Preamble To The Pledge

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This is the preamble to a pledge aimed at redressing the gender imbalance in Irish poetry. The pledge, which we invite scholars and writers of all genders to sign, commits signatories to asking questions about gender representation.
 
Since the penning of this pledge was prompted by the announcement of The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, ed. Gerald Dawe (Cambridge University Press, 2017), we include here a brief account of the misrepresentation of women’s contribution in Irish poetry in critical volumes like the Cambridge Companion as well as in anthologies, conferences and other publications and events. We see the Cambridge Companion as a single stark iteration of a much wider problem.
 
We suggest some of the ways in which this volume might have acknowledged the contribution of women to Irish poetry. By drawing attention to women’s contribution, we intend to set a positive example for future editors, publishers, teachers and organizers in Irish literature.
 
Critical volumes such as the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets are presented as surveys of the canon of our national literature, yet they frequently misrepresent our literature by failing to take account of the work of women writers. The absence of women poets from this and other publications leads to a distorted impression of our national literature and to a simplification of women’s roles within it. The implication is that women are a minority in Irish poetry and literary criticism. They are not. In fact, it would not have been burdensome for the Cambridge Companion to more truthfully represent the gender balance in Irish poetry, since women’s contribution to Irish poetry and Irish literary criticism is plentiful and rich. We find it difficult to comprehend that the gender imbalance of this volume was not questioned at any stage of the peer review process.
 
The Cambridge Companion repeats the minimization or obliteration of women’s poetry by previous anthologies and surveys. The most famous of these is the three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Field Day, 1991), but the process of exclusion pre-dates the Field Day project (Ní Dhomhnaill 2002, Keating 2017). The Companion is part of a larger process by which the significance of works by women is attenuated as they become inaccessible or obscured, simply by virtue of their absence from canonical text books.
 
No women poets from the 18th, 19th and earlier 20th century are included in the Cambridge Companion. Among the poets of the 18th century who might have been included are Laetitia Pilkington, Mary Barber, Mary Tighe and Dorothea Herbert, while Charlotte Brooke’s creative translation Reliques of Irish Poetry is unquestionably influential (Ní Mhunghaile 2009). The influence of the 19th-century poet and novelist Emily Lawless on 20th-century Irish writers, to take another example, is repeatedly asserted in scholarship (Calahan 1991, Hansson 2007). The Cambridge Companion does not take advantage of the work done on Irish women poets in the early Romantic period (Wright 2006, Behrendt 2010). It does not take advantage of the work done on women’s participation in the archipelagic coterie poetics at the time of Anne Southwell and Katherine Phillips (Prescott 2014, Carpenter and Collins 2014.) Nor does it attend to the poets of the Irish literary revival and the First World War, who include Katharine Tynan, Susan Mitchell, Dora Sigerson Shorter, Ethna Carbery, Eva Gore-Booth and Nora Hopper Chesson. The anthology Voices on the Wind: Women Poets of the Celtic Twilight has made work by these poets widely available and has argued for the centrality of women’s writing to the Irish literary revival when considered in its European context (Nì Dhuibhne 1995).
 
In a volume that includes less well-established male poets from the mid-century, the absence of mid-century women poets is particularly striking. It is not new. The repeated neglect of these mid-century women poets in constructions of Irish literary history has been addressed by Fogarty (1999) Clutterbuck (1999), Schreibman (2001), Sullivan (2003), Collins (2012) and Mulhall (2012). The critical anthology Poetry by Women in Ireland 1870-1970 has made the work of women poets from the mid-century widely available (Collins 2012). Despite this availability, the powerfully subversive poetry of mid-century women poets is completely omitted from the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets.
 
The Cambridge Companion misses an opportunity to introduce students and other readers to modernist, avant-garde and experimental Irish poetry. Poets such as Lola Ridge, Freda Laughton, Blanaid Salkeld, Rhoda Coghill, Sheila Wingfield, Catherine Walsh, Maighréad Medbh and Mairéad Byrne are poorly represented as it is since there are few anthologies which highlight modernist and avant-garde Irish poetry. To redress this neglect, the current volume could have taken advantage of, for instance, Susan Schreibman’s work on the poets of 1929-1959 (2001); work done by Daniel Tobin and Terese Svoboda on Lola Ridge (2004, 2016); Anne Fogarty’s work on Rhoda Coghill (1999); Emma Penney’s work on Freda Laughton (forthcoming); Alex Davis’ work on Sheila Wingfield (2001); Claire Bracken’s work on Catherine Walsh (2005, 2008, 2016); Lucy Collins’ work on Catherine Walsh (2015); and Moynagh Sullivan’s work on Blanaid Selkeld (2003).
 
