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Guest Introduction: The Minds and Voices of Modern Irish Women Eavan Boland The status of Irish women has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. There is nothing subtle about that change. It has been swift, disruptive, stressful. Everyone who is conscious of it will have a story which is in some sense a navigating tool to bring them from that past to this present. And this is mine. It happened years ago in a cold room in a school on a wintry afternoon . I was giving a workshop in poetry in a rural town in Ireland, with women I had never seen before and would probably never see again. The talk had swerved from specific poems to the idea of the poet. I suggested, as I often would in that situation, that there is an important, even a mysterious distance between writing poems and being a poet. I asked them whether it would be possible to admit they were poets in the communities they came from. One particular woman, from a small town west of the Shannon, looked at me bleakly. "If I said I was a poet in that town," she replied, "people would think I didn't wash my windows". The force and poignance of that remark is with me to this day. But even now it evokes more than one woman's sense of enclosure. It suggests, in a single detail, the wider resistances which Irish women had to confront until fairly recently. I do not believe you had to write poetry in a small town, or swear yourself to reticence about it, to feel the tense opposition between two ideas. On the one hand was the idea of personal creativity and expression—a concept of special energy in the postcolonial myth of Irish eloquence. On the other hand, there was the equally forceful idea of collective obligation, with all its shadows of self-denial, its requirement that the private will—the private feminine will, that is—be subsumed in the public good. These two ideas, both deeply woven into Irish culture, damaged and confused one another in the lives of countless women. I am not saying that individual women did not find some repose in them despite their opposition . But it was hard. Not only did these ideas clash. The wider society, with its Jansenist past and nationalist ideology, actually sanctioned thenclash . I am sure countless women, in varying situations, suffered a version of the doubt expressed by that woman in my workshop. More crucially, they may have felt the unspoken fear that to explore their own creativity might entail a breach with a precious and historic view of Irish fernininity. © Ί995 Journal of Women's History, Vol 6 No. 4/Vol 7 No. 1 (Winter/Spring) 1995 Guest introduction 7 The silent poets whose windows gleamed and flashed are only a fragment of that duress. The rest hardly bears thinking of. All this has changed. Not only are there women artists, scholars, and singers in Ireland. Not only is the private creativity in evidence, but there has come to be a striking assertion of the public identity of women also. They have changed the political argument. They have defined the social agenda. They have voted with their feet and forced the issues of abortion and divorce to the forefront of the government program. They now form a consistent and notable presence in all the political parties. Above all, in 1990 it was women, in huge numbers, who voted for the election of Mary Robinson as President of Ireland. Her presence has radicalized the symbolic definition of women in that country. She is now a head of state whose purposes and concerns are a bright focus of all the creativity which was marshalled to select her. After all these changes, it has become time for women in their individual disciplines in Ireland to look at the present and find a credible narrative of the past to hand on to their daughters and their granddaughters. So much silence. So much oppression. How did it happen? Once again there will be many versions, and all of them valuable. My version is inflected by the fact that I...


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