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  • "No Right to Be a Child":Irish Girlhood and Queer Time in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's The Dancers Dancing
  • Kelly J.S. McGovern (bio)

As a cast of young Dublin students boards a school bus bound for the West of Ireland where they will spend the summer studying Irish language and culture, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's novel The Dancers Dancing (1999) pauses to describe how Orla Crilly's "fat bottom bulges inside her green corduroy trousers. And peeping out from their green hems are shoes . . . which have a dainty little heel and a white pearl buckle in front, very attractive, but which are a very peculiar color for shoes, namely tangerine. The surface even has the dimpled, slightly repulsive texture of orange peel" (Ní Dhuibhne 11, hereafter cited as DD). The narrative lingers over this Irish girl, dilating to describe how she is dressed in the Irish flag, turning her into a queer figure for the Irish nation.1 Ní Dhuibhne suspends narrative [End Page 242] time to turn out this picture of Orla's curious ensemble and her developing body so that the "odd" dimpled texture of her peculiarly colored shoes becomes a visible echo of what her fleshy, fat, expanding body materializes: she grows sideways, a kind of growing that is not "growing up."

In this article, using Kathryn Bond Stockton's notion of "sideways growth," which occurs within an active temporal suspension at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood, during which a queer child conceives her relation to the concept "growing up," I examine how The Dancers Dancing makes meaning of Orla's anticipated future and participation in adult time. Ní Dhuibhne plots not only Orla's spatial but also her temporal crossroads on an Irish map as this queer Irish girl travels across the Irish landscape and within a narrative transiting between 1972 and the "Now" of the novel's 1999 publication. When Aisling, another teenage girl, one named after a literary genre that offers erotically charged visions of the Irish nation, exclaims "[v]ery patriotic!" at the sight of her friend Orla's outfit, Ní Dhuibhne underscores that Orla's sideways growth is a response to a discursive regime that shapes and constrains Irish women's—and girls'—life schedules (DD 11). Ní Dhuibhne uses this queer child to imagine literally, figuratively, and temporally expansive alternatives to the tropes of femininity available in Irish nationalist discourse.

The Dancers Dancing's expression of contemporary Ireland as thirteen-year-old Orla uses her growth as a vehicle that transforms heteronormative notions of gender and time in Irish discourse. I will argue that queerness and queer uses of time and space, what Judith Halberstam calls "willfully eccentric modes of being" that have "the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space," propel this narrative's movements.2The Dancers [End Page 243] Dancing makes use of queer meaning-making practices attached to representations of childhood in Western culture to naturalize the developmental narrative of an Irish girl. Finding that the available routes for "growing up" both Irish and female do not or no longer work, are disrupted, disorganized, or as Jane Elizabeth Dougherty argues, written as unwritten in Irish women's developmental narratives, Ní Dhuibhne hangs time in suspension to begin to imagine the transitions between Irish girlhood and Irish womanhood.3 In other words, the figuring of sideways growth in Ní Dhuibhne's novel signals that she finds that the narrative routes between youth and adulthood available in late-twentieth-century Irish discourse ill fit girlhood. Thus, The Dancers Dancing suggests that queer narrative routes better suit the experience of growing up female in the late-twentieth-century Irish Republic and in a discursive tradition where femininity has been tied up with national representations.

Ní Dhuibhne's reliance on queer temporal and developmental modes responds to the dearth of extant models for writing the maturation of a female Irish child. The familiarity of novels depicting Irish boyhood, for example, tends to overshadow and determine expectations for novels resembling the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, a genre often epitomized by, and usually explicitly defined in relation to, Joyce's...


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