EILEEN BATTERSBY (1958–2018) —A TRIBUTE

All of us at Books Ireland were deeply shocked by the untimely death of Eileen Battersby. Eileen had long been a friend of the magazine and began to review novels for us last year. After she left the Irish Times Eileen agreed to join Books Ireland as a full-time columnist, and her first column, writing about the Irishness of Iris Murdoch, appeared in our Jan./Feb. issue. Sadly, that was to be the last thing that she wrote, as she died on 23 December following a car accident outside Drogheda. She was just 60 years old and had so much more to offer the literary world. Eileen is survived by her daughter Nadia (who was also involved in the accident), her mother Elizabeth Whiston, sister Elizabeth and brothers William and Breffini. 

She was born Eileen Whiston in 1958 into an Irish family who had emigrated to California, possibly from Cork, and grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air. On moving to Ireland, she attended the Loreto College in Bray, where she won a history prize. She studied history and English at UCD, later gaining a Master’s degree in literature there with her thesis on the American writer Thomas Wolfe. She was briefly married and retained her married surname for the rest of her life. She started her career in journalism with the Sunday Tribune (writing about sport: she had been an athlete in her youth). In 1988 she was recruited to the Irish Times by the then editor Conor Bradyas a literary reviewer and arts journalist. She became a member of staff in 1990 and was appointed the Irish Times literary correspondent in 2000, a post in which she remained until July 2018.

As a critic and reviewer, Eileen earned international respect. She wrote about all aspects of culture, particularly literature, and also covered classical music, archaeology, historical geography and architectural history. Living nearby and with her interest in archaeology, she reported annually on the winter solstice at Newgrange, Co. Meath. She even reviewed the Paul Simon concert in Dublin’s RDS last year. Four times a winner of the National Arts Journalist of the Year award, she was also awarded the Critic of the Year in 2012 and published a number of books. A horsewoman and animal-lover, she frequently wrote about animals. Her Second Readings: from Beckett to Black Beauty was published in 2009, Ordinary Dogs—a story of two lives was published by Faber in 2011, while Teethmarks on My Tongue, her début novel, was published in the US by Dalkey Archive in 2016 and in the UK by Apollo, Head of Zeus, in 2018. Independent and forthright in her assessment of novels, Eileen was sometimes regarded as a controversial reviewer. Nevertheless, she was one of Ireland’s leading critics, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature, both from here and abroad. 

As a literary critic she was a major supporter of fiction in translation. One of the first pieces she wrote for Books Ireland was a defence of publishers and writers in translation. She summed up her attitude in the opening sentence: ‘It is not “foreign”, it is international—and should be celebrated for its generosity of vision and daring as well as literary merit’. This sentence might equally be applied to Eileen’s own writing, which was always distinguished by generosity of vision, daring and literary merit. When news of her death came out, one writer contacted me to say how sad she was to hear of it. Eileen had given her novel a critical review in Books Ireland which, while it may have stung at the time, on reflection brought home to her some truths about her writing for which she is now grateful. I am sure that many other writers would share that sentiment.

During her career she sometimes became the story, largely through her tenacity and honesty. Her attempt to interview poet Paul Durcan has become legendary. It started off badly in their initial encounter in a Dublin café, resulting in Durcan’s leaving. He was followed outside by Eileen, and an ill-tempered exchange took place. Durcan later disputed Eileen’s version of events but the incident had already entered the legendary canon of literary Dublin. Her forthright review of Dermot Healy’s novel Long Time, No See provoked anger among some of his friends and colleagues, notably writer Eugene McCabe. As well as defending Healy, McCabe also made some acidic comments on the merits of Eileen’s own writing. Eileen took such barbs in a good spirit and was never deterred from expressing her honest opinion in her reviews. She also had a good sense of humour and was not afraid to make herself the butt of a joke. When she met Anthony Cronin, he declared her an idiot for not knowing the whereabouts of McDaid’s pub, deploring her ‘unforgiveable ignorance of Dublin’s literary geography’. Fortunately the interview went smoothly after that.

During her career she worked under various literary editors, including John Banville. She frequently appeared on radio, particularly in relation to the Booker Prize shortlist, for which she read all the books assiduously before commenting on their merits or otherwise. Her judgement on who the winner would be was usually sound. On leaving the Irish Times last July, she resumed her career as a freelance writer. In that capacity she contributed to the literary pages of the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Irish Independent, as well as making regular contributions to RTÉ Radio One’s Sunday Miscellany. It was also around this time that Eileen began to contribute to Books Ireland.

Many of those who worked with her described Eileen as ‘brilliant, but difficult to manage’. People who knew her all have some anecdote to tell which throws light on her character and personality, from her devotion to her daughter, kindness to colleagues or caring for the animals she took in. It is clear that she was held in great affection, and tributes have been paid to her by Edmund White, Kate Donovan, Richard Ford, Fintan O’Toole, President Michael D. Higgins, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan, and many others from the Irish literary community. John Banville said of Eileen: ‘She loved literature with a passion almost as intense as her love of animals and the natural world. And she had such a rich sense of humour, especially when the joke was on her. Oh dear, how we shall miss her.’

When Eileen agreed to start writing for Books Ireland, we were delighted. She was a writer whom we admired, and we respected her honesty and forthrightness in writing reviews. These are the very qualities that we encourage in all our reviewers. It was a great compliment to the magazine that someone of her standing wanted to join our team. We were looking forward to her contributions, in which, as her article on Iris Murdoch illustrates, she would display her vast range of knowledge, bring her unerring judgement to bear and, above all, write with grace and elegance. We deeply regret that her talent has been lost to the world of literature. She is a friend and colleague whom we shall truly miss.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.

Written by Tony Canavan, Editor Books Ireland magazine. Tony@booksirelandmagazine.com


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