Irish Women's Writing: Some Thoughts on Its Critical Condition

Article excerpt

. . . the first historians of any subject assume a tremendous authority. It is very difficult for the next generation to deny or oppose their categories and judgments. Women writers have been written out of literary history by this very process, a lesson feminist critics know very well. But recognition of a mistake doesn't keep one from making it.

Jane Marcus, "Con/textualizing feminist criticism"

Some months ago I set out to write a review of Ann Owens Weekes' Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition,(1) a straightforward enough task given my enthusiasm and eagerness at finally getting my hands on a copy. After several failed attempts to say anything at all, however, I was forced to shift from an analysis of the book itself to an examination of the source of my own paralysis--a process which may, I suspect, be familiar to others who work in areas of marginalised writing. Put simply, the dearth of critical material on the subject of Irish women's writing means that virtually anything published in the area is warmly welcomed, a situation which creates something of a dilemma when that same material doesn't quite achieve what might have been hoped.

This dilemma is exacerbated by the nature of reviewing itself. For while literary criticism has thankfully moved a long way from the binary classifications of "good" and "bad", the very nature of reviews requires an assessment of texts as predominantly positive contributions to a field of study with room for a few negatives interspersed or, alternatively, a predominantly negative assessment with a few positives thrown in. But what if that area of study is so limited and underexposed that the most positive aspect of the contribution is the publication of the text itself? In a wider field of study the problem rarely arises. Within a narrow field, however, freedom of critical expression is, to a large extent, hamstrung by a sense of betrayal or lack of solidarity. Yet, ironically, it is precisely within such a field that diversity is essential to growth.

The last few years have witnessed the publication of a number of books dealing with the subject of Irish women's lives and writing, most of which are not widely available outside Ireland. By contrast, Weekes' book, as well as two prominent anthologies--DeSalvo et al., Territories of the Voice: Contemporary Stories by Irish Women Writers and Casey and Casey's Stories by Contemporary Irish Women(2)--have been widely publicised and distributed.

Territories contains twenty-seven stories and quite a lengthy Introduction, but promises a little more than it can deliver by suggesting that each story is representative of its author's "entire oeuvre"(xii) and, perhaps more significantly, that it tried to:

ensure that the stories . . . provided portraits of . . . urban women and rural women, women from the Republic of Ireland and women from the North, Catholic women and Protestant women, portraits of women who loved men and women who loved women, visions of eider women thinking back through their lives and portraits of young girls, adolescent women, mothers, widows, and women living alone. Most importantly, we had to love the stories, to be excited by them as works of art . . .(x.u)

Something of a tall order for the first of its kind to be published in the United States. Territories is, nevertheless, valuable since it not only includes stories from established writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Lavin, Julia O'Faolain and Edna O'Brien, but those of newer writers like Anne Devlin, Brenda Murphy, Fiona Barr and Ann McKay.

To a large extent, Territories overshadows and pre-empts Stories by Contemporary Irish Women, whose short Introduction to its seventeen stories implies a reluctance of interpolation and, thus, a failure to politicise the stories--an attempt, perhaps, to let the stories 'speak' for themselves, thus serving a metonymic function of sorts. Once again, however, the significance of Stories lies in its exposure of contemporary writers with whom most non-specialist readers would be unfamiliar. …