The publication in 2002 of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Women’s Writing and Traditions volumes 4 and 5 was a watershed moment in Irish literary history. Gerardine Meaney was among the principal co-editors of this endeavour, which evolved in response to the failure of the initial three volumes of The Field Day Anthology to dedicate due attention to women’s contribution to Irish literature. Gerardine Meaney is also one of two Irish women to be awarded an ERC Advanced Grant in 2020, the first two women in Ireland, in any discipline, to gain such an award. In addition, she has shaped the field with her monographs on Gender, Ireland and Cultural Change (Routledge, 2010), the co-authored Reading the Irish Woman: Cultural Encounter and Exchange, 1714-1960 (Liverpool University Press, 2013), and extensive list of journal articles and chapters on a range of Irish women writers – including Katherine Cecil Thurston and Emily Lawless – stretching back more than three decades.
This is the sixth interview in the Research Pioneers Series. Our first interview with John Wilson Foster is available here, Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Gallchoir is here, James H Murphy is here, Heidi Hansson is here and Lucy Collins here.
Q: What initially drew you to the study of Irish women’s writing?
GM: I was interested in feminism from my teens onwards (I am a second generation feminist in the literal sense, courtesy of my independent minded mother) and obsessed with writing. In a way, I went to university to read women’s writing, though it was very scarce on the curriculum at the time. I did my doctoral thesis on English women novelists and French feminist theorists, and I learned a huge amount from that, not least how to write my way out from under the expectations of the very masculine realm of Irish literary criticism in the nineteen eighties. I didn’t turn to Irish women’s writing until I put in a proposal for a postdoctoral fellowship in the Institute of Irish Studies in QUB to work on Kate O’Brien in 1988, but the root of that project was a random encounter with Arlen House’s reissue of Kate O’Brien’s The Ante-Room in the UCD Library as an undergraduate. Having found it, I was confronted with the question of why this amazing novelist was not on the syllabus. Then there was the debate, resources, and general intellectual excitement initiated by the UCD Women’s Studies Forum which Ailbhe Smith invited me to join as a postgraduate member.
Q: You first published work on Kate O’Brien in 1997, who at the time was receiving scant critical attention. By the year 2000, you were researching the even more obscure works of Emily Lawless and Katherine Cecil Thurston. Where and how did you come across these authors and what about their work sparked your critical interest?
GM: Very little in academic life compares to the satisfaction of finding authors who have been obscured and lost, and then bringing them back into the literary historical record. This operates differently in the digital age, with less rummaging and dust, but it still requires detective work and ingenuity in interrogating catalogues and sources. With O’Brien my encounter was initially quite accidental (I had a tendency to roam the university library looking for books more enticing than those on the syllabus), but after that my antennae were out. Early in my PhD, I remember a very senior and progressive figure in Irish literary studies asking me what my thesis was on and commenting that it was a pity there were so few Irish women writers. Even then I knew he could not be right and I remember answering that they must be there, feminist criticism was digging up women writers everywhere else. So I started trying to figure out where the work by Irish women writers was buried. I still have enormous affection for Lawless’s Grania which was one of the first I came across and which, like The Ante Room, lit up when viewed though the lens of feminist criticism. Thurston and the activist writer Rosamund Jacob feel like old friends now, but I engaged with them for the first time when I started work on the Field Day Anthology, volume 5. I spent a lot of time working my way through catalogues and old anthologies and literary review pages in the National Library.
Q: Can you recall a particular ‘Eureka moment’ from the archives?
GM: I am interested in work by women writers which reaches out across time, demands recognition, puts our own location in history in question. Elizabeth Freeman’s essay ‘Time Binds’ is a wonderful theorisation of that process. There are moments when the pages and the present part and words from the past come alive. Those moments don’t come too often, but they make all the bibliographical digging worthwhile. When I started out I was very wary of proclaiming the pure joy of that process, though I don’t think I hid it very well. My first encounter with Rosamund Jacob’s little lined notebooks in the manuscript room in the National Library was a definite Eureka moment – suddenly hearing the voice of this acerbic, witty, courageous, radical woman who was at the heart of Irish history and yet at odds with it. It was a different voice to the one in her fiction, more direct and more anguished, but also much funnier. Her diaries are an unknown classic of Irish writing, a kind of Martha Quest epic for the first half of the 20th century. As part of UCD’s Decade of Centenaries initiative, Maria Mulvany and I are working on publishing them in blog format for 1916-23 later this year. Jacob continued writing the diaries until 1960, so this project is just a start. More recently, working my way through Katherine Cecil Thurston’s correspondence in the National Library of Scotland I came across the love letters Thurston wrote in the last week of her life. The one where she comments on how much solace she got from De Profundis and how she empathised with Wilde when she was separated from her lover is a little intimate gem among her torrent of correspondence.
