What would a feminist Northern Irish studies look like?

By Caroline Magennis

Like all of the readers of this blog, my own scholarship sits at the intersection of multiple disciplinary interests. I work on Northern Irish fiction, but of course I also attend conferences in Irish Studies and contemporary literary studies. This post, then, will be a reflection on what it has meant for me to move between these worlds, and the points of friction that make me uneasy in what we might term ‘Northern Irish Studies’. This will not be a catalogue of woes: I come from a position of privilege with a permanent job that offers me the ability to design my own courses in Irish and British literature. Rather, I hope to begin a discussion about what it means to be a woman who studies Northern Ireland.

What do I mean when I say ‘feminist Northern Irish studies’? The feminism that I espouse is not what could be described as ‘white feminism’ but rather an international, intersectional movement that is also informed by issues of class, race, sexuality, gender identity, disability and other concerns. To quote Flavia Dzodan, ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.’ This follows the work of Kimberlé  Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, Sara Ahmed and the generations of women who have questioned the way in which narratives of oppression intersect. An intersectional Northern Irish feminism is not just alert to the middle-class PhD student working on literature but also actively seeks to pay attention to victims of racism in Northern Ireland and the educational attainment of working-class boys in Belfast.

I started my academic career in what might broadly be defined Irish Studies. There I met women who supported my fledgling writing and helped me strengthen my ideas, such as Gerardine Meaney, Tina O’Toole, Margaret Harper, Patricia Coughlan, Moynagh Sullivan, Anne Mulhall, Siobhán Kilfeather, and Claire Connolly.  These were women who had fought through the male-dominated field of Irish Studies and, after achieving success, immediately started supporting the next generation of scholars.

In moving into events which had a solely Northern Irish focus, however, I was immediately struck by the change in tone. Forgive me if that sounds a little wishy-washy but it just felt different. The most glaring observation was that I was often either the only woman speaking at an event or one of a handful. I started keeping the ‘Female Conference Speaker Bingo Card’ on my phone so I could tick off the excuses. I had been used to a combative tone in research seminars (they raised us rigorously at QUB) but I couldn’t help feel a clear change in the atmosphere. To quote Anna Burns’ Milkman: ‘There was now a feeling in the room to which nobody was admitting: unpleasant, ominous, grey.’ I could not participate in conversations about who had interviewed which former paramilitary members (as if certain actors have not been scrutinised enough). I received no pleasure in ripping apart someone’s argument: if I don’t value it, I don’t cite it.

While this is anecdotal experience, friends registered the same unease, and it made me think about what a genuinely intersectional Northern Irish studies might look like. The prevailing structural problems in the academy are well documented, but I think that if we are to make Northern Irish Studies a more interesting place to be then there is some work to be done. This cannot be done at one level: we all have a part to play in developing academic cultures which balance rigour with support.

  • Citation is political. If you are writing about Northern Irish women, cite women and move beyond the existing frameworks to find new work from both established and upcoming scholars. Do the work. Read Sara Ahmed on the politics of citation.
  • Privilege stories of those outside of the main ‘Troubles’ narrative. Incorporate these into your academic work. This blog has so far showcased some great, new perspectives but these don’t always get written into the narrative. Don’t hive women’s stories off into panels on women unless you also have panels marked as ‘Men’s Writing’ or ‘Men’s History’. Women’s stories, queer stories, mental health stories and working-class stories are all Northern Irish stories.
  • Offer practical support where you can for conference attendance, including childcare and child friendly policies. When you apply for large grants, write this in. Those who can’t attend can also follow on social media, so consider capturing your event through audio (see: Rethinking the Hunger Strikes) or video (see: Agreement20). Make access for those with disabilities and caring responsibilities your default. Keep costs reasonable for precarious scholars and the local community.
  • Organise the sort of events you’d like to see. Don’t wait for the big names to tell you what’s important: you’ve been working on this and you know what the current issues are. You can start small with a virtual conference on social media, a little department funding (if available) for a small symposium. Invite speakers who may not have the fanciest titles, but who will tell you something genuinely new.
  • Studying for a doctorate is not a blood sport and academic hazing is unproductive. As soon as you’ve secured the stability of regular employment, actively support those who are finding their voice. PhD students should try not to internalise the neoliberal academy’s values of competition. The people you surround yourself with now will be your peers for the rest of your career, so don’t be ‘that person’. Co-operate, make networks and don’t measure yourself against performed success online.

There has never been a more urgent time for scholarship on Northern Ireland, but this must be thought of as a collective body of work. If we move towards the values espoused by intersectional feminism and don’t eat our young, we can begin to build together a Northern Irish studies that welcomes fresh ideas.

(Image: Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, Boston College)

Caroline Magennis left Belfast in 2010 but has been unable to escape. She writes about the place in variety of academic and non-scholarly publications and teaches Northern Irish writing in the North West of England.

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