Author Spotlight: Sally Barr Ebest


Book: The Banshees: A Literary History of Irish American Women Writers

Sally Barr Ebest is professor of English and director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. She is the coeditor of Reconciling Catholicism and Feminism? Personal Reflections on Tradition and Change and Too Smart to Be Sentimental: Contemporary Irish American Women Writers.

Please provide a brief description/overview of The Banshees.

The Banshees traces the feminist contributions of Irish American women writers from 1835, when a highly literate first generation of women began
to arrive on American shores, through the present.

Why did you choose to dub your Irish American women banshees?

When I was deciding on a title, one of my friends said: “Why not banshee?” Ban = no; she = women. Ergo: no women. That certainly described the majority of Irish American scholarship, so I decided to look further and learned that Irish American women writers share a good deal in common with the mythical Irish banshee. Patricia Lysaght’s research found that banshee is sometimes translated as “scold” or “a scolding woman,” “war goddess,” “a dangerous, frightening and aggressive being,” an “heroic individual” or “threatening” female, who often took on the role of guardian. That sounded like a feminist to me—and others agreed.

In the 1970s, the banshee was adopted as the symbol of the Irish Women United (IWU), a radical feminist group. The IWU named their journal Banshee “not only because the being is feminine, but also because her appearance and behavior do not correspond to conventional male ideas about what a woman should look like and be like.” Although the journal disappeared in 1975, the concept was revitalized for a literary web site in 1997 by New Irish authors Emer Martin and Helena Mulkerns. “We chose the name Banshee,” Mulkerns explains, “because we wanted something strong, loud, female, and Irish.” Like the banshee, Irish American women writers have repeatedly warned of the death of women’s rights.

How did your own Irish heritage influence the writing of this book?

I am Irish on both sides of the family—my father’s people, the Barrs (nee O’Barr) were from northern Ireland and my mother’s, the Morris’s, were from Cork. But I didn’t know too much about my heritage until I met my husband, Ron Ebest, who specialized in Irish Studies for his doctorate during its heyday at Southern Illinois University under Charlie Fanning. In 1998, I accompanied Ron to Charlie’s Symposium on the Irish Diaspora and fell in love. For two days, I listened, rapt, to intellectually challenging, interdisciplinary research covering a range of topics. Intimidated but impressed, I longed to be a part of this erudite group. But I was also intrigued and a little bit outraged: Where were the women? How could such an impressive array of scholars overlook half the population? This experience ignited a nascent feminism as well as a strong sense of loyalty to this cohort—Irish American traits I am proud to possess.

Do you identify with any of the writers (or their fictional characters) that you’ve featured?banshees

Brought up by conservative parents in a small town in the 1950s and having married a charming Irish American alcoholic in the 1970s, I identified with the browbeaten wives Maeve Brennan and Mary McCarthy describe and the struggling feminists portrayed by Mary Gordon. Reading Brennan and McCarthy as well as Anne O’Hagan, Jacqueline Carey, and Caitlin Macy, I recognized and appreciated the satiric voice I grew up with and inherited from my dad. After learning about Scarlett O’Hara’s Irish American identity in Christopher Dowd’s study, I realized why I so admired her independence. Likewise, I identified with Erin McGraw’s characters because through them I could trace my own political and emotional growth—which is why J. Courtney Sullivan’s post-feminist females are so infuriating. Overall, I love the writing of Ann Patchett, whose empathetic, lyrical voice is so engaging. I never want her books to end.

You make the bold claim that “feminism is revealed as a fundamental element of Irish American literary history” through your book. Why are Irish American women, writers in particular, so closely linked with the feminist movement?

Irish American women have battled patriarchal bonds on two fronts: society, which has imposed such bonds, and the Catholic Church, which created and reinforced them. But theirs is a long history. Their Irish foremothers were rebelling against government’s attempts to control their personal lives as early as 1685. More than half of the Irish immigrants were female, and they usually traveled alone or with their female relatives—a freedom unheard of among other ethnicities.  This mindset was passed on to their daughters.

Feminist researchers such as Monica McGoldrick found that Irish and Irish American women were “tenacious and formidable” and made sure their daughters were too: while they pampered their sons, they forced their daughters to be self sufficient. Whereas Irish American males were slow to assimilate, educate, and progress, Irish American females, many of whom started their American working lives as nannies and maids, made sure that their daughters got a sound education—thanks to the Irish nuns who taught in the nation’s parochial schools and founded some of the best women’s colleges— and thus were self-supporting as they moved up the socio-economic ladder. Once in the workplace, the need for strength, independence, and civil rights was underscored.

The Banshees: A Literary History of Irish American Women Writers stands out as significant contribution to an often forgotten segment of literature. Why do you think so little has been written about the role played by Irish American women in exposing women’s issues and anticipating social change?

The American Catholic church was responsible for women’s absence in religious histories. Early works, generally written by and about priests, contained very little information about lay men, but lay women were “invisible” due to what feminist theologian Mary Jo Weaver terms the authors’ “invincible ignorance.” More recent historians, writing after the women’s movement, have simply been guilty of neglect. Such oversights reflect the fact that throughout much of American history, women’s relationship to religion and Catholicism was rarely addressed.

Irish American women have also been overlooked by literary scholars because their writing not only avoids classic Irish American themes such as male camaraderie, drink, violence, and pub life, but also because they refuse to praise mothers or glorify priests. Historians and feminist scholars have also ignored Irish American women—historians because the writers were female, and feminists because the writers were presumably Catholic.

More specifically, Irish American women writers have been ostracized because of the traditional definitions of the Irish American literary field. Eamonn Wall suggests that “[if] a writer does not write about Irish Americans … he or she will be labeled an American writer.” The problem for an Irish American writer is that the field of operation is rather small, but if he or she abandons this field, there will no longer be an Irish American novel, unless the parameters are extended. Irish American women writers have done just that: they extended the boundaries of the Irish American literary canon by moving inside the bedroom, outside the home, and into the workplace. Perhaps as a result, their writing has been overlooked because of their feminist stance.

What can we expect next from you? Is there anything you’re working on right now?

I’m working on a short project and then plan to move onto another long one. The first draws on the letters of Catherine Flanagan Leary, a suffragist, activist, and victim of the Catholic prohibition against birth control. Next on the horizon–a book on 21st century Irish American women writers Jennifer Egan, Gillian Flynn, Caitlin Macy, Jeanette Walls, Ann Patchett, and Emer Martin–and how they have continued and expanded upon the literary traditions initiated by their Irish American foremothers.


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