A Meditation on Ireland, Women, Poetry and Subversion

Kathy D'Arcy meditates on Ireland, poetry and subversion.

Kathy D'Arcy

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A Meditation on Ireland, Women, Poetry and Subversion:

They say a lot of things about how you get in:

there are accounts of the glories of the hearth, the strength, our hospitality, our courage and the 

various ways in which we are taken,

but I volunteered:

I was not driven out to wander either. 

Make lists of me and my hounds and the shapes of my rages, how many naked men dancing it 

takes to calm me, to make me blush.

Make lists of my forts (my fortresses), my gold, my weapons, my cattle, my slaves, my descendants.

He may have had two sons and more but me also.

Me as well. 

One took to the wilds, that was me. 

One took to the throne, that was me as well. 

One died or was killed, that alone was me. 

I handed the leadership down through the provinces. 

No-one made me race 'til I cursed and birthed the twins they called the county after. 

No-one went to enchanted lands where I taught them arms or fucked them or kept them young, 

bridging cleverly the gap up until Saint Patrick then falling awkwardly down (that was me).

No-one shrivelled then, growing ridiculously old, and died.

No-one chose me for manners and virtue alone, eschewing his usual portion. 

No old king chased me down at the foot of Ben Bulben, his cock in his hand.

No-one hurt or distressed me as per the code.

No-one offered me first to myself and my comrades before marrying me to myself, the king.

I have endured the scholastic training worthy of someone of learning. 

I am versed in the twelve divisions of poetry and the traditional rules. 

I am so light and fleet I escape from a body of men without snapping a twig,

without ruffling a braid

of my hair, I run under branches as high as my ankle and over ones high as my head, I scrape thorns from my feet

(not mine) while I run, I dance backwards away from myself, these rites

are quite common among primitive nations,

I am seldom admitted into the companionship of the older, the full privilege of the tribe, without them.

I defend myself in the end in a hole in the ground with a shield and a hazel stick from nine warriors.[1][2][3]

Once there was a woman - no, two women. Then they became beasts, then trees, then stones then even stars. How they fought!  And that woman was Cú Chulainn.[4] And that woman was Fionn Mac Cumhaill, daughter of Cumhall.  And that woman was Queen Maeve.  And that woman was Brian Boru. And that woman was Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, and that woman was her husband Airt Uí Laoighire. And that women was Pope John Paul the Second. And that woman was Declan Kiberd.

Bran, Fionn's chief hound, is credited with an intelligence which is superhuman,and which  is only explained by her superhuman origin and birth. The touching story of Bran's affection   for and efforts to save Diarmuid when he is fleeing with Grainne before Fionn, will be remembered. (Hull 13)[5]

It is a simple task, and one that has been done several times, to list all the anthologies purporting to be representative of 'Irish Poetry' published in the 'seventies, 'eighties and 'nineties, comparing them to previous similar anthologies, and counting the women included.  In general, when anyone asks me why I am still worried about the position of women in the canon of Irish poetry, I summarise the findings of such an endeavour.  I have done this so often it comes out quite smoothly, like a seanchaí's story but without catharsis:

[Sounds of a loud public house at a literary festival.]

"So in the 'sixties Lennox Robinson and Donagh MacDonagh published The Oxford Book of  Irish Verse, and there were eighteen women in it, right?  Way less than half, but it was  something, right?  Then in the 'eighties Thomas Kinsella published The New[6] Oxford Book of Irish Verse, and there was one woman in it - Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, from the  eighteenth century.[7]

And if you think that's an exception check the others - Montague's, Kinsella's, Kennelly's. These guys were the canon-makers, they set themselves up as canon-makers with the  titles of their books: 'the whatever of Irish Poetry.' So it's really not an exaggeration to say that women were erased from the canon then. These were women who were often well-received and published in their own time. I'm not saying it was a conspiracy[8], but why? They can say that they were all just bad - and they do - but a lot of the men included were bad!  And they're not bad! They're actually really good, and really subversive!

You know?"

[Sounds of public house continue.  In the near distance, someone mentions Seamus Heaney.]

