When the original Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing was published in 1991, in three hefty volumes, it provoked an outcry over its allegedy inadequate representation of Irish women writers. Its harrassed general editor, Seamus Deane, resolved to make amends by inviting a team of women scholars and academics to repair the deficiency by compiling two additional volumes themselves. These eight women conscripted more than 50 contributing editors to help with the prodigious work of recovery and re-evaluation. Now, 11 years on, comes the new, monumental female Field Day, in all its grandeur and multiplicity.
At first glance, it is a breathtaking achievement: 3,200 pages testifying to women's contribution to Irish cultural affairs over 14 centuries. But it's not as straightforward as this suggests. We begin with a section entitled "Medieval to Modern, 600-1900", whose editor, Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, is obliged to admit that "not one complete text ... can be attributed with absolute certainty to a historical woman until the early 17th century" – not even the famous, racy "Lament of the Old Woman of Beare".
Never mind: there's an abundance of material affording insights into the representation, treatment and experiences of Irishwomen between these dates, much of it fascinating. A problem for the editors is immediately identified, however. If you're going to allow in writing by women, about women, and even obliquely connected to women, then the scope of the undertaking will be too wide and a certain unwieldiness becomes inevitable. A couple of sections, or sub-sections, seem a bit threadbare, while others are catch-alls for material that bulges out in all directions.
Take "Sexuality". This important topic had as much currency in Ireland as elsewhere, and even more need, at especially repressive periods to present itself clandestinely. Sexual oppression, in both the feminist and the erotic sense, was added on to political oppression.
One of the aims of the new Field Day is to uncover and applaud sexual subversiveness, and this means enlisting not only lesbianism but a lot of male homosexuality to boot. The drive to be inclusive has made the editors occasionally self-contradictory (they put in passages by men describing encounters between men), dull ("Sexuality and the Polyvalence of Domination" is one sub-heading), or modishly outraged (indignation surfaces over "the cultural prejudice against lesbian writers in Ireland" – a prejudice here conspicuously redressed).
"Sexuality" is an elastic category, stretching from William Carleton's decorous account of his adoration of a girl he never got the nerve to address, to statistics of illegitimate births recorded at the Belfast Workhouse in 1903, and Margaret Cousins's shudder at the failure of nature to devise "some more artistic way of continuance of the race". The skimpy sub-section of "Explorations of Love and Desire in Writing for Children, 1791-1979" seems to have had the title forced on it to get under the general heading. It's as bad a fit as the shoe on Cinderella's sisters' feet.
The sprightly, asexual Maria Edgeworth, the feverishly prudish L T Meade: what are they doing here? And Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of a single, glorious volume about a family of children running wild in Co Down (The Weans at Rowallan, 1905): this spirited and mysterious writer, about whom nothing is known beyond her date of birth (1872), is a welcome presence in the anthology, but a more appropriate placement could have been found for her. On the other hand, some genuinely bawdy stuff, such as "The Story of Mis and Dubh Rois", comes in the medieval section.
The excellent "Oral Traditions" grouping includes the lore and culture of Irish travellers, children's street songs and games, folk tales in Irish and English, along with traditional songs (again, in both languages) and excerpts from the recollections of such distinctive Irishwomen as the Blasket autobiographer Peig Sayers. Politics, Irish society, hospitals, workhouses, convents and prisons are all covered copiously in Volume V. There we also – eventually – reach "Women and Writing, 1700-1960", only to find it unduly full of wild Irish girls and wild nights on Inisbofin.
Irish misery is extensively represented, as in this opening to a tale from a book called Shamrock Leaves: "One dark and dismal morning in the month of November 1846, a miserable group of human beings were assembled in the attic of an old crumbling house, situated in a filthy obscure lane in a large Irish city." The title of this exercise in abjection is "The Knitted Collar"; and knitting as a resource of women is also exemplified in Evangeline Patterson's Knitting Woman of 1994. The evangelical Mrs Phillpott with her extraordinary poem "The Knitting Needle" (1,506 lines) doesn't get a showing, however – a pity, since the work has considerable sociological interest. It was written to commemorate the establishment of a school of knitters in Co Antrim during the Famine year of 1846-47.
Others escaping the colossal round-up of significant Irishwomen, or commentators on Ireland, include the poets Florence M Wilson and Helen Lanyon, children's writers Rosamond Praeger, Eilis Dillon and Meta Mayne Reid, Gormfhlaith Ní Fhlionn, author of the resonant "Nuala O'Neill's Lament", Marjorie Alyn, Maud Joynt, Julia O'Faolain, Evelyn Hardy and Jennifer Johnston (who is mentioned in passing). Some who are squeezed in deserve more space, such as Janet McNeill, Helen Waddell and Florence Mary McDowell.
Angela Bourke is one of the Field Day editors, and probably chose to omit herself for this reason. She is also, however, the author of one of those rare books that become an instantaneous classic, The Burning of Bridget Cleary (1999). It would have been good to have a passage from this. Instead, there is coverage – why? – of paedophile priests and fornicating bishops.
No anthology can avoid irritating its readers for one reason or another. The new Field Day, because of its size, is more vulnerable in this respect than most. An undertaking in which so many people have had a hand is bound occasionally to get out of hand. (Some of its most egregious nonsense goes into the footnotes, in which we get "Begob" glossed as "By God, an Exclamation".) The last, vast section, "Contemporary Writing 1960-2001", doesn't exclude tedium, sentimentality, overstatement and the most staggering ineptitude. But this should not lessen our gratitude for the wealth of pleasure and illumination that it also contains (indeed, this is true of the anthology as a whole). Ireland is still in the process of adjusting to the modern world, and if the final section of Field Day seems over-generous in its inclusions, this may be because time has not yet sorted out the chic from the gauche.
Patricia Craig's biography of Brian Moore has just been published by Bloomsbury
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