Frank McGuinness on A Woven Silence: a powerful tribute to Amazons of women

Felicity Hayes-McCoy salutes the courage and cunning of a generation of women in making careers against all the odds a censorious country could stack against them

A Cumann na mBan parade: A Woven Silence is inspired by the story of the author’s relative Marion Stokes, one of three women who raised the tricolour over Enniscorthy in Easter Week 1916

A Cumann na mBan parade: A Woven Silence is inspired by the story of the author’s relative Marion Stokes, one of three women who raised the tricolour over Enniscorthy in Easter Week 1916

 

I congratulate Felicity on the publication of A Woven Silence. She pays powerful tribute to her mother, her aunts, the unforgettable grandmother – I am planning to use her as a life model – those Amazons of women as JB Keane identified them in his play Big Maggie, who formed the backbone of Irish society as it emerged through the twentieth century.

She salutes their courage certainly, but she revels in their cunning, the cunning necessary to achieve what they spectacularly did achieve in the making of careers against all the odds the evolving censorious country could stack against them as if determined to silence their imagination and intelligence. It is a mark of how subtly these same women could use, should they so choose, that silence as a weapon, developing marvellous means of vital resistance to thwart and upstage the masters and manners of the time, subverting them, beating them at their own games of dominance through acquiring a style and eloquence that brilliantly articulate how well they knew the workings of the world they were up against, and how through hard necessity it had to be created anew if they were to do more than merely survive.

They did more, for in her book Felicity shows herself to belong to that brilliantly articulate breed, their gifts passing to the present generation. She is profoundly aware of her debt to the past, to the way it shaped her future, to the way it has bestowed on her an inexhaustible, invigorating desire to learn and tell what she knows of Ireland’s history. And so it is that if the core of this text pays homage to her female inheritance, she still also does glorious justice to her complex, loving, most erudite of fathers, drawing sustenance from his scholarly character, pinpointing in one outstanding incident how she is at root also her father’s daughter.

“My father, who was known to his family as Gerry, was five years old in 1916, so perhaps he was too young to know what was happening beyond the doorstep of the house in Eyre Square. But perhaps not. I have clear childhood memories of the National Museum in Dublin where he worked before he became a professor in Galway. I remember sitting on the floor under his desk in a room that he shared with a colleague, drawing pictures of the skeletons I’d seen in the museum’s display cases. Now I am ambivalent about exhumed burials in museums but then I was very fond of them and liked their bony fingers and the naked planes of their skulls. I remember porters who spoke Irish and smelled of tobacco, and being shown a Victorian doll’s house with dark, heavy furniture and bed-curtains that frightened me. I don’t know why I was occasionally in the museum during working hours: this was before I went to school, so perhaps my father had been pressed into service as a childminder because of some emergency at home. I remember walking with him from the museum in Kildare Street to Bewley’s on Grafton Street, where we sat on bentwood chairs at a marble-topped table while he drank tea and I concentrated on not spilling my milk, which came in a glass on a saucer. One of the wonders of that day was that we shared a plate of Goldgrain biscuits brought on a tray by a waitress. Another was that my father reached under the seat of his bentwood chair and left his hat on a round shelf there which he said was designed for the purpose. It was the first time I became aware of a relationship between form and function, and was delighted by it.”

Now that is writing of high order, precise, lovingly detailed, assured, tender, letting memory touch the mind and heart, conveying in a single series of images more than most could in an entire volume. It is this specific capacity to contain the matter in hand that allows Felicity Hayes-McCoy to succeed on delivering with admirable panache a concentrated reading of 20th-century Irish history and her tribe’s place within it. There is everywhere in A Woven Silence a cogent synthesis between public acts of momentous declaration and private acts of most illuminating defiance, imprinting a succinct and persuasive reading on the most contentious of issues and nebulous of themes. And everything in this story is informed by a genuine sense of urgency – a woman determined to let her people tell their tales, to do justice to who they were, who they are, and to identify her place amongst them. This, and more, Felicity Hayes-McCoy does in A Woven Silence, making a wonderful, most generous book.

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