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Reviewed by:
  • Endangered Masculinities in Irish Poetry 1540-1780
  • Carole Fabricant
Sarah E. McKibben , Endangered Masculinities in Irish Poetry 1540-1780 (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2010). Pp. 196. €50.

In this book, Sarah McKibben displays her very considerable scholarly and philological abilities through detailed readings of a body of literature that is little known beyond Irish studies circles, and even there not often accorded sustained critical attention. Whereas previous analyses have tended to focus on the changes in socioeconomic status of the Irish bard as he moved from a privileged position under aristocratic patronage to a state of dispossession in an increasingly anglicized and colonized world, McKibben's primary concern is "the central role of gender in early modern Irish poetry's anticolonial critique" (3).

McKibben analyzes a selection of poems from this 240-year period to show how conceptions of masculinity as invoked by (male) poets transformed over time to address changes in their own and Ireland's power relationship vis-à-vis the English, and how these changes affected the ideological and symbolic roles accorded women in these works, ranging from innocent victim to, increasingly, seductress and whore: accomplices rather than casualties of the colonial subjugators, hence partly to blame for the poet's own impotence in the face of a conquest experienced as emasculation. As McKibben puts it, "[female Ireland's] figuration as compromised and sullied by prostitution and the birthing of 'bastards' metaphorised the compromises and cultural transformation—or adulteration—of Irish people who had to come to terms with English power" (67). She avoids an overly schematic linear narrative by pointing to the ambiguities and contradictions that can mark poems from the same period, even different parts of a single poem; as she notes, "[Ireland-as-woman] functioned at once as a lost dream, a shameful reproach, and a possibility of transformation . . ." (67).

McKibben describes her modus operandi as "combining specialised philological and historical scholarship with feminist, queer, and postcolonial literary-critical approaches" (3). The strength of her book, however, lies not in theoretical [End Page 625] explorations but rather in close readings of individual poems, conveyed in a lucid, often elegant prose only rarely marred by infelicitous expressions, such as the repeated references to "colonial transculturation (or mutual transformation of sociocultural forms)." McKibben is especially good when she yokes reflections on particular words or phrases with larger thematic concerns, as when she explains how, in the late sixteenth-century poem "A fhir ghlacas a ghalldacht" ["O man who follows English ways"] by Mac an Bhaird, "the dramatic rhyming opposition of galldacht (foreignness) and alltacht (wildness) offers two abstract terms by which the larger encounter of cultures may be framed and contextualised" (29). Her lengthy discussion of this poem (24-36) is a model study, foregrounding the importance of satire as a generic component of much Irish poetry in this period, and showing how notions of manliness versus effeminacy could readily lend themselves to an anticolonial critique.

Also very good is her treatment of Aogán Ó Rathaille, perhaps the best-known Irish poet of the eighteenth century. Emphasizing generic and ideological variations in his writings that are too often overlooked, McKibben explores the subtle changes in Ó Rathaille's work over time that registered the larger changes taking place in Irish society and transforming his own role in it. My one criticism here is that, as with some other poems she discusses, her analysis of "Gile na Gile" (ca. 1714), Ó Rathaille's great aisling [vision poem], is so focused on individual words and parts of lines that we never get a sense of the poem in its entirety, as an aesthetic whole, making it difficult to truly appreciate her claims about its extraordinary power and beauty. Generally speaking, where McKibben quotes fuller sections of a poem, the resulting analysis is much more effective and compelling. Generous quoting from the poetry is particularly desirable because, since there is no accessible modern edition of the great majority of poems examined here, students and nonspecialists cannot readily consult the complete poems for themselves. Fortunately, this is not the case for the occasionally anthologized "Gile na Gile" (see, for example, Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella's An Duanaire 1600...


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