“Where is she?”: Anthologies, Binaries and Northern Irish Poetry

By on Jun 28, 2013 in Papers and Talks | 0 comments

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“This paper will interrogate patriarchal binary value systems and their manifestations in poetry from the North of Ireland during the Troubles. It will ask and attempt to answer the question posed by Hélène Cixous in Sorties (1975): ‘Where is she?’.

Looking at the Northern Irish scene in the mid-1970s it would seem that women found no space in the dominant binaries of the civil unrest. The focus was instead on aggressive and masculinist oppositions such as Catholic/Protestant, Republican/Loyalist and nationalist/unionist. Given the critical attention paid to Troubles writing, and the high acclaim for anthologies such as Padraic Fiacc’s The Wearing of the Black (1974) and Frank Ormsby’s A Rage for Order (1992) it is poignant and timely to question ‘where is she?’ – for women poets from Northern Ireland were overlooked in these otherwise self-consciously inclusive texts.

Moving to identify what space was available to women writers, I will highlight the role of the feminist political movement in bringing writing to press in The Female Line (1984), an anthology of poetry and short fiction already long out of print. This then reveals another marginalising binary between mainstream and ‘grass roots’ writing, and demonstrates that the esteem of poets such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon relies on power and exclusion for much of its existence.

I will prove this rule by exception through attention to Medbh McGuckian, arguably the only Northern Irish women poet to have achieved any literary success pre-ceasefire. Despite her success, McGuckian was notably excluded from A Rage for Order because she did not write ‘about’ the conflict, or at least not in a way that could be understood under patriarchal value binaries. Perhaps it is no surprise then that McGuckian’s work is often accused of ‘difficulty’ in part due to the heavy debt it owes to French feminism.”


Delivered at ‘Time and Space in Contemporary Women’s Writing’, PGCWWN conference, University of Hull, September 2011.

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