Failure to pay adequate attention to Irish-language poetry compounds the exclusion of women from the Cambridge Companion, since it mitigates against the inclusion of, for instance, Maire Mhac an tSaoi, Caitlín Maude, Biddy Jenkinson, Eilis Ní Dhuibhne, Celia de Freine and Collette Ní Ghallchoir, as well as 18th-century oral women’s poetry. There is significant scholarship to be drawn on particularly in the case of Màire Mhac an tSaoi (De Paor (ed.) 2014, De Paor 2013, Titley 2012). The volume risks forfeiting the opportunity for a new generation of students and scholars to interrogate the place women poets writing in the Irish language have occupied in our national cultural development.
 
Finally, we note the absence of working-class women’s poetry from volumes such as this. While little enough scholarship has been produced in this area, we might point for an obvious example to the work of Paula Meehan, who has engaged explicitly with the landscape and history of working-class Dublin in her poetry. We call on scholars, editors and publishers to attend to diversity in Irish poetry, in all its dimensions.
 
The absence of women from our critical volumes, literary surveys and anthologies alters literary history and distorts the way we read contemporary women’s poetry, raising a question for readers as to whether Irish women writers existed or exist today in any number. What message do we want to send to our young scholars? Will their contribution to Irish literature or literary criticism be deemed less valuable because they are women?
 

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7 thoughts on “Preamble To The Pledge

  1. Responses received via email (before I enabled the comment boxes)

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    The field of what is signified is consistently bare until such a time that women writers are deemed significant for what is being written about is forgetful and/or repressive, before it begins, of what it is being left out. This is a terrible loss for everyone and a terrible exclusion for those women who are not included. At the heart of this lies much of the imbalance within our cultural psyche and indeed within much of the established writing which extols itself without addressing the greater absence it’s own presence conceals. Here’s to anything that seeks to end this enforced and absolutely conscious act of censorship. Brendan McCormack

    Read, agreed and signed. Mark Andresen

    Signed and shared an important pledge. Jackie Gorman

    For years, I have waited for a response to the diminishment and disregard for literature from Irish women. It is systemic. It is patriarchal. It privileges male commentators and writers and quietly seeks to ignore writing from women. This is most insidious in anthologies. Mary O’Donnell

    Very glad to be part of this important moment. Moyra Donaldson

    ‘We call on scholars, editors and publishers to attend to diversity in Irish poetry, in all its dimensions’. Elaine Feeney

    I promise to help ensure that Irish women poets and their poetry are no longer forgotten. Laura Loftus

    ‘Áit liom bean bheith ina file’, a dúirt an fearfhile fadó. Ní hait ach iontach. Réaltán Ní Leannáin

    The absence of so many great poets undermines the Cambridge Companion. How can someone of the stature of Paula Meehan be overlooked? Annette Skade

    The situation regarding recognition of the contribution women have made in all spheres of life, not just literature, is ridiculous. Why are we not recognised? Why do men continually overestimate their own abilities and fail to recognise us? Congratulations on starting this pledge. Doreen McBride

    This casual misogyny needs a serious amount of attention drawn to it; as an active member of Women Aloud NI who’s been involved in cross-border projects, I’ve become aware of the ferociously talented women writers (playwrights, poets, novelists, screenwriters and short story writers) who populate this island. And they’re good! Damn good. This is not a frustrated plea to accept mediocre work simply in order to redress the notion of equality. This kind of publication does not reflect the talent, the passion and the sheer number of accomplished women poets in Ireland today. Anne McMaster

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    1. I agree wholeheartedly with the general principles outlined in the manifesto, and echo in particular your dismay at the absence of poets such as Rita Ann Higgins and Paula Meehan from the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets. (Along with the, surely now inexplicable and inexcusable, indifference to women poets, we must also note that the problem is also a consequence of the rigid structure: fetishizing the individual (poets not poetry) when a more thematic approach would have been more illuminating).

      I have one serious reservation about the manifesto. As is now customary, the first three volumes of the Field Day Anthology are referred to, but not volumes 4 and 5. This is an extraordinary omission (though by no means unusual – Anne Enright also did this in her Laureate lecture). How can one discuss the history of Irish women’s writing yet ignore this anthology of 14 centuries of Irish women’s writing in three languages? And how can one discuss Irish feminist literary criticism and ignore the extraordinary labour of the editors and contributors involved – an entire generation of Irish feminist critics? Why make no reference to this?

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