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Women Step Out of Ireland's Literary Shadows


Kevin Donegan
Los Angeles Times,
23 April 2002


Throughout Irish history, a vibrant and vital culture has fought to have its voice heard against a louder and stronger neighbor. But while colonial ruler Britain tried to ignore or silence the demands of Irish nationalism, a growing international literary reputation helped cement its cause. And now Irish female writers have engaged in a similar struggle with the country's male-dominated literary tradition.

Later this year, the long-anticipated, two-volume publication of "Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Irish Women's Writing and Traditions" will attempt to redress the traditional exclusion of women's voices from Irish literature. Commissioned only after an enormous outcry against the underrepresentation of women in the prestigious original "Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing," published in 1991, the new volumes were edited almost entirely by women.

"What maddened people was the unthinkingness of it all," said Medb Ruane (her first name is pronounced "Maeve"), a columnist for the Irish Times newspaper. "The [male] editors had hardly noticed the exclusion, and on anyone's reckoning there were wide quality differences between some of the men included and some of the better women excluded." The original publication contained a diverse array of Irish writing, much of which had been previously overlooked, such as Irish gothic fiction and cultural criticism. It even included ballads and songs, atypical for a literary anthology.

"Here was a new kind of anthology of writing drawing attention to previously marginalized areas," said Gerardine Meaney, a professor at University College Dublin and one of the senior editors on the new project. "So the [exclusion of women] was a blind spot of stunning proportion."

According to Meaney, the new anthology includes more than 700 female writers, spanning a wide range of material, from poets of the Middle Ages to political essayists of the 19th century to contemporary writers such as Edna O'Brien and Eavan Boland.

"A country which has been colonized is probably going to have one of its most powerful narratives told by those who were colonized within that colonization, and that has been women," said Boland, a respected and influential poet and professor of English at Stanford University.

Much of Boland's work has explored what she calls "a nation below the surface," the struggle to assert a female identity in a political environment seemingly consumed with the conflict in Northern Ireland but often myopic to the social and cultural life of its people, particularly women. Boland's book of poems "Against Love Poetry" (W.W. Norton), published last fall, returns to familiar, reflective suburban themes of motherhood and marriage, such as this excerpt from "The Pinhole Camera":

For you and I

such science holds no secrets:

We are married thirty years,

woman and man.

Long enough

to know about power and nature,

Long enough

to know which is which.

With their work set against a backdrop of world-renowned male novelists, poets and playwrights such as James Joyce, W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett, as well as a literary tradition that portrayed the struggle for national sovereignty as romantic destiny, female writers instead often sought to establish the realities of family, community and work as rich literary pasture.

Novelist Edna O'Brien's first seven books were banned in Ireland for their perceived threat to the conservative establishments of church and state. Her early work traces the lives of two young women who leave their strict rural homes and convent school and escape to the delights and romantic opportunities of Dublin. "The Country Girls," her first novel, was reviled on its publication in 1960 by a government censor as "a smear on Irish womanhood."

But, said O'Brien, her books posed a threat "because they were the first palpable voicing of the sexuality of Irish women."

She moved to London just before the publication of "The Country Girls" and has lived there ever since. She says the original three-volume "Field Day" anthology contained a "meager insertion" of her writing. The new volumes will considerably enlarge her contribution to reflect what Meaney calls "the extremely radical act of challenging the orthodox role of women in Irish society."

O'Brien's just published novel, "In the Forest" (Houghton Mifflin), tells the story of the murder of a young woman, her 5-year-old son and a priest by a mentally unstable local man in a rural Irish village. Rarely overtly political, O'Brien's writing is at once erudite and unadorned:

"She picks her steps nervously but unerringly to where Maddie is, lifts
his hands out of the muddy water, and takes him in her
arms. She starts to run. The ground feels light, like it is on springs,
and her head terrifically calm as she begins to recall different
landmarks: the tunnel, the toadstools, an old sock, the churned-up roots
of the fallen tree and the long, steep path that led from
the entrance.

"He has almost caught up with them...."

Drawing on actual events from 1994, the novel explores the shame and paralysis of a community facing a violent criminal who is beyond their comprehension. O'Brien has been criticized in Ireland for fictionalizing such recent events. "When those murders exist in the gut of the people, in the gut of the land, in the gut of the psyche, it's healthy and cathartic to explore it," she said.

