AFEW months ago, The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets was published. This scholarly text from one of the best-regarded academic presses in the world comprises 30 essays, each devoted to one poet.
You have to read as far as chapter 24 to find a woman. There are four in all — Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Medbh McGuckian, Eavan Boland and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. All fine, brilliant poets — but have there been no other women poets worth mentioning in the history of Ireland?
For many of us writing on the island of Ireland today, this was the straw that broke our backs. We had all grown up reading and learning the poetry of men in school, and later in university, hardly even able to consider the idea that there might have been women writing before us — what Ní Dhomhnaill has called our ‘foremothers’.
Learning the words and ideas of almost exclusively male writers. Learning that our ideas had no place on the page. Soundings, the poetry anthology used to teach poetry to generations of Irish students and sold today for its nostalgia value, had one woman representing the whole world — Emily Dickinson.
It was pretty difficult to imagine that there had been anyone before us.
But there HAD. Ireland has a rich, varied history of women poets, as I discovered when I began researching for a Masters thesis on the subject years ago. It wasn’t easy to find them — so many had fallen into obscurity because of a lack of representation in print over the years — but they were there. Talented, subversive and important. Part of our literary heritage: a part we had been denied.
Over the decades, anthology after anthology had been published, each claiming to represent a telling snapshot of ‘Irish poetry.’ A glance into any one of them will tell you the same story that the Cambridge Companion is trying to tell. Women rarely make up more than 30% of the poets selected: in fact, 30% is pretty amazing going, on average. My favourite example is The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse: the original (published in 1958) featured 18 women, which was not close to 30% but a good number for the time. The New, edited by Thomas Kinsella and published in 1986, featured ONE, Eibhlín Dubh. In translation. By Kinsella. Anthologies and scholarly collections like these dictate what makes up the ‘canon’ of Irish poetry, and a great many women writers have been erased from the list.
In November, Christine Murray, whose Poethead blog highlights poetry by Irish women, began forming a group of women poets in order to do something about this. Like Waking the Feminists, our aim was to raise awareness of the misrepresentation that was happening in Irish poetry and to seek to remedy it through education, readings, discussions – and our pledge.
Our website, awomanpoetspledge.com, invites poets, publishers, literary event organisers, scholars and anyone interested — of any gender and none — to sign a pledge (developed by Christine, Ailbhe Darcy, Emma Penney and others) promising to withdraw from any project that does not make good faith attempts to work towards gender balance. It isn’t a big ask. Please sign it.
The website also contains lists of women poets, essays and articles, and links to others. To date there have been hundreds of signatories, including Anne Enright and Declan Meade. Last week The Guardian published an article on the movement, which has also been covered by RTÉ’s Arena and The Irish Times. The discussion on social media is vibrant and uplifting.Maria McManus hosted the first reading of this all-Ireland movement in Belfast in November, and I’ll host another in Cork tonight, January 22, in the Long Valley as part of the Óbhéal reading series (see below). Further readings are planned nationwide and farther afield.
The aim of these Fired! readings is to educate ourselves and each other (hence the hashtag #HedgeSchool), to spark discussion and to bring these forgotten women’s voices into the literary conversation again.
Our hope is that young women starting their writing careers today will know of the women who wrote before them, and that everyone interested in Irish literature and poetry will have access to a more nuanced, richer and more authentic discourse.
The Cork Fired! Reading will take place upstairs in the Long Valley pub, Winthrop St, at 9pm tonight and will feature readings by Christine Murray, Nicola Moffat, Raina Leon and Kathy D’Arcy.
For more information log onto http://www.obheal.ie/blog/guest-poets/#22ndJanuary.
Please contact us through our website or on twitter @FiredIrishPoets if you are interested in hosting an event.