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  • Gender and the Postcolonial Archive
  • Karen Steele (bio)

Molly O'Hagan Hardy's article aptly notes the opportunities and perils attendant upon archival triage. As she observes, ideology is actively at work when archivists appraise what gets bought or sold, what is precious or ephemeral, what is catalogued and stored for others to study, and what is discarded, rejected, lost, or forgotten. The dogged impenetrability of Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh's Sinn Féin notebook at the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) serves as a potent example of the challenges for critics invested in uncovering women's political agency during Ireland's revolutionary years (1916-1923). Literary historians like Hardy, who discover and analyze marginalized voices, untold stories, and forgotten artifacts, can never comfortably assume that the taxonomies of the postcolonial archive will remain static and stable, accessible and usable. In my attempts to unearth the buried stories of Irish nationalist women, I am often confronted by the fact that the postcolonial archive turns out to be both capacious and wily. Because so many of the documents stored and shelved are resistant [End Page 55] to library catalogues and scholarly consolidation, they seem to materialize serendipitously and disappear unpredictably.

As I was thinking about the archival mystery of Nic Shuibhlaigh's notebook, I was also nightly rereading to my youngest son the last installment of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, . . . and the Deathly Hallows (2007). I was struck, in so doing, by how much the postcolonial archive resembles Hogwarts's Room of Requirement, a vast, unplottable area on the third floor of this venerable school for witches and wizards. As Harry discovers, the Room of Requirement only materializes for Hogwarts students and staff who are truly in need. For those with an urgent "requirement," an aged, sturdy door unbolts to a room of cathedral-like proportions, though it can contract or expand, reveal treasures or hide secrets, depending upon its occupant's needs. Hogwarts students and professors, it turns out, use the room for both noble and dubious, ideological and practical purposes: to train subversive students in banned knowledge, to stash evidence of alcoholism or theft, to obscure the real source of one's academic brilliance, or to provide a private lavatory when one is desperate for relief.

So too, the postcolonial archive proves to be tensile and compressive; within its elastic walls, we can discover objects capable of altering our knowledge about the past and providing new tools to confront the present. The postcolonial archive, of course, has never settled in any one location. Just as the manuscripts and letters of canonical writers such as W. B. Yeats or Lady Gregory are scattered in Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States, so too, the correspondences, manuscripts, and papers of radical Irish women are housed in well-known and hidden locations. To trace the textual history of nationalist women such as Máire Nic Shuibhlaigh, Maeve Cavanagh, or Constance Markievicz, one must access both rarified locations—the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives, the British Library, the Public Records Office, or the HRC—and small, specialized, or forgotten repositories, such as the Bureau of Military History, the myriad nationalist periodicals now available on microfilm, or online databases such as ProQuest.

For those lacking resources to travel across continents or oceans, the postcolonial archive has repeatedly answered its researchers' "requirement" through the republication of primary source materials. Barbara Harlow [End Page 56] and Mia Carter's indispensable Archives of Empire, for example, reprints a broad array of documentary evidence of Britain's imperial project during the long nineteenth century, in locations as far flung as India and Egypt. As the editors note, this postcolonial archive documents and organizes for its readers "the richness of the substantial critical resources and the substantive grounds for the critique of imperialism" (2003, xxii). For those interested in Irish nationalist women, excellent primary materials can be found in Margaret Ward's In their Own Voice (1995), Maria Luddy's Women in Ireland 1800-1918 (1995), the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, volumes 3 and 4 (Bourke et al. 2002), or my Maud Gonne's Irish Nationalist Writings (2004). Each of these sources provides...


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