Women Writers, Social Noise, and Archival Silences:
The Effect of Historical Revisionism and Translation on Early Modern Women Writers

Christopher M. Flavin

Southern Illinois University–Carbondale

In his criticism of the state of historic materialism, Jürgen Habermas questions the validity of traditional Marxist constructions of history. Specifically, Habermas questions the validity of the static stage model used by many historians and their ready dismissal of instances that cannot be classified in neat periodic compartments of production and consumption. The progress of the individual and society should be interpreted through modal interaction rather than via a neatly linear progression. As Habermas states, “The key to a reconstruction of the history of mankind is offered by the idea of the mode of production. History is then conceived as a succession of different modes of production, which in their pattern of development reveal the direction of social evolution” (Habermas 289). This is particularly true in the case of modern historians who examine the social and cultural development of Irish women in the early modern period.

The Ireland of the early modern period was not a monolithic culture. It was further fragmented along religious and economic lines in ways difficult to interpret today without a framework in which to analyze cultures and modes. The historiography of the period cannot exist in a vacuum: modern scholars must remove the layers of archival and historiographic interpretation that have further recoded such history. This, Habermas claims, requires a degree of specificity often overlooked by critics for the individual rather than the official institutions to be recognized the bearer of social and cultural evolution (Habermas 291). To narrativize the material historiography of early Irish women, it is imperative to examine their position as emphasized within the official histories available to us in the light of the spectrum of materials that are often marginalized or suppressed.

The histories available to modern critics are the accrual of ideological and material referents, not only the actions of the participants or the materials themselves. Interpreting them is an ideological action, although ideology is in itself ahistorical; possessing no subject per se (Althusser 22). The layering of individual and collective ideologies is complicated further by the simple fact that the availability of materials, and their interpretation, shift over time. These drifts in ideology and material history necessitate the examination of both the histories and the archive in order to understand the ways in which their ideological overwriting influences the accepted interpretations of a given individual or culture. In the case of early modern Irish women, this process must begin with the narrative disseminated by the Irish themselves. As recorded by scholars such as F.X. Moody, Seamus MacManus, and Robin Flowers, the histories are by nature multivocal and reflect the influence of changing perceptions of Irish cultural identity, nationalists, idealists, or empiricist historians, and archival access.

For instance, one of the most accessible histories of the early modern period from the Irish perspective is the work of Seamus MacManus, who was one of the last scholars to have full access to the Irish National Archives before they were largely destroyed by fire in 1922. MacManus’ perspective is informed by the birth of the modern Irish state in 1921, and typifies the perspective taken by many Irish historians before and since. MacManus’ observations of the period are accurate, according to the available evidence, but show clear ideological concerns that must be addressed if we are to reconstruct the period accurately.

In the fall of 1607, a French ship left Lough Swilly with fewer than fifty Irish noblemen led by Hugh O’Neill, members of their families, and attendants. The flight of the earls to the Catholic dominions on the continent is often cited as one of the major turning points in the English campaign to subjugate the Irish. As the nationalist historian Seamus MacManus noted, at the time of the ship leaving Irish waters for France, “Ruari [Rudhraighe] O’Donnell (seventh earl of Tyrconnell) was already there with his two brothers, his sister Nuala, his hereditary bard and attendants” (MacManus 395). While nationalists such as MacManus takes pains to note that O’Neill and many of his supporters had their wives with them, and while he remarks on their parentage and descent, there is no mention of the disposition of O’Donnell’s wife. This is interesting, given the literary and political standing of Bridget O’Donnell, daughter of the twelfth earl of Kildare and, through her family, as politically significant as her husband. Rory’s abandonment of Bridget is often seen as expedient, given that she was nearing the end of her third pregnancy and had retired to her grandmother’s Maynooth estate. Jerrold Casway accurately summarizes the consensus among historians on Bridget’s circumstances, noting:

