Kathy D'Arcy meditates on Ireland, poetry and subversion.
It is a simple task, and one that has been done several times, to list all the anthologies purporting to be representative of 'Irish Poetry' published in the 'seventies, 'eighties and 'nineties, comparing them to previous similar anthologies, and counting the women included. In general, when anyone asks me why I am still worried about the position of women in the canon of Irish poetry, I summarise the findings of such an endeavour. I have done this so often it comes out quite smoothly, like a seanchaí's story but without catharsis:
[Sounds of a loud public house at a literary festival.]
"So in the 'sixties Lennox Robinson and Donagh MacDonagh published The Oxford Book of Irish Verse, and there were eighteen women in it, right? Way less than half, but it was something, right? Then in the 'eighties Thomas Kinsella published The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, and there was one woman in it - Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, from the eighteenth century.
And if you think that's an exception check the others - Montague's, Kinsella's, Kennelly's. These guys were the canon-makers, they set themselves up as canon-makers with the titles of their books: 'the whatever of Irish Poetry.' So it's really not an exaggeration to say that women were erased from the canon then. These were women who were often well-received and published in their own time. I'm not saying it was a conspiracy, but why? They can say that they were all just bad - and they do - but a lot of the men included were bad! And they're not bad! They're actually really good, and really subversive!
[Sounds of public house continue. In the near distance, someone mentions Seamus Heaney.]
Published, The Honest Ulsterman (February 2018)