I'm in the middle of a creative writing PhD called, mouth-achingly, 'A Poetic Heteroglossia Re-Articulating 1930s Irish Women's Poetry: Weighted Silences.'  I'm trying to investigate the forgotten women poets of 1930s Ireland using new, experimental long-form poetry to subvert patriarchal academic knowledge-text structures. The women I study wrote about the subject matter assigned to them by post-1937 Irish society - love, flowers, god, myth, children. And their poems have been taken at face value (if at all) by critics then and since.  But it did not take much surface-scratching on my part to revealing a rich vein of experiment and subversion, and my master's thesis, published in part in Irish Literature: Feminist Perspectives (Carysfort 2008) is full of heavily-coded excerpts from poems about rejection of motherhood, fear of sexual violence, lesbian love, and denunciation of war, god and enforced gender roles. The sophisticated experiments in subversion utilised by these poets raised some of their work, in my opinion, to the level of modernist masterpieces.

The subtitle on my PhD title is there because, as above, the women I write about are silent in the burble of the canon. They knew they would be, and themselves wrote about it:[9]

Had I the health & the courage, I’d ask Donagh MacDonagh straight out which (if any) of   my poems he’s put into his Oxf. Bk. Of Irish Verse.  But he must be badgered out of his life,   & as I’m stuck in bed here & can’t meet him, I’ll have to forgo this compulsive longing to  know the worst. Two recent anthologies (Lehmann, then G.S. Fraser) paid me the compliment of including something, but printers’ errors made nonsense out of the   culminating stanzas of the same poem. Do others take such personal tragedies calmly, I   wonder? . . . .Don't worry about D. MacD!  My hopes have been (2 days ago) just about as dashed as they can be by hearing from the Clarendon printers that only 1 short poem of mine has been included[10]. . . . It is a great pity that poets should be, in general, so horrid  [written over 'hateful,' which is crossed out] to & jealous of each other; & that the kind of   health & strength that fights to [illegible] the head of the queue (with elbows well out) is needed to keep one in the forefront [rest of letter cut] . . . .If you want to be kicked in your midriff-soul by poetry, don’t bother with that Love-Anthology, but get Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning.

                                                                      No occurrences of "feminist"



I believe that I will be excluded from the 'canon' too. I don't think I write about the right things for a woman. Is it feminist or patriarchal to be angry about this, or to wonder about it even?  Am I allowed to be angry or am I supposed to rise above (below? Obliquely aside from?) such old-boy concerns?  I will, after all, be dead when the grand decision is made. But I'm alive now, and like the poets I study I am acutely aware of it. In his interview series with David Sylvester,[11] Francis Bacon said that if you want to know if your work is any good, you should wait one hundred years. I don't believe that this rule can apply to women (it surely doesn't apply to most people who aren't a white male from one part of the Northern hemisphere, but that's another article).  Irish women's literary history has repeatedly been fragmented and undone, and modern Irish women poets are still marginalised and searching for what Ní Dhomhnaill called their 'foremothers'[12]

I'm thinking about trying to change the focus of my PhD to something less 'political,' more 'poetic.' This, I feel, would be more acceptable - but also, I'm sinking into the desperation the women felt and the reality behind it.  I am a coward. Am I allowed to run away from it, or do I have a duty to keep investigating and fighting? Already I'm aware that, had I chosen a well-known male poet or the concerns of the same to be the subject of my work, I'd be in a better career position.  I'd also be happier. Peers are sending their poetry to journals with male pseudonyms. I can't deny, in the end, that I don't have the acceptable genitalia, and more importantly that my concerns are not fashionable, either academically or poetically. These are the same problems the poets I study had. But it's one hundred years on and nothing has changed.



              Just read the EU's recent gender

               action plan: unexpectedly

               cheering. europarl.europa.eu/


               08/09/2015 12:24

Like the HSE policy documents I used to see in a former life, political treatises on gender have the feeling of being just talk: women's organisations were fighting for the same issues when my subjects were writing. The poet Blanaid Salkeld was one of hundreds of Irish women - writers, professors, housewives, union leaders - who appealed to de Valera to remove the sexist wording from his draft constitution, but we all know that the infamous article about 'woman''s life belonging 'within the home' remains. I used the protest letters that I found in the National Archive to make a play which I performed at a Dáil briefing during the Constitutional Convention on Gender Change.


[Women's voices speak over each other, a different voice for each ellipsis. Some have  English and Anglo-Irish accents, others heavy regional Irish ones, those old-style accents from The Quiet Man.]

