Margaret Kelleher’s first monograph on The Feminization of Famine and her co-edited volume on Gender Perspectives in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, both published in 1997, had gender questions at the very heart of her research. Her seminal work interrogated questions of tradition and canonicity in such influential articles as ‘Charlotte Riddell’s A Struggle for Fame: The Field of Women’s Literary Production’ (2000), ‘Writing Irish Women’s Literary History’ (2001) and ‘“The Field Day Anthology” and Irish Women’s Literary Studies’ (2003). We took the opportunity to ask her about the historiography of Irish women’s literary history and new opportunities for researchers in the digital age.
This is the seventh 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, Lucy Collins is here and Gerardine Meaney here.
Q: What initially drew you to the study of Irish women’s writing?
MK: My doctoral thesis (at Boston College in the early 1990s) began as a study of famine literature from Ireland and Bengal. Then my focus moved to gendered representations of famine and from there to an investigation of writings by women about the Great Irish Famine. That interest was consolidated and deepened when Gerardine Meaney invited me to contribute a chapter on Irish women’s writings in the second half of the nineteenth century to volumes 4 and 5 of the Field Day Anthology.
Q: How did you locate and access the materials for your research?
MK: At the beginning, it involved combing through catalogues (and not digital ones!) at the National Library and Trinity College’s Early Printed Books library. I also found Stephen Brown’s Ireland in Fiction (first published in 1919) to be very helpful and very inclusive; it was a pleasure to share his work in recent years with Sinéad Gleeson as a resource for her fantastic anthologising work. One spent a lot of time in those years researching even the most basic bio-bibliographical information and gleaning nuggets from sources like the Irish Book Lover. Gerardine and I often reminisce about using the first scanners (located deep in the bowels of UCD buildings) to scan material for FDA; the OCR was dreadful (and often hilarious) and it would have been much faster to type in the extracts ourselves; but using this new technology, and contemplating its future possibilities – to share works that survived in one or two ragged copies in libraries – was exhilarating. I write this on the day (31 March 2020) that news of Gerardine’s ERC grant has become public (she is the first Irish woman to win an ERC Advanced grant in the humanities, and the first Irish person to win an Advanced grant for a literary project) so it’s a wonderful day for feminist literary studies.
Q: Can you recall a particular ‘Eureka moment’ from the archives?
MK: That’s a great question! I think discovering Charlotte Riddell’s short story ‘Out in the Cold’, first published in 1899, is my choice. It’s a a very moving story about a woman coming to the end of her professional career, and is full of autobiographical resonance given that Riddell, once a phenomenally successful author, was reduced to penury or at least a sort of middle-class penury late in life. In the story, the central character writes feverishly in her last days but when she dies, all that survives – or is seen to survive – are “purposeless scrawls”. It’s quite the metaphor for the many women’s writings not (yet) retrieved. For more on Riddell, see https://digitalcommons.colby.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3281&context=cq
Q: Your research has focused on questions of gender from the very beginning. What do you consider to be the challenges and opportunities in studying and researching Irish women’s writing of the period 1880-1920 in the twenty-first century?
MK: The opportunities include the excellence of the works themselves, in all their diversity and range. The challenges are related to the opportunities: developing critical perspectives that can illuminate that excellence and accommodate that diversity. A few years ago, I was invited to contribute to the Palgrave History of Women’s Writing , for the Victorian period, edited by Lucy Hartley. One of the revelations for me in that research, which pertains also to the 1880-1920 years, was the sad realisation that the critical categories of ‘minor literature’ and cultural hybridity, which have proved so hospitable to the recovery of many less well-known male writers, fail to accommodate many popular writings by women writers or to comprehend their influence. To redress this, we need to produce alternative models of literary history, focused less on an aesthetic of distinctiveness and rupture (whereby to enter literary history is ‘to slay one’s father’….) and more on communal values and intergenerational dissemination. That’s why studies of a group or network of women writers, rather than chapters on a single ‘great’ author, can be more illuminating and substantial.
Q: In terms of a canon, how – if at all – do you think the category of ‘Irish woman writer’ has changed? Does it need to exist?
MK: My answers above have, I hope, answered that in part. I feel ambivalence about its continued existence: it is still needed with respect to historical research and also to prompt the new kind of critical paradigms that I mentioned above. I would like to think that it’s less necessary in the present, but, just when I feel more optimistic, publications or events occur that are breathtakingly blind to the work of women and I’m reminded that the category continues to be of value. With respect to our emerging canon, I’m especially encouraged by the (excellent) writings by women from newer communities in Ireland including work by Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Melatu Uche Okorie and Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe.
Q: What book, play or poem/poetry collection written by a woman writer between 1880 and 1920 do you feel deserves more attention and respect, and why?
MK: I’m suggesting here Augusta Gregory’s McDonough’s Wife, as part of a larger argument that her plays deserve to be produced and rediscovered, rather than just talked about! I saw a production of this play recently in New York as part of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s highly engaging Lady G (https://irishrep.org/show/2019-2020/lady-g/) and it’s a fascinating work, and very compelling on stage; it anticipates many later revelations about social discrimination and exclusion based on gender and, curiously, also on class.
Q: You have developed a particular interest in the opportunities afforded by digital humanities. Where do you see the potential of the ‘digital turn’ for the research and study of Irish women writers?
MK: The ‘digital turn’ has huge potential in making writings accessible and transmittable, as I observed above. And in sharing resources and ideas, as is the case with this very blog! I continue to be concerned, however, that our canon and curricula have not broadened sufficiently to reflect this and there is a recurring danger, proven so often in literary history, that a very wide choice of content can result, paradoxically, in more conservative choices. That is why I genuinely welcome initiatives such as this, since we need to ensure that suggestions proliferate and that we all act as brokers and mediators of new ideas and recommendations. A year or so ago, while reading the very valuable History of Modern Irish Women’s Literature (Cambridge UP, 2018) edited by Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Gallchoir, I was reminded of how useful it would be for us as scholars, and feminist scholars, to share teaching syllabi as a practical way to extend our own personal and pedagogical canons, and Clíona and I are pondering ways to achieve that in the future.
Q: Alongside your research achievements, you have always been committed to creating platforms for research, collaboration and public-facing initiatives. For instance, you are the UCD academic lead on the Museum of Irish Literature that opened its doors at Newman House in Autumn 2019. What role, in your view, do these types of institutional infrastructures have in academic debates?
MK: Working on MoLI, a partnership between UCD and the National Library of Ireland has been a revelation and a joy. In researching the content with my NLI colleague, Katherine McSharry, we were able to bring to the attention of visitors many neglected woman writers, including – in our introductory Galaxy of Writers – many from the North of Ireland such as Frances Molloy and Janet McNeill. And thanks to the commitment of Director Simon O’Connor and his colleagues, MoLI is strongly committed to developing new exhibitions, and new kinds of exhibition, featuring women writers: the opening exhibition on Kate O’Brien, curated by Kathy Rose O’Brien, has been hugely impactful and we look forward to its successor, an exhibition on Nuala O’Faolain, curated by June Caldwell. The role of this unique institutional infrastructure – a museum with a library and university as godparents – is not only to introduce audiences, national and international, to new authors and works, but also to prompt new – and urgently needed – ways of thinking about writing, its origins and impact, its legacy and its potential.