Testimony to a flowering

Catriona Crowe

Catriona Crowe


On the evening of 31 October 1991, the journalist Fintan O’Toole met a group of people on their way into Newman House on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. They were Seamus Deane, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, and they were there to launch the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, one of the most intensely anticipated literary events in Ireland in many years. Their choice of venue was the site of the original Catholic University, founded by John Henry Newman in 1854, the place where Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote his sonnets and where Joyce set some of the scenes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. O’Toole wrote later that the four men ‘seemed for a moment like a cultural cabinet, like people who run a country in their imagination’. Mr Haughey must have taken some pleasure in Seamus Deane’s words about him in the anthology: ‘he skilfully combines de Valera’s meticulously crafted republicanism with Seán Lemass’s best possible blend of cosmopolitan modernity and ancestral loyalty for present-day Ireland’.

Field Day had been established in 1980 as a theatrical collaboration between Friel and the actor Stephen Rea. Their first production was Translations, Friel’s play which confronted the cultural re-mapping of Ireland by a colonial power. The play was premièred in Derry, as were later Field Day productions. Deane, Heaney, Tom Paulin and David Hammond joined the group shortly afterward, and it quickly grew into a much larger cultural and political project. In Ireland’s Field Day (1985), Deane wrote: ‘[The directors] believed that Field Day could and should contribute to the solution of the present crisis by producing an analysis of the established opinions, myths and stereotypes which had become both a symptom and a cause of the current situation.’ The ‘crisis’ and the ‘current situation’ refer to Northern Ireland; though clearly willing and able to accommodate a range of views, the Field Day project was firmly grounded in a northern nationalist perspective. It became the most important intellectual force in Ireland in the 1980s. The anthology was to be Field Day’s apotheosis.

Inside Newman House, Haughey declared the launch ‘one of the most important events of our present era’, and praised Field Day for its ‘sympathetic and humane’ approach to chronicling the story of modern Ireland. Deane spoke of the non-canonical nature of the project, described the editors as engaging in an ‘act of definition’ rather than a ‘definitive action’, and proclaimed the anthology’s recuperative and hospitable intentions: it had set out to reclaim as Irish material hitherto classified as British, and to uncover writings not previously included in such collections. The texts selected would represent all available traditions. Deane indicated his pleasure that the anthology was making its appearance during Dublin’s year as European City of Culture, as well as ‘100 years after the death of Parnell and 75 years after 1916’. The three volumes ran to over 4,000 pages, handsomely bound and boxed, priced at £150.

Eight days later, serious objections to the anthology’s exclusion of many women writers, and of crucial texts of Irish feminism, were registered by Nuala O’Faolain in an interview with Seamus Deane on the RTÉ television programme Booklines. A myth has grown up around this interview which now has very wide currency: that Nuala O’Faolain asked Deane how he had managed to leave out so many women, and that he replied ‘I forgot’.

In fact, Deane, immediately the subject was raised, blamed himself for his omissions and took full responsibility for them: ‘To my astonishment and dismay, I have found that I myself have been subject to the same kind of critique to which I have subjected colonialism … I find that I exemplify some of the faults and erasures which I analyze and characterize in the earlier period.’ It is perhaps possible to compress these sentiments into ‘I forgot’, but he did not say the words. He said that documents relating to feminism would be his first priority for inclusion in the revised paperback edition of the anthology, expected to appear in one or two years. O’Faolain was pained but gracious, Deane subdued and remorseful.

Four days later, O’Faolain used her influential and popular weekly column in the Irish Times to express her profound disappointment at the anthology’s exclusions. She began: ‘I had been looking forward to this anthology for years. I knew that it had the highest ambitions, and that it was being generally edited by Seamus Deane. He has been one of my heroes.’ She went on to praise the scope and diversity of the anthology, and to describe her pleasure at being enabled to see Spenser, Robert Emmet, Maturin, Myles na gCopaleen and many others in new contexts and juxtapositions.

Then she recounted her reaction to the meagre representation of women in the modern fiction, drama, poetry and Irish-language sections: ‘When that sank in – when I brought myself to believe that they’d really done this – I began to question the whole book. How sensitive is it to any history if it’s this insensitive to the present?’ She listed the achievements of the women’s movement in Ireland since the 1960s, from equal pay to access to contraception to the election of a woman president, and was certain that if comparable changes and shifts had occurred in the politics of Northern Ireland, every possible text would have been included in the anthology.

Her last three paragraphs stated both the problem and its ultimate solution:

If a compilation as seemingly authoritative as this came out in America, with these flaws, American women would not let it stand. They would demand its withdrawal. Well, I don’t want it withdrawn. Up to halfway through its last volume, it is a richly exciting book.

But I want it revised at the earliest opportunity. I think that as it stands – and precisely because it is nearly such a great book – it is immensely wounding. And I hope that other people will protest with me, so that the next time an anthologist bends to his task, he won’t be able to forget that there are watchful women out there.

Seamus Deane says in his introduction to the anthology that ‘what we show is an example of the way in which canons are established and the degree to which they operate as systems of ratification and authority’. Well, exactly. That’s the danger. While this book was demolishing the patriarchy of Britain on a grand front, its own, native, patriarchy was sitting there. Smug as ever.

This was the beginning of the campaign that ultimately resulted in the publication, in September 2002, of two new volumes of the anthology, devoted to writing by and about women.


