Since the 1990s, scholarship on Irish women’s writing has made some significant strides in recovering forgotten authors and texts. Thanks to pioneering work by researchers such as Patricia Coughlan, Heidi Hansson, John Wilson Foster, Margaret Kelleher and James H. Murphy, we have begun to see developments that conceptualise and offer new frameworks for researching and understanding Irish women’s writing of the period between 1880 and 1920.
Evidence of the surge in interest in Irish women’s writing came recently during a conference staged by the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures, which celebrated its 50th anniversary at Trinity College Dublin in July 2019. This conference brought together a global community of scholars to reflect on the topic of ‘Critical Ground’. During thought-provoking roundtable discussions such as “Displacing the Canon” and “Feminist Wonder? Twenty-First Century Interventions in Irish Studies”, important questions were raised about the need to diversify the teaching syllabus, revisit categories such as the ‘Irish writer’ and what we might mean by it, and opening out the field of Irish Studies to include transdisciplinary, transnational and multi-lingual approaches. With digitisation projects of archival materials on the rise, access to primary resources and previously untapped critical texts are increasingly available to enable new directions in the scholarship of Irish women’s writing.
Yet where we seem to take ten steps forward, there is all too often a push-back. A telling example of this came in 2017, when the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, edited by Gerald Dawe, caused controversy for its appalling gender imbalance by including the work of only four females among a total of thirty poets overall. Most notable perhaps was the fact that all the females whose poems were selected for publication in the Cambridge Companion were born in the twentieth century.
It is thus important to engage in an ongoing process of reflecting on the historiography of Irish women’s writing and revisiting the motivations for recovering women’s voices. The continued relative scarcity of attention to women’s literary works in textbooks, scholarly research and literary anthologies invites us to consider which questions we are still grappling with and where new avenues of research have or might yet be opened up for scholarship.
Looking back at the research and recovery efforts of those who have gone before is an imperative process in continuing to respond to the need for greater visibility of and accessibility to Irish women’s writing of the 1880 to 1920 period. This is precisely the reason that, in this series of interviews, we are asking pioneering scholars to share the challenges and opportunities they saw and continue to see in this lively research field.
Anna Pilz & Whitney Standlee