Eileen Battersby, ‘Stalked by an agenda’, review of Field Day Anthology [vols. Iv & V], in in The Irish Times [Weekend] (5 Oct. 2002).

The long-awaited additions to The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing have not adequately explored, assessed or even recorded the achievement of Irish women fiction writers, writes Eileen Battersby, Literary Correspondent.

A Project born in defiance and a determination to right perceived wrongs creates its own problems. Eleven years after The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, edited by Seamus Deane, incited outrage and a debate about what was viewed as the alleged, deliberate marginalisation of Irish women writers, comes the reply - The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Volumes IV and V: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions. Not in the expected one but two volumes.

They are vast books, very serious and thorough, political and self defining, if strongly, almost defensively, aware of the shadow and methodology of the three earlier volumes. The difficulties are obvious, as are the mistakes, as are the omissions.

It is wrong, never mind a serious own goal, to have left out the major Irish women writers, stating that ‘the significant’ women writers had been dealt with in the first three volumes. What does this admit? Perhaps someone should have considered the dangers of conceding such a statement. Similarly, late 20th century and early 21st political criteria should not be applied to any society or tribal culture at a remove of 100 or 400 years. While the facts of childbirth and rearing are obvious distinctions between the genders, social class is as important as sex.

Here was an opportunity for Irish women critics to look at, and assess, major and minor Irish women writers. We don't need roll calls or inventories at this stage of our cultural evolution. We want exploration and textual analysis. Sheer force of numbers does not necessarily confer quality. In its very diversity and multiplicity of sub-sections within sections lies the inconsistencies of the sociological agenda stalking these ambitious, new volumes.

Anthologies are, by their nature, unruly hybrids - inclined to delight and irritate. No two teams attempting an anthology are likely to ever assemble compatible selections and in the case of these contrasting projects, a final harmony was never promised. Just as well. It has not happened. The initial first three volumes and these two additions will share the shelf uneasily.

Equally, no anthology editor expects his or her work to be read page by page. The business of reviewing, or offering an initial impression based on a first complete reading in a few days, is not ideal for anyone. Academics given these volumes and a review date some months hence - as well as several thousand words in which to offer their impressions, judgments and suggestions - are to be envied. However newspaper reviewing is not literary criticism.

Unfortunately and somewhat bizarrely, Ireland, with its international literary reputation, remains ill-served by inadequate critical outlets. Instead of major critical essays, we have short newspaper reviews such as this, read by the interested and mildly interested alike, with the later, long discursive pieces written in academic journals appearing months or years after the original work - invariably presented to small, specialist readerships.

A team of eight main editors, assisted by a further group of sub-section editors have complied these books. The original anthology, rightly or wrongly, was powerfully shaped by one presiding genius. And regardless of what side of the critical debate one sat on, that particular presiding genius was a formidable one.

Seamus Deane is an academic, writer and critic of international stature. The sheer quality of his prose and the energy of his pronouncements, as well as the colour of his political beliefs battling to give fair voice to the unionist tradition while undercutting the complexities of nationalism and unionism, were always going to ensure the first anthology, which clearly politicises writing, would be ideologically tense and exciting. It was. A decade later - much mauled, battle weary and maligned, it remains exciting, comprehensive and coherent.

Time has also proved it was, and is, far better than its opponents conceded. Having re-read the first anthology and read all of the two succeeding volumes, my honest response, without having intended to compare two very different projects, is that the three volumes published in 1991, are immensely superior. The two new volumes lack that very necessary cohesive, central editor presence, which Deane provided.

He assembled a world-class team of literary specialists and cultural historians, including Terence Brown, Luke Gibbons, Tom Paulin (brilliant on “Northern Protestant Oratory and Writing 1791-1985”), Seamus Heaney on Yeats, J.C.C. Mays on Beckett and Deane himself on a number of subjects ranging from Goldsmith to Burke, to Thomas Moore and Joyce.

Not one Irish woman writer has been as well-served in these two new volumes as is Maria Edgeworth by W.J. McCormack in his authoritative essay in Volume I which he begins by correctly identifying her as ‘the central figure in Irish literary history between Swift and the modernist tradition of Shaw and Yeats’, shrewdly allowing that ‘her exact place within that history is more difficult to define’.

