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Fired! Irish women poets and the canon

Odonnell Mary Credit Eilis Mc Cormick
Poet and novelist Mary O’Donnell is among the leaders of the Pledge movement. Photo by Eilis McCormick.

The recent publication of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, edited by Professor Gerald Dawe of Trinity College Dublin, has reignited decades-long debates about Irish writers who are women and their exclusion from the literary canon. Considering the title of Dawe’s volume, a reader expects an intellectual and scholarly overview of the historic and current state of Irish poetry. Yet, this volume, which explores Irish poetry from the 17th century to the present, features essays focusing on 26 male poets and only four women poets, with just four female academic contributors. Women writers and academics dismayed and angered at once again finding their work marginalized and excluded from the literary canon have responded with a pledge that states: “Our pledge is short and simple. It commits us to asking questions about gender representation early on in collaborative projects such as edited collections, conferences and festivals. It commits us to withdrawing our participation when, in our opinion, insufficient effort is made to render representation fair.” The pledge, subtitled “Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon,” is signed by over 250 poets, writers, and academics, male and female.

As noted in the preamble, the pledge is not singling out one particular editor or publisher; rather the signatories are recognizing that “the Companion is part of a larger process by which the significance of works by women is attenuated as they become inaccessible or obscured, simply by virtue of their absence from canonical textbooks.” Writing in the Irish Times about the controversy, one of the architects of the pledge, the poet and novelist Mary O’Donnell, remarked: “It is staggering that a contemporary editor can commission scholarly essays of some calibre on so many male writers yet think fit to omit female writers of reputation and even genius, among them poets from the 18th, 19th and earlier 20th century, but also poets who are or were contemporaneous with some of the more recent voices.”

The Cambridge Companion series is an internationally highly regarded academic set of volumes, published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press. They purport to offer readers a scholarly overview of a particular field or writer; they are edited by some of the most highly respected scholars working at the moment; and they contain essays produced by key academics in each field of study.

It is difficult to imagine how those involved in the production of the Companion could have been oblivious to the significant controversies around women’s exclusion from Ireland’s literary and cultural life. In 1991, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing exclusion of many women writers and of crucial texts of Irish feminism provoked an enormous debate that resulted in the production, a number of years later, of two additional volumes to the project, designed specifically to address these omissions and create a genealogy of Irish women’s writing. As part of the celebrations marking the centenary of 1916 Rising, Ireland’s National Theatre, the Abbey, announced a program of events entitled “Waking the Nation.” Only one of the 10 plays was written by a woman, and that was a “specially commissioned monologue for children”; and women directed just three of the 10 plays. This was in spite of the program loudly proclaiming that its “intention is to interrogate rather than celebrate the past. For over 110 years now the Abbey stage has been a platform for the reflection of Irish society through theatre. Plays have the power to ask questions that resonate for generations.” Women writers, artists, and theatre practitioners responded with their own campaign for equality in Irish theatre: Waking the Feminists.

The omissions within the Companion are not exceptional in the history of Irish Literary Studies. It is, one could justly argue, par for the course in Irish publishing. Editors at the Irish publisher Lagan, in light of the discussions around the pledge, recently explored a number of past anthologies and critical works, with a view to examining just how underrepresented women have been in the Irish canon. They counted the number of poets who are women showcased or the number of essays written by critics who are women in a number of key literary anthologies and discovered that only two collections achieved over 40 percent representation. Anne Enright, the Booker Prize–winning author and Irish Laureate for Fiction, offered a similar survey in a piece written for the London Review of Books last year but also highlighted the specific challenges that writers who happen to be women encounter, particularly in terms of how their work is received within the literary and cultural establishment.

Certainly, Irish women’s exclusion from cultural life in Ireland has much deeper historical roots; this exclusion is best exemplified by the ways in which the fierce battles that women fought for Irish Independence were deliberately and extensively erased from Irish history. This exclusion is reinforced at the cultural level, where the work of women writers is quietly airbrushed from the literary canon, not through any deliberate act of censorship, but through small acts of erasure and marginalization. O’Donnell, herself a university teacher, writes of how students are often “unintentionally guided away from any possibility of discovering writers from the past. They cannot learn about the real, representative canon, because mono-gendered selections automatically find a place in university libraries, and are read by interested lay people with a real interest in literature.” No one expects anthologies and critical guides to be exhaustive. These projects are by their very nature exclusive; editors are forced to select certain writers for inclusion to the exclusion of others, and they must contend with a literary tradition that is historically deeply patriarchal. However, that does not absolve editors of their responsibilities to both interrogate and challenge these categories and to consider what happens to literary traditions and futures when this is not done.

As a university teacher, what is interesting to me is how volumes like anthologies and critical guides that are explicitly designed to find their way onto library shelves and course reading lists, become central to canon formation and therefore instrumental in determining what gets taught to literary students at university. That is one of the reasons I signed the pledge.

The recognition of women’s intellectual and creative work in Ireland’s artistic and scholarly institutions is not about tokenism; rather it is about engaging with multiple perspectives, not just a male one.

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