"Dear Mr de Valera:

The articles relating to the status of women were a great disappointment to me, as they must have been to the many who hoped for the ‘equal rights and equal opportunities’which the Proclamation of the Republic in 1916 guaranteed to all its citizens . . . ."

"in connection with Article forty-five, women may well ask these questions: Has the strength   of women not been adequate for their needs, or how have they managed to survive? . . . ."

"In the period of the war with England, the Irish nation rose to the test as never before in its history, men and women serving alike. There was no talk then of the 'inadequate strength'  of women, their''differences of capacity, physical and moral and of social function,' and I am   surprised that you, who lived through the period in intimate contact with the ordinary people of the nation and valued, I think, the splendid service of the women of the people, now include in this Draft Constitution, clauses which, however well-intentioned, will militate against women in a state based on their work and sacrifice . . . ."

"The comment has been made that, under the proposed new constitution, woman will be thrust back into the status which she occupied in the Middle Ages. To my mind, if women  can attain now – allowing for a few changes rendered needful by changing modern   conditions – to the public position which they held in Ireland and in most European countries during the Middle Ages, they will be well content . . . .The notion that married or single women should not engage in money-earning occupations is not an old but a quite modern one . . . ."

[A man's voice comes in over. Fade out women's voices.]

"I am directed by the President to acknowledge the receipt of your letter."

There has been no change in the wording since.



             @EndaKennyTD I got terrible tea

              stains off this cup: can I have

              control of my fertility back please?


              [photograph of a relatively clean cup interior]

              13.08.15 17:51

So do words mean anything?  And if not, why not burn books?

The character I've been working on for the PhD undergoes a faux-epic journey through a feminised mytho-historical Ireland and ends up in the National Library, flinging through the broken windows all of the books that don't represent her.

Carnegie Library in Cork city had a reading room especially for women. A book about this room was launched in Cork while I was writing this article. It is called A Room of Their Own. The library and the reading room were burned down by British forces during the War of Independence.

The firemen with me managed to get a hose on the Carnegie Library as the Tans had evidently given up their game of firing on the firemen. Instead they turned off the fire hydrant and refused to let the fire crews have any access to water. Protests were met with laughter and abuse.[13]

The new library did not have a women's reading room.

Was it no longer needed? To rephrase, do women no longer have to fear public spaces? To rephrase, can I sit in a pub by myself with a beer and no book, wearing revealing clothes, and feel that I will not be approached in a sexual way?  

To rephrase, did you read that sentence and think 'well if she's wearing revealing clothes then she's asking for male attention,' or words to that effect, even for a second, even subconsciously? To rephrase, can I talk about my cunt and its workings, or those of others, in a poem and have it accepted in the same way as a man's poem about similar cunts would be? To rephrase, how often in my impressionable youth was I asked by older male poets to come somewhere with them because they loved my poems, only for it to turn out that it was my body they loved, and not at all my work? To rephrase, would the fact that they wanted my body have been okay if they had actually liked my work?

It's hard not to be angry.

"When the heroes go out hunting, the hind of which they are in pursuit turns out frequently to be a witch woman disguised . . ." 

Also phantoms. A man with no head and an eye in his breast; nine singing bodies without heads; a grim old hag with three heads who calls for the song . . . (Hull 13)

It's hard not to be angry with each other.[14]

In the 'seventies Sheila Wingfield wrote Baby Song:

            O Cradled daughter:

            No dancing-water*[15]

            Will make you young

            When your dimpled arm

             And rounded neck

             Look scrawny and wrung.

             Provided no harm,

             My darling queen,

             Should come in between;

             No hint of such wreck

             As I've suffered and seen.

             Now I'll hush my tongue. (Collected Poems 1983)

About her mother, Wingfield said "The menopause took its revenge on her."[16]

Of the three Irish women I studied for my master's thesis The Other Elite: Irish Women's Poetry of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, two, Wingfield and Salkeld, seemed from their letters (most of which I found in the archives of the National Library) to have suffered from the kind of psychosomatic illnesses you would expect to see in Victorian England, being confined to bed for months on end - where, they told friends, they at least had space and time to write when the pain was not too bad.

