Irish eyes and voices

Irish Women's Voices
October 20, 1995

The Journal of Women's History has established an exciting record of research, in particular opening up the question of what counts as evidence in women's history. At the same time, it has scrupulously problematised the retrieving and reading of documents, data and "voices".

The brief which holds good for the Journal generally is applied to this special double issue devoted to Irish women, to be sold as a book. The essays represent a cultural studies approach as much as historical, ranging over time - from the Celtic dark ages to the 1994 Northern Irish ceasefire and over sources - from statistics for female labour force participation in the Irish Free State to nationalist discourses involving myth, ritual, psychoanalysis and politics.

Such a disparity in subject matter and theoretical methodologies may appear disconcerting. But what results is a dialogue of carefully distinguished strategies which illuminate not only Irish women's history but historiography in general. It offers a snapshot of how different approaches resonate intertextually and conceptually to the enhancement of the comprehensive historical project.

Some may wish to argue that poststructuralism has bought its new insights at the expense of clarity and readability. "Theory" is vindicated, however, when it makes history more comprehensible. The confusion of living experience, with its ideological and emotional contradictions, requires an analysis capable of dealing with conflicting voices and contested identities. Monica McWilliams's empirical chronology of the women's movement in Northern Ireland from the 1970s to the present and Eilish Rooney's more theorised account complement each other, to the mutual illumination of both. As someone who has lived in Belfast for the past 20 years, most of them as a feminist, I find the benefits of this hindsight dramatic. The competing claims for priority in the nationalist (including Unionist) and feminist programmes seemed at the time intractable. The more recent feminist analysis of "difference" has encouraged more heterogeneous, self-defined positions. It is the poststructuralist reading of these competing narratives which allows me to make sense of what at the time was only pain and confusion. The poststructuralist's challenge to women's history - what is a woman? - no longer begs for commonsense rebuttal: the "politically contested constructions of female identity" which Rooney explores in contemporary Northern Ireland have their parallels everywhere.

This becomes clear through other essays: Bitel argues that gender ideologies were as intricate and as flexible in pre-Norman Celtic Ireland as in our own day; Condren draws on feminist psychoanalytic theory to explore Irish rituals regarding war; Ailbhe Smyth reflects on the state of Irish women today, from multiple and shifting discourse positions. This volume adds a necessary dimension to Irish women's history, reminding scholars that the testimony of "voices", as gleaned from documents, statistics and records, is always relative to the discourses of speakers and the interpretive strategies of readers.

Jennifer Fitzgerald is a lecturer in English, Queen's University, Belfast.

Irish Women's Voices: Past and Present (four times a year)

Editor - Joan Hoff and Moureen Coulter
ISBN - ISSN 1042 7961
Publisher - Indiana University Press
Price - $60.00 inst., $35.00 indiv. plus $12.50 post.
Pages - -

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