Sally Richardson reviews Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vols IV and V: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions, Cork University Press, £155 (250 euros)
A BIG gathering turned up at the Irish embassy in London on 16 October for the launch of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vols IV and V: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions.
Among those present were three of the eight section editors, Siobhan Kilfeather (University of Sussex), Angela Bourke (University College Dublin) and Maria Luddy (University of Warwick).
The project began over ten years ago -- and without a publisher, until Cork University Press stepped in. The long gestation has produced two huge volumes, packed with women’s writing from 600 AD to 2000. Many pieces will be well-known, but many more are published for the first time, or for the first time in many years.
With work in two languages (and translations of Irish texts into English), covering a wide range of subjects, the expertise of many writers, historians and other academics has been brought in.
The first three Field Day volumes were intended as a definitive anthology of Ireland’s literary history when they were published more than twenty years ago, but caused a storm when it was realized how few women writers had been included. Better had been expected from enlightened men of the stature of Seamus Deane.
Women have been writing throughout recorded history but have often had difficulty in getting their work taken seriously or even published. The women writers’ magazine Mslexia writes of the “difficulty, more prevalent in women, with getting into print (and) the complex set of conditions and expectations which prevents women, who as girls outshine boys in verbal skills, from becoming successful writers”.
Consequently the editors have spread their net wide and gathered material from many unconventional sources not always thought of as ‘literary’. Far from scraping the bottom of the barrel, this expansion of the parameters of what is considered to be ‘literature’ challenges the way we view the past -- and the present.
The result is not just a history of literature, but a social history of half of Ireland’s population.At 250 euros (£155) these two hefty volumes are not cheap, but there is likely to be no shortage of demand, especially from libraries. Once you start dipping in, you will find it hard to stop.
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