Deane had laid out his views on the need for a new anthology of Irish writing in Field Day pamphlet no. 4, ‘Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea’, in 1984:

The oppressiveness of the tradition we inherit has its source in our own readiness to accept the mystique of Irishness as an inalienable feature of our writing and, indeed, much else in our culture … The dissolution of that mystique is an urgent necessity if any lasting solution to the North is to be found. One step towards that dissolution would be the revision of our prevailing idea of what it is that constitutes the Irish reality. In literature that could take the form of a definition, in the form of a comprehensive anthology, of what writing in this country has been for the last 300–500 years, and through that, an exposure of the fact that the myth of Irishness, the notion of Irish unreality, the notions surrounding Irish eloquence, are all political themes upon which the literature has battened to an extreme degree since the nineteenth century when the idea of national character was invented.

In his General Introduction to the anthology, Deane claimed the eighteenth-century idea of ‘polite letters’, embracing literature, philosophy, history ‘and many other forms of discursive writing’, as the guiding principle for the inclusion of texts in the volumes. He noted that Irish nationalists had used ‘historical and archaeological scholarship in a tendentious and polemical fashion’, but went on to criticize those who complained of these excesses, claiming that they used ‘objectivity’ in the case of history, and ‘autonomy’ in the case of literature, to disguise political agendas of their own, such as ‘unionism, liberalism, internationalism’. He outlined various concepts of Ireland: ‘It is not one culture or even one place. It can be the Isle of Saints and Scholars, John Bull’s Other Island, an intramural example of European colonialism, a laggard remnant of long-exhausted religious wars, a catholic aircraft-carrier off Europe, a neo-colonial culture struggling towards autonomy.’ He emphasized the importance of translations, linguistic, intellectual and emotional, in any attempt to understand cultural developments in Ireland from the seventeenth century on. He concluded by noting that the anthology ‘includes a great deal of material that has for long been unknown or unacknowledged, usually because it has not been amenable to any of the modern versions of tradition elaborated in the last one hundred years’.

Neither class nor gender was mentioned in Deane’s General Introduction as a possible reason for the exclusion of material hitherto not included in Irish anthologies. Upwards of three dozen male writers were referred to, but only one woman: Charlotte Brooke, the eighteenth-century translator of Irish poetry into English. The tone was confident, combative, dismissive of possible objections to the selections made, and very sure of its ground.

The anthology met many of the expectations raised by its declared intention of including kinds of writing new to literary anthologies and by the reputation of its General Editor, one of the cleverest and most innovative writers and teachers in Ireland. Almost all of the reviews mentioned its many virtues, as O’Faolain had in her column. But two sometimes overlapping sets of critics had problems with it: so-called ‘revisionists’, who objected to what they saw as the nationalist bias of the anthology, and feminists.

On 24 November, a piece by Colm Tóibín appeared in the Sunday Independent taking serious issue with the anthology’s nationalist ideology and its omissions: ‘Where are Mary Robinson’s famous speeches? The Kerry Babies Report? … June Levine’s Sisters? We have 10 pages of Eamonn McCann; where is Nell McCafferty?’ He concluded: ‘Still, I wouldn’t be without it. I strongly recommend it, with all its faults and its governing clapped-out ideology, to the reader.’

A review by Richard Kearney appeared in the Sunday Tribune on 1 December. Kearney’s tone was defensive throughout: he wrote that the anthology ‘challenges some of our unexamined assumptions’, was ‘no exercise in nationalist nostalgia’, and ‘far from being a fundamentalist gesture of reaction … exposes us to the diversity of what we are’. He noted the omission of several writers from the anthology, but did not identify the representation of women per se as a problem.

On 4 January, Eileen Battersby reviewed the volumes in the Irish Times with a characteristic mixture of high approval and sudden tetchiness. She dismissed objections to the anthology’s politics. She praised many of the introductions – J.C.C. Mays on Beckett, Seamus Heaney on Yeats, Seamus Deane on Goldsmith and Joyce, and Andrew Carpenter on Swift – and commended the ‘freewheeling cross-referencing’ of the three volumes. She described Volume II as ‘almost a masterwork’. However, she disliked the contemporary fiction section, demanded more space for O’Casey, Kavanagh, MacNeice and Kate O’Brien, and regretted the non-inclusion of ‘various outstanding legal texts which have determined the constitutional life of Ireland, especially that of women’. She concluded: ‘Whatever about the flaws and omissions, such as failing to consider the radical social and political contribution made by women, or neglecting to view the writing of history as a distinct genre, the anthology is a triumph of both scholarship and intellectual courage.’

On 9 January, a long scholarly review of the anthology by Siobhán Kilfeather and a diary piece by Edna Longley appeared in the London Review of Books. Kilfeather took issue with one of the claims in Deane’s General Introduction: ‘There is a story here, a meta-narrative, which is, we believe, hospitable to all the micro-narratives that, from time to time, have achieved prominence as the official version of the true history, political and literary, of the island’s past and present.’ Kilfeather responded: ‘The not-quite-declared agenda is to persuade readers that there is a narrative about “the island”, a place which is taken to have a certain kind of cultural integrity that is “hospitable” to controversy, dissension, perhaps even to violent differences of opinion. This is a political claim which many people will reject from the outset, and those dissenters may use the violence of the last twenty years as evidence that none of the available meta-narratives – nationalism, anti-nationalism, imperialism, unionism, socialism, feminism – are sufficiently hospitable to differences.’

Kilfeather’s arguments with the anthology were mainly about exclusions: political writings about poverty, material by and about Travellers, Jews and immigrants, ‘hermetic’ rather than accessible poetry, too little of Kavanagh, MacNeice, Hewitt, Ó Cadhain and MacGrianna. She counted thirty-nine women in the anthology – ‘by no means a lamentable showing’. She complained about the lack of material relating to ‘the debates about women’s rights, sexuality and reproduction in which Mary Robinson, for example, established her reputation’. She noted that all of the section editors were men, and listed women whom she would like to have seen included in the anthology, but treated the question as a matter of editorial preference rather than patriarchal bias. Her overall judgement on the anthology was positive; she mentioned the ‘immeasurable enjoyment’ she received from the volumes, and concluded by declaring them ‘a significant achievement, of which Deane and the other editors may well be proud’.