Much of the cohesion and coherence of the 1991 anthology came from an effective chronological use of defining figures; Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, Edgeworth, Wilde and Shaw (in a shared chaper), Yeats, Joyce and Beckett as signposts among the historical periods and evolving genres.

This new anthology was the place for a major assessment for that pioneering iconoclast, Edna O’Brien, long marginalised by the feminist tradition; and for a much-needed look at the lost and rediscovered Maeve Brennan as a major stylist. There is also the collective contribution of Irish women writers to the Irish short story tradition and to the Big House novel including Somerville and Ross, Bowen, Keane, Leland Bardwell’s The House and on to Jennifer Johnston, who has brought the genre on to its natural progression, the suburbs of Dalkey and Killiney. It would have been timely to have seen an essay on Marina Carr as the bridge between J.M. Synge and Tom Murphy. She is the most important dramatic voice to have emerged in a field where women have always been overshadowed.

Here was also the place for a major piece on Charlotte Brooke (c.1740-1793), scholar, translator and author of three novels known to have been published, yet not known to survive. Poorly represented in the children’s writing section - where many more obvious children’s writers are absent - she is also included with a short, well-footnoted piece from Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789).

The contentious task of editing the poetry section was taken by a major poet, Nuala ní Dhomhnaill. Her provocative references to women writers being ‘admitted’ and ‘allowed’ in the first anthology, as well as her indignant: ‘When I first took it upon myself to make this selection, back in the early 1990s, I did so out of a sense of moral outrage at the way women poets were being treated in Ireland,’ did not result in the urgently needed critical piece.

A genuinely original and innovative poet, such as Medbh McGuckian, and other voices, such as Eiléan ní Chuilleanáin, Paula Meehan, Vona Groarke, should be assessed through formal textual criticism, as should Mary O’Malley (represented by only one poem), Kerry Hardie and Anne Haverty, also author of two exceptional novels.

In spite of their inclusion in the earlier volumes, Ní Dhomhnaill wisely selected McGuckian, Ní Chuilleanáin and Eavan Boland among her overly generous selection of 59 poets, although she counts ‘nearly forty’. Regardless of her expressed irritations, her essay is more conversational than critical in tone, as is Emma Donoghue’s introduction to her “Lesbian Encounters” section.

No one could claim the two new books are easy reading. They set out, as the various editors reiterate at intervals, to place Irish women’s writing ‘in a new context’. Perhaps feminist criticism should have moved on to a post-feminist stage by now. These volumes through no real fault of their own arrive 10 years too late. The cumulative effect is that of marginalising women; this anthology would be more accurately characterised as a chronicle of Irish Women’s Experience; the hurt, the pain, the anger is there - curiously most often in pieces that are not good writing such, as Joanne Hayes’s horrific and shocking “My Story', her account of her arrest and subsequent treatment by the authorities. Woman as victim is present throughout .

Veronica Guerin was a brave and campaigning crime reporter, however it is inappropriate to include her through a questions-and-answers-style interview conducted with the disgraced Bishop Eamonn Casey. Similarly, why include a piece on the career of paedophile Brendan Smyth?

Why include Angela MacNamara or Monica Carr, or an interview with singer Sinéad O”Connor following her televised tearing up of a picture of the Pope, when Dervla Murphy, a perceptive observer of many cultures, is given such a cursurory entry?

I was surprised to read Sir William Wilde’s article on midwifery in “Childbirth, 1742-1955”; the other entries in this sub-section , with the exception of one by Lady Gregory, are also written by men. It is followed by a five-page sub-section “Infanticide in 19th Century Ireland”.The tragedies of Ann Lovett and Joanne Hayes feature in “The Politics of Sexuality” section.

Among the difficulties of the multidisciplinary approach and the high number of participating general editors and sub-section editors is that thematically connected and cross-referenced material appears in several sections.

Thematic repetition occurs throughout and many of the selections appear random. More literary writing, more extracts from the same authors, would have been possible had fewer sections and sub-sections featured.

Elsewhere space is given to reports, legal judgments and commission findings, many attributed to ‘anonymous’, there are sections on hospitals, workhouses, the Magdalen asylums (three anonymous, one by a man, one by a woman) a piece on Mountjoy female prison and yet Jacinta Prunty’s exhaustive book, Dublin Slums 1800-1925 (Dublin, 1998), is not represented.