Q: Almost two decades have passed since the publication of volumes 4 and 5 of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Can you offer some reflections on the challenges that faced you and the other researchers involved in producing these volumes as you addressed and redressed the Field Day exclusions?
GM:Therewere very few electronic catalogues, let alone resources like the Internet Archive, EEBO or the British Library Nineteenth Century Corpus. (For me, lifting down the old large format National Library catalogues became incredibly challenging when I was pregnant.) I think people thought we were mad for requiring digital copies of the sub-editors’ work, though of course it was hugely helpful when it came to selection and editing -and it enabled many of the editors to do more detailed work on the texts later. I remember Margaret Kelleher and I scanning swathes of nineteenth century fiction on a scanner the size of a small car in a computer room in the basement of the Arts Block in UCD. It used to overheat and stick: we took turns giving it a precisely aimed kick to get it going again. It was a long way from Kristevan theory and Angela Carter, but very satisfying. There were many other parts of the academic apparatus I would have merrily kicked back then, so it was an outlet. The appearance of the text on screen back in the office seemed a minor miracle, not least because it suddenly became possible to manipulate and search in ways we take for granted now, but were very new at that stage.
I realise I have been concentrating on the technical challenges. There was also the challenge of the expectations and scepticism of the wider feminist and literary community, which were much more difficult to resolve. Field Day volumes 1 – 3 had caused a lot of justified anger and generated a lot of suspicion of the editorial process for 4 and 5. The reaction in the newspapers when the last 2 volumes were published was both negative and bewildered, which was what we expected from quite early on in that process. Newspapers and journals that were quite happy to criticise Field Day on feminist grounds were not exactly beacons of equality and diversity themselves. It was inevitable that there would be a backlash against women’s expectation that they should be included in the literary and historical record. The volume of original research and range of material meant that the process took much longer than anticipated and at least one newspaper article reported as we worked that the expected women’s volume would never come out. What on earth were we looking for? The assumption was that Irish women’s writing, even Irish women themselves, had no real history, as if no one escaped the kitchen or the drawing room before the nineteen sixties.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the academic journal and international newspaper reviews were so good so quickly. We were working towards a correction of the historical record and to create a resource for the future, conscious that the immediate present was not likely to be receptive, which created an interesting challenge in the form of the pressure we put on ourselves to get it right. While the volume of material we included eventually required two volumes not just one, one of the major delays was caused by agonising over which material to cut out to get it down to publishable dimensions. We still get questions (and occasional conspiracy theories) about why particular authors were left out, but it usually came down to balanced representation across genres and time periods. Mary O’Dowd, Maria Luddy and I have collaborated on various projects over the years fuelled by the sense that there was so much more to research and record.
Q: What would an anthology of women’s writing and traditions look like in 2022?
GM: There has been an interesting trend towards more specialised and thematic anthologies, which offer personally curated encounters with women’s writing and traditions. Sinead Gleeson has really pioneered this genre and almost single handedly created a mainstream readership for it in Ireland. On the other hand, there are very large datasets and corpora which need to be searched, text mined and processed before they can be read. They each have a role and complement each other. I have become increasingly interested in the way in which multimedia can engage readers and students. With Karen Wade and Maria Mulvany, I worked on a multimedia centenary presentation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Back when literary apps were the next big think, I also led the project to develop an iPad app of ‘The Dead’. One of my fantasy projects is a multimedia anthology of Irish women’s writing which would incorporate audio excerpts, relevant historical photographs, video debates about the texts and interactive links, but even at this stage it is much easier to get funding to do this kind of thing for Joyce than for women’s writing. Mary O’Dowd has worked with Deirdre Wildy in QUB library to develop an online version of Field Day 4 and 5, which has been very complex in terms of copyright, etc, but hopefully that will kickstart a new phase of online anthologies when it comes on stream. It is worth re-iterating though that the kind of focussed, readable, engaging anthologies which Sinead Gleeson and Dawn Sherratt Bado and Linda Anderson have produced with New Island Books, are equally important and I think that trend will continue also.
Q: Your research has focused on questions of gender, cultural and literary production. What were the most influential moments or works that shaped your trajectory as a scholar?
GM: Helene Cixous’s ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ had an extraordinary impact on me. It suddenly opened up the possibility that one could write in an interesting way about writing itself. It is fashionable to think of feminist literary theory as somehow elitist but for my generation it was incredibly empowering, precisely because it was difficult and challenging and took it for granted that thinking about gender required both strenuous analysis and creative risk.