Edna Longley’s piece was more profoundly critical of the politics of the anthology and its exclusions. ‘Women’s issues embarrass Northern nationalists because they highlight the controversy about Church and State in the Republic (divorce, gynaecological freedoms) and thereby expose the religious dimension of the Northern Irish conflict,’ she wrote. She went on to point to the absence of examination of the politics of the Irish Churches, and Catholicism in particular. She accused Declan Kiberd of censoring Paul Durcan by omitting his attacks on the IRA and his satires on the Catholic Church. Longley’s main quarrel was with the anthology’s ‘hegemonic’ attempt to shape a version of Irish writing that fitted with the post-colonial, neo-nationalist project of Field Day. Her feminist concerns were subordinate to her political and literary objections. Her complaints were serious, well argued and sometimes intemperate (comparing Deane to Paul de Man did not help her case).

On 21 February 1992 a public debate, organized by the Irish Writers’ Union, took place in the Dublin Writers’ Museum. It was advertised as follows: ‘DEANE RESPONDS. Since its publication recently, the Field Day anthology of Irish literature has been dogged by controversy. Many writers have responded with anger at the paucity of work by women represented in the anthology. The Irish Writers’ Union, in association with the centre, has organized a public debate on the issue …’ Katie Donovan reported on the meeting in the Irish Times on 27 February. Seamus Deane did not appear, citing a previous engagement, but sent a message that he was ‘already negotiating with feminist critics on suggested revisions to the anthology’. Ailbhe Smyth pronounced the anthology ‘a male separatist version of the story of Irish writing’. Eavan Boland said she was ‘sorry to be included in an anthology which excludes women’. Evelyn Conlon expressed herself ‘pleased with the seriousness with which Field Day has taken our criticisms’.

Four of the anthology’s editors were present: W.J. Mc Cormack (who had expertly edited the only section devoted to a female writer, Maria Edgeworth) accepted that there had been unjustifiable omissions; Terence Brown cited lack of space as a factor preventing the inclusion of more women (curiously, he made this argument again at the Parnell Summer School in August of last year); Luke Gibbons said he had taken feminist principles on board by including some of the marginalized voices in the debates on nationalism at the turn of the century; Christopher Murray said it was like being at an AA meeting, and that the anthology’s political intent was the recuperation of Irish writers formerly considered to be British. However foolish some of these defences were, at least those who made them had the courage to show up, and that can’t have been easy. It emerged, in response to angry questio ns from the floor, that Deane had never called a general meeting of editors during the entire course of the project, and that the editors had worked in isolation, none of them able to see the overall shape of the anthology.

Eavan Boland played a vigorous part in the protest against the anthology’s omissions. She expressed her views at the conference of the Irish Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature in Trinity College later that year:

I am critical of the recent Field Day anthology which has 34 male poets and 3 women poets in the contemporary Irish poetry section. It has other absences. There are no [female] section editors. There is no mention of the women’s movement, whose ideas and importance can be seen in something like the recent debate on abortion. There are articles by distinguished scholars such as Edward Said but you can’t find the name Mary Robinson in the index. The Field Day anthology indicates the fact that those who put together canons which confuse power with authority do so at their peril …

In this instance – and this is instructive of other current ideas on Irish literature – a nationalist interpretation of literature has ended up putting forward – not surprisingly – a theory of a national literature. It is disruptive to that theory – with all its carefully balanced premises of retrieval and nostalgia – that women are new voices. That they are writing poems which upset conventional ideas of possession and identity. That they are disrupting an old assumption of Ireland and its writing. And so the statistics in the Field Day anthology may be ethically indefensible; but they are not I believe coincidental.

There was some comfort for the editors in Roy Foster’s review of the anthology, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 27 March. Foster, who might have been expected to join other critics in attacking the nationalist agenda of the project, produced a review that was generous, fair-minded, critical of some aspects of the anthology, but generally favourable. It is unquestionably the best review of the anthology on the ground which it claims for itself: Foster wondered what exactly was wrong with the attempt to create a canon, since that is, almost self-evidently, what anthologies are for; he argued for a closer look at Ireland as post-colonial case, while praising Field Day as a stimulating force in opening up new forms of literary and historical analysis; he noted and agreed with certain exclusions (Hopkins, Newman, C.S. Lewis), and noted and disagreed with others (Trollope, Helen Waddell, Molly Keane, Sam Hanna Bell, Hugh Leonard); he praised the editorial input – ‘heroic, often splendid’ – and singled out Deane, Heaney, Mays, Mc Cormack, Brown, Kiberd and Gibbons for special mention; he got in a nice dig at the anthology’s encomium of Charles Haughey, suggesting that, in hindsight, a little ‘revisionism’ might commend itself to the editors; he concluded: ‘Consciously through its patterns and introductions, and unconsciously between the lines of both, the Field Day Anthology testifies impressively both to the irresistible Irish critical force and to the immovable Irish historical object.’

In early August 1992 Field Day, in the person of Seamus Deane, commissioned a fourth volume of the anthology to be devoted to women’s writing. Editors in place at that time included Margaret Mac Curtain, Angela Bourke, Gerardine Meaney, Siobhán Kilfeather and Clair Wills. (They were later joined by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd.) A new task had been set, and a highly impressive but flawed anthology would have to await its completion in order to be truly representative.

