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Irish Women Writers

Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition

Copyright Date: 1990
Edition: 1
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Irish Women Writers
    Book Description:

    From the legendary poet Oisin to modernist masters like James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Samuel Beckett, Ireland's literary tradition has made its mark on the Western canon. Despite its proud tradition, the student who searches the shelves for works on Irish women's fiction is liabel to feel much as Virginia Woolf did when she searched the British Museum for work on women by women. Critic Nuala O'Faolain, when confronted with this disparity, suggested that "modern Irish literature is dominated by men so brilliant in their misanthropy... [that] the self-respect of Irish women is radically and paradoxically checkmated by respect for an Irish national achievement."

    While Ann Owen Weekes does not argue with the first part of O'Faolain's assertion, she does with the second. InIrish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition, she suggests that it is the critics rather than the writers who have allowed themselves to be checkmated. Beginning with Maria Edgeworth'sCastle Rackrent(1800) and ending with Jennifer Johnston'sThe Railway Station(1980), she surveys the best of the Ireland's female literature to show its artistic and historic significance and to demonstrate that it has its own themes and traditions related to, yet separate from, that of male Irish writers.

    Weekes examines the work of writers like E.OE. Sumerville and Martin Ross (pen names for cousins Edith Somerville and Violet Martin), Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O'Brien, Mary Lavin, and Molly Keane, among others. She teases out the themes that recur in these writers' works, including the link between domestic and political violence and re-visioning of traditional stories, such as Julia O'Faolain's use of the Cuchulain and Diarmuid and Grainne myths to reveal the negation of women's autonomy. In doing so, she demonstrates that the literature of Anglo- and Gaelic-Irish women presents a unified tradition of subjects and techniques, a unity that might become an optimistic model not only for Irish literature but also for Irish people.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5055-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1. Seeking a Tradition: Irish Women’s Fiction
    (pp. 1-32)

    An Irish literary tradition is, of course, a given, is perhaps the one unchallenged cliché about Ireland and its people. “I must be talking to my friends,” Yeats has the country “herself” cry, and through long centuries the Irish people have talked and sung their tears and joys.¹ The recitation began with Oisin, poet of the mythical Fianna, was taken up by the bards who entertained and abused the ancient high kings, and then concealed itself in Gaelic from the colonizer. We can hear the recitation today in the music of theseanachie, the storytellers who linger in isolated parts...

  5. 2. Maria Edgeworth: Domestic Saga
    (pp. 33-59)

    “An inordinate desire to be beloved,” was, according to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the greatest defect in the character of his daughter Maria Edgeworth. A glance at any selection of the novelist’s voluminous correspondence confirms his estimate. The contemporary reader moves from sympathy to impatience at the writer’s constant professions of love for her readers, delight in her readers’ love, and coy denials of her own merits and worth.¹ The insecurity that inspired such professions can be traced, I suggest, to the neglect Maria Edgeworth endured as a small child, a neglect that fostered the “inordinate desire” that dominated not only...

  6. 3. Somerville and Ross: Ignoble Tragedy
    (pp. 60-82)

    The Real Charlotte, published in 1894, nearly one hundred years afterCastle Rackrent, often evokes Maria Edgeworth, that “brilliant pioneer of Irish novelists,” by its energy and astringent humor. In its narrational biases and calm acceptance of the unusual,The Real Charlotterecalls Edgeworth’s narrator, Thady Quirk. The novel was greeted initially with aversion; Edith Somerville noted that a “distinguished London literary paper” pronounced it “one of the most disagreeable novels we have ever read.” Soon, however,The Real Charlottewas recognized as a very rich and funny work, and even the “loathing” of Edith’s mother’s gave way in face...

  7. 4. Elizabeth Bowen: Out of Eden
    (pp. 83-107)

    Born in 1899, Elizabeth Bowen grew up in a Europe losing its innocence in World War I and in an Ireland engaged in wrenching a sense of national identity from the Anglo-Irish. The political turmoil of Bowen’s youth is reflected in much of her writing, in which orphaned heroines wander homeless and countryless through indifferent or unsympathetic environments. This representation of dislocation and dispossession as a natural condition of life is unsurprising, given Bowen’s history and sensitivity to place and surroundings. What is shocking is the narrational ambivalence toward the condition: the heroine’s position is not seen as tragic. It...

