The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Volumes IV and V: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Reviews, Volume 11

Angela Bourke, Siobhán Kilfeather, Maria Luddy, Margaret Mac Curtain, Gerardine Meaney, Mairín Ní Dhonnchadha, Mary O’Dowd and Clair Wills (eds)
(Cork University Press, E299)
ISBN 185918281X

It must be rare for a reviewer to admit at the beginning of a review that she has not read all of the material to be assessed. Weighing in at more than fourteen pounds and 3,201 pages between the two volumes, few will read these tomes in their entirety. There will be much pleasurable dipping in, however. The controversy surrounding the ‘missing women’ in volumes one, two and three is well known. Edited by Seamus Deane, the original volumes met with wide praise and probably an equal amount of criticism owing to the neglect of female authors. To his credit, Deane supported the editors of volumes four and five. This is duly acknowledged.
Given the bulk of volumes four and five, perhaps it would have been more sensible to place some of the material on the internet, as the Women’s History Project has done with its vast array of sources. The Women’s History Project material on the National Archives’ website is thus a valuable source for researchers, particularly those residing outside Ireland. The material is searchable under various categories such as subject and theme. Furthermore, the extensive Dáil debates are readily accessible on the excellent Oireachtais website. However, many prefer the printed page.
Are there any themes that stand out in the formidable array of literature assembled here? It may be suggested that female image as opposed to reality, the rhetoric of official sources as well as the everyday reality of ordinary lives, and personal affections together with personal animosities are evident in virtually all the areas covered by the Anthology.
Let us begin with the image of women in society. This was an obsession for many writers. The delightful (from an early twenty-first-century perspective) desires of the Mary Immaculate Modesty Crusade may bring a wry smile to some readers. Students at the Mary Immaculate Training College for Catholic females were enjoined by fellow students to avoid certain dress styles for public events. Yet, at the same time, students at the college were encouraged to play tennis, baseball and basketball. These contradictions are elided in the narrative. One cannot but be amused at the instruction to avoid dresses that displayed the collarbone. Obviously, this part of the female anatomy was an occasion of sin. The crusade was not unique to Ireland as there were similar movements in the United States and Italy in the 1920s. The students thought it was ‘high time to start a crusade to resave Irish maidenhood from the grip of a pagan world’. The modesty crusade was part of an international movement to curb the excesses of the ‘modern woman’, who enjoyed an independent income and, worse, the joys of a bicycle. The latter facilitated attendance at suffrage meetings so that the humble bicycle may have constituted a threat to internal security or perhaps, at the very least, a national hazard. Given the discrepancies between the rhetoric of these documents and the reality of everyday life for many women, it may be that economic concerns propelled many of the changes charted in these volumes. Margaret O’Callaghan’s highly impressive introduction to women in twentieth-century Ireland is conscious of both the limitations and opportunities afforded by the newly independent Irish state and Northern Ireland.
Rhetoric as opposed to reality is a second theme that pervades both of these volumes. The ‘Women in Irish Society’ section, carefully edited by Maria Luddy, makes clear the economic vulnerability of many women and men on the margins. The primacy of economic independence is emphasised. Economic, rather than political, citizenship is more valuable. Educational change in the nineteenth century, as Anne O’Connor suggests, provided financial opportunities for newly emergent groups in Irish society. Despite being conversant with conservatism, some groups made the most of the opportunities presented by post-Famine Ireland.
The impact of rhetoric, which ranged from legal decisions made in the medieval period to protective legislation, particularly associated with the 1937 constitution, affected all women as well as many men. In general, the medieval sections, edited by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, are breathtaking in their range. Aspects of medieval life are illuminated by documents that applied to a range of social classes. Donncha Ó Corráin provides us with an insightful introduction to women and the law. These are not specifically women’s history sources but they can be mined for information on society’s attitudes towards women. Clearly, while the law may be an ass, it was one that brayed and kicked and had to be heeded. The challenge for many was to evade the grim prognosis of the semantics of protection while preserving one’s identity.