At the Yeats Summer School in mid-August, Edna Longley dismissed the newly-commissioned fourth volume as ‘a damage-limitation exercise’, and revealed that she had christened it ‘the madwomen in the annex’. Other reviews appeared as the year went on, from Éibhear Walshe, Kevin Barry, Eiléan Ní Chuileanáin, Ailbhe Smyth and others, but a solution had been found to one of the problems confronting reviewers, and the steam largely went out of the argument.

At this distance, it is possible to sympathize with the anthology’s editors, and particularly with Seamus Deane. They had spent many years putting together a major innovative compendium of Irish writing; they had been prepared for political attacks from those Deane later disparagingly referred to as ‘the usual suspects’, and were ready and able to defend themselves on that territory, but it is clear that they never for a moment foresaw the terrible consequences of ignoring feminist texts and women writers to the extent that they had. It is ironic now to read Deane’s declaration in his General Introduction that he was ‘free from the unease created by such considerations’, referring to the anxieties about exclusions and omissions that might beset any anthologist. He and his fellow editors were caught bang to rights, with no way out and no preparation for the storm of controversy that descended on their heads.

The timing of the controversy couldn’t have been worse. The X case – in which a fourteen-year-old, pregnant as a result of rape, was prevented by the High Court, on application from the Attorney-General, from travelling to Britain for an abortion – came to light in February 1992. There was a pervasive atmosphere of insult to women, which those of us who had been involved on the losing side in the 1983 abortion referendum remembered vividly, and desperately did not want to endure again. Further, the abortion row deepened everyone’s awareness of the very northern emphasis of the anthology; the Republic of Ireland had been engaged in bitter battles centred on women’s bodies, battles which had not had their counterparts in Northern Ireland.

The feminist critique of the anthology was twofold. It held, firstly, that the essential documents of the women’s movement, from the Irish Women’s Franchise League to the events leading to the election of Mary Robinson, had been left out, while all kinds of other interesting twentieth-century political documents had been included; and, secondly, that the representation of women in the contemporary fiction, poetry, drama and Irish-language sections was grossly inadequate. (There was not much complaint about the space given to those women writers who were included, and examination of the editors’ behaviour in this respect shows them to be, mostly, fair and judicious in their allocations.)

The two main feminist criticisms stand up robustly to examination. Not a single text relating to the twentieth-century women’s movement in Ireland is included in Deane’s anthology, while speeches by Eamon de Valera, Charles Haughey, Garret FitzGerald, Seán MacBride, John Hume and Gerry Adams, mostly relating to Northern Ireland, are. It is also true that the twentieth-century sections are remediably deficient in literary texts by women. This is a much more contested area, but at the very least arguments can be made for the inclusion of Maeve Brennan, Mary Beckett, Molly Keane, K. Arnold Price, Máiréad Ní Ghráda, Teresa Deevy, Caitlín Maude and Peig Sayers. Seamus Deane devoted a substantial part of his General Introduction to warning that there are serious ‘cultural-political investments’ involved in the construction of canons and urging investigation of ‘the grounds on which these discriminations are based’. His argument is identical to the feminist one presented and acted on by such publishing houses as Virago and Attic, which have devoted themselves to the recovery and repositioning, through reprinting, of women writers. The anthology’s proclaimed ‘hospitable’ intentions might have been expected to focus on neglected Irish women writers at least to the same extent as neglected writers in Irish, who are rightly acknowledged and represented. Nonetheless, I think it very likely that if the original Field Day editors had included the crucial feminist writings and documents of the twentieth century, most readers would have been fairly satisfied with the selection of literary texts by women.

It must be said that the 1991 volumes constitute an extraordinary achievement. The quality of most of the introductions is very high; the selections, notwithstanding the omissions noted, are appropriate and illuminating in the cases of already well-known writers, and marvellously interesting in the cases of less familiar figures. The decision to include political speeches, religious rhetoric, popular song and journalism is fully justified and rewarding to the reader. Most people who own Deane’s anthology use it regularly, rely on its choices and insights, and generally regard it as indispensable. This makes it all the more unfortunate that its reputation was so tarnished by the oversights of the editors in the area of twentieth-century writing by and about women.


On 23 September 2002, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Volumes IV–V was launched in the Bank of Ireland Centre, Foster Place, Dublin, by Mary Robinson, just finishing her term as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Margaret Mac Curtain thanked Seamus Deane for his exemplary support throughout the project’s long gestation. (Deane was not present at the launch.) Mary Robinson spoke in elated terms of the scope and scale of the anthology, and called on each of the eight section editors to be acclaimed by the crowd. The books, looking handsome and very big, were available to be signed by the editors and sold at a discount, and many of those present bought them. There was a palpable atmosphere of anticipation among the guests, and of relief and perhaps some apprehension on the part of the editors.

After eleven years, a longer wait than that for volumes I–III, a number of questions must be asked of these new volumes. What sort of anthology is this? Does it address the deficiencies of the 1991 volumes? If so, is that all it does, or does it add something new to our ideas about women’s writing and changes in the status of women? Can the volumes stand alone, or are they inextricably linked to volumes I–III? What principles of organization are used for the material selected, and are they satisfactory? Are the selections themselves satisfactory?

The unsigned Preface to volumes IV and V sets out the intentions and methodology of the project:

The work … has brought together a range of disciplines, scholarship and material, and has produced a new kind of anthology. These volumes set out to challenge existing canons of Irish writing. They question received versions of history, and reinterpret cultural myth, while their shape reflects the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of our editorial structure. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, volumes IV and V, is the first attempt to bring together a substantial body of written documents produced by and about women since writing began in Ireland.

