Singing while they worked

The history of Irish women’s writing is one of successive forgettings and retrievals. A notable flashpoint came in 1991, with the publication of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, whose first three volumes, edited by Seamus Deane, attracted criticism for their meager representation of writing by women. Another two volumes were published with the subtitle “Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions” in 2002, showcasing women’s writing in Irish and English from 600 CE to the turn of the twenty-first century, and anthologies such as Lucy Collins’s Poetry by Women in Ireland: A critical anthology 1870-1970 (2012) followed. Yet in Gerald Dawe’s The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets (2017), just four of the poets addressed were women, and only four of the book’s thirty chapters were written by women critics.

These controversies have played out against decades of campaigning for women’s bodily autonomy, leading up to the repeal of the Constitution of Ireland’s eighth amendment, which criminalized abortion in the Republic of Ireland, in 2018; continuing legal struggles over access to abortion in Northern Ireland; and, in 2021, a report detailing historical abuse and neglect in Irish “mother and baby homes”, where unmarried pregnant women were sent to have their children. The long history of state and religious governance of Irish women’s bodies has its literary correlative in the scholarly establishment of a poetic canon that, while it frequently deploys the feminine body metaphorically as a symbol for the embattled body of the nation – a feature embedded in the aisling Tradition that recurs, in various guises, throughout the history of Irish poetry – has been reluctant to admit the voices of women poets.

Thankfully, two recent publications have taken steps to ameliorate this critical environment: A History of Irish Women’s Poetryedited by Ailbhe Darcy and David Wheatley, and Irish Women Poets Rediscovered, edited by Maria Johnston and Conor Linnie. Both seek to redress omissions, foregrounding voices lost through circumstances of production, reception and the vicissitudes of Irish women’s lives throughout history. Darcy and Wheatley offer a comprehensive overview, covering everything from medieval Ireland to the present day, and give significant attention to Irish-language poetry – a welcome focus, given what contributor Daniela Theinová terms the “doubly isolated” status of its women practitioners. Johnston and Linnie’s slimmer volume considers Irish women’s poetry in English since the eighteenth century. But these stark terms of comparison belie the latter book’s strengths: each of its seventeen essays focuses on the work of a different poet, beginning with a close reading of a single poem and opening out into a broader meditation on that poet’s body of work. Many of these chapters (or “acts of attention”, as Johnston and Linnie term them) thus assume a more intimate mode, in some cases recollecting encounters with the chosen poet or her work in the first person, yet maintain a high standard of critical analysis. While the editors’ approach is “consciously … modest in scope”, the selection of poets is far-reaching and forgoes well-known names such as Eavan Boland, Éiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Medbh McGuckian in favor of occluded voices some of whom, such as Olivia Elder, Madge Herron and Cathleen O’Neill, don’t appear in Darcy and Wheatley’s impressively wide-ranging volume.

One of the most compelling aspects of both volumes is the sense that emerges from the social and labor conditions that have shaped Irish women’s lives, and thus their writing. In A History of Irish Women’s PoetryMáirín Ní Dhonnchadha’s chapter on medieval women poets outlines the schematic and “masculinist” system by which poetry was professionalized in Ireland: filid (poets) underwent stratified formal training to attain their rarefied position. Interaction, women interacted with this world through relationships of readership, listenership, patronage and family or matrimony. They also carried out the oral practice of lament, or caoineadh (keening), and some contemporary accounts of burials recall “the male poet competing for position at the lord’s grave” with crowds of keening women. In her chapter on the oral tradition, Triona Ní Shíocháin notes the importance of caoineadh As an oral poetic form, and discusses lullaby and other varieties of song “embedded in a domestic labor context” – women undertaking rural or service work often sang while they worked. She suggests that oral verse forms were a means “through which social norms could be inverted, questioned, or challenged”, but were also used by women to compound social hierarchies and “exert power”, as in the case of Máire Ní Dhuibh, who “was said to have given orders in the verse to compel servant poets to do her bidding.” Thisshows that the social conditions that give form to women’s poetry are not monolithic; women’s status and power varied as much historically as they do today.

Irish Women Poets Rediscovered Similarly observes the sociality of Irish women’s poetry. Andrew Carpenter’s meditation on the eighteenth-century poet Olivia Elder, for instance, addresses the circulation of “verse letters between women friends” in Ulster Presbyterian communities, with Elder’s own letters incorporating “requests for flower roots, invitations to visit and snippets of local news” “. Such accounts of how women’s poetic practice has emerged from the textures of their lives, encompassing mourning, childcare, labor and friendship, are echoed in the work of the more recent poets considered by this volume. Chapters by Susan Connolly on Angela Greene and by Emma Penney on Cathleen O’Neill highlight the importance of communality and the writing group to the flourishing of women’s poetry. Connolly recalls her personal acquaintance with Greene at the Barbican writers’ group in Drogheda, where she began sharing poetry after “long years spent raising her four children”, which “set the scene for many of her poems”. Penney highlights the role of community groups in creating a space for working-class women’s writing; O’Neill’s comment that poetry and short prose were popular in her Kilbarrack women’s writing group because they were “cheap, accessible and you didn’t necessarily need a typewriter” makes apparent the material pressures attendant on women from disadvantaged social backgrounds. Darcy and Wheatley extend a similar line of thought to their book’s contributors, pointing out that the production of criticism as well as poetry is embedded in the everyday: “Our contributors have worked through births, bereavements, and major illnesses, not to mention the fallout of the covid-19 pandemic; This, too – the relative interruption of the work by life – is part of the history of Irish women’s poetry.

If the marginalization of Irish women’s poetry has been in part a result of critics’ failure to pay it an appropriate amount of attention, a significant responsibility also lies with the publishing industry in Ireland. Measuring Equality in the Arts Sector, an organization established by Ailbhe McDaid and Kenneth Keating, has recently undertaken research on state funding and gender parity in poetry publishing between 2008 and 2017, and Keating shares some of their findings in his chapter (in Irish Women Poets Rediscovered) on the poet Lynda Moran, whom he suggests was a casualty of an environment in which women poets were often reliant on short-lived small presses such as Beaver Row, which published her first and only collection in 1985. In the decade under scrutiny, only 23 per cent of poetic publications by the Gallery Press, which receives more funding than any other Irish press, were by women; other poetry presses such as Dedalus Press and Salmon Poetry also published a clear majority of work by men.

Many of the essays in A History of Irish Women’s Poetry note the degree to which women have had to create their own publishing opportunities. Sarah Bennett discusses Blanaid Salkeld’s establishment, with her son Cecil ffrench Salkeld, of the Gayfield Press, an eclectic “non-commercial, non-fee-paying venture”, while Kit Fryatt, in his chapter on Irish feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, describes the formation of feminist and women’s presses such as Arlen House and Attic Press by “determined women editors”. Anne Mulhall’s essay, which closes the volume, notes more recent projects that “give poetic expression to and resistance against the violence of racism and border regimes”. She cites poets including Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe and Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, and projects such as Jessica Traynor and Stephen Rea’s Correspondences: An anthology to call for an end to direct provision and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland’s MASI Journal, to demonstrate that any reckoning around exclusion in Irish poetry must include women poets who are further marginalized through race or citizenship. Stating that Irish “creative and cultural life … is on the cusp of enormous and enriching change”, Mulhall provides a critical but ultimately optimistic view of poetry publishing and scholarship in Ireland. The “change” she affirms is borne out by these two volumes, which will surely prompt further work on the historical and contemporary women’s voices to which they attend.

Erin Cunningham is a writer based in London. She recently completed a PhD in modern and contemporary Irish poetry at King’s College London

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