Framing Masculinity in the Poetry of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill
Burke, Margaret Garry, Journal of International Women's Studies
This paper examines how the contemporary Irish poet, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, is destabilizing traditional notions of the masculine and feminine. Female Irish writers have been suppressed and silenced by a strong patriarchal society and it is interesting to study how Ni Dhomhnaill uses vivid masculine imagery to delineate new boundaries within the institutionalized male/female construction. The two works that I explore, "Nude" and "A God Shows Up," represent her complex journey toward a strong feminine voice.
Keywords: Irish, women, masculinity, poetry, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill
While gender studies have received wide global attention, this is an area of study that is relatively new terrain in Irish literature. The narrower focus on "masculinity" is singularly appropriate in Ireland as women become an integral part of the Irish canon. As women writers become significant players in the field of Irish literature, it is essential that they clarify for themselves the relationship between masculine and feminine identities, an issue that has been so problematic throughout Irish history. Due to the cultural, political and religious structure of Ireland, women have played a subordinate role and it is only in recent times that female writers are beginning to be heard. Because of the shift in the Irish literary landscape, it will be interesting to examine how the postmodern female poet, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, has delineated masculine imagery in some of her work. As Simone de Beauvoir has argued in The Second Sex, a woman within a patriarchal society is "a creature intermediate between male and eunuch, not a fully but only a partially-sexed being, because she is not a phallic creature" (249). Nonetheless postmodern female Irish poets have shed their voiceless, neutered selves and no longer neatly adapt to de Beauvoir's philosophical theory. As a matter of fact, Ni Dhomhnaill adroitly objectifies her male subjects, using powerful phallic images and thereby opens a conversation on how women are re-ordering gender roles in Ireland. But gender issues are not the only complexity in Ni Dhomhnaill's work. Since she writes in Irish, her work is only available to English speakers in translation. Despite this we have to assume that her translators, Irish poets themselves (2), have made a reasonable attempt to capture the subtleties and the nuances of her poetic creations thereby opening up the discussion of her work to a wider audience.
Women Writers in Ireland
As far back as written history, women had been writing poetry in Ireland, but even up to the present day, they have not truly been valued or recognized. The first 3 volumes of the important Irish literary collection, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature, were published in 1991 with the mention of only 5 women. After much hue and cry on the part of women writers, volumes 4 and 5 were published in 2002. These 2 volumes concentrate solely on the work of Irish women writers. Ni Dhomhnaill states that the "exclusion of women from the Field Day Anthology must be fairly and squarely faced up to in the Irish poetic tradition--a tradition that is sexist and masculinist to the core" (Selected 54). Indeed the Field Day controversy underlined the fact that the achievement of women writers was not simply a comforting celebration of an apolitical pluralism, but an intervention into a deeply rooted system of judgements and sanctions on the limits of female poetic utterance (Keen 21). In Ireland this systematic silencing of women made it easy to ignore their existence and to invalidate their experience (Fuchs 312). In fact proclamations against women's rights were codified into law. Contraception, abortion and even a married women's right to work were banned by the 1937 Irish Constitution. (3) These conventions against women's rights prescribed their role as reproducers of culture and nature, confining them to the domestic sphere and denying them sexual freedom (Myers 306). …