Unheard voices of Ireland

By Amanda Murphy

Ireland has long been a country with a robust literary history. With a population smaller than that of Chicagoland area, it has been home to such monumental figures in literature as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats. But rarely have the written voices of women of the diminutive, ancient country been heard.

That is why Imagine Ireland, an organization that has focused the last year on bringing Irish art to American audiences, and Wake Forest University Press, the leading American publishing house for Irish poetry, worked together to bring four prominent female Irish poets to the U.S. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Rita Ann Higgins, Caitríona O’Reilly and Leontia Flynn are currently touring, representing the female voices of Ireland’s poetry, which up until the last decade was a male-dominated field.

“What’s interesting about this [event] is that we mostly know Irish literature for the men like Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Patrick Kavanagh and Yeats,” said Stephen Young, program director at the Poetry Foundation. “I think [it] is important because it focuses on contemporary Irish women.”

Wake Forest University Press released the newest edition of “The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry,” an anthology of more than 60 prominent poets, on Oct. 24. Candide Jones, assistant director of Wake Forest University Press, said the publishing house thought it was important to showcase the poetic talent of Ireland’s women, considering they had not been heard for centuries.

“Even 11 years ago, women were not included in the Irish poetry world,” Jones said. “So when we started this, we decided to bring them into the fold and show how important the female voice is in Ireland.”

Since its start in early 2011, Imagine Ireland has brought more than 70 authors, poets and playwrights to the U.S. Belinda McKeon, literary director for Imagine Ireland, said the program focused on showcasing a variety of talents, as well as writers at all stages of their careers, from beginning to established.

McKeon said she wanted to show that the strong literary traditions of Ireland are still very much alive. She also said she wanted to showcase how—though the writers and poets who have held onto their roots—they are also taking the art to new and inventive places.

“There’s a huge variety of form, context and imagination happening right now with Irish literature,” McKeon said. “It’s both very proud of our tradition but also confident enough to be innovative, do new work and make new movements in literature.”

Breadth of style was one major aspect the Imagine Ireland program and Wake Forest University Press kept in mind when choosing the four female poets who were going to represent the country and the anthology. Jones said that the low feminine profile has changed some since Wake Forest University Press published the first edition of the anthology, which she jokingly said now resembles the size of a shoebox or “War and Peace,” displaying the works of more than 60 female Irish poets.

When it came to choosing the four women to tour for the anthology, Jones said they wanted a number of different voices to be heard at a range of career stages. Flynn and O’Reilly are the youngest poets to contribute work to the book, and as the younger voices of Ireland’s female poets, they represent the modern age.

But she also wanted the voices of Ireland’s poetry masters. Jones said Higgins has long been the sardonic, rye, sassy and sometimes angry voice of the working class, which she said she does with great authenticity.

She credited Chuilleanáin, who has been publishing poetry since 1972, as being one of the masters of the literary genre, occupying a special place in the anthology as well as the tour.

“I think some people think of Irish poetry and literature as being surrounded by mist, shamrocks and overly romantic dreams of the past,” Jones said. “People would be surprised to hear all the different voices of Ireland. Poetry should not be segregated into this special-occasion niche that we put it in sometimes. It’s a very condensed, very pure form of language, and poetry is how the soul speaks.”

She said she hopes the tour will not only put the book in the public eye—and sell a few copies—but that it will help elevate women’s poetry and poetry as a whole to a new place.

McKeon said she would like to see the enthusiastic reception to Irish art and literature continue. She said the work achieved with Imagine Ireland in the last year has built relationships with festivals, venues and organizations—something that will carry them for years when the project finishes in late December.

“I think [modern Irish poetry] shows how things have changed in Ireland and how their work has changed and developed,” Jones said. “I think it’s an interesting snapshot of poetry in general.”

For more information on Imagine Ireland and its upcoming events visit its website, ImagineIreland.ie or go to its Facebook page at Facebook.com/CultureIreland.

For more information on Wake Forest University Press and the “Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry,” and other Irish works of poetry, visit WFU.edu/WFUpress. For upcoming events with the Poetry Foundation, visit PoetryFoundation.org.