Academic journal article Parergon

Ideal Communities and Planter Women's Writing in Seventeenth-Century Ireland

Academic journal article Parergon

Ideal Communities and Planter Women's Writing in Seventeenth-Century Ireland

Article excerpt

From the late sixteenth century, Ireland was a land of opportunity for adventurous, ambitious English men and women. (1) Tudor and Stuart policies endeavoured to entrench English forms of government and religion and proceed with the expropriation of land. The island, however, was a religious, political, and linguistic battleground. It was populated by indigenous, Irish-speaking Catholics (known as native, Gaelic, or 'mere' Irish), by Catholic descendants of the Normans, often bilingual and known as the Old English, and by recently arrived English-speaking, usually Protestant, settlers, known as the New English. Thus, relocation was not without its perils: the ever-present threat of warfare or (worse) displacement, the hostile neighbours that surrounded many plantations. For the planter class--a minority who were often geographically scattered and beleaguered--the imperative was to consolidate community. Rebecca D'Monte and Nicole Pohl have identified three categories of community in the early modern period: the 'spatially specific' community, 'organized into a sovereign socio-political unit' such as the nation, country, or borough; the spatially diffuse 'virtual' community, 'imagined through common political, professional or social convictions and shared pursuits'; and the 'self-conscious and intentional' community, 'congregating within the framework of a specific social or ideological body'. (2) The plantation community conforms to this latter definition. But the heterogeneity of identities in seventeenth-century Ireland problematizes neat categorization; the imagined communities were many. (3)

For Susan Montgomery, the Derry planter and letter-writer who is the primary focus of this article, bonds of community transcended the settler group among which she lived. Julie Campbell and Anne Larsen observe that 'correspondence ... illustrate[s] the ways in which communications travelled transnationally to reach kindred spirits and shape virtual communities'; letters served as the 'basic means of communication for far-flung correspondents'. (4) As a woman who left her home in Somerset because her husband was appointed bishop of Derry, Montgomery wrote to sustain her familial relationships. In this sense, her writing conforms with Pohl and D'Monte's concept of the virtual community. Indeed, her letters--in their persistent exhortations that her relatives join her in Ulster--can be interpreted as products of the third, intentional community that seek to transform it into the first, a spatially united civic unit. Montgomery's letters are persuasions to ideal community. Rosemary O'Day cautions against the interpretation of letters as transparent, reminding us that the letter-writer was 'taking up a position and, in so doing, was constructing and presenting a case and/or an image or version of him or herself for the benefit of the recipient'. (5) In Montgomery's case, her representation of Ireland is coloured by her yearning for the settlement there of her ideal, familial community.

She was not alone in using her writing to construct the ideal planter community, as the example of Anne Southwell shows. Southwell composed verse that identified and courted allies and stimulated others to compose poetry that accorded with her devotional vision. A newly discovered elegy on her correspondent, Cicely, Lady Ridgeway--another Ulster planter--illuminates the ideal community to which she aspired (see below). Judith Herz has argued that literary communities are a construct of literary historians, 'less found objects than artifacts of the discovery process, constructed to serve varied critical, theoretical and historical ends'. (6) In fact, this article argues, in seventeenth-century Ireland ideal communities were the function of a female planter's (rather than critic's) imagination, constructed through her writing --whether letters, as in Montgomery's case, or poetry as in that of Southwell. Such communities served as an enabling apparatus of authorship for women settlers. …

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