Nor is the work of historical geographer Anngret Simms, architectural historian Nessa Roche, whose wonderful book, The Legacy of Light: a History of Irish Windows (Wordwell,1999), is both fine writing and incisive social history. Archaeologists such as Kathleen Hughes, Máire de Paor, Geraldine Stout, are absent as are the naturalists such as Cynthia Longfield and Katherine Baily, later Lady Kane. Where are the scientists such as the Countess of Rosse?

The “Religion, Science, Theology and Ethics” section and sub-sections are disappointing, while the “Hymns and Hymn Writers” is token. Yet journalism and journalists are surprisingly prominent.

The emphasis and approach in most sections is more sociological than textual or scholarly, as for the conventionally literary, that only arrives halfway through the second volume - and then it is whistle-stop, claiming limited space as an excuse. But these are big books, fatter than the original three. The space was there, the problem is how this space was allocated.

In an included 1994 essay by critic Elizabeth Butler Cullingford from “Séamus To Sinéad”, based largely on Sinéad O’Connor’s life and role in Margo Harkin’s film, Hush-a-Bye Baby, a paragraph begins: ‘O’Connor was beaten by her mother, like many Irish housewives a Valium and alcohol addict, and she claims that Ireland has the highest incidence of child abuse in Europe.’

This breathtaking statement stands unqualified and without a footnote. Yet this is an anthology in which the footnotes explain that James Joyce is a novelist, Beckett is a novelist and playwright, that Hitler was a German dictator and that ‘wee’ means small. Some of the footnotes are ridiculous, in other instances they prove valuable, yet elsewhere they are absent when clearly needed. Some writers however do make effective use of head notes.

Most damagingly, very few of the introductory or sub-section essays, with the notable, superlative exception of early Irish scholar Máirín ní Dhonnchadha, match the quality and clarity of the editorial writing in the first anthology. As early as page four, she writes ‘. . . there is not one complete text which can be attributed with absolute certainty to a historical woman until the early 17th century’, with the exception of the amazing Old Irish poem, Digde’s Lament. Ní Dhonnchadha’s tone achieves and sustains a critical scholarly balance.

Just as the first volumes conspired, or more likely simply forgot to include obvious writers, so too are names missing this time. My criticism of the Deane anthology was directed at the absence of the natural history writers, the scientists, the antiquarians and the archaeologists. At the time I questioned the absence of poet Paula Meehan, but the poetry section had been compiled in 1986, some five years prior to publication - hence that omission. I also objected to Michael Longley being discribed as having ‘more in common with the semi-detached suburban muse of Philip Larkin and post-War England than with Heaney or Montague’. Still, major acts of re-claimation were achieved such as restoring another Belfast poet, Louis MacNeice, to his rightful place in the Irish canon.

Having objected to the exclusion, or simply, absence of the great naturalist, Robert Lloyd Praeger, from the first anthology, my first act on receiving the new books was to check the index for another Praeger, his sister, Sophia Rosamond (1867-1954), a gifted sculptor and writer of brilliantly black children’s fiction. She is not included, but then, neither is Eilis Dillon. These two oversights led me to the table of contents to see if children’s writing, a genre in which extraordinary work has been done in Ireland, was included. It is, in an odd sort of way. “Explorations of Love and Desire in Writing for Children, 1791-1979” is a very poor attempt at recording or assessing children’s fiction by an editor whose biography entry lists no particular speciality in the field.

Even the cut-off date, 1979, is strange, considering the wealth of activity that began just about then. Patricia Donlon, as director of the National Library, fought for and secured an entry in the International Directory of Children’s Writers for ‘Rosamond’ Praeger; she is also included in The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English (2001).

Many Irish writers and feminist critics believe Irish women writers have been marginalised from the literary canon - no writers are as marginalised as those choosing to write for younger readers and here is further proof.

It may be argued that children’s writing is a specialist area - albeit one with a strong female tradition - and therefore its inclusion here at all should be seen as a bonus. But, given that it was included, too many fine women children’s authors have been overlooked .