This second instalment of the Field Day Anthology more than succeeds in meeting the objectives set in its Preface. It provides an almost overwhelming ‘set of contexts for understanding how women lived in Ireland’, and illuminates them in dozens of different ways. It also – with some exceptions that are largely due to a misplaced fidelity to the idea of integration with volumes I–III – gives us the best of Irish women’s literature, both familiar and unfamiliar. It goes further, and provides a section on oral traditions, which augments the other material in a profoundly interesting and helpful way.

The Preface compares the editors of volumes I–III (‘mostly … members of university literature departments’) with those of volumes IV and V (‘several historians, an expert on oral traditions … political activists, journalists, theologians, poets and novelists, as well as scholars from a number of disciplines’). The new volumes are organized into eight sections: ‘Medieval to Modern, 600–1900’, edited by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha; ‘Religion, Science, Theology and Ethics, 1500–2000’, edited by Margaret Mac Curtain; ‘Sexuality, 1685–2001’, edited by Siobhán Kilfeather; ‘Oral Traditions’, edited by Angela Bourke; ‘Politics, 1500–2000’, edited by Mary O’Dowd; ‘Women in Irish Society, 1200–2000’, edited by Maria Luddy; ‘Women’s Writing, 1700–1960’, edited by Gerardine Meaney; and ‘Contemporary Writing, 1960–2001’, edited by Clair Wills. There are multiple sub-sections within each section, edited by a wide variety of contributing editors. The volumes contain the work of more than 750 writers, and run to 3,200 pages.

There have been some complaints about the volumes’ organization, but by and large I found the more ‘chaotic’ sections – ‘Religion, Science, Theology and Ethics’ and ‘Sexuality’ – the most stimulating in terms of what might turn up next. It is, for example, wonderful to find a document outlining the removal of Elicie Butler, Abbess of Kilculliheen in Waterford, from her office in 1532, due to alleged but later disproved neglect, fraud and fornication, followed by a letter from Margaret Fitzgerald, the saintly Countess of Ormond, to Henry VIII in 1540, sending him two goshawks. Similarly, it is marvellous to turn from Helen Waddell’s febrile (and immensely popular) Peter Abelard (‘Beloved, beloved, as if any vows could take me from you’) to Eibhlís Ní Shúilleabháin’s limpid account of her return to the Blasket Islands by boat on her wedding night in 1933 (‘the moon would come out again and was surely looking down on a small canoe with four men rowing and two women seated in its end’).

The more conventionally conceived sections are satisfying in a more traditional, but no less powerful, way. Mary O’Dowd’s section on ‘Politics, 1500–2000’ supplies us with most of what we might have expected to find in volumes I–III on the women’s movement, and a lot more besides, and it is worth looking at the section in some detail. O’Dowd herself takes us from 1500 to 1850, emphasizing the oblique, hidden and complex ways in which women exercised political power before they had the franchise, and the importance of family status, and women’s status within their families, in enabling such exercise. She looks at the difference between power and influence, and how aristocratic women were able to wield the latter in a dynastic society.

Maria Luddy, in the sub-section ‘Women and Politics in Ireland, 1860–1918’, takes up the issue of informal political activity by women – membership of secret societies, mob violence – as well as female philanthropy as a political force. She also deals with the suffrage movement and women’s involvement in the nationalist revolutionary period. Her selection includes Isabella Tod’s stern puritanism as well as Maud Gonne’s whimsical egotism, Anna Parnell’s reflections on the Ladies’ Land League, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington on the suffrage movement, Cumann na mBan’s manifesto, and Nora Connolly’s heartbreaking account of her last meeting with her father on the night before he was executed. There is also an extract from an extraordinarily good novel, The Amazing Philanthropists, by Suzanne Day, about a woman who became a Poor Law Guardian in Cork in 1911. Mary McSwiney’s 1914 piece from the Irish Citizen outlines the nationalist/feminist dilemma: ‘The women of Ireland want the Vote, but they do not want it … at the expense of Home Rule.’

Margaret O’Callaghan, in the sub-section ‘Women and Politics in Independent Ireland, 1921–68’, provides a long and absorbing introduction to a fascinating selection of documents. She reflects on the post-1922 male creation of the republican virago, a convenient way of de-politicizing women who opposed the Treaty settlement. She explores the growth of Catholicism as a constraining force on women’s sexuality, and on their position in the family, in relation to men and children, and as economic agents. The major debates, like the 1937 Constitution, and the row about the Mother and Child scheme, are documented. Her selection includes documents from Cumann na mBan protesting their exclusion from the full provisions of the Military Service Pensions Act, and from the redoubtable Louis Bennett complaining about the articles of the 1937 Constitution affecting women, as well as personal testimonies from Enid Starkie, Patricia Cockburn, Síghle Humphreys O’Donoghue, Máire Comerford, Kathleen Clarke, and a vivid account from C.S. Andrews of his wife, Mary Coyle, rioting at the Abbey Theatre production of The Plough and the Stars in 1926. There is also a deliciously malicious extract from Signe Toksvig’s diary from 1932, recounting a dinner party full of ‘Free State wives’.

Marjorie Howe’s illuminating introduction and selection in the sub-section entitled ‘Sexuality: Public Discourse, Private Reflection, 1916–70’ provides a very clear look at women’s lives as affected by political beliefs and structures in those years. Howe gives us Norah Hoult, Mary Lavin, Maura Laverty and Patricia O’Connor, and key pieces from Nuala Fennell and Dorine Rohan on Irish marriage. In her introduction, she interestingly blames ‘familism’, the Irish custom of leaving the farm to just one, usually male, child, as much as Catholicism, for the extreme patterns of late marriage or life-long celibacy that pertained here. She also has a marvellous quote from Sean O’Faolain in 1953, listing all the occasions of sin he was supposed to avoid: ‘keeping company, night courting, dancing at the crossroads, V necks, silk stockings, late dances, drinking at dances, mixed bathing, advertisements for feminine underwear, jitterbugging, girls who take part in immodest sports (such as jumping or hurdling), English and American books and magazines, short frocks, Bikinis, cycling shorts, and even waltzing’.

