- Archival Triage:Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh's Notebook at the Harry Ransom Center
In the spring of 2006, the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) in Austin, Texas, displayed "Technologies of Writing," an exhibition with over 200 items from the Center's collection. After passing by clay tablets from 1980 BCE and a Thai accordion-style book, I stopped at the "Power Writing" case to admire one of the smallest items in the exhibition. Tucked between a grand Napoleonic Decree and a Charles V letter appointing Hernando Cortez governor of Spain was a tiny notebook opened to Éamon De Valera's signature (Fig. 1).1 The size of the two documents served to highlight a greater contrast—the case's unifying theme, "power"—applied in starkly different ways. The decrees of Napoleon and Charles V were written manifestations of imperial dominance, testimony to Bishop Avila's observation to Queen Isabella in 1492, "Language is the perfect instrument of empire," whereas the notebook was emblematic of Ireland's efforts to caste off the shackles of imperialism in the 1916 Easter Rising. To put it bluntly, the large documents were about having power, and the small one was about a lack of power, a struggle for power. And yet, as the [End Page 31] exhibition was in part highlighting, all these items are now housed together, harmoniously coexisting in the HRC archives.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
The "Technologies of Writing" exhibition invited visitors to contemplate the importance of the written record: "Writing . . . is what enables language to be copied and stored. Writing is memory. It is what makes us human" (HRC press release 2005a). Items in the exhibition testified to this curatorial claim, showcasing seminal moments in the development of the written record as analogs to human development. The exhibition provided a coherent depiction of progress and innovation, but the notebook that caught my attention challenged that depiction. Filled with affect and mystery, the piece defied the exhibition's and the archive's classification of it. [End Page 32]
How that tiny notebook got into the "Power Writing" case is the story I want to tell here. The notebook serves as a meditation on the triage inherent in all archives: what gets bought by a wealthy collector and what remains in the hands of a frustrated auctioneer; what gets catalogued and what gets left in unmarked boxes awaiting the next archivist to be hired or grant to come through; and finally, what makes it to the exhibition cases to be admired by the public and what gets left on the shelves of the closed collections to languish in obscurity.
In the last decade, feminist scholars such as Karen Steele, Sinéad Mc-Coole, and Margaret Ward have recovered the stories and contributions of women involved in Irish politics from 1916 to 1923. Because the dominant historical narrative had long overlooked the political and social commitments of women like Kathleen Clarke, Anne Cooney, and Linda Kearns, these scholars had to delve into the archives. In her recent investigation of revolutionary women's writing during the Irish Revival, Karen Steele explains this historical erasure: "Their stories . . . fit uneasily in the well-established nationalist narratives that prescribe women as symbol, icon, or emblem of the nation" (2007, 201). The result of this "uneasiness" is that "the women writers of advanced nationalism, who actively maneuvered around, revised, and sometimes rejected their appointed roles as passive embodiments of modest maidens, have largely been overlooked in Irish history and literature" (206). Steele's study of newspapers in the first decades of twentieth-century Ireland aims to show that these women "have left behind intricate textual legacies that challenge many of the standard narratives of Ireland's literary and political revival" (207).
In No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900-1923, Sinéad McCoole looks at women who were similarly active but did not leave behind the journalistic record that Steele traces. To write her book, McCoole consulted autograph books both in the Kilmainham Gaol collection and in private collections. In her introduction to McCoole's book, Margaret Ward describes McCoole's...