Writing and Women

By Eli Davies 

The starting point for my research is an observation, and it’s by no means an original one: that women’s experiences of the conflict in Northern Ireland are excluded in mainstream discourse – in news coverage; commemorations; in the day-to-day politics of the region. When I began putting together my research proposal I came across a 2007 report produced by Belfast-based NGO the Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA) called “Women and the conflict: Talking about the “Troubles” and planning for the future”. The report highlighted the ongoing absence of women’s voices in Northern Ireland’s post-conflict society. Through interview and testimony it asserted the importance of “women’s distinctive experiences of the conflict, associated with their predominance in organising and sustaining family life, and the roles they take within local communities.” [1]

My PhD is an interdisciplinary English Literature and Psychology project, about memory, narrative, gender and conflict in Northern Ireland. More specifically, I am investigating the role of literature in inserting women’s experiences into the ways in which the Troubles are remembered and talked about. As well as the disciplines of literary studies and psychology, then, my research also draws on history, politics, memory studies, sociology and gender studies. And I frequently return to that WRDA report, as a reminder of the context for all this.

It has become widely accepted in conflict studies that women’s experience of war should be seen as a distinct area of attention.[2] Giving voice to these experiences is vital in adding another dimension to our discussions of the Troubles and its legacies, which are continually mired in standoffs between two opposing sides. Christine St. Peters argues that “women’s experiences, political voices, movements and history have traditionally been occluded or subordinated to the demands of the conflict, a condition which homogenizes and falsifies the ‘sides’ and promotes ever greater sectarian division.”[3] The situation St Peters describes is one in which conversations about the conditions of women’s lives during the Troubles are seen as somehow separate and less important. This erases many daily, lived experiences of women: the labour of keeping a family together, the financial struggles of paying rent and putting food on the table, the work of supporting politically active family members, the emotional toll of simply living day-to-day in a war zone.

Social and cultural memory has complicated workings in Ireland: history, mythology and narrative intersect with collective and individual identities to produce complex and sometimes contradictory identifications with the past. Graham Dawson challenges the idea of the past and memory as simple “uncovering”. Rather, he argues, there are “multiple and contradictory truths” and historical narratives and people’s relationships with them can shift and change.[4] Guy Beiner suggests the term “mythistory”  to replace the “binary opposition between history and myth characteristic of Irish revisionism.”[5]

Literature can show us this process of storytelling and myth-making at work. Andrews and Maguire assert its importance in developing our understanding of societies in conflict, arguing that its  “slowing down of time, the imaginative access it grants to what cannot readily be seen… gives it a unique purchase on these issues.”[6] Gaps, spaces, disagreements and contradictions can be made plain here. It’s not that it offers us an account of how things really were. It enables us to think about certain periods, events, experiences differently and develop a kind of reflexivity about thinking about the past.

My research posits domestic space as a site of war in itself. These are spaces often overlooked in social and cultural memory of the conflict, or seen as a space apart from the “real” action. Fictional writing has always been a space in which the politics of the domestic sphere can be explored and in Northern Ireland it can represent the contradictions and pain of conflict and the tension between individual stories and wider political contexts, particularly those of women. None of this is to try and reinforce crude public = male/ private = female stereotypes. And it’s certainly not to suggest that women are somehow essentially more peaceable than men. Not only is there excellent work being done by various academics highlighting the activities of women combatants in the Troubles, it’s also important not to homogenise the experiences of women. Eilish Rooney warns of the danger of using women’s voices as some kind of repository or tool to elucidate wider problems in Northern Ireland as their “accounts will generally reflect their political location”.[7]  Rather, my research aims to draw attention to an overlooked sphere of activity, examine ways it can be and has been represented and why this matters.

[1] Women’s Resource and Development Agency, “Talking about the Troubles and planning for the future” (2007), http://www.wrda.net/documents/women_&_conflictreport.pdf

[2] Ward, Margaret, “Gender, Citizenship and the Future of the Northern Ireland Peace Process” (2005), at http://www.cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/women/docs/ward05peaceprocess.pdf

[3] St Peter, Christine,  Changing Ireland; Strategies in Contemporary Women’s Fiction (London, 2000), 96.

[4] Dawson, Graham, Making peace with the past? Memory, trauma and the Irish Troubles (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007), 18.

[5] Beiner, Guy, “Making sense of memory: coming to terms with conceptualisations of historical remembrance” in Grayson, Richard. S and McGarry (eds), Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland (Cambridge, 2016), 16.

[6] Andrews, Chris and Maguire, Matt (eds), Post Conflict Literature: Human Rights, Peace, Justice (London, 2016), 3.

[7] Rooney, Eilish “Women’s equality in Northern Ireland’s transition: intersectionality in theory and place”, Feminist Legal Studies, 14, 3 (2006), 353-375.

Image: Jonathan Eden-Drummond Flikr Account

Eli Davies is a PhD researcher at Ulster University, exploring the relationship between gender, memory, literature and the “Troubles”. She completed an M.Phil in Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin in 2003 and between then and 2016 worked as an adult education lecturer, writer and editor. She is co-editor of Under My Thumb; Songs That Hate Women and The Women Who Love Them, an anthology of women’s music writing published by Repeater. Follow her on twitter @eldavldn

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