Historical Memory 2: Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon

by Dick Edelstein

Modernist Irish poet Lola Ridge

This is the second of three articles on the theme of historical memory. The first, which can be found here, deals with issues related to archival data on casualties and victims in the Spanish Civil War. In the present article, I discuss the activities of a movement to redress the exclusion of Irish women writers from the historical record.

Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon is a collective that became publicly known in 2017. It emerged from discussions among a group of women of varied backgrounds in both Northern Ireland and the Republic who shared a common interest in the status of women in the arts, and it was launched in response to the publication of the current edition of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poetry, an authoritative compendium that is re-published periodically in updated editions.

The exclusion of women in that volume and others like it was neither remarkable nor novel; what was noteworthy on this occasion was the existence of a body of recently published research on the careers of a number of successful Irish women poets in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. (A notable example is Poetry by Women in Ireland: A Critical Anthology 1870-1970 by Dr. Lucy Collins.) This research brought to light the poetry of several Irish women who had enjoyed important reputations in the past. The Cambridge volume ignored this research, and just four of its thirty chapters were devoted to female writers, while only four female critics had been commissioned to provide chapters.

The response was the launch of Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon through two lines of action: a pledge aimed at redressing the gender imbalance in Irish poetry and a series of readings throughout Ireland and abroad to focus attention on historical Irish women poets.

The pledge was a simple document. The text in full reads as follows:

I pledge henceforth to withdraw my participation from publications, edited collections, conferences, festivals and other projects which do not make what I consider to be a good-faith effort to adequately represent the contribution women make to literature and literary criticism.

Nearly five hundred women and men actively involved in the Irish arts scene signed the pledge. This number shows that the Irish arts milieu is particularly well-connected. For example, if a similar percentage of the population in the US had signed such a pledge, this would have represented over twenty thousand artists, writers and arts administrators.

The second line of action was the Fired! events. The collective planned a series of readings to showcase poetry written by historical Irish women poets along with verse read by contemporary writers, and the first of these was held at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast in November, 2017. The events included music, photography, and graphic arts, and they advocated for a broad agenda. A key principle was to involve the entire community as well the arts community in each locality where an event was held. The organizers took care to include social groups similarly affected by exclusion, including the Traveller community, working class groups, and racial minorities. The Fired! events demonstrated in practice that inclusion was not only important and desirable; it was both possible and feasible.

The campaign focused attention on the question of what we mean by the literary canon and whether it can be altered retrospectively. Some authorities consider that the canon is an immutable historical appreciation of writers in their time that reflects a consensus on value. The women in Fired! strongly disagree. Since women writers who were popular in their time have frequently fallen into oblivion, the canon is not a faithful historical record, but rather one that has been revised. And since it is neither a true record of past realities nor an immutable consensus, but rather a moveable feast of shifting loyalties, we ought to be able to change the current view of it, even retrospectively.

The discussion of what constitutes the literary canon is a trending topic that has a long history. Interest in the discussion was revived by TS Eliot when he published one of his best-known essays “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, a ground-breaking work still read today that can be found on the Poetry Foundation website. Eliot was an influential canon former who added considerable fuel to the discussion. From today’s point of view, his most valuable contribution – albeit an unintended one – may be that he obliterated in practice any notion of consensus.

I recently contacted some of the women involved in Fired! to seek their views on the long-term impact of the activities undertaken in 2017 and 2018. They answered that there is still much work to be done in the area of the representation of women in the arts in general. Poet Christine Murray, who managed the collective’s website as well as her own archive of women’s poetry called Poethead, pointed out that there is still no visible, properly indexed and funded archive of the works of Irish women poets. She noted, “That would require institutional collaboration to ensure visibility so that poetic voices are not subsumed into whatever dominant political narrative is prevalent. (…) To institute good archives of Irish women poets requires institutional collaboration on issues of permission and copyright”. She added that while progress has been made on the issue of exclusion of women, the large issues are still about the dominant narrative, class, exclusion and age. Other women concurred with her analysis.