Why not move on to another specialist area and applaud what is not only a magnificent achievement but the finest, most convincing act of scholarship in the new volumes. Excitingly, it is the first section, “Medieval to Modern, 600-1900”, which examines the early writing upon which Irish culture is based. Máiríní Dhonnchadha, Professor of Old and Middle Irish and Celtic Philology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, soars in each of her five essays, including the general introduction. This is scholarship at its most exciting, and original; she is a fine writer and translator who wears immense learning with grace and wit.

The selections are dazzling; she is opening up not only old, middle and early Irish but Latin sources as well. Also included are Donnchadh O Corrain, editing “Early Medieval Law”, and Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha on “Irish Medical Writing 1400-1600”. Dealing with remarkably obtuse material which requires formidable technical skill, Nic Dhonnchadha has located and reclaimed a Renaissance dimension to Irish science writing, proving that the Irish language was not just employed in lyric poetry. These opening 450 pages should be published separately and made widely available - and affordable.

Antoinette Quinn in “Ireland/Herland” weakens her thesis by claiming ‘with the exception of Lady Gregory, nationalist women writers have been effectively erased from the Irish literary canon’. Should she investigate the fates of nationalist writers, both male and female, she will discover many fell from the literary canon as literary criteria replaced political relevance.

Gender did not decide exclusions and as historians will acknowledge, women have always been vocal as writers of political protest.

I would also question Quinn’s comment that ‘even Lady Gregory is better known on academic curricula as an adjunct to W.B.Yeats’s Abbey career’. It is a diversionary statement, particularly as most writers of either gender would have been overshadowed by Yeats - consider the plight of Austin Clarke.

The drama section is noticeably weak and a concerted piece on women and theatre would have helped. More positively, the welcome inclusion of an extract from Olivia Owenson’s (Lady Clarke) hilarious Restoration-style comedy, The Irish Woman (1819), could well inspire a gifted director such as Lynn Parker towards a potential Rough Magic production of a work ideally suited to that company’s talents.

Margaret O’Callaghan contributes a strong, practical essay as the introduction to “Women and Politics in Independent Ireland”. She proceeds along the lines of the quest for identity and later makes the point that ‘Catholicism is fundamental to an understanding of the image and status of women in Ireland’. Writing primarily as an historian, she shrewdly closes her section with an extract from Edna O”Brien’s third novel, Girls in their Married Bliss (1964). It is as effective a piece of social history about changing perceptions and the explosion of hypocrisies and traditional gender roles as many an historical document.

Several sections of the new volumes include the political situation and ongoing human tragedies in the North of Ireland - much of the writing is good because it captures the power of the individual voices.

The editorial emphasis on sexuality and the many variations and selections on this admittedly important theme prove relentless. However, many delights are contained in the “Oral Traditions” sections, which look at life stories, oral memoirs, folktales, story telling and the importance of story, legend and superstition. Angela Bourke makes effective use of head-notes for many of her entries and her acknowledgement of the importance of Péig Sayers is welcome. She has also produced a valuable section on keening as a female form of lamentation.

“Writing Oral Traditions”, edited by Patricia Lysaght, is particularly strong, with wonderful contributions from Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). One man is recorded as saying: ‘It was all you could do to get to Biddy Early with your skin whole, the priests were so set against her.’

The compliers of this anthology were fortunate in their publisher. Cork University Press has a vision. It is after all the publisher which re-issued in 1994 B.G. MacCarthy’s classic, The Female Pen - Women Writers and Novelists, 1621 to 1818 (1949 ), although this pioneering Irish female critic’s originality is not sufficiently acknowledged in these latest Field Day anthologies.

Writing often yields place to the statement of the moment and much of the words contained here, particularly in the more contemporary, news-based sections are exactly that - spoken, of the moment; in the case of the journalism included, written to meet deadlines. It is ironic that one of the best chroniclers of the Irish female experience remains John McGahern in novels such as The Barracks (1963) and Amongst Women (1990).

I don't believe that these long-awaited additions to The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing have at all adequately explored, assessed or even recorded the achievement of Irish women fiction writers, novelists and short-story writers, and most seriously the multifold contribution of Irish women to theatre. The first section, “Medieval to Modern”, on early Irish writing is magnificent; the oral traditions material exciting, but, unfortunately, you leave these two dense volumes with little desire to return to them as reference works and more of an awareness of exactly how good the 1991 anthology was - and is.

The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing - Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions, Vols. IV (pp.1,490) and V (pp.1,710) Cork University Press. €250

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