Irish women’s poetry: making and remaking history

Ailbhe Darcy sees the start of a more intimate relationship with Irish women’s poetry

Poets Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (left) and Eavan Boland at the Mna na hEorpa poetry reading celebration  marking International Women’s Day in the Abbey Theatre in 1992. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Poets Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (left) and Eavan Boland at the Mna na hEorpa poetry reading celebration marking International Women’s Day in the Abbey Theatre in 1992. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

On my desk there is a bright blue chapbook, which my sister placed into my hands several years ago. It has the words We Claim boldly centred on the front cover. Explicitly taking inspiration from the women’s presses of the Revival era, the chapbook collects poems alongside etchings, recipes, and miscellaneous writings.

The mixing of literary and domestic genres draws attention to the project’s significance as not only a physical text but also a series of gatherings, building networks to make further creativity possible. A collaboration between the Dublin Young Migrant Women’s Group and the artist Kathryn Maguire, We Claim insists that the Irish poetic tradition is pliable and available for re-imagining. In its foreword, editor, poet and activist Grace Wilentz declares:

“We Claim is a handbook for the modern revolutionary young migrant woman. As a group of young migrant women, we developed the text herein through a series of meetings and collaborations over the course of 2016. In these pages, we reflect on Ireland’s present and re-imagine its future. It is also our way of reclaiming our part in the making of modern Ireland, calling attention to the role migrant women have always played in shaping the State.”

We Claim is a small-press, ephemeral publication, but the modesty of its enterprise is paired with the ambition of its claim. Answering what Alice Feldman and Anne Mulhall have called “the impossible constraints imposed on the migrant woman writer by totalizing constructions of an Irish ‘national culture’ or ‘shared common culture’”, the poetry in We Claim boldly and even joyfully asserts ownership over an Irish literary tradition. One poem in it by Annie Waithira Murugi declares, in the original typeface of the Cuala Press: “I am your daughter Mother Ireland / Dear future Ireland I believe in you.”

Women poets have always done crucial work in our national imagination: their visions and revisions of who we have been, and who we might be, are our essential inheritance, and we lose out when we do not let them speak to who we are.

Essays in A History of Irish Women’s Poetry, which I have co-edited with David Wheatley, and which has just been published by Cambridge University Press, labour to offer some of the “more prolonged and in-depth engagement with the work of female poets in the past and in the present” for which Anne Fogarty calls in the volume’s opening chapter. The project has been powered by a sense of collaboration not only with the scholars collected or cited in our edited volume, but also with today’s women poets who, with ever-increasing volubility, conjure their own poetic tradition.

In 2018, many readers, poets and academics expressed disappointment at the scope of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, a collection of critical essays which failed to take advantage of the full range of exciting scholarship done in the field of Irish poetry. That volume had 30 chapters, each one devoted to a single named poet – of whom only four were women. For David and me, disappointment gradually transformed into excitement as we realised how ripe the moment was for producing an authoritative guide to Irish women’s poetry across time, and how keen the appetite was for such a guide.

Embarking on such a project was certainly exciting. This was a unique opportunity to make crucial and field-defining interventions into the history of Irish poetry as we know it. By the same token, the responsibility of such a task was daunting. It came to seem somewhat less daunting once we reached out to potential contributors and they responded with astonishing enthusiasm and commitment. These were scholars who had already contributed years of extraordinary work to Irish women’s poetry, and new scholars in the field who were building on that work. With this crack team of contributors, we knew we had a ground-breaking and revelatory book in the making.

Published in 1989, The Field Day Anthology is often cited as a defining moment in this context. The three-volume anthology was met with controversy: despite covering more than a thousand years of Irish writing, its all-male editorial board largely failed to notice the substantial contribution women had made to the Irish literary tradition during that time. That controversy led to the assembling of a two-volume supplement to the anthology, published just after the turn of the century. Volumes four and five, which undertook exemplary recovery work, proved decisive in opening up the field of Irish women’s poetry for study, bringing Irish women’s poetry out of myth and into history. Some of the chapters in our edited volume build directly on the prodigious work done in those volumes.

In volume four of the Field Day Anthology, Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha showed us that women had been contributing to poetry since long before the existence of the nation state; likewise, we begin our history all the way back in the medieval era. Following the work of Angela Bourke in that same volume, our history comprehends not only the written but also the oral tradition. Indeed, the sophistication of women’s creative practices in the oral tradition had never fully dawned on me until I read Tríona Ní Shíocháin’s awesome evocation of that tradition in her chapter for our History.

Ní Shíocháin describes the extraordinary practices of composition in performance and learning by immersion, telling the story, for instance, of Bess Cronin learning a song before breakfast from a kitchen full of women sewing and churning butter.

As someone who writes the odd poem, but is also a chaotic mother and an over-worked academic and some other things besides, I can speak to the value and resonance of such an account. When I look at my own writing life, I tend not to find much in common with Heaney in Wicklow, writing perfect sonnets in serenity, or Yeats the public man, or even Boland, calmly watching the children play among whitebeams at dusk. How helpful it is to have other, equally attractive, equally aspirational, but very different models for what it has meant to be a poet in the Irish tradition – models that involve collaborations, snatched moments, busy kitchens.

Our volume takes the long view, then; and it takes a plural and inclusive approach throughout, attending to multiple traditions and multiple versions of Irishness. We wanted a volume that would take advantage of the scholarship done on avant-garde and modernist traditions in Irish poetry, engaging with the work of poets like Freda Laughton, Blanaid Salkeld and Catherine Walsh.

We wanted a volume that would not shortchange poetry in the Irish language, exploring the 17th-century corpus as well as the work of modern poets such as Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Biddy Jenkinson and Doireann Ní Ghríofa. We wanted a volume that would conceive of Irish poetry as properly comprehending the diaspora, by including work on Lola Ridge, Susan Howe and Maggie O’Sullivan, as well as taking advantage of Sarah Prescott’s work on Ireland as part of an 18th-century literary archipelago.

And we wanted a volume that would take seriously the performance poetry scene, which – as Anne Mulhall writes in the book’s final chapter – is the most important development in Irish poetry in the last two decades, with women and Black and ethnic minority poets at its forefront.

As Anne Fogarty writes in her introduction, the feminist tactics we see in the Irish literary scene today – women running publishing presses, coteries and collectives, mentorship, endorsement by patrons, energetic self-promotion and so on – have all existed before. One thing the history of Irish women’s poetry teaches us is that such tactics are not enough to ensure persistence of the poetry. The poems themselves have to be met with genuine engagement and responsive connection, by interpretation and re-interpretation – otherwise known as “reading”.

My fond hope is that A History of Irish Women’s Poetry will mark the beginning of a more intimate, readerly relationship with Irish women’s poetry – not just a talismanic poem here and there, or a tokenistic handful of modern poets, but the full, rich inheritance. I look forward to new editions of works by women poets; anthologies which take full stock of the Irish poetic tradition; young emerging poets who can easily find their foremothers; and male poets who write critically about their female influences.

I even hope – ambitiously enough – that this book will change the way Irish poetry is taught and the kinds of scholarship that get done in the future. One thing I am sure of is that this book will be full of pleasurable revelations for readers and the beginnings of many tiny love affairs with the poems themselves. Dear future Ireland, I believe in you.

Ailbhe Darcy is a poet, a critic and a lecturer in English at Cardiff University. Her most recent collection of poetry is Insistence (Bloodaxe Books, 2018) which won Wales Book of the Year and the Piggott Prize for Poetry in association with Listowel Writers’ Week. She is, with David Wheatley, co-editor of A History of Irish Women’s Poetry (Cambridge University Press)

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