Ireland’s Women by Professor Brendan Kennelly

The following is an extract from Professor Brendan Kennelly’s introduction to a book of which he was an editor. The Book is ‘Ireland’s Women. Writings Past and Present’, dedicated to President Mary Robinson.

“… I’m going to have a hash at saying what I have to say about these women.

The ancient mythology of Ireland features many powerful, aggressive women who take the sexual initiative, run the show and dictate the fun. These are strong pagan women and, thanks be to God, there’s a fair amount of paganism left in many Irish women still. The spirit of Maeve and Deirdre never died out completely. It was that spirit which helped many Irish women to survive onslaught after onslaught of turgid, humourless, self-important ‘morality’ (‘I cannot forgive your mortal sin until you conceive again’) emanating from Maynooth and other places. Quite a few of them did not survive the pious tyranny of that kind of thinking (see Austin Clarke’s poem The Redemptorist); and great numbers of them went along approvingly with their own subjugation, co-operating with it since it was ‘the right thing to do’, Father Murphy said so and how could that man be wrong?

Quite a lot of women, however, retained and guarded, albeit privately, their own ways of thinking and feeling alive in their own hearts and minds. That tough genius for survival is typical of many women in Irish literature. My own deepening belief is that women are, in fact, stronger than men; but it is a different kind of strength. It is less obvious, less showy, more allied to apparent fragility, more threatened with being overcome even as it is often more aware of the reasons for that possibility. This strength of women is more concerned with endurance than with exhibitionism. It is longer lasting, it is marked by grit, shrewdness, calmness, patience, watchfulness and, very frequently but not inevitably, by a smile that seems to emanate quietly from the remote corners of a woman’s being. There is very little cocky self-importance in this strength though it has its own peaceful and fierce egotism. This strength of women may often go unnoticed but it is constant, deep and real as the sea. One of its most fascinating aspects is that some men choose, or unconsciously compel themselves, to interpret it as weakness; it is not like men’s strength; how, in God’s name, therefore can it be strong? The word ‘strength’ means something different to most men than it does to women. If this is so, then the literature written by men, so often preoccupied with notions of strength and power and therefore, inevitably, with weakness and failings or inadequacies that add up to powerlessness, is not quite the same thing in a woman’s ears as it is in a man’s. There’s a gulf here. Do we admit this fact? If we do, do we wish to bridge that gulf How shall we bridge it? Is it possible to do so successfully?

It is. How? By listening. Listening to women’s voices in the literature they write. Listening to women’s voices in literature written by men, interesting, at least, as another kind of failure. If we listen, we shall hear crucial differences, interesting, illuminating differences.”

Professor’s Kennelly’s words describe Irish women so well, and also how we can learn so much by ‘listening’ as we read anything.

ISBN 1 85626 132 8 published 1994 by Kyle Cathie Ltd., London.