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Women Step Out of Ireland's Literary Shadows

Culture: New anthology gives country's long-ignored female writers their due.


BERKELEY — Throughout Irish history, a vibrant and vital culture has fought to have its voice heard against a louder and stronger neighbor. But while colonial ruler Britain tried to ignore or silence the demands of Irish nationalism, a growing international literary reputation helped cement its cause. And now Irish female writers have engaged in a similar struggle with the country's male-dominated literary tradition.

Later this year, the long-anticipated, two-volume publication of "Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Irish Women's Writing and Traditions" will attempt to redress the traditional exclusion of women's voices from Irish literature. Commissioned only after an enormous outcry against the underrepresentation of women in the prestigious original "Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing," published in 1991, the new volumes were edited almost entirely by women.

"What maddened people was the unthinkingness of it all," said Medb Ruane (her first name is pronounced "Maeve"), a columnist for the Irish Times newspaper. "The [male] editors had hardly noticed the exclusion, and on anyone's reckoning there were wide quality differences between some of the men included and some of the better women excluded."

The original publication contained a diverse array of Irish writing, much of which had been previously overlooked, such as Irish gothic fiction and cultural criticism. It even included ballads and songs, atypical for a literary anthology.

"Here was a new kind of anthology of writing drawing attention to previously marginalized areas," said Gerardine Meaney, a professor at University College Dublin and one of the senior editors on the new project. "So the [exclusion of women] was a blind spot of stunning proportion."

According to Meaney, the new anthology includes more than 700 female writers, spanning a wide range of material, from poets of the Middle Ages to political essayists of the 19th century to contemporary writers such as Edna O'Brien and Eavan Boland.

"A country which has been colonized is probably going to have one of its most powerful narratives told by those who were colonized within that colonization, and that has been women," said Boland, a respected and influential poet and professor of English at Stanford University.

Much of Boland's work has explored what she calls "a nation below the surface," the struggle to assert a female identity in a political environment seemingly consumed with the conflict in Northern Ireland but often myopic to the social and cultural life of its people, particularly women. Boland's book of poems "Against Love Poetry" (W.W. Norton), published last fall, returns to familiar, reflective suburban themes of motherhood and marriage, such as this excerpt from "The Pinhole Camera":

For you and I

such science holds no secrets:

We are married thirty years,

woman and man.

Long enough

to know about power and nature,

Long enough

to know which is which.

With their work set against a backdrop of world-renowned male novelists, poets and playwrights such as James Joyce, W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett, as well as a literary tradition that portrayed the struggle for national sovereignty as romantic destiny, female writers instead often sought to establish the realities of family, community and work as rich literary pasture.

Novelist Edna O'Brien's first seven books were banned in Ireland for their perceived threat to the conservative establishments of church and state. Her early work traces the lives of two young women who leave their strict rural homes and convent school and escape to the delights and romantic opportunities of Dublin. "The Country Girls," her first novel, was reviled on its publication in 1960 by a government censor as "a smear on Irish womanhood."

But, said O'Brien, her books posed a threat "because they were the first palpable voicing of the sexuality of Irish women."

She moved to London just before the publication of "The Country Girls" and has lived there ever since. She says the original three-volume "Field Day" anthology contained a "meager insertion" of her writing. The new volumes will considerably enlarge her contribution to reflect what Meaney calls "the extremely radical act of challenging the orthodox role of women in Irish society."

O'Brien's just published novel, "In the Forest" (Houghton Mifflin), tells the story of the murder of a young woman, her 5-year-old son and a priest by a mentally unstable local man in a rural Irish village. Rarely overtly political, O'Brien's writing is erudite and unadorned:

"She picks her steps nervously but unerringly to where Maddie is, lifts his hands out of the muddy water, and takes him in her arms. She starts to run. The ground feels light, like it is on springs, and her head terrifically calm as she begins to recall different landmarks: the tunnel, the toadstools, an old sock, the churned-up roots of the fallen tree and the long, steep path that led from the entrance.

"He has almost caught up with them...."

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