Elizabeth Grubgeld's book, Disability and Life Writing in Post-Independence Ireland, explores the convergence of the literary narrative genre, the history of Ireland's emergence as a nation state, and the role disability plays in the lives of Irish disabled writers both famous in international circles and those with more local notoriety. Life writing, an umbrella term used throughout the book to encompass numerous forms of artistic self-representation, describes the embodiment of disability and "what it's like to have or to be, to live in or as, a particular body—indeed, a body that is usually odd or anomalous" (Couser, 2009, p. 2). Disability studies concepts and anthropological theory are merged in the examination of first-hand accounts of disabled lives written in novelistic form, traditional autobiographical narrative, or more contemporary formats of self-publication, blogging, and visual storytelling that will appeal to scholars in overlapping fields of study. Through the examination of life writing in post-independence Ireland, the book aims to bring the non-conformist disabled body into the forefront of Irish literary discourse, much like its emergence into analysis surrounding worldwide social policy and public health.

The book contains six chapters, and in addition to being grouped by genre of life writing, they also follow a chronological sequence where the reader is carried through a historical account of Ireland's changes brought on by independence with much detail related to the backstory of political and social issues that influenced the writers. In order to address the intersectionality of disability, class, gender, region, and sectarian affiliations, the writings are grouped by genre rather than area of disability in all chapters except for chapter two where the author chooses to focus only on blindness as a way to explore the close connection between disability and class, and the struggle for sustainable employment for Ireland's blind citizens. In addition, no writing that focuses on historical social constructs in Ireland could do so without bringing religion into the mix, as it is skillfully interwoven into nearly every aspect of Irish life and almost every text mentioned.

Chapter one provides an in-depth overview of genre, the nuances of life writing and their place in disability narrative, and an examination of how Irish memoirists frame their personal stories. The chapter then goes on to describe the various patterns used in life writing (including that of restitution, chaos, the quest, and the testimony) and their place in the text discussed. The chapter ends with a discourse of how disability studies is approached from a cultural perspective in the analysis, and how disability life writing differs from Anglo-Irish life writing in general since the focus is less on Irish identity and more on the cultural construct of disability identity.

With chapter two as the only chapter to focus on an area of disability, the author explores the relationship between blindness and labor as told through the lens of two autobiographical accounts. The first, Sean O'Casey's I Knock at the Door (1939), speaks to the painful and isolating childhood experience of having ulcerated corneas brought on by infectious trachoma which went predominately untreated throughout his life as a result of poverty. The second account, Out of Sight (1998) by Joe Bollard, alternately available in Braille and audio versions in addition to text, reveals a different perception altogether. He describes his experiences as a radio broadcaster and podcaster active in the global blind community and the influence of the Disability Rights Movement in postcolonial Ireland on his life and work. Although written decades apart, both memoirs speak to the effect of parental inactivity on the outcome of each author's blindness. Inactivity, for the most part, brought on by economic factors and the widespread, overarching control of religion and class structure in the nation.

Chapter three focuses on the testimonial narrative and begins by discussing the approach to the testimonial voice that is uniquely Irish in that it involves less self-exposure and more collective accounts of social trauma. Many of the narratives analyzed in this chapter focus on the experience of growing up within residential institutions in the late 20th century and the collective sexual and physical abuse, discrimination, and ableism experienced by the authors. While the focus is less on the impairment experience and more on the unchecked barbaric treatment in the institution, it brings to light situations that occur in a society that seeks to separate, control, and dehumanize that which is different. Again, the idea of class is explored in the juxtaposition of the treatment of those with and without personal resources. This is examined through Paddy Doyle's The God Squad (1988), David Lane's Tales From the Institution: The David Lane Story, and other similar narratives which all provide a novelistic account of the coming of age, sometimes ominous experiences of children presumably at the bottom of the social class hierarchy and the psychological and physical abuse often focused around the concept of bodily waste. However, in addition to the culture of guilt and shame, there are glimpses of humanity and compassion at the hands of caregivers within the institutional wards. The chapter ends with a more contemporary account that focuses on independence and the influence of the Irish Disability Rights Movement, the Independent Living Movement, and other organizations that helped bring about a change in the treatment of disabled individuals and introduce the concept of choice.

Chapter four focuses on accounts of disability life writing through works by Irish literary writers including Christy Brown, Christopher Nolan, and Stewart Parker. These offerings are difficult to classify into the genre of autobiographical due to their use of mostly third-person point of view with a protagonist whose disability and life circumstances mirror that of the writer's. Additionally, they share a unique style and the inclusion of characters and scenes that are suspect of being fabricated, or at best embellished. As Professor Emeritus at Indiana University, Paul John Eakin states "the allegiance to truth that is the central, defining characteristic of memoir is less an allegiance to a factual record that biographers and historians could check than an allegiance to remembered consciousness and its unending succession of identity states, an allegiance to the history of one's self" (Eakin 2008, p. 64). While a majority of the accounts in the analyzed texts can be confirmed as factual, there are some that seem to fit more comfortably under the context of remembered consciousness. As in previous chapters, the effects of inherent class and power structure on the life of the protagonist are discussed along with an in-depth textual analysis that focuses on the literary as well as the disability-related focus. The chapter points out the vast dichotomy between knowledge and accessibility of disability support services and societal and income level. Stigma is addressed as well as the concepts of normalcy, identity, and in Stewart Parker's Hopdance, the moving from one life (pre-disability) to an altogether new life (post-disability).

In chapter five, the celebrity and sports narrative is analyzed in relation to the constraints placed on that style of life writing by editors, ghost writers, and collaborators who often try to steer the writing to a commercially marketable format. The desire to paint a simultaneous picture of normalcy combined with extraordinary ability, will, and perseverance is analyzed in the memoir of Irish operatic tenor, doctor, and Paralympian, Ronan Tynan. While most celebrities and sports figures are not writers, the author attempts to answer the question: "What is the difference between authenticity and authorship?" through the analysis of Janet Gray's, Blind Ambition (2009). The chapter also looks at the constraints of the use of scripted questions placed on anthology or web-based writings that look to record the experiences of large groups of people in a search for commonalities.

The book ends with the last chapter analyzing contemporary life writings in the forms of blogging, self-publication, and performance art. These newer genres have the ability to redefine the disability life writing narrative, yet still address many transformative views of rights and ability issues through the coming of age lens that has historically been utilized in more traditional narrative formats.

Many instances of disability life writing often gravitate toward the metaphorical experience of disability that comes about with knowledge of the historically negative place that disability has been known to hold in society through disability activism or scholarly activity. Conversely, the life writings examined here tell a universal story of growing up within inherent inequality and provide rich historical investigations into the role that inequality played throughout the writers' lives while making no connection to a sense of "it should have been better."

Overall, Disability and Life Writing in Post-Independence Ireland is an outstanding analysis that seamlessly connects Irish history with the disability experience, just as disability is interwoven with all history throughout time. The recurring theme of class structure, encased in disability awareness, treatment, and access is beautifully intertwined so the book often reads like a history of Irish class system as told through the eyes of its disabled citizens. Disability history lessons blend into each chapter to provide a framework for the nation's place within the context of activism, public health, and social policy and their influences on the writings of each narrative discussed.


  • Couser, G. T. (2009). Signifying bodies: Disability in contemporary life writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.915367
  • Eakin, P. J. (2008). Living autobiographically: How we create identity in narrative. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
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