June Levine edits the sub-section on ‘The Women’s Movement in the Republic of Ireland, 1968–80’, and it is riveting reading. Here is the story of the ‘second wave’ of feminism in Ireland, from the manifesto of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement to the appointment of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn as Minister for the Gaeltacht in 1979, the first female cabinet minister since Constance Markievicz. Here is Mary Robinson’s 1974 Senate speech on contraception, Eileen Proctor’s letter to the Irish Press in 1966, which led to the establishment of the National Association of Widows, the ground-breaking journalism of the time by Mary Kenny, Mary Maher and Elgy Gillespie, Eileen Desmond speaking in the Dáil on contraception in 1979, the first report of the Commission on the Status of Women, the first report of the Rape Crisis Centre. Levine, herself a key activist at the time, gives an account of a crucial Late Late Show presented by the IWLM in 1971, which descended into chaos but put women’s liberation on the national agenda.

And then the terrible eighties, the dreadful referenda. Frances Gardiner and Mary O’Dowd edit ‘The Women’s Movement and Woman Politicians in the Republic of Ireland, 1980–2000’. This section is more focused on parliamentary representation than the preceding ones, necessarily, as the archival material is not yet in the public domain. There are many interesting extracts from the Dáil debates, from Nuala Fennell, Monica Barnes, Eileen Lemass, Joan Burton, Liz O’Donnell, Marian McGennis, and others. There is a comprehensive selection from journalists including Pat Brennan, Olivia O’Leary, Nuala O’Faolain, Mary Holland, Mary Cummins, Miriam Lord and Brenda Power. There is Ruth Riddick’s LIP pamphlet, The Right to Choose: Questions of Feminist Morality. There are Mamo McDonald and Monica Prendiville from the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. But the piece that sticks in the mind, because it was such a very bad time, is Nell McCafferty’s piece on the 1983 abortion referendum: ‘This time we refused to write ourselves in, we who had spent the seventies bursting out all over. This is no time to record the joyous courage of that decade. That would be whistling past the graveyard. This is the worst time of all – we have to look into the graveyard, or remain forever crippled under the weight of the pig-ignorant slurry of woman-hating that did us temporarily down.’

There are also three sub-sections on women and politics in Northern Ireland from 1918 to 2000, which include voices as different as Betty Sinclair on the Communist Party in 1944, an election speech from Patricia Ford, UUP MP, from 1953, the Belfast Women’s Collective in 1980 on the old question of nationalism v. feminism, some fine later journalism from Fionnuala O’Connor and Suzanne Breen, Margaret Ward’s intelligent analysis of the gender deficit in the Assembly, and one of Inez McCormack’s inspirational pieces on women and citizenship. The section editors, Diane Urquhart, Ruth Taillon, Monica McWilliams and Mary O’Dowd, provide lucid and informative introductions to the material.


The ‘Contemporary Writing, 1960–2001’ section is edited with intelligence and inclusiveness by Clair Wills and her team of sub-section editors. All of those mentioned as wrongly excluded in 1991 are here in the fiction, poetry and drama sections, and more besides. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill selects no fewer than fifty-nine poets for her intensely introduced section. There is a terrific section on the politics of sexuality in the Republic since 1965, which has some of our best women writers on the subjects that have convulsed us over the past thirty years – abortion, divorce, contraception, incest, unwanted motherhood, sexual orientation. While a lot of this would make you cry, we are also reminded that serious battles on these fronts have been won over the period, and feminist activism and consciousness-raising were responsible for many of those victories.

‘Women in the North of Ireland, 1969–2000’ richly documents the agony of the ‘troubles’ and the sometimes distorted perspectives created by endemic sectarianism and violence. There is a section dealing with feminist critique, which includes Máirín de Burca’s robust attack on The Midnight Court (‘it is not the first time that explicit descriptions of anatomical appendages and sexual gymnastics were mistaken for the polemics of liberation’), Mary Cullen’s critique of F.S.L. Lyons, Maria Luddy’s and Cliona Murphy’s 1989 interrogation of the state of history-writing in Ireland (‘A narrative account of the doings of men, largely carried out by men, written by men, and taught by men’), and, satisfyingly, Edna Longley on Field Day Anthology volumes I–III.

One of the most important things about this anthology is its recovery and presentation of material never before published, or published in tiny editions, or long out of print. These are true acts of recuperation, and the editors have taken full advantage of the scope allowed them by the project to present a spectacular range of texts that immeasurably enlarge our understanding of women’s lives, writings and performances. In this respect, it was an entirely creative decision to include material on our oral heritage which will be quite unfamiliar to most non-specialists. The ‘Oral Traditions’ section has no dates, reflecting the timeless nature of most of the material within it. Angela Bourke, the section editor, takes us in her introduction through the history of Irish folklore scholarship and emphasizes our debt to the early collectors, none of whom were women, but many of whose interviewees were. She makes the case for the presence of oral material in an anthology of ‘writing’: its importance in pre-literate society; its creative properties; its mnemonic methods of organization; the aesthetic pleasure it can give.