Men and women were affected by the economic environment, as Mary E. Daly makes clear, though the effect was not equally distributed. For example, the state actively discouraged certain forms of female employment. Elizabeth Malcolm, in a careful review of women and hospitals, suggests that ‘women’s relations with the male-run [not all were under male control] hospital system were complex: women ignored, benefited from, exploited and were oppressed by hospitals in varying measures. In discussing women and hospitals, all these different voices and attitudes need to be heard’. Inevitably, even comprehensive introductions such as Malcolm’s will contain minor errors. Euphan Maxwell was educated at St Leonard’s, in St Andrew’s, Scotland, not Alexandra College in Dublin. Ada English is not as elusive as she appears in the text. The daughter of the resident medical superintendent at Mullingar Lunatic Asylum, she was a student at the Loreto in Mullingar before taking her medical degree at the Catholic University Medical School. We are also told that all the medical staff at St Ultan’s Infants’ Hospital were female. In fact, males were employed from an early stage for particular specialities. Nicholas Marshall Cummins deserves more than a ‘no information available’. After all, he introduced the blood transfusion service to Cork, a significant achievement. Neither should we assume that women automatically supported other women. According to Tony Farmar’s fine history of Holles Street, one of the lady governors at the hospital announced that she ‘wouldn’t have a woman obstetrician, and she didn’t see why the poor should have to put up with something she didn’t’!
This negative attitude of women towards other women was also evident in education. While women religious were extremely important in providing education for many Irish people, Polly Devlin’s piece makes clear her negative views of their impact: ‘In the school I attended you were not encouraged to seek out who you were. You were actively encouraged to seek modesty and humility as the only paths towards some future reward’. Yet, at the same time, women educated by members of various religious orders were sometimes intellectually assertive. Maureen Wall, an acknowledged expert on eighteenth-century Catholic Ireland, who was educated by members of the Mercy Order at second and third level, was clearly able, in the words of Tom Dunne, to defend ‘a position about which she felt strongly’. She had, in the view of a UCD colleague, a ‘tongue like a scorpion’. She probably needed it.
Contrary to some reports there are several male contributors, including Dunne’s perceptive piece. In these volumes, however, the vast majority of the voices are female ones. This is not surprising given that most of those working on these topics are women. However, the absence of James Kelly from the eighteenth-century sections is surprising. He has written compelling articles on rape, infanticide and abduction. Some may be surprised that gay men are covered in these volumes. Undoubtedly they are not a prominent feature in the earlier volumes but it is difficult to assess where they fit in an anthology devoted to female experience.
Our final theme, the role and importance of affection and enmity, is one that deserves careful consideration. Commenting generally on all social groups, Louis Cullen perceptively suggested, in an interview in History Ireland (2.2, Summer 1994), that ‘People belong to interest groups, and not just in terms of economic benefit. Affection and enmity are vital motivating forces and can only be expressed in terms of people within one’s immediate vicinity’. The role of friendship, whether sexual or otherwise, will provide plenty of scope for future researchers.
In seeking to explain the Irish Famine, Cormac Ó Gráda suggested that there were winners and losers. Are there winners and losers in this anthology? Who are they? Not surprisingly, the more literate women are over-represented and poorer women tend to lose out. Mary Cullen’s fine introduction on widows is tantalising. There is a book waiting to be written on widows in Ireland. Finola Kennedy’s ground-breaking Cottage to crèche, family change in Ireland includes revealing material on their economic vulnerability prior to the introduction of widows’ and orphans’ pensions in 1935. Moreover, many will be surprised at the absence of Eilís Dillon from the children’s literature section. Given that the editors were, in general, incredibly generous in allowing vast amounts of material to be reproduced, Dillon’s absence is all the more inexplicable. A more selective approach would have been advisable generally. For example, we are given an entire chapter of an Edna O’Brien novel when an extract would have sufficed.
Is the Field Day a collection of documents rather than an anthology of Irish writing? Perhaps some material was included because of its historical interest rather than its contribution to Irish literature. The sections that work best are multi-disciplinary in approach, such as Angela Bourke’s characteristically illuminating material on oral traditions. Nevertheless the entire five volumes provide us with such a range of experience and analysis over 2000 years that only the churlish would bemoan their publication. All of the indefatigable editors deserve our approbation.

Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh
St Patrick’s College


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