&A session, during which students and faculty members alike could gain further insight into her influences, experiences, and plans for the future.
Since Only Ever Yours took the world by storm in 2015, O’Neill’s writing has proven itself to be a breeding ground for social and political debate. The dystopian narrative, after all, is one which is riddled with hard truths, no matter how alternative its reality purports to be. The novel tells the story of freida, 17 year old girl surviving in a not-so distant future. No, that lack of name-capitalisation wasn’t a typo – Only Ever Yours presents to the reader a harrowing world in women are denied agency, bodily autonomy, and an existence independent of the male totalitarian regime in which they live. As a result of this, the name of every female character is un-capitalised, demonstrating their objectification. The novel’s story is not for the faint of heart, and yet fans of O’Neill agree that it is one that absolutely had to be told.
To paraphrase English Department member Dr. Oona Frawley, the excitement generated by O’Neill’s presence was made clear by the electric silence that filled the packed hall upon her arrival. After a brief introduction from Dr. Frawley, the reading began. The extract which O’Neill chose to read was one in which freida reflects on the systematically misogynist world she inhabits, as well as the way it has shaped her relationships with other girls that reside in their compound-like school. The reason that she chose this passage was clear, as it provided ample fodder for the Q&A session which followed immediately after.
O’Neill received an incredibly varied array of queries and answered each one openly and honestly. The oft-disturbing nature of the subject matter was offset by the author’s frank and funny nature, even when she spoke of serious matters such as the presence of rape culture in Irish society and her personal struggles with identity and body-image. Speaking of Only Ever Yours, O’Neill said that the story was one that she felt people “needed to hear”, and that the tragic ending is intended to disturb readers into a reconsideration of modern society and its treatment of women. On the subject of technology’s role in gender relations, she stated her belief that adolescent girls are wrongly condemned for displaying their budding sexuality in selfies which they post online.
“I think there’s something really empowering about a girl posting her picture online and having the bravery to say ‘I think I look really beautiful here’, because for her entire life, the media has tried to tell her that she’s not,” said O’Neill. “People go on about how it’s dangerous or wrong for girls to play around with these things, but isn’t adolescence meant to be a time for experimenting?”
O’Neill’s own online presence is one which can itself be characterised as “experimental” – her Facebook page is full of social debate, with praise and criticism alike flooding the comments sections beneath her posts. This, of course, is nothing less than one would expect for such an outspoken writer. For O’Neill, though, the positive outweighs the negative: she revealed that she receives at least one email a day from individuals who have been touched by her work and felt compelled to reach out.
Louise O’Neill’s career thus far has been a tour de force for feminist Ireland, and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. A film adaptation of Only Ever Yours is the works and her second novel, Asking For It, is still flying off the shelves nationwide. Follow her Twitter handle, @oneillo, to stay updated.