You can’t study women in 20th century Irish literature without examining the sexist values perpetuated by DeValera’s 1937 Irish Constitution. Amid detailing what would be DeValera’s ideal Independent Ireland, it is made clear what role women were seen to occupy in society at the time. Specifying the desire to protect the family-unit as the basis of society, the constitution recognises women’s contribution to the State through her position in the household. While I do believe it’s important to value the work many women have undertaken in running a household throughout history, an issue lies here in the relegation of women purely to the home.
The 1937 Constitution creates no space for women outside of the home. This need to ‘protect’ women as mothers and wives could be seen in Irish society throughout the nineteen-hundreds. Not only did it perpetuate the societal norm of a nuclear family with a patriarchal head, but laws which banned women from working in the civil service after marriage stood until the 1970s.
These issues did not come unchallenged. Before the creation of the Irish Free-State, many women fought in the battle for Independence. These women, who were integral to the republican movement, were suddenly being limited to housewives. Many people outwardly opposed DeValera’s constitution, including author Dorothy Macardle. The change Macardle and others requested was simple: include a place for women both within and outside of the home in the Irish Constitution.
The State would not comply. The women of Ireland had their role and that was it. Much of the literature of the time reflects the ideal of a ‘woman’s place’, with female characters existing only in the kitchen. Feminist authors, however, continued their fight – producing works which challenged the perceived place of women in Irish society at the time. Do you, reader, think these discussions still have merit today? I invite you to comment on whether or not you believe the values upheld in the 1937 Constitution still hold influence on Irish society.
If you’d like to learn more about the 1937 constitution, History Ireland has a comprehensive article on the subject: https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/the-catholic-church-and-the-writing-of-the-1937-constitution/. It details the creation of the new Free State document, paying particular regard to the influence of the Catholic Church on Irish values at the time.
In this week’s Irish Literature class, we examined the life and work of Seamus Heaney. Arguably Ireland’s most prolific contemporary poet, Heaney addressed a range of topical themes, these include:
- Irish Identity
- The Turbulence of the Northern Irish Troubles
Expertly interweaving these themes into his body of work; Heaney maintained a balance between his desire to write poetry of enlightenment, and his sense of obligation to represent the feelings of his community during a time of political turmoil.
This need to reflect upon the violence of The Troubles can be seen in poems such as ‘Funeral Rights’, which deals directly with the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Irish Times covers this in an interesting piece by Conor McClosky entitled ‘How Writers Sought to Make Sense of the Troubles’: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/how-writers-sought-to-make-sense-of-the-troubles-1.2889316. In the piece McClosky discusses how Heaney made sense of the effects of The Troubles through connecting key events to the past.
The attitudes of his nationalist, Catholic community can also be felt more generally in pieces such as ‘Broagh’. Here, Heaney reflects upon the feeling of belonging as being connected to physical places. In the poem, he notes that the place-name ‘Broagh’ is intrinsically Irish; belonging to Broagh is belonging to Ireland – something which can be felt in the fact that outsiders can’t pronounce the name. The poem takes on a more ethereal, transcendent quality then his other, more political work. Yet even though it feels less politically motivated, you can still see the effect the turbulence of the political and social sphere in Northern Ireland at the time had on Heaney and his writing.
Heaney’s expressions of what it was to be Irish in a time and place where Irish identity was in question are incredibly important. All of his work can be looked at as being influenced by his environment, providing readers with nuanced expressions of Catholic life in Northern Ireland during a time of incredible turbulence.
I recently did a presentation on Dorothy Macardle’s Dark Enchantment for my Irish Literature class. To be honest, I chose the novel because it sounded cool and mysterious. When I finished the novel, I was worried I chose wrong. Not only was it not the seductive story of my imagination, but it was actually virtually impossible to find academic sources which discussed the novel directly. This was because the book had been out of print until 2019, when it was picked up by Tramp Press in their Recovered Voices Series.
While I was frustrated at the complication this fact added to my assignment, I was more interested in the work Tramp Press were doing to revive voices lost in the Irish canon. I had heard of the publishing house before but wasn’t aware of this particular project. I’m glad I chose this awkward novel, because it allowed me to come across the work that Tramp are doing. Marcardle was a voice that was lost to time. She was removed from the literary canon because of her gender and experimental take on storytelling. These features do not make her irrelevant in Irish literature, but rather a refreshing contrast to the more popular, mostly male, authors highlighted in the 20th Century Irish period.
You can read more about the work Tramp press do on their website: https://www.tramppress.com/about/. The guardian did a piece on the women who run the company, and their stance on sexism in the publishing industry: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/28/sexists-need-not-apply-publisher-refuses-to-look-at-manuscripts-addressed-to-dear-sirs. I commend the work these women are doing in diversifying the Irish canon, and look forward to seeing what they come out with in the future.