"Edna O'Brien did a very brilliant thing and exiled herself to England so as not to be withered by the native contempt for women," said Nuala O'Faolain, a journalist whose bestselling first novel, "My Dream of You" (Riverhead Books), is just out in paperback.

O'Faolain looks forward to the new "Field Day" anthology but says that "nothing can heal the wound that the most brilliant academic in Ireland just didn't care, didn't bother, didn't notice."

Seamus Deane, now a professor of Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame, was the editor of the 1991 anthology, a highly regarded treasure trove of Irish literature much admired for its innovative narrative structure. O'Faolain says she once asked him on a television talk show why female writers were so poorly represented. "He said, 'I forgot.' I think it's the most honest answer I ever heard," she said.

Deane, who is currently in Ireland and who, according to other academics, has been supportive of the new anthology, did not return phone calls for this story.

O'Faolain's "My Dream of You" is part romance, part self-exploration and part Irish history. In the novel, Kathleen de Burca, an Irish travel writer living in London, returns home to research an actual love story between the wife of an aristocratic landlord and her Irish stable groom that occurred at the time of the Irish potato famine in 1847.

O'Faolain says her novel is about recovering health and happiness through learning about the past. She believes it's important, particularly for Irish women, "to recover memories and sources of vitality that we have abandoned."

Because the historical love affair took place at a time when more than a million Irish people died from starvation and another million emigrated, the famine plays a thematic role throughout the novel, one that is dismissed in a phone call by the protagonist's English editor as "another tome on the sorrows of Ireland."

O'Faolain writes, "It wasn't 'sorrows,' Alex, I said through gritted teeth. It was our Holocaust. Well, no--it wasn't deliberate, like exterminating the Jews. But the British government was glad that we were being exterminated by accident.

"There was silence from his end."

"To write about the famine is considered asking for trouble," O'Faolain said, referring to the intense emotional and political reactions that the topic sometimes stirs even today.

According to poet Boland, this is in part because it has nothing to do with conventional heroes. "[The famine was] about brute survival," Boland said. "It [was] women who carried the whispers of that brute survival with them while Irish history was building its stories of heroes."

In Boland's view, it is through the silences of women that "one of the great truths about Ireland opens up: that there's a powerful, defining difference between the past and history." Boland says that Irish history's "story of heroes" has heroism, activism and resistance as its motifs. "But the past is different," she said. "It's where the silences and sufferings are lodged, often below the wish list of a historic heroism."

Boland, O'Faolain and novelist O'Brien point to the election of Irish President Mary Robinson in 1990 as a historic turning point in the development of women's identity and power in Ireland. Robinson, now United Nations high commissioner for human rights, was a distinguished constitutional lawyer and professor at Trinity College in Dublin who often litigated cases concerning women's and gay rights that the political establishment was too timid or unwilling to address.

"Women in Ireland really were muted," O'Brien said. The election of Robinson and current President Mary McAleese "did a lot both internally and politically for Irish women to see such intelligent women compose themselves and speak in that way," she said.

As recently as 30 years ago, women in Ireland were fired from public service jobs in government, broadcasting and elsewhere when they married. Women have only been permitted to serve on juries since 1976.

"When I was a grown woman and teacher, I was living in a country where the Customs men tore the back pages out of magazines like the Nation so that I wouldn't know that family planning existed, much less commit the criminal act of having access to it," O'Faolain said.

These and other legacies of what is in many ways an alternate, parallel Irish history continue to have an impact on women in business, public life, academia and literature. For example, according to figures provided by the Centre for Advancement of Women in Politics at Queen's University, Belfast, women hold just 3% of chief executive jobs in corporate Ireland, 4% of top civil service positions and 6% of professorships and associate professorships at Irish universities.

Irish Times columnist Ruane says that even on the rare occasions when women may have held power in early Irish history--consider Gaelic chieftain Grace O'Malley or legendary warrior Queen Medb--there was a tendency to mythologize them as muses rather than acknowledge their political or cultural leadership.

But O'Brien has never been deterred from probing human emotions and desires in the pursuit of writing about the real lives of Irish men and women, regardless of how that is received by the masters of church, state or academia. "The best thing one can say about writing is that even if there have been slings and arrows, they don't eventually kill the work," she said. "The written word is there and will remain there--and that is a very sweet victory."


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