Date of Award

Spring 2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Zurcher, Amelia

Second Advisor

Gillespie, Michael Patrick


This dissertation examines four novels that represent Irish women and girls confronting the typical narrative of Irish national identity in the twentieth century. The post-independence construction of Irish national identity depended upon prescriptive roles that aligned with its founders’ beliefs about the nation’s ethnic homogeneity and moral superiority. Irish women’s identity and roles as wives and mothers were imperative to upholding this idea of the nation, particularly its morality. Irish women were therefore charged with maintaining well-defined gender roles and the nuclear family in an effort to define a distinctive Irish identity. Thus, when women’s roles are challenged or changed the idea of the nation and national identity are also challenged or changed.

This study finds that novels by Edna O’Brien, Maeve Kelly, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Anne Enright depict typical Irish national identity as masculinist, essentialist, inaccurately monolithic and, ultimately, damaging. The novels assert the need for alternatives by portraying the multiplicity of Irish experiences and identities, particularly for women and girls. In considering the ways in which these novels reimagine Irish women’s identity and social roles, I employ the term “postnational identity” to show that these novels are reaching beyond typical mid-twentieth century ideas about Irish national identity to develop a more complex picture of the relationship between women’s roles and Irishness.

In the first chapter I analyze how Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue (1987) represents the harmful effects of prescriptive gender roles as the characters struggle to supersede the Irish nation’s feminine ideal. The second chapter traces the ways in which Maeve Kelly’s Necessary Treasons (1985) resists cultural consensus and asserts the need for women’s political participation in order to create social change. In the third chapter I consider the ways in which Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s The Dancers Dancing (1999) challenges the social norms of national identity by advancing the need to recognize more inclusive and diverse identities. Finally, the fourth chapter argues that Anne Enright’s What Are You Like? (2000) asserts that the ideal of Irish national identity is broken because it created unfair gender divisions that victimized women.