Rory never intended to abandon her; he just took his wife’s circumstances for granted. He expected her to leave immediately for the continent or to escape at some later time. Although “long absent from her husband,” the nineteen-year-old Bridget was distressed by her abandonment. Neither the earl’s apologetic letter, or the gold he sent to pay for her eventual escape, pacified her. (Casway 59)

Casway interprets Rory’s actions as political and socially expedient, without malice. Yet, Rory’s decision to take their infant son while leaving his wife to face the consequences of his escape to Europe, often underemphasized in modern criticism, underscores the persistent social and cultural assumptions of the role and value of women within Irish culture and histories. This division is underscored by Bridget’s decision to remain in Ireland after the flight of the earls, rather than to join her husband in the relative safety of the continental courts sympathetic to the plight of the Irish Catholic nobility. Her deliberate distancing of her position from that of her husband speaks to the divided nature of the island and the unique position in which women such as she found themselves at the end of the Elizabethan era.

This is further reinforced within the official histories and archival surveys by the neglect of her poetic efforts. While a minor poet within the larger national literatures of Ireland, O’Donnell’s deployment of traditional forms as a reinforcement of her social status and position within the culture is almost entirely overshadowed by her marginalized role as the wife of an Irish earl. When taken in context with the recognized histories, the lack of recognition of the non-politicized aspects of O’Donnell’s life serves to emphasize the effects of archival collection and historical revision on modern interpretations of subject positions, historically and socially.

Bridget O’Donnell, in her historical life and her literary contributions, negotiates the gap between the English and the Irish ideologies and identities. Representative of the Old English order, O’Donnell provides a unique insight into the social and political realities of the island. Her life and works illustrate the ways in which a nominally Irish Catholic woman writer in the early period negotiated the division between English and Irish identities and the separate cultural milieus they represent. This she achieved as an individual through her self-positioning within the social and economic structures that objectively defined her, as well as by addressing the cultural structures and centers of power through her work. Such diverse points of engagement present the modern scholar not with a single individual, but with multiple identities constructed within the cultures of the English imperialists and the native Irish at a clearly documented moment in history.

The construction of multiple identities dependent on the larger forces at work within Irish civil and cultural life stands at odds with the perspective of nationalist historians such as MacManus. Yet, revisionist historians, such as Moody, also ignore the multiplicity of subjective identities within Irish history. How, then, does the modern scholar, working within and moving beyond the official histories, reconstruct these identities? While social structuralist theorists such as Althusser, tempered by humanists such as Parsons, are able to provide a general framework for the interpretation of O’Donnell’s life and work, it is necessary to look beneath the established social and cultural structures in order to understand further the influence of these general trends on the daily lives of such women.

The problems associated with constructing an accurate history or social subject positioning for Irish women in the period goes beyond the extant manuscripts and speaks to the dominant ideologemes of modern Irish history. The ramifications of English colonial policy in Ireland affect the formation of the Irish literary canon and its associated culture in lasting ways. As summarized by Joep Leerssen, the subjugation of the language by the English prevented its development along similar rhetorical lines as modern English and other dominant world languages, effectively preventing the cultures and languages from making the transition from a largely oral and manuscript culture to a more stable and metaliterary form:

Gaelic literature, owing to the English colonial system imposed on Ireland, never really made the transition from a manuscript literature to a printed one; it never developed drama; it never spawned a metaliterary activity linked to the development of the universities; although it did come to incorporate some baroque elements into its style, there was never any classicist recourse to ancient Greece or Rome, or to Aristotelian poetics; its historiographic practice stuck to the medieval patterns of annalistic chronicling and mythography. (234)

Indeed, the reliance on medieval patterns of social historiography complicates the analysis of the work of women in the early modern period. The English control of the presses, sublimation of traditional legal and cultural mechanisms of daily life, and deliberate repression of the native language and culture all bear directly on the writing of Irish women. The restriction to traditional and archaic forms of discourse is a response to the social and legal apparatuses to which the women were subjected. This includes the ways in which their works have translated into the archives and the states in which they have been preserved for modern scholars.

