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Photo of Dr Ellen  McWilliams

Dr Ellen McWilliams

Senior Lecturer


01392 724021

My interests are in the fields of twentieth-century women's fiction, Irish, British, and North American literature, literary responses to the pain of Revolution and Civil War, anti-colonial history and intergenerational memory/postmemory, and migration and diasporic identity. 

I write fiction and non-fiction and have received an Arts Council of Ireland Agility Award and a Society of Authors’ Foundation Award to support two  projects. 

I am writing a novel, The Miracle Keepers, a coda to the Irish Big House Novel in the tradition of William Trevor, Jennifer Johnston, and Leland Bardwell and am completing a collection of personal essays, Resting Places: On Wounds, War, and the Irish Revolution.

Resting Places is about the ethics and painful difficulty of writing about histories of anti-colonial resistance and their legacies. I have been trying to write about my Grandfather's family who were active in the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s and about the men and women who left Ireland in the years after the Irish Revolution and am especially interested in what the historian Guy Beiner describes as 'forgetful remembrance'.

I am concerned with what Irish Republican families suffered at the hands of colonial criminals and what they sacrificed in cracking the foundations of the British Empire and am preoccupied with the traumatic impact and aftershocks of the Irish War of Independence and the endurance of Anti-Treaty Republicans during the Irish Civil War, but the book is primarily about the Dunmanway Massacre of April 1922. The prologue to the collection, 'Dunmanway Fields', was published in The Irish Times on Good Friday, April 2022.The collection is interested in buried family histories and how landscapes conceal traumatic histories of conflict, particularly in the case of the sunder of Civil War, what Seamus Heaney named 'neighbourly murder', and the different forms of careful listening involved in bringing these agonising histories to the surface. This is part of a broader and developing preoccupation with what the philosopher James Hollis calls 'the ghosts who run our lives' and with the meaning of historical and social justice. 

Resting Places contains an Irishwoman’s elegy for two Revolutionists, Oliver Cromwell and Terence James MacSwiney, a prayer to William Shakespeare and John Milton, a meditation on the unexpected sympathetic correspondences between the English Civil War and the Irish Civil War of the 1920s, and a keen for a Famine Road and for the troubled history of the plantation town of Bandon in Co. Cork, celebrated by Edmund Spenser as ‘pleasant Bandon crowned with many a wood’. My name, as Gaeilge, is Eibhlín Mhic Uilliam and the book features a hymn to my Irish-speaking Grandmother’s home place of Baile Bhúirne, site of the shrine of the Medieval St. Gobnait, and a counterfactual history that speculates as to what may have happened if my father-in-law’s uncle had survived the Battle of Ypres in 1915 and had later been posted to West Cork during the years of the War of Independence where he would have risked encountering the Irish Republican Army women and men in my Grandfather’s family. It is a book about motherhood, kinship and belonging, silence and delayed speech, vision and illumination, insurgency and rebellion, rage, anguish, heartbreak, and love. The collection is forthcoming with the Belfast-based non-profit publisher Beyond the Pale Books. 

I am in the early stages of a new project inspired by my Great Grandmother – another Ellen – who was active in Cumann na mBan, the women’s wing of the Irish Republican Army, during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. Cumann na mBan was founded as a radical alliance of Socialists, Feminists, and Republicans and this new work has been sparked by the discovery of my Great Grandmother's application for a military service pension, which offers a full account of her commitment and conviction – it was co-signed and verified by unit leaders of the West Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army and accompanied by a strong letter of support from Sean Buckley, Head of Intelligence for the Third West Cork Brigade. And still, as was the case for so many of her women comrades, Ellen’s application for a pension was refused. She was later awarded a medal for her services to Republicanism. The revolutionary men in my Grandfather's family appear in the history books and in the Irish Bureau of Military History, but I am determined to rescue Ellen's story. 

I have written three academic books, Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman (2009), Women and Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction (2013), and Irishness in North American Women's Writing: Transatlantic Affinities (2021). I am a member of the University’s research network, Routes: Migration, Mobility, Displacement. 

