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  • Postcolonial Literary Studies, Nationalism, and Feminist Critique in Contemporary Ireland
  • Emer Nolan (bio)

Empire, Nation, and Irish women

The cultural analysis of empire has often been heavily masculinist, focusing overwhelmingly on the activities of administrators, civil servants, soldiers and settlers, explorers and travelers, and on the involvements of male political leaders, intellectuals, and writers in the shaping of imperial and anti-imperial cultures. However, there is now a growing body of feminist scholarship that attends both to the role of women as agents of empire and as participants in anti-imperial struggles of various kinds.1 In addition, historians and cultural critics have begun to examine the ways that racial and sexual politics intersected in the elaboration of colonial administrations.2

In Ireland, the study of imperialism in the disciplines of literary and cultural studies has been mediated primarily through the development of what is now commonly referred to as "Irish postcolonial studies." For a variety of reasons, the reception of postcolonial [End Page 336] studies in Ireland has often been quite hostile.3 The most obvious lines of critique have stemmed from historical revisionists, who have usually dismissed postcolonial studies as simply a re-coding of a cultural nationalism that revisionists believed they had largely discredited. From a different angle, Irish feminists, too, have been generally wary of postcolonial studies. Most of the leading figures associated with the area are male, and several were prominently involved with The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991), Volumes I–III. Feminists were angered by this anthology, on the basis that it did not give due recognition to women writers and feminist scholarship. Other women critics have accused postcolonial studies of reinstating "the national question"—and thus sidelining issues of gender—at the very moment in the 1990s when feminist campaigns were finally beginning to make significant progress.4

In this essay, I discuss the feminist reception of postcolonial studies in Ireland in recent decades, especially the feminist response to issues of the nation, national literary history, and the question of the Irish literary canon. These are the topics which have dominated Irish feminist literary criticism for the last fifteen years or so. But it could further be argued that the current Irish feminist preoccupation with the ways in which women have been repressed and excluded by nationalism has led to a certain insularism in Irish feminism. The involvements of Irish women in empire (British or other) were never restricted to either their support for or opposition to Irish nationalism. On the contrary, Irish women have been involved in the politics of empire in a whole host of capacities: as travelers and settlers in the colonies; as the wives and daughters of imperial administrators, civil servants and soldiers; and as missionaries, social reformers, and agitators. Depending, moreover, on their class affiliations and on whether they were unionists or nationalists, Irish women were likely [End Page 337] to have conceived of Ireland's relationship to the British Empire in very different terms. While feminist scholarship elsewhere is increasingly attentive to the many different ways in which women have been inscripted within the world of empire, Irish feminist studies, focused on issues of nationalism and the national canon, has as yet attended rather little to such inscriptions. The variety of Irish women's engagements with empire can be fully disclosed only when feminist scholarship does not confine itself so much as it has done recently to questions of "woman and nation."5 In conclusion, I suggest that far from confining Irish feminism in a narrow, nationally focused research agenda, a rethinking of the question of feminism and nationalism in a wider imperial frame (perhaps along the lines suggested by the postcolonial theorist Elleke Boehmer and others6 ) may in fact help Irish feminists to forge connections between the experiences and priorities of Irish women and those of women in other societies—especially women elsewhere in the postcolonial world.

Nationalism and Feminism in Contemporary Irish Feminist Criticism

In a recent study, Clíona Ó Gallchoir argues that Irish criticism has been inhibited by its failure to "realise the extent to which the concept of collective Irish identity which prevails and has prevailed since the nineteenth century...


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pp. 336-361
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