  8. 5. Kate O’Brien: Family in the New Nation
    (pp. 108-132)

    One of the first Irish women to focus on and write from personal knowledge of the Irish Catholic middle classes, Kate O’Brien should, on this count alone, be considered in any analysis of Irish women’s writing. More important, however, she continues her predecessors’ exploration of women’s position, examining education and religious sentiment as well as the ties of love and marriage. But O’Brien’s exploration is subtle, and her literary techniques must have seemed intensely traditional, even old-fashioned, in the experimental climate of the 1920s and the early 1930s. Both facts probably contribute to the current neglect of her work, so...

  9. 6. Mary Lavin: Textual Gardens
    (pp. 133-154)

    The confident assertion and celebration of life in this passage, the botanical metaphor, and the mother-daughter situations are familiar to the reader of Mary Lavin. The same affirmation of life rings through all Lavin’s work, from the first stories published in 1942 to the most recent volume, published in 1985.¹ Despite the long span of time and the variety of subjects, Lavin’s stories almost always reflect, structurally and thematically, a sense of the interdependence of all life—spiritual as well as material. Individual texts are richly yet tightly woven; the removal of even one thread is destructive to the entire...

  10. 7. Molly Keane: Bildungsromane Quenelles
    (pp. 155-173)

    Molly Keane’s writing career began in the late 1920s with the first of the pseudonymous M.J. Farrell’s series of popular and risqué novels. Keane, an inveterate storyteller, suggests that she wrote only as she needed pin money, and that the ambiguous pen name (male or female, Anglo- or Gaelic-Irish?) was essential in the horsey world of Anglo-Ireland: “For a woman to read a book, let alone write one was viewed with alarm, I would have been banned from every respectable house in County Carlow.” In any case, when a Keane book made the bestsellers’ list, the author met Elizabeth Bowen....

  11. 8. Julia O’Faolain: The Imaginative Crucible
    (pp. 174-190)

    Probably all parents influence their children more than the children care to admit. Some of their values are imbibed like milk; others sour mind and heart and are rejected. Occasionally we are mature enough to examine our opinions apart altogether from the emotional moss they have gathered through parental association. Writers, more than other people, mine the source of their own reactions, or maybe they just seem to do so because they write of this activity. Certainly Julia O’Faolain has frequently considered the influences of her writer parents, Sean and Eileen O’Faolain, on her own work. Her father, she believes,...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. 9. Jennifer Johnston: From Gortnaree to Knappogue
    (pp. 191-211)

    In 1977 Seamus Deane deplored what he saw as the tendency in modern Irish fiction to feed on the literary myths of the Irish revival, the most pernicious of which may be Yeats’s legacy of the “greasy philistinism of the Catholic bourgeoisie and (of) the intellectual fragrance of the aristocratic Protestant tradition.” In creating the myth of “no petty people,” Yeats, Deane notes, ignored some very petty and vindictive people. The Protestant tradition was bourgeois, but with the fall of Parnell and the rise of Yeats’s mythology, the picture that survives is that of “the Big House of the Ascendancy...

  14. 10. Irish Women Writers: The Experience of the Mass
    (pp. 212-219)

    Finally, then, from the vantage point of the most recent text, Jennifer Johnston’sThe Railway Station Man, we look back to ask what constitutes a tradition. Several times during this study I referred to the tradition ofaislingipoetry, poems written by Gaelic-Irish poets during the years of suppression. The subject of these poems was the pitiful state of Ireland, wronged by England, and the commitment of Gaelic-Irish people to again achieve independence. The distribution of these poems was possible only because the poets disguised their subject by envisioning Ireland as a young maiden coerced by a strong warrior. In...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 220-242)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 243-248)
  17. Index
    (pp. 249-252)