Bourke and her sub-section editors present an immensely pleasurable selection of tales and songs interpreted by scholars who clearly love their material, with an intelligent focus on women as inheritors of tradition, as performers and as archival sources. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s sub-section on international folktales, Bairbre Ní Fhloinn’s section on Traveller storytelling, Rionach Uí Ógain’s and Tom Munnelly’s ‘Song Tradition’ (pure bliss, this), and Bourke’s own section on lamentation are particular delights. These examples of a living tradition are a reminder of how art helps us to interpret and bear life and death on very profound levels. I just wish my Irish was better.

Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha’s majestic ‘Medieval to Modern, 600–1900’, with its wealth of scholarship and its challenging interpretations of familiar and wholly unfamiliar texts, has rightly been praised by reviewers, and I add my admiration to theirs. Maria Luddy’s brilliantly researched section on ‘Women in Irish Society, 1200–2000’ is a template for the study of Irish women’s social and economic history, with a team of Ireland’s best women historians on topics such as women’s education, women and the economy, the labour movement, emigration, philanthropy, women in the home, widows, and women’s interaction with workhouses, hospitals, Magdalen asylums, prisons and other institutions. Luddy, former Director of the Women’s History Project, which has produced a ground-breaking Web-based guide to sources for women’s history, is a formidable proponent of the development of these paths of exploration. The Women’s History Project lost its state funding in 2000. It is a shame that a country which can fund architectural, labour and military history (all very important fields of study) cannot seem to find the pittance necessary to support the study of the history of half of its population.

Margaret Mac Curtain’s introduction to ‘Religion, Science, Theology and Ethics, 1500–2000’ argues against the old view that the position of women disimproved in the transition from medieval to early modern society. Rosemary Raughter argues further that the disruptions of the seventeenth century allowed religious women opportunities for action, as parish and diocesan structures were weakened by the penal laws, thus allowing growth in domestic religion, very much controlled by women. Janice Holmes edits a section on the Ulster Revival of 1859, and reproduces some extraordinary contemporary newspaper accounts of visions and conversions.

Siobhán Kilfeather’s section on ‘Sexuality, 1685–2001’ is another collection of disparate materials put together to create a narrative sufficiently broad to accommodate all kinds of activities, from eighteenth-century abduction to nineteenth-century prostitution to infanticide. ‘The Erosion of Heterosexual Consensus, 1940–2001’, edited by Kilfeather and Éibhear Walshe, is a collection of pieces ranging from Forrest Reid’s encounter with a ghostly small boy, through a homoerotic short story by Brendan Behan, to pieces of commentary by Margo Gorman, Walshe himself, and an infuriating report by Nell McCafferty of a court case in 1981 where the defendant’s psychiatrist defined homosexuality as an illness.

The headnotes and biographies in these volumes are usually succinct and helpful. The footnotes perpetuate the tendency of those in the 1991 volumes to tell us things we don’t need to be told, like who Margaret Thatcher was, or that ‘wee’ means small, or that ‘eejit’ means idiot; they also tell us things we do need to know, like what terms in early legal texts mean, or who some of the people in Roberta Hewitt’s diary are. The volumes look beautiful and are well laid out, but they are incredibly heavy, because the quality of the paper used is superior to that used in volumes I–III. I hope never to drop one on my toe.


While the anthology amply meets the needs identified by the critics of volumes I–III, the decision to treat all five volumes as an integrated set has created deficiencies of its own. At the start of the project in 1992, the commissioned extra volume was seen as an addendum to the previous three – a notion decried by some feminist commentators at the time. But as things progressed, it must have become clear that this was going to be a whole new event, going well beyond the parameters set by the editors of the first three volumes. This is the definitive account of women in Ireland over a period of 1,500 years. But with regard to women writers ‘dealt with’ in volumes I–III, the editors have made decisions that are very hard to justify.

In the section ‘Women’s Writing, 1700–1960’, which contains all kinds of good things, there is a sub-section called ‘Women’s Fiction, 1845–1900’. For fiction from 1900 to 1960, there is ‘Identity and Opposition: Women’s Writing 1890–1960’, but the editor, Gerardine Meaney, tells us that she excluded the ‘canonical women writers of this’ period because they appeared in the 1991 volumes. Ruth Carr, the editor of ‘Contemporary Fiction’, acknowledges Edna O’Brien’s ‘specifically Irish contribution to the surge of western women’s fiction in the sixties’, but tells us that her criterion for selection ‘has not been popularity or commercial success’. We are referred to volume III, where O’Brien is represented by one short story.

It is instructive to look closely at the treatment of Ireland’s four best-known twentieth-century women fiction writers in 1991 and 2002 respectively. In 1991, Elizabeth Bowen was represented by eight pages from The Last September, eight pages of the short story ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’, and three pages from Seven Winters. The selections from The Last September are well chosen, and they are long enough to give a sense of the overall shape of the book. The short story is perfectly chosen for its Gothic context – it appears in the section ‘Irish Gothic and After, 1820–1945’.

In volumes IV–V, Bowen is represented by a two-page extract from The Hotel in ‘Sexuality: Lesbian Encounters 1745–1997’, and three pages of ‘Why Do I Write?’ and two of ‘Disloyalties’ in ‘Aesthetics and Politics, 1890–1960’. Two pages of fiction, and five of non-fiction, compared to sixteen of fiction and three of non-fiction from the perfidious male editors of volumes I–III. Where is The Death of the Heart or The Heat of the Day? Where is Bowen’s Court, her beautifully written account of the house in Cork which her family inhabited for three centuries? How can the butchery of The Hotel to meet narrow sexual criteria be justified?