While required for the preservation of the manuscripts themselves, controlling access to the manuscripts effectively removes them from their original positions as social and cultural items and fossilizes them as artifacts. The modern reader must then examine them solely as artifacts, isolated from their original social and cultural contexts with the reader placed in a position of accepting previous interpretations in order to view their value in the larger schema, erasing the “‘unofficial’ history of a manuscript, the signs of other readers who have preceded us, thus removing the manuscript from social history while also elevating the text to the cultural status of literature” (Echard 189).

In the case of women writers in Gaelic cultures, the opposite effect of this literary elevation has occurred. Their manuscripts and letters have gone largely unnoticed within the archives, even as the works of their male contemporaries have achieved canonical status. This disparity has led otherwise respected scholars to erroneously conclude that the contribution of women to Irish literature in the early periods was negligible. Thomas Kinsella’s observation that the extant light poetry and songs from the early modern period must be “the product of the bardic classes in their leisure,” rather than the work of women writers, is often cited as an example of the degree of neglect imposed on these works by the archive (Kinsella xxiv).

This “symptomatic neglect” of early modern Irish women’s writings is a tangible effect of archival influence on the texts (MacCurtain 1). While the manuscripts fulfilled a defined social and political role when composed, the passage of these works into the archive has removed them from social consciousness and alienated them from their origins. This is reflective of the larger social trend of rewriting the official histories of the British Isles to suit not the native cultural biases, but those of the English victors whose policies necessitated the break from the popular Gaelic consciousness. This redirection of cultural history by the English has potentially rewritten the received history and certainly problematized the cultural framework by which modern readers are able to interpret the residual texts. The social and political constructs visible today or from the dominant culture’s histories of the period are flawed: their history reflects the Foucaultian history of the now, and where the contributions of women to the survival and expansion of the culture are concerned, this history has been revised through ideologically influenced decisions to excise or ignore their contributions. Revisions and exclusions significantly influence the place of women in the interpretation of the history of the islands, especially in Ireland, and thus their place within modern culture and literature as well. The masculine historiographies of culture, as received by current scholars, have largely eliminated women from both the history and the literary traditions of these cultures and complicates their reintroduction to, or rediscovery within, those traditions.

It is therefore necessary to examine the influence of the archives on the reading of the manuscripts, and history in general, before attempting to reconstruct the cultural and social modes of production that generated the texts. Jacques Derrida’s self-described “Freudian Impression” of the archive traces its origins back to the habit of storing civil documents in the homes of the archons, thus providing the dominant culture a method of exerting total control over access to the documents and placing the collection “at the intersection of the topological and the nomological, of the place and the law, of the substrate and the authority” (Derrida 3). This would seem to agree with Althusser’s interpretation of the educational and cultural agencies of the dominant society as representative of ideological apparatuses.

The archives are inseparable from the dominant ideologies of the curator and the authorizing culture. While serving a purpose within the dominant society, the collected materials are automatically subject to layers of presupposition and interpretation before any other cultural or social interpretations are made, the palimpsest effect. This autonomous isolation and ideological imposition relates to the nomenclature employed in the modern sense of the archive, beginning with the term itself, arché:

This name apparently coordinates two principles in one: the principle according to nature or history, there where things commence—physical, historical, or ontological principle—but also the principle according to the law, there where men and gods command, there where authority, social order are exercised, in this place from which order is given—nomological principle. (Derrida 9)

In this sense, the archive itself authorizes the formation of meaning for its contents. The acceptance of the materials as part of the material and ideological whole of the archive marks the point of their commencement historically and socially under the conditions granted by the dominant society. The archive creates order from the detritus of political and material expansion and presents it as representative of the whole, rather than as a select product of its operational ideologies. This artificial framework, subject to coercion and subordination, must be recognized as the construct it is before the source of its influence on the interpretation of history can be understood.