I have a special interest in New York magazine culture and have published four essays on Maeve Brennan's writing for The New Yorker, including '"A Sort of Rathmines Version of a Dior Design": Maeve Brennan, Self-Fashioning, and the Uses of Style' for Women: A Cultural Review and an article on Brennan's years at Harper's Bazaar, 'Maeve Brennan, Celebrity, and Harper's Bazaar in the 1940s'.

I have received a number of awards for research, including an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholar Award, a British Library-Eccles Centre Fellowship in North American Studies, and a John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies Fellowship.

I contributed to an  RTE Radio 1 Book Show programme dedicated to the life and work of Maeve Brennan and in 2017 coordinated a series on Women Writers and Irish America for The Irish Times to celebrate the centenary of Brennan's birth. I was also one of the academic consultants for, and appeared in, the BBC1 documentary 'Imagine... Margaret Atwood' (directed by Katy Homan and presented by Alan Yentob). 

My teaching at Exeter focuses on Transatlantic Literary Relations, American Literature, and Irish Literature. I teach a special option in Year 3, 'Modern Irish Literature: Rebels & Radicals', and a strand of the first year module Academic English called 'Write For Your Life: Autobiographical Fiction, Lifewriting, and the Personal Essay'. I have received three awards for teaching, including a University of Exeter Teaching Fellowship. 

I grew up in West Cork but have lived in the West Country for over 20 years. I attended the Convent of Mercy Sacred Heart Secondary School in Clonakility and hold close the value of a Sacred Heart education. I was lucky to benefit from the Irish government's visionary expansion of Higher Education in the mid-to-late 1990s and luckier still to receive a Cork County Council Higher Education Grant to study for an Arts Degree at University College Cork.

I was the first in my family to go to university and have been committed to widening access to Higher Education and to teaching in community settings since the beginning of my academic career. 

My Office Hours for this term fall on Monday (online) and Tuesday (in person). Please book in for a meeting here.

Research interests

I have research interests in twentieth-century women's writing, Irish, British and North American literature, writing and diasporic identity, and transatlantic literary relations. I have also published on life writing, self-fashioning, New York magazine culture, and James Joyce and influence. 

My first book, Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman, was published in 2009. It received the Margaret Atwood Society Award for Best Book in that year and was reviewed in The European Journal of American CultureThe Review of English StudiesThe Journal of American Studies, Contemporary Women’s WritingThe European LegacyThe Routledge Bibliography of English StudiesThe Year's Work in English StudiesZeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, and Études Anglaises.

My second book, Women and Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013 and was reviewed in The Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought, Irish Studies Review, Irish University Review, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, The Irish Review, and The London Irish Feminist Network Newsletter. An early review of the book concluded: ‘McWilliams makes a major contribution to the study of contemporary Irish fiction as well as to the study of the Irish diaspora. Although this is certainly a scholarly book and McWilliams shows a broad and deep understanding of an enormous range of scholarly and theoretical texts, her writing is so direct and clear and her arguments so carefully made that this work will be of interest to and readable by many people outside of the field of literary study… In short, McWilliams gave me a new way of thinking about this fiction, which is exactly what we hope for when we begin reading a scholarly work but all too seldom find’ (Professor Maureen Reddy, Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought).

My third book was published in 2021. Professor Anne Fogarty (University College Dublin) described it as ‘a lively, thought-provoking, engrossing, and eminently readable study of cross-connections in North American women’s writing. Irishness in North American Women’s Writing: Transatlantic Affinities is a timely, original, and richly observant study of six diverse women writers and a valuable intervention in the field of transatlantic studies’.   