The representation of Kate O’Brien shows a similar pattern. Volume II included twelve pages from The Ante-Room, in ‘Prose Fiction 1880–1945’. The absence of her autobiographical writings is glaring, but the extract is respectfully long and well chosen. Volumes IV–V contain a four-page extract from ‘Memories of a Catholic Girlhood’, and a one-page extract from As Music and Splendour in ‘Recollections of Catholicism 1906–60’; a not even one-page extract from The Land of Spices in ‘Sexuality: Erosion of the Heterosexual Consensus, 1940–2001’; a one-and-a-half-page extract from Mary Lavelle, in ‘Sexuality: Lesbian Encounters 1745–1997’; a one-page non-fiction piece on her time at UCD, in ‘Education in Twentieth-Century Ireland’; and five pages from her travel book Farewell Spain, in ‘Aesthetics and Politics, 1890–1960’. Three and a half pages of fiction and ten of non-fiction, one page more than in the earlier volumes. The tiny extracts from the three novels, especially The Land of Spices, can only be described as insulting.

Edna O’Brien fares somewhat better, but there are still substantial grounds for complaint. Volume III included a four-page short story, ‘Number Ten’, in ‘Irish Fiction 1965–90’. It’s a good story, but any of her three early novels ought to have been excerpted. Volumes IV–V offer a two-page extract from Mother Ireland, in ‘Recollections of Catholicism 1906–60’; a four-page extract from The Lonely Girl and a one-page extract from Banned in Ireland, in ‘Sexuality: Erosion of the Heterosexual Consensus, 1940–2001’; a two-page short story, ‘The Mouth of the Cave’, in ‘Sexuality: Lesbian Encounters 1745–1997’; a two-page extract from The Country Girls, in ‘Education in Twentieth-Century Ireland’; a two-and-a-half-page extract from Girls in their Married Bliss, in ‘Women and Politics in Independent Ireland, 1921–68’; and a two-page extract from Mother Ireland in ‘Feminism, Culture and Critique in English’. Ten and a half pages of fiction, and five of non-fiction: definitely better than her previous treatment, but, as with Kate O’Brien, the extracts from the novels are woefully short.

Mary Lavin’s quota in both sets of volumes is two short stories amounting to eleven pages: ‘A Visit to the Cemetery’ and ‘In the Middle of the Fields’ in 1991, and ‘A Single Lady’ and ‘A Nun’s Mother’ in 2002. Surely the editors of volumes IV and V could have seen their way to showcase Lavin more; a story like ‘The Mock Auction’, with its extraordinary dissection of the class system in rural Ireland, and of a woman who is its victim, would have been a powerful addition to the anthology. But the main thing about Mary Lavin and the others is not their historical or sociological relevance, although this is important, but the beauty and force of their fiction. The problem with the treatment of these four writers is that no one thought of constructing a section or category that would deal with the reason we’re interested in them in the first place: their talent as writers of prose fiction.


The new volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing are a result of the flowering of women’s history as an academic discipline in Ireland in the last two decades, and testimony to the unearthing of primary-source material of all kinds by its practitioners. This expertise is hard-won; battles had to be fought, and still have to be fought, to secure for women’s history, and women’s studies in general, the resources and the status they deserve in the academy.

In the papers of government departments for 1972, released to the public in January of this year, there was a file on a female public servant who protested, in vain, her forced resignation upon her marriage. This was only thirty years ago. Anyone old enough to remember those days cannot avoid being intensely moved by these volumes. Women in 1972, or indeed 1982, would not have thought it possible that an anthology such as this could even be contemplated. It is still hard to believe that it exists. The story told here so comprehensively of the women’s movement since the late 1960s is a reminder of what obstacles have been overcome in the recent past, how far women had to come to be able not just to produce, but to properly read these volumes.

Something that strikes the reader of this anthology with poignancy and force is the shadowy status of women in the record up to the sixteenth century, and of poor women until very recently. Nearly all of the early Irish material represents women as mediated by men, as subjects for poetry or law, as mythological heroines, as saints. The official record is almost always written by men, and most pre-twentieth-century journalism also. Two items from the nineteenth century give an intense flavour of women as objects to be described and judged by the male medical and media establishment. The minutes of the Select Committee on the Contagious Diseases Act of 1881 contain an interview with the Senior Surgeon of the Westmoreland Lock Hospital, frequented by Dublin prostitutes with venereal disease. His main concern, and that of the Committee, is to cut down on the transmission of syphilis and gonorrhoea from his patients to soldiers stationed in the various barracks in Dublin. The women themselves are portrayed as nameless nuisances, the only reason to treat them being the threat to the health of their clients.

James Greenwood, a journalist with the Pall Mall Gazette, visited the Curragh of Kildare in 1867 to write about ‘the wrens of the Curragh’, poor prostitutes who lived in makeshift burrows in order to be close to the army camp there. He gives an account of a nameless woman living in a hole in the ground under a furze bush with her son, drinking whiskey and crying over some love letters from a soldier. It is a sympathetic piece, and vividly written, though anthropological to a degree (he even refers to ‘the bushwomen of the Curragh’). This anthology is right to include such pieces. The point about the commitment to context here is that it gives us the full range of women’s experiences, in so far as they have been recorded or can be read obliquely. One of the most serious tasks for women’s history is the retrieval, from a largely male record, of material which will tell us more about our female ancestors.

Field Day has done Irish women a great favour, inadvertently at first by failing to see us properly in 1991, and then purposefully by admitting that blindness. The bitterness so clearly expressed eleven years ago has resulted in something powerful and important. I would estimate these two new volumes as one of the triumphs of the Irish feminist movement, as important in their way as the achievement of access to contraception or equal pay. This subtle, instructive and evocative portfolio of treasures is a model for other countries and an immeasurably valuable resource for ourselves.


Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 10 Spring 2003