My own view of the outcomes of the Fired! campaign is positive because in Ireland today there is no question of going back to the state of affairs that prevailed before the Fired! movement. Anyone planning a literary event or publication is compelled to think twice about the inclusion of women and about inclusion in a broader sense, and the media are acutely aware of being under close scrutiny by the public and institutions since a number of inquiries have been carried out by arts bodies to assess the inclusion of women in areas such as publication and book reviews. In view of all this, the women of Fired! managed to score a few goals. The movement became a magnet for women in the arts who were discontented with various aspects of the literary scene, and as a result, quite a few articles about the Fired! movement were published in newspapers and journals, and its impact was felt by the public and even beyond the borders of Ireland.

How this movement came into being makes an interesting story. While its actions were provoked by the publication of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poetry, discussions over the exclusion of women in literature and how to deal with it had previously involved writers, publishers and researchers. By themselves, they might not have sufficed to bring the key issues they were concerned with to the public attention. In the event, the march of history irrupted into the discussion. The Me Too movement had gained considerable momentum by that time, becoming a powerful global influence, and in Ireland, a recent campaign called Waking the Feminists demanded equitable inclusion of women at all levels in the world of drama and its institutions. That campaign achieved a high visibility since it affected important drama institutions, such as the emblematic Abbey Theatre. Finally, the movement to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution – the 1983 anti-abortion amendment – was building momentum at that time. As a result, poet and women’s studies teacher (and former physician) Kathy D’Arcy, ceded her responsibility for managing the Fired! Twitter account in order to chair the Together for Yes campaign in Cork. She also edited an anthology called Autonomy of writings dealing with the issue of women’s autonomy. These activities overlapped with the Fired! campaign and involved many of the same people.

The Fired! movement exemplifies the power of spontaneous reaction. When the press tried to identify its leaders, the women responded that it was a collective effort, and their strategic stance reflected an underlying reality. While some collaborators took on specific responsibilities, such as managing the Twitter account and the website, and soliciting support from the arts community, organization was minimal: no secretary, no treasurer, no minutes, yet the effort succeeded. Local events were organized by small groups of supporters in each locality. A few women who were working outside of Ireland at the time, including the prominent writers Eavan Boland and Mary O’Donnell, expressed their support from abroad and took part in discussions.

While I have described a few of the key developments in the Fired! campaign, I have not yet described the emotions aroused by the rediscovery of poems written by Irish women writers of the past. I helped organize two Fired! events in Barcelona, together with my habitual partner in crime, José Luis Regojo, the editor of Poémame, a Spanish poetry publishing platform. Both events were held in the charmingly decorated back room of the Cafè de les Delícies on the Rambla del Raval.

The second of these events, held in October 2018, had great literary allure thanks to the participation of the Irish poet Geraldine Mitchell, who had travelled from a remote part of county Mayo to represent Fired! But our first event, held in January 2018, remains in my mind because it was also the first in a series of trilingual poetry readings in Catalan, Spanish and English sponsored by Poémame. The series has now achieved continuity and popularity.

The unforgettable moment came near the end of the featured reading session. A Uruguayan woman, Inés Caravia, gave an illuminating reading of four poems by the early 20th century poets Freda Laughton and Geraldine Plunkett Dillon. After each poem, a thunderclap of spontaneous applause could be heard from an audience mainly comprised of non-native English speakers. This vibrant response showed that the poetry had persisted in time and crossed borders. Later, discussions that had begun during the poetry session were still going on in the café until it closed its doors, and after that, they continued at a popular bar around the corner until the employees of that establishment too decided to lock up and go home.

My third and final article on the theme of historical memory will be published in four weeks. It will revisit Ireland and Spain to examine some of the abundant manifestations of the issue of historical memory in those countries. In it, I will discuss the conflicts that invariably occur when different social groups appeal to historical memory for reasons that suit their own agenda, and I will also consider the perennial conflict between the need to remember and the need to forget.