I am a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Margaret Atwood Studies and Irish Studies Review and am a reader and reviewer for Women: A Cultural Review, Contemporary Women’s Writing, Journal of Gender Studies, Irish Studies Review, Irish University Review, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, and Canadian Literature


Awards for Research

Fulbright Scholar Award in the Humanities; AHRC Fellowship; John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies Visiting Fellowship - Free University of Berlin; University of Notre Dame Cushwa Centre for Irish-American Studies Research Award; Fulbright Occasional Lecturer Bursary; Boston College Institute for the Liberal Arts Bursary; Institute of English Studies Visiting Fellowship, School of Advanced Studies, University of London; Clinton Institute for American Studies Visiting Fellowship, University College Dublin; Moore Institute Visiting Fellowship, NUI Galway (2012 & 2015); Margaret Atwood Society Award for Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman; British Library-Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship in North American Studies; Canadian High Commission Faculty Research Award; International Council for Canadian Studies Fellowship. 

Research collaborations

I have participated in a number of programmes funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, including the AHRC Engaging with Government Programme (Institute of Government, 2013) and the AHRC Leadership Programme (Clore Duffield Foundation, 2012). I am a member of the Fulbright Ireland Research Mentoring Network.

Research students

Lead Supervisor - Kate Limond, '"Mocked with Art": Strategies of Representation in A.S. Byatt’s Fiction'

External impact and engagement

I have been active in widening participation and teaching in community settings since the beginning of my academic career. I established the Access to English scheme at the University of Bristol (2003) and the University of Exeter Scholars in English programme (2013). 

As a PhD student and Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol, I developed a number of lifelong learning programmes on nineteenth- and twentieth-century women’s writing to coincide with BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Watershed Fiction project.

More recently, I have developed a series of outreach and community projects that involved working with community groups, agencies, and research initiatives concerned with the welfare of Irish elders in Britain and the United States, including: the Federation of Irish Societies, the London Irish Women’s Centre, the Aisling Irish Community Centre in New York, and the Gallagher Initiative (Coordinators: Professor Elaine Walsh, Hunter College, CUNY, and Professor Brenda McGowan, Fordham University). 

In addition to funding research towards the monograph Women and Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction, my AHRC Fellowship (2011-2012) supported a conference on 'New Perspectives on Women and the Irish Diaspora' (March 2012), which included a roundtable discussion with charity-based organisations that work closely with the Irish community in Britain. Proceedings of the conference were published as a special issue of Irish Studies Review in 2013 (co-edited with Professor Bronwen Walter, Anglia Ruskin University).

The AHRC also provided funding for a seminar series on 'Women and Exile in Irish Literature and Culture' that I developed in collaboration with the London Irish Women’s Centre in autumn-winter 2011. The seminar series led to the Rian Art Project coordinated by artist Sarah Strong in 2012 and was one of the subjects of Sarah's short film 'I Hear Fish Drowning' (2014).

While on a Fulbright Scholarship to Fordham University in New York in 2012, I developed a lifelong learning reading group project  in collaboration with the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham and the Aisling Irish Community Centre in Woodlawn. 

I have written for The Irish Post and served as an academic consultant for the Federation of Irish Societies, as well as contributing to research for the documentary Breaking Ground: The Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre (Toy Factory Films, 2013). In 2013 I contributed to an  RTE Radio 1 Book Show programme dedicated to the life and work of New York writer Maeve Brennan and in 2017 coordinated a series on Women Writers and Irish America for The Irish Times to celebrate the centenary of Brennan's birth (fellow contributors included Angela Bourke, Claire Bracken, Patricia Coughlan, and Sinéad Moynihan). 

I was one of the academic consultants for, and appeared in, the 2017 BBC1 documentary 'Imagine... Margaret Atwood' (directed by Katy Homan and presented by Alan Yentob). 



I have received a number of awards for teaching including a Faculty of Arts Teaching Prize from the University of Bristol, a Bath Spa University Teaching Fellowship, and a University of Exeter Teaching Fellowship.

Modules taught


I completed my undergraduate degree at University College Cork and was awarded a scholarship to the University of Constance to pursue postgraduate study.

I received a National University of Ireland Travelling Prize in English before completing my PhD at Bristol with the assistance of a University of Bristol Arts Faculty Graduate Student Scholarship and an International Council for Canadian Studies Graduate Student Scholarship. Prior to being appointed at Exeter, I taught at the University of Bristol and Bath Spa University and spent time as a Fulbright Scholar at Fordham University in New York.


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