2018 saw the landmark publication of Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Gallchoir’s A History of Modern Irish Women’s Literature. Featuring 22 chapters that address women’s writing from the early modern period to the present, the volume makes a rich intervention not only in Irish Studies but in women’s literary history. The volume, the editors note, ‘complicates and enriches our understanding of the Irish canon by retrieving forgotten writers, placing well-known authors in new contexts and allowing readers to trace patterns and developments in women’s writing across periods and languages.’ (Irish Times) We are delighted that Ó Gallchoir and Ingman agreed to answer a few questions about the project.
Q: What initially drew you to the study of Irish women’s writing?
CÓG: I first encountered Maria Edgeworth when I was an MA student, and I was really struck by her work, how unexpected and interesting it was, so it seemed very strange on one level that I had never heard about her up to that point. But I was also an MA student at the time of the first Field Day controversy, so the issue of the exclusion of women from the canon of Irish writing was something that I was becoming aware of. Reading Edgeworth made it very apparent that a lot of great work was not being taught and was also being treated with a lot of critical condescension – so from that point on I was drawn to researching and working on women’s writing.
HI: I came to Irish women’s writing in a very roundabout way. I first lived in Ireland in the 1980s. I was lecturing in French Renaissance literature at Trinity College, but I also followed closely the discussions going on at that time in Ireland about women’s status and I became very conscious that I had lectured for ten years and could go on lecturing for another ten years without once referring to an author as she. A move to Hull gave me the opportunity to research and teach interwar women’s writing, which I loved. When we moved back to Ireland in 2000 I felt that in comparison with writers like Woolf and Mansfield, Irish women’s writing had a much lower profile. I became particularly outraged by the way the media continued to treat, and dismiss, Edna O’Brien as a romantic novelist. I had taught O’Brien’s work in Hull and I felt her work had changed radically in the 1990s. In the context of Irish women’s writing, I published my first article on political elements in her work and at the same time I was delighted to be offered by Nicholas Grene the chance to teach Irish women’s writing at Trinity, as well as teaching women’s writing in the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies then run by Maryann Valiulis.
Q: Can you tell us what prompted the idea for the volume?
CÓG: The volume was commissioned by Cambridge University Press, and it is important to acknowledge that this was a project that was championed by CUP and by Ray Ryan from the start.
HI: Yes, the project owes its inception to Ray Ryan who was supportive all along the line. I was pleased to be part of it since by then I was deep into Irish women’s writing and was aware that there were significant numbers of researchers in the field and an increasing number of students interested in the subject. The time seemed right for a comprehensive overview of Irish women’s writing from the early modern period to the present day and I was delighted that Clíona came on board because she has the expertise in the many areas where I lack knowledge, so I feel we complemented each other well, and indeed we had a very happy working relationship.
Q: How did you approach the conceptualisation of the volume as editors?
CÓG: There were some very important earlier works that fed into this volume. The Cambridge History of Irish Literature and volumes 4 and 5 of the Field Day Anthology were for me very important reference points. Our volume however had to have its own specific shape and design. So although it is broadly chronological, we deliberately included chapters that cut across the chronology, and in fact in which there was at times some overlap – this was because some categories, notably the Revival, can obscure women’s contribution to literature as much as reveal or document it. So the chapter on New Woman Writing, for instance, overlaps with some of the time period covered in the Revival chapter – that’s one way of showing that some traditions in women’s writing don’t always follow the mainstream narrative of ‘national’ literary history. We also wanted to highlight some specific fields, such as children’s literature and the short story, where women’s achievements have been particularly important.
HI: Clíona has explained this so well that I don’t think I have much to add, except to endorse her argument that it was important to depart at times from standard chronologies for histories of Irish writing since the accent can fall differently for women writers, the New Woman chapter being a case in point. Even within a specific context, such as fiction from Northern Ireland, women’s writing may have quite different concerns. Over a longer period, for example fiction published between 1922 and 1960, retrieval of neglected women writers can challenge and complicate our understanding of the literary history of these years.
Q: The volume is ambitious in its scope, covering the genres of prose, poetry and drama as well as addressing hitherto often neglected genres such as children’s literature. Alongside survey chapters for longer time periods or particular genre, there are also three chapters dedicated to individual women writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien, and Edna O’Brien. They firmly anchor the volume in the twentieth century. What was the rationale for the case studies?
CÓG: These three writers have all had exceptional careers, but they have all, for different reasons, had a problematic relation to the Irish literary canon as it has taken shape in post-independence, twentieth-century period. When we decided to allot author-specific chapters to these writers, it wasn’t so much about anchoring the volume in the twentieth century, as highlighting the continuing discourse around the literary careers of even the most acclaimed and celebrated women writers. The focus on individual authors allowed the contributors in the case of these three chapters to look at the whole career, and at the reception of the writers by critics and audiences – we felt that a work of feminist literary history required those perspectives as well.
HI: The chapters allowed us to situate these particular three writers, all of whom had lengthy careers often in several different genres, in specific cultural contexts highlighting the way in which their careers progressed or were stalled by the circumstances in which they wrote. So these chapters were an opportunity to take a closer look at how and why women writers may become marginalised or fall out of fashion. If we had had more room I would like to have included a separate chapter on Maria Edgeworth and perhaps another on a late nineteenth-century writer, such as Charlotte Riddell, setting her career in the publishing context of the time.
