- Scar IssuesThe Year in Ireland
The recent centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising returned to public consciousness the embodied pain of the insurgents who spearheaded this pivotal episode in the history of the modern Irish nation. A centerpiece of the national program of commemorative events was the "Proclaiming a Republic" exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, which opened in March 2016. Among the most affective objects on display was the bloodstained vest of the radical socialist organizer James Connolly, which was exhibited publicly for the first time. Connolly, the fifteenth and last of the Rising's leaders to be executed in May 1916, was "the most spectacularly martyred" (Backus 68) of the group, the severity of his injuries meaning that he had to be strapped to a chair in order to be shot. Although writers such as Dominic Behan would later rebuke the cynicism of those who exploited his self-sacrifice for nefarious ends, the totemic image of the maimed revolutionary tethered before a British Army firing squad cemented his sanctification in the collective nationalist imagination.1
The year 2016 also saw the publication of The Body in Pain in Irish Literature and Culture, an edited volume of essays that explores "the ways the pained and suffering body has been registered and mobilised in specifically Irish contexts across more than 400 years of literature and culture" (Dillane et al. 1). Although Connolly's wounds are not explicitly referenced, the book's contributors pay close attention to how individuals and groups "[marshal] their afflictions into wider symbolic narratives (religious, political, social)," so that "suffering becomes emblematic of fuller subjecthood" (1). Historically, Irish autobiographers have played a central role in this process. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Irish nationalism's need for exemplary self-narratives gave rise to the male-defined convention whereby "autobiography in Ireland becomes, in effect, the autobiography of Ireland" (Kiberd 119). To a significant extent, the history of Irish life writing since independence in 1922 has been shaped around the displacement of narratives in which the experience of corporeal suffering acts as a metaphor of heroic national [End Page 94] sacrifice by accounts of bodily affliction that express a more individualistic, antiheroic, and distinctly gendered politics of resistance to the definitional power of patriarchal nationalism. The graphic foregrounding of "the localised, singular, and unique body in pain" (Dillane et al. 5) in a crop of confessional narratives published during 2018 and 2019 provides us with a timely vantage point from which to measure the current extent of this eclipse and take stock of the cultural significance of body-centered life writing in contemporary Ireland.
The most celebrated of these recent autobiographical works happens to be written by one of the editors of The Body in Pain in Irish Literature and Culture. Emilie Pine's Notes to Self is a collection of six personal essays that has garnered impressive sales, effusive reviews, and high-profile awards since its publication in 2018. Much attention has deservedly focused on the frankness, pathos, and humor of Pine's account of the many ways in which—despite its being a weary cliché—the personal is still, definitively, the political for Irish women, particularly a "middle-class, heterosexual, cis-gender woman" (112) in contemporary Dublin. Using writing as "a way of making sense of the world, a way of processing—of possessing—thought and emotion, a way of making something worthwhile out of pain" (31), Pine reflects on her experiences of everyday sexism (to borrow the title of a sister work by English feminist writer Laura Bates) and the effects of internalized misogyny, which range from her lingering unease at uttering the word "period" aloud to her delayed self-acknowledgment of having twice been raped as a teenager. Other kinds of hurt and vulnerability are also registered, such as "the limbo of non-existence" (87) Pine experienced as the go-between child of estranged parents in pre-divorce Ireland, and her belated discovery of the hidden anguish within their marriage.
Embedded in the book's strong seam of sociocultural critique is a trenchant commentary on the dehumanizing effects of women's encounters with institutionalized...