Clare Boylan

Short-story writer and novelist
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Clare Boylan, writer: born Dublin 21 April 1948; journalist, Irish Press Group 1968-69, 1973-78; Editor, Image 1981-84; married Alan Wilkes; died Dublin 16 May 2006.

Clare Boylan was an audacious and dedicated short-story writer and novelist. She first came to prominence in 1983, with the simultaneous publication of her collection of stories A Nail on the Head and her novel Holy Pictures. She made the transition from journalism to fiction because, as she said, the strangeness of some of the news stories she was sent to cover alerted her to the bizarre element in life that only an imaginative approach could hope to convey.

Born in Dublin in 1948, Boylan was the third and youngest daughter of a clerical worker with an import firm, who was often away from home; among the greatest blessings of her early life was a mother who was adept at story-telling and at boosting her children's self-image and aspirations ("She told us we were great").

Boylan remembered her childhood home as a freezing cold, red-brick terrace house in the fearfully respectable suburb of Terenure, and Dublin itself, in the 1950s, as not much changed in atmosphere since James Joyce encapsulated it in Ulysses: "Christmas dinners with people fighting about Parnell, aunts singing and everyone quoting Shaw and Wilde". There was, in fact, an even closer connection with Ulysses, since it's possible that her paternal grandfather, a singer, was the model for Blazes Boylan in that book.

Singing persisted in the family: at one point in the early 1960s the three Boylan girls formed themselves into a pop group and earned a bit of pocket money putting on shows at local variety halls. They also told one another stories all the time, and the middle sister played boogie-woogie jazz on the piano. A performing family indeed.

However, Clare Boylan's love of literature led her to abandon school for a job in a bookshop at the age of 17 - following the usual Irish convent education - while, at the same time, writing articles and having work accepted by RTE (Radio Telefis Eireann). A year later, she moved into journalism, becoming a staff feature writer on Dublin's Evening Press and winning golden opinions - and also a Benson & Hedges award for excellence in reporting.

This was not a negligible achievement. At the time, it was customary to make a distinction between a "journalist" and a "woman journalist", and Boylan had some amusing stories about assignments that fell to her lot as a consequence of this policy, including the directive she once received to go out and conduct in-depth interviews with lady drivers about their choice of driving shoes. Such incidents undoubtedly contributed to the wry feminist consciousness which later found so exuberant an outlet in Boylan's fiction.

After taking some time off, in 1978, to write her first novel (in the same year, too, she was appointed a judge of the Booker Prize), Clare Boylan in 1981 accepted the post of editor of the Dublin glossy magazine Image, which she shaped in accordance with her own individual ideas about women's interests. Intensely feminine, attractive and fragile in appearance, and a fashion aficionado to boot, she relished the shock sometimes occasioned by the apparent discrepancy between these attributes, and the strong-minded, clear-sighted, humorous side of her character, which immediately marked her off as a person of great presence and influence.

Her novels and stories likewise are shaped by a wish to subvert preconceived ideas and commonplace assessments of all kinds. Her last novel, Emma Brown (2003) - which triumphantly carries on the fragment of a story found among Charlotte Brontë's papers after her death in 1855 - upholds a female independence of spirit, while encompassing a Brontëan seriousness of purpose and a narrative approach of sufficient energy to fuel the Great Exhibition of 1851 itself.

By the time this wonderful book was published, its author had had confirmation of the diagnosis of ovarian cancer, which was to cut her life appallingly short. She promptly turned the tragedy into a kind of semi-comedy by writing a cheerful article about the horrors of becoming a bald woman (as a result of chemotherapy) and having to resort to a knitted skull-cap like the one affected by Sean O'Casey "in his eccentric old age". It was an incredibly brave reaction to a situation that would have rendered most people speechless.

Clare Boylan lived in Wicklow with her husband, the journalist Alan Wilkes, whom she met while working at the Evening Press. Among her enthusiasms were travel, junk shops, clothes, good food and wine, and above all, cats (though dogs got a look-in too). In 1994 she edited The Literary Companion to Cats, characteristically, in the opening sentence of her introduction, repudiating the word "puss", and producing a volume reflecting her unswerving commitment to the job in hand, whatever it was.

Her work is always thoughtful and uncompromising, and enlivened by a satirical edge: sharp and funny and idiosyncratic. She remained, in her own words, "her own woman" to the end: "a thinker, a dreamer, a voyager, a survivor". She also said of herself that, rather than craving immortality, she would like "to fit into the pattern of the times", to have a share in illuminating the way life was lived in a particular place, at a particular moment. This indeed she has achieved, and much more besides.

Patricia Craig