  2.12.37 [Felix Hackett] (2) 29,047;17;3

  [The word “SHEILA”is clipped from a newspaper and glued on top instead of writing “Dear Sheila”]

Signe did let me know that the pain had come back. It is insane to say it is not caused by some definite physical cause. You are in their hands for month after month, and not one of   them has shown precision or clairvoyance except Benti in his own field. I am surprised that you are as balanced as you are. You have had an intolerable, miserable, draining experience, and you can't ever half-convey it because you are unconvincing as an invalid. Three gowns that draped you in loose orchid-like style, and a voice trailing like a limp hand   in lukewarm water, and all the doctors wd. believe you. But you are alert, swift, definite and defined.  They say, “she's in no need of sympathy.”  It's enough to make a woman of you.[17]

Also Fairies. "Fionn had for seven years a shee-wife who was alive by day and dead at night . . ." (Hull 13)

I originally qualified as a doctor,

"women make bad doctors: they always have babies," my female fellow-students said: "I'm  golfing on Saturday; come along," the male consultants said to my male fellow-students,

and felt I could diagnose psychosomatic conditions like fibromyalgia in at least one of these women - Sheila Wingfield. Current research into psychosomatic and autoimmune conditions suggests that psychological stressors significantly affect their development and progression. I sent an article to this effect to the journal Notes and Queries on the advice of my then supervisor but heard nothing back. It does not seem important to figure out what crippled these poets.[18]

My own grandmother was the same, growing ever fonder of her bed and her pains until they took her away.

Then while she made herself die, I visited her all the time. I walked across the city from college to Luke's Cross it felt like every day to see her, both of us exhausted and hollow from her task. I was the one who rode in the ambulance with her when she was transferred.  And I can't remember any of it. It has all condensed into my clumsy tickling of her toes as they moved her from the ambulance stretcher to her hospice bed – or from her   hospital bed to the stretcher, or from the ambulance to the ground, I don't know.  I tickled   with the fingertips of my right hand the rock-hard, eggshell-soft sole of her left foot. “Ah stop,” she breathed.

Wingfield brought out seven collections of poetry during her life, and three volumes of memoir.  She won a PBS Choice award in 1955 for her collection A Kite's Dinner. John Betjeman described her first memoir as “a book which only a woman can write, but which a man can enjoy.”  A Collected Works was published in 1987. She died alone in a Switzerland hotel, having endured decades of suffering.

I have been able to find out hardly anything about Blanaid Salkeld, who published five collections of poetry during the 'thirties, 'forties and 'fifties and who was once reviewed by Samuel Beckett (he called her "Mrs. Salkeld"). She is mostly recorded as the mother of Cecil Ffrench Salkeld and the grandmother of Brendan Behan's wife Beatrice.  Or sometimes as her aunt or mother. I have one photograph of her that was given to me by a man who had courted Beatrice. In it, she stares bitterly away from the camera. She is old, old. Salkeld also wrote modernist verse plays with sets painted by a young Louis le Broquy, and her long poem The Fox's Covert is an experimental symphony obviously influenced by Eliot.

The last of the three, Rhoda Coghill, died in a state-run nursing home after living there alone for a decade or so.  As a composer she was a significant presence in Europe during the inter-war period. Her experimental 1923 tone-poem based on Whitman's text, Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking, was performed by the full orchestra it was written for for the first time on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday, and she was brought from the home to give an interview for radio. The original score has, I was told when I searched for it, been lost by the RTE archives and no longer exists. Coghill converted to Quakerism in her youth because (her great-niece told me) she could then spend the money she was given for the Catholic church collection on sweets. She published two collections of poetry after "illness" (heartbreak, some said) affected her composing career, and was, like both of the others, widely published in the literary journals of the time. She had this to say about immortality:

              I have robbed the wild bee of his honey, and hidden it among the


              I have buttoned my jacket over that which you cannot steal.[19]

              Listen! I dare not hang a lamp in the tree-tops

              to light a flight to heaven; nor dance and sing

              to the gay mode that wins a cheap affection,

              the right of amadans,[20] minstrels and fair-clowns;

              nor play the noisy patriot’s hurdy gurdy;

              I have not set foot on that rock-face

              where the adventurous, in the fine air

              achievement breathes, have waved a brave salute

              and disappeared, to map new wisdom’s frontiers.