The UCD Women’s Studies forum was crucial once I had begun on that journey. Ailbhe Smith was (still is) a bit of a magician, conjuring up this vibrant space in the dreary grey UCD of the time, with such an extraordinary group of people. Academia was even more compartmentalised in those days, but through the Forum I had access to discussions on the relationship between gender and society, culture and history, between Margaret McCurtain from History, Helen Burke from Social Science, Eunice McCarthy from Psychology, Angela Bourke and Marion Gunn from Irish, Attracta Ingram from Philosophy and these quite amazing writers. Eilis Ni Dhubhne and Anne Le Marquand Hartigan were the key writers in the group when I was involved, but I also remember readings by Eavan Boland and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill vividly. The combination of intellectual and political energy in the room was unlike anything else I had encountered, but it was grounded in the everyday business of coping as a woman in a very male academic world. Role models are important at that age -I remember Ni Dhomnaill reading first in Irish, then English, answering complicated questions about deconstructing the sovereignty tradition, and all the while feeding her baby. I had access to feminist cultural power in action and, like so many others, it energised my work, which never really fitted into just one compartment afterwards.
Q: In terms of a canon, how – if at all – do you think the category of ‘Irish woman writer’ has changed? How useful is such a category within the world of digital research methodologies?
GM: The powerful hold which the idea of a national tradition retains over literary criticism and the persistence of national canons as a way of organising accounts of literary history are quite remarkable. Both nationality and gender are historically contingent but very powerful categories. Feminist criticism in contrast has always been methodologically transnational and histories of women’s writing have cut across national boundaries. Many of the women writers I have been working on in the last couple of years emigrated temporarily or permanently, so in many ways they fit into a metrocolonial or migratory instead of a national framework. Even those who did not leave depended on an international readership to make a living or to gain an audience outside the strictures of Irish censorship. Yet the Irish context and their connection to Ireland and to each other is vital to understanding their work. Recently I have been working on the representation of single mothers and their children in the work of Una Troy, Mary Beckett and Maura Laverty, for example, and their narrative strategies only make sense as a challenge to Irish denial of the existence of this section of the population and, in Troy and Laverty’s case, as a commitment to use popular fiction to change attitudes.
Digital research methods are dependent on the quality and extent of digital resources, so they are much more effective as tools for locating and analysing women’s writing in the nineteenth century where material is out of copyright and digitised accordingly. However, there is huge potential for social network analysis of twentieth century Irish women’s writing, mapping transnational networks, and displacing linear concepts of canon with a much more complex, dialogical map of correspondences and shared concerns. Decolonising initiatives, digital resources, feminist literary history, queer histories, and thematic anthologies have created much more dynamic narratives of literary history, connectivity and influence, and will continue to do so.
Q: You have been one of the champions of integrating digital methodologies into humanities research. The Irish Research Council funded your project on ‘Nation, Genre and Gender: A Comparative Social Network Analysis of Irish and English Fiction, 1800-1922’. Based on your experience as principal investigator of that project, what new questions have emerged about women’s writing of the period in particular? And where did you see potential pitfalls of big data projects?
GM: There is considerable potential for feminist literary history in the use of social network analysis, as I mentioned. Beyond that the potential of text mining to identify thematic clusters, their correlation to gender, and find the needle of a particular Irish woman writer in a haystack of nineteenth century popular fiction is very exciting.
Interestingly, in analysis of the social networks of nineteenth century fiction the gender of the key protagonist was one of the most important variables. Jane Eyre is less central to her own story than David Copperfield or Phineas Finn. Writers like Charlotte Riddell who chose to explore very masculine worlds like business and law provide really interesting challenges to our preconceptions about nineteenth century women’s writing. Riddell, like many late nineteenth century women who wrote to make a living, was unmanageably prolific and even basic text mining techniques allow us to identity thematic cluster and continuities within the work of one or more such writers with an accuracy and rapidity what was unthinkable a decade ago.
I have great hopes for the potential uses of the Curatr interface, which was developed by the Contagion, Biopolitics and Memory project I am working on with Derek Greene in UCD Insight to facilitate the use of the British Library Nineteenth Century Corpus, which was very generously shared with us by the BL Labs. The corpus includes 35,918 volumes of English language fiction, so the potential for further research is enormous. The danger of course is that data mining becomes a substitute for reading the fiction which would be the end of those moments of contact and recognition between the page and the reader. Curatr will offer the opportunity to preserve and democratise those moments of discovery, as it incorporates search and analysis tools that can be used to create and export small corpora, such as an individual writer’s work or a group of volumes with a shared topic published in the same year. Of course it will also facilitate very large scale analysis. I think that capacity to move back and forth between text and corpus, detail and dataset, interpretation and computation, is crucial if digital methodologies are to fulfil their potential for literary studies.