British and Irish Literature Medbh McGuckian
Adam Hanna
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0148


Medbh McGuckian (born Maeve McCaughan on 12 August 1950) is one of the most prominent members of the second generation of poets who emerged from Northern Ireland during the course of the Troubles (an ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century). Her work is often considered alongside that of her Northern Irish contemporaries Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, and Tom Paulin. After receiving her secondary education at a Dominican convent, she studied for an English degree at Queen’s University Belfast (1968–1972). She was taught, along with fellow students Paul Muldoon and Frank Ormsby, by Seamus Heaney. She received her Master of Arts (MA) degree from the same university in 1974. Her first poem, “Marriage,” was published in The Honest Ulsterman in 1975 and, under the pseudonym “Jean Fisher,” she won the National Poetry Competition in 1979 for her poem “The Flitting.” She published two chapbooks in 1980, Portrait of Joanna and Single Ladies: Sixteen Poems, and she received an Eric Gregory Award in the same year. Her first full collection, The Flower Master, was published by Oxford University Press in 1982. Since then she has produced over a dozen single-authored collections of poetry, as well as chapbooks, anthologies, collaborations, translations, and prose works. Her collections of poetry include Venus and The Rain (1984), Marconi’s Cottage (1991), Captain Lavender (1994) and, most recently, Love, The Magician (2018). She was the first woman to hold the post of writer in residence at Queen’s University Belfast (1985–1988) and she has also held a visiting writer position at the University of California, Berkeley (1991). Her early work is notable for its focus on the female body and femininity and, while not relinquishing these, she has turned toward increasingly explicitly political themes since the mid-1990s. The reception of her work has been complicated by two distinguishing divergences from typical practice. The first is the variance of her compositional techniques from that of most of her contemporaries. She frequently employs a collagistic approach, often constructing her poems by combining lines from source material. Several critics (notably Clair Wills and Shane Alcobia-Murphy) have strenuously defended her from the potential accusations of plagiarism that might arise from this practice, focusing instead on the alchemical potential of her techniques of selection and combination. McGuckian’s admirers have drawn attention to the ways in which the words of others are reborn and given new identities and meanings in her poetry. McGuckian has also joined defenders of her work, notably Shane Alcobia-Murphy, in asking why male authors who have engaged in similar practices have not been subjected to the same scrutiny as she has. The sometimes divergent answers that she has given in her many interviews with critics have conditioned the reception of her work. Unsympathetic responses to her strange, discontinuous poems started to appear in the early 1980s and continue in the early 21st century. However, despite the necessity of, at times, challenging routes to its appreciation, her poetry has been widely praised and recognized as well, with several critics hailing her as a major contemporary voice in Irish poetry.

General Overviews

As of the mid-2010s, three single-author studies of McGuckian’s work have been published, each offering chronological and developmental outlines of her work. Alcobia-Murphy 2012 is the first book-length study of McGuckian’s work, and the author (who has, in the past, published under the name Shane Murphy) focuses on the role of exemplars in her poetry, in particular, female literary forebears. Flynn 2014 comprises a series of close readings from across McGuckian’s career, focusing notably on themes of womanhood and tradition. Faragó 2014 also covers the span of McGuckian’s career, looking at entire poems (rather than extracts, which has been more usual among her critics) and focusing on themes of performativity and creativity. Kirkland and Alcobia-Murphy 2010 is the first edited book based solely on McGuckian’s work, and the pieces collected in it give a comprehensive overview of the state of McGuckian criticism.

  • Alcobia-Murphy, Shane. Medbh McGuckian: The Poetics of Exemplarity. Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen University Press, 2012.

    This is the first single-author monograph on McGuckian’s work. Taking McGuckian’s relationship with the female writers who preceded her as its central preoccupation, it also contains extended discussions of the themes of memory, elegy, and trauma.

  • Faragó, Borbála. Medbh McGuckian. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2014.

    Faragó’s study centers more on the issue of performance in McGuckian’s work while situating her poetry in its divided critical contexts, showing the differing readings that source-hunting “genetic” criticism, postmodernism, feminism, and sheer exasperation have produced. The study follows the poet’s work chronologically, and Faragó focuses on spirituality, creativity, and death, in particular.

  • Flynn, Leontia. Reading Medbh McGuckian. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 2014.

    Flynn emphasizes the extent to which McGuckian’s work is inimical to explication and places it in the tradition of écriture féminine. Denying that neither the kind of source-hunting criticism pioneered by Alcobia-Murphy nor more theoretically informed readings can provide final interpretations of her poems, Flynn concludes that to read McGuckian’s work is to be involved in its creation.

  • Kirkland, Richard, and Shane Alcobia-Murphy, eds. The Poetry of Medbh McGuckian: The Interior of Words. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2010.

    This is the first edited collection to focus solely on McGuckian’s work. It contains ten scholarly essays, an introduction, a coda, and an interview with McGuckian. The essays provide a representative survey of the state of McGuckian criticism, focusing on such themes as language, space, violence, identity, and feminism.

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