Q: To what extent does the final volume meet your initial vision for the volume?
CÓG: It has surpassed my expectations, because of the quality of the contributions. I worked on the Index, and although that was a really difficult task, it also brought home to me the extent of what had been achieved.
HI: Yes, Clíona did sterling work on the index. In editing a volume like this, a lot of work goes into the planning stage since you have to be very aware of the danger of overlap and repetition between chapters. After that the success of the volume is largely down to the quality of the contributions and each of our contributors worked hard to shape their chapters to fit the overall volume. In some cases they had to go to tremendous efforts to compress a huge amount of material into 7000 words and we very much appreciated the way they accomplished this task. If it wasn’t for the strict word count imposed by the publishers I am sure the volume could have been twice as long, but I am very happy with the way it turned out.
Q: It is notable that among your contributors there are 19 women and 4 men. What, in your view, does that tell us about the state of scholarship on women writers? And how does that impact the development of metanarratives or survey projects that are often written by male academics?
CÓG: That’s a very good question. There is of course a problem if women’s writing is still seen as ‘women’s work’, because we all know how women’s work is valued, traditionally. That said, there are some indications that the gender divide in criticism is being challenged. What I’d like to see is an increasing awareness that you can’t write about a period, or a genre, or a theme, and just ignore what women were writing at the time. That is still happening. But the History does at least offer a starting point for researchers working on specific periods, and there are fewer excuses to ignore women’s literary production.
HI: Well I am very pleased that we were able to include male academics. I felt that it was crucial that the volume was not authored solely by women for the reasons Clíona has mentioned. Irish women’s writing continues to struggle to get coverage in some academic journals and, as your question indicates, can always drop out again in general surveys of Irish writing. However our book is out there now and I hope it will make it that little bit more difficult to overlook Irish women’s writing in the future.
Q: Where do you see the scholarship on Irish women writers developing over the next decade?
CÓG: There’s a huge energy around the independence period at the moment, with research on women’s writing playing a vital role in reshaping narratives of that foundational moment. At the same time, there is also great work being done on transnational writing and writers – the awareness that Irish women’s writing is not confined to the island, or the state as it exists now or did in that past.
HI: Irish women’s writing from the 1880s through the first decades of the twentieth century is tremendously exciting, partly because the women were often adventurous, outspoken and politically engaged. Their careers were often transnational and encompassed several different genres. They built up strong networks and supported one another professionally. A lot of good archival-based work is being done at the moment on this period.
Q: If you could have included three more chapters, what would they have been on?
CÓG: There would have been space in that case for an author-specific chapter in the earlier periods – Heather has mentioned Edgeworth and obviously I would agree with that. And we could also have given more than one chapter to Irish-language writing. Even though the volume is barely a year old, it was planned a few years ago; if I were planning it now, a chapter devoted to work by immigrant and New Irish writers would be essential.
HI: Yes, I wish we had been able to include a separate chapter on Edgeworth. I agree with Cliona that the field has already moved on and today we would want to include work by immigrant and New Irish writers, and perhaps writing for young adults. In some ways I would like to have cut across the historical chronology and included some thematic chapters, for example tracing the use of fable and folklore through women’s writing of all periods, or the treatment of nature and the environment, but that would have blurred the historical focus.
Q: What, in your view, are the most important issues and most promising avenues for future research in Irish women’s writing?
CÓG: Speaking personally, there’s a lot more work to be done on earlier periods. Irish literary history doesn’t begin in 1891, and women are very much part of the story of those earlier periods. I also think there’s a lot of scope for scholars of both Irish and English to work together, though it is of course important to be aware of the danger of English as a discipline ‘colonizing’ Irish-language scholarship. One of the unique features of Irish culture is its dual language tradition, and women in those different language communities obviously had very different experiences, while at the same time sharing a great deal because of their gender. The issue of making texts available is one that has been raised since the volume has been published, and I think there has to be some work there. Teaching work by women is essential in developing the next generation of researchers, and it’s hard to that if accessing the texts is difficult or even impossible.
HI: Now that our volume has been published I think attention has switched to work on individual authors who have had lengthy careers but whose work has got lost. I have in mind writers like Norah Hoult, for instance, one of whose novels was reissued by Persephone, but whose entire career is worth looking at. The topic of ageing is a new one in the context of Irish writing but will, I think, become increasingly important as the population ages. It is already possible to see that contemporary Irish writers are tackling subjects like dementia, for instance. A start has been made with the recent issue of Nordic Irish Studies on the topic of Women and Ageing in Irish Writing, Drama and Film edited by Margaret O’Neill and Michaele Schrage-Früh. Ageing is not of course a gender specific topic … Ecology and the environment are also topics that are attracting attention at the moment for obvious reasons and sometimes specifically in the context of Irish women’s writing, of all periods. Transnationalism has always been important in connection with Irish women’s writing and interest in this is likely to increase in the future. So a lot of interesting avenues to explore.