              Nor have I forged a strong link in the chain

              that grounds the anchor of heredity

              in distant Genesis, have sowed no acorns

              to furnish future forests with proud wood;

              my present fingers cannot stain a canvas

              with the coloured flux that seems all life, all knowledge,

              to conjure up a universe of beauty

              till even fools shall gape and cry: “Praise God!”

              No-one shall seek my grave, or mark the date

              when I shall leave the world: no-one imagine

              my swift enrolment in the choir of saints,

              and institute a celebration for me,

              a day of pious prayer and memory,

              dedicate to the evergreen repeating

              of a gold calendar of worthy deeds.

              . . . .

              Leaving a name that echoes into silence  

              In some form I shall be valued. ('Hail Posterity,' The Bright Hillside, 1948)

Finally this: "It became a saying that if the Fians were twenty-four hours without anyone mentioning them, they would rise again." (Hull 16)[21]


Appendix 1: Non-Lineage of the Author:


                                                                                Some Women

                                                                            (names unrecorded)




                                                                                   The Author

[1] not taken from The Tain: An Irish Epic told in English Verse (1907) as trans. by Mary Hutton (née Drummond) b. Manchester 1862 ed. University College London (Celtic Lit) mbr. Belfast Gaelic League Exec. later appt. QUB Senate & converted to Catholicism in/Patrick Pearse with whom friendly correspondence & moved to Dublin for the death of her husband in 1912 a great success to which she made many visits incl. appendixes of place-names, names of people, tribes and animals/annals and Gaelic terms & Ernie O' Malley read it while the Public Records wing of the Four Courts burned, or otherwise http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/h/Hutton_M/life.htm.

[2] (Not taken from Thomas Kinsella's better know, more widely accepted translation of the Táin either.)

[3] Actually taken from A Text Book of Irish Literature Part II by Eleanor Hull, Gill, Dublin, 1925 (if J. McGillicuddy bought it the year it was published).  No cover.  Found in a box in a stall at the Coal Quay market and procured using money meant for organic vegetables.

[4] A creative paraphrasalof the opening passages of Hutton's Táin.

[5] I am, of course, aware of the presence of strong women in ancient Irish story cycles: see later.

[6] Non-citational bold italics author's own, increasing in emphasis from start to finish.

[7] (Also not taken from Kinsella's Táin, as it happens).

[8] The speaker here shows her need to assert her sanity, like so many other women agitators.

[9] What follows are excerpts from the poet Sheila Wingfield's letters to Joseph Hone in the late '50s, used with kind permission of the Hone family.

[10] The reader will recall that this is the 'good' Book of Irish Verse, with eighteen women poets.

[11] The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon. Thames and Hudson 1987.

[12] “What Foremothers?”  Theresa O’Connor, ed. The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers.  Florida UP, 1996.

[13] Thomas McCarthy, Rising from the Ashes: The Burning of Cork's Carnegie Library and the Rebuilding of its Collections, Cork City Libraries 2010.

[14] "Ayot St Lawrence, Welwyn, Herts. and 10 Adelphi Terrace, London WC2.  Dear Sir, I received the appeal for books for Cork Public Library, and I have just now packed a box . . . . With sympathy for your loss and warmest hopes for better times in the future.  Yours Faithfully, Mrs George Bernard Shaw." Rising from the Ashes.

[15] Wingfield sometimes added quirky notes to her poems demonstrating her extensive, atypical reading.  This one read: "A fairy elixir to give back lost youth."

[16] Sun Too Fast (1973).  She wrote this second volume of memoirs under her married name of Powerscourt, as publishers felt that the name might sell more copies.

[17] Excerpt from a letter in the Sheila Wingfield Papers in the National Library.

[18] Have I become tainted, sick even, from this work?  Am I about to take to my bed forever?  How do you begin a celebration of the future when the ills of the past remain partly unacknowledged and persist, like fluid in a joint or a shadow on a lung?  Like a mystery illness that's probably all in your hysterical head? 

[19] A quotation from Sappho.

[20] An Irish word meaning 'fools.'

[21] “Marginality within a tradition, however painful, confers certain advantages.  It allows the writer clear eyes and a quick critical sense.  Above all, the years of marginality suggest to such a writer . . the real potential of subversion” (Boland, Object Lessons, 1995).