Renaissance and Reformation Women Writers in Ireland
by
Marie-Louise Coolahan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0184

Introduction

Women’s writing in early modern Ireland constitutes a multifarious and multilingual category. The island’s population was comprised, broadly speaking, of four ethnic groups. The native, Gaelic, or Old Irish were the indigenous inhabitants, who adhered to the Catholic religion and spoke Irish Gaelic. The Old English descended from 11th-century Normans; they remained Catholic and were often bilingual. The New English—Protestant and English-speaking—settled during the 16th and 17th centuries; the Ulster Scots, northern settlers, were largely Presbyterian and spoke English and/or Scots. Thus, the writing produced by women who lived on the island reflected these often-conflicting identities. It emerged from social and political circumstances forged by competing allegiances during a time of great turmoil. Tudor policies of conquest and colonization led to upheaval and military conflict, as existing Gaelic systems of regional governance were attacked and, ultimately, dismantled, not without sustained resistance. A series of grueling wars—the Munster rebellions (1569–1573, 1578–1583, and 1598), the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603), the 1641 Ulster rising, the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, Cromwellian Wars of the early 1650s, and Williamite Wars of the 1690s—resulted in widespread displacement, colonial plantation, emigration, and immigration. But these circumstances also stimulated women to write. The pattern of recurrent upheaval generated large numbers of emigrants. Refugees fled to France and Spanish territories in pursuit of employment and support. Their letters, petitions, and accounts of exile offer a gendered perspective on political activism and Irish identities in Europe. Women’s participation in Gaelic bardic culture has been extensively mapped since the beginning of the 21st century; although less plentiful than that surviving from Gaelic Scotland, it is clear that women were culturally active, engaged in poetic composition and patronage. Anglophone writing was produced mainly by women of the settler class, for whom Ireland was a land of opportunity. Female planters wrote letters home and adapted English coterie models to their construction of literary networks. Second-generation women also recorded their experiences. Some rose in the social ranks to join English aristocratic society and became writers of distinction now established in the English literary canon. The Irish contexts for such women’s writing have, until recently, been neglected by literary scholars; the works cited here are those that address the Irish dimensions of an author’s work. This is a burgeoning field of scholarship that is sure to develop and diversify as further texts and archival material come to light.

General Overviews

The initial, pioneering work on women in early modern Ireland was Concannon 1922. This remained the key work in the field until MacCurtain and O’Dowd 1991, a seminal essay collection gathering the work of historians and literary scholars that kick-started the study of women’s history in the early modern period. MacCurtain 2008 and O’Dowd 2005 have done much to establish the frameworks via which we currently understand women’s participation in Irish society during the 16th and 17th centuries. Historical debates have focused in particular on women and warfare (Knox 2004) and the question of women’s political agency, often within marital alliances of the nobility (McKenna 1996, O’Dowd 2012, Ohlmeyer 2012).

  • Concannon, Helena (Mrs. Thomas). Daughters of Banba. Dublin: Gill, 1922.

    E-mail Citation »

    Pioneering early study of women’s roles in Irish history, with chapters on exiles, Gaelic poets, and nuns. Reflects, however, the nationalist, Catholic—even, to a degree, patriarchal—biases of its time. Since superseded by later scholarship.

  • Knox, Andrea. “Testimonies to History: Reassessing Women’s Involvement in the 1641 Rising.” In Irish Women and Nationalism: Soldiers, New Women and Wicked Hags. Edited by Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward, 14–29. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Historical study of the wartime roles of women, primarily during the 1640s but also referring to 16th-century examples; assesses the evidence for “she-soldiers” and spies, and discusses legal trials of Irish women accused of direct involvement in military actions against the English.

  • MacCurtain, Margaret. Ariadne’s Thread: Writing Women into Irish History. Galway, Ireland: Arlen House, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collected essays of the pioneering feminist historian, including three seminal essays on marriage in Tudor Ireland, women’s education, and the impact of religious reformation on women in early modern Ireland.

  • MacCurtain, Margaret, and Mary O’Dowd, eds. Women in Early Modern Ireland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Trail-blazing and still-important essay collection. Predominantly historical, covering topics such as women and property (Nichols), crime and piracy (Gillespie, Appleby), religion (Brady, Kilroy, Hempton and Hill, Corish), war (O’Dowd), domestic spheres (Dickson, Crawford, Cullen, Connolly), Continental Europe (Casway). Of particular interest to literary scholars are the essays on women in Gaelic society (Simms, Cunningham), education (MacCurtain), and folklore (O’Connor).

  • McKenna, Elizabeth. “Was There a Political Role for Women in Medieval Ireland?: Lady Margaret Butler and Lady Eleanor MacCarthy.” In “The Fragility of Her Sex?”: Medieval Irishwomen in Their European Context. Edited by Christine Meek and Katharine Simms, 163–174. Dublin: Four Courts, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Consideration of the political agency of noble women in 15th- and 16th-century Ireland, focusing in particular on Margaret (née Fitzgerald) Butler and Eleanor (née Fitzgerald) MacCarthy (later O’Donnell). Assesses the extent of political influence available to women within dynastic political alliances forged through marriage.

  • O’Dowd, Mary. A History of Women in Ireland 1500–1800. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Excellent scholarly introduction to women’s history, 1500 to 1800. Organized in four sections: politics, the economy, religion and education, and ideas (including laws relating to women). The long 18th century is distinguished from the earlier period throughout. Chapter 7, on reading, writing, and intellectual interests, is of particular interest to literary students and scholars.

  • O’Dowd, Mary. “Women in Ulster, 1600–1800.” In Ulster Since 1600: Politics, Economy, and Society. Edited by Liam Kennedy and Philip Ollerenshaw, 43–57. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199583119.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Important corrective argument against the received notion that Gaelic culture conferred substantial rights to women, comparing women in Gaelic Ulster to English contemporaries in order to contend that they were used as pawns in political alliances. Considers how economic change and dissenting religious communities opened up new opportunities for women’s agency.

  • Ohlmeyer, Jane. Making Ireland English: The Irish Aristocracy in the Seventeenth Century. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    This study analyzes the fortunes of ninety-one titled families across the 17th century, arguing that the Gaelic Irish nobility was anglicized and assimilated to the English model of peerage, and placing peers center-stage as “remarkably effective instruments of English imperialism” (p. 475). Contains a useful chapter on marriage and marriage strategies.

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