The reordering of historical documents in an archive both assigns power and denies it. In collecting works from their original environs, the texts are overwritten by an alien ideology and assume a degree of being, authorization in the official sense, that elevates and isolates them. The danger to historical inquiry becomes the loss of orientation within culture and its texts by objects of study placed within the sphere of the archons and subject to their influence.

The archontic power, which also gathers the functions of unification, of identification, of classification, must be paired with what we will call the power of consignation. By consignation, we do not mean, in the ordinary sense of the word, the act of assigning residence or of entrusting so as to put into reserve (to consign, to deposit), in a place and on a substrate, but here the act of consigning through gathering into signs. It is not only the traditional consignation, that is, the written proof, but what all consignation begins by presupposing. Consignation aims to coordinate a single corpus, in a system or a synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration. (Derrida 10)

This consignation, as a collection as well as a valuation, is the underlying power of the archon: the potential to overwrite the actual social and cultural position of the individual author or text with the dominant collective ideology represented within the archive as a whole. The control of the object’s meaning, in a literal sense as well as symbolically, passes from the author or owner and into the realm of the ideological and the political. Coordination of the materials into a dominant configuration, and the removal or suppression of materials that do not articulate that ideal, effaces the original meaning and reality of the text and isolates it. This is “presupposing” the consignation of the materials, the proof of its value and meaning is not only in the text itself and the material existence it represents, but also in the order and value assigned to it that is to be accepted rather than interpreted. This symbolic valuation changes not only the meaning of the material text but also the decoding of the society and material culture that produced it.

The ordinal term for an interpretation of archival history would then be the consignation of the materials. As noted above, the archives effectively erase the signs of previous readers and intent and reinscribe the texts with the ideological symbols of the archonic society. The materials within the archive are therefore gathered into both physical and symbolic orders that deeply influence their interpretation within the archive and alter their meaning in their original subject positions. This reassignment, de facto cultural consignation, invalidates the original position of the work as a cultural referent and limits the ability of the scholar to move beyond the merely material representation of what it is and to see what it was in its original state.

Through their reordering of the texts, archons create a new system or synchronicity outside of textual and contextual realities of their material construction and social role. The concept of archival consignation, beyond elevating a select number of texts to the level of canonicity, implies value being assigned to the texts that have been consigned to the archive. The “coordination” foregrounded by Derrida’s analysis calls into question the ideological assumptions of those who consign to the archives any texts under scholarly scrutiny. By Derrida’s definition, the “modern” archive is, as it now stands, the complete set of historical and social documents collected, privileged or repressed, based on the ideological postions of the archons. This fact is important in the case of subject cultures, such as the Irish after the flight of the earls, since the archons controlling textual artifacts from “dangerous” or “subversive” cultures are often members of the same society who sought to stamp out the ideologies represented by the texts. The most direct threat to historical inquiry within the archive is then the disassociation of such texts from their original cultures and the subjective scrutiny with which individual representatives are handled.

The question of historicity and historiography, the difference between accuracy and value, must then be addressed. The question is contained within the concept and application of the current sense of the “archive” and is reflected in its specialized vocabulary:

In their epistemology, in their historiography, in their operations as well as in their object, what should the classical archivists or historians make of the distinction between…“repression” and “suppression”? If this distinction has any relevance, it will be enough to disrupt the tranquil landscape of all historical knowledge, of all historiography, and even of all self-consistent “scholarship.” (Derrida 23)

The differentiation between two negatively interpreted terms, repression and suppression, disrupts “all historical knowledge” and is key to Derrida’s argument against the archive as a source of objective knowledge. In the usage of either term, there is a substantial negative subtext, though repression has come to represent what others do to the culture, and the archive has attempted to rehabilitate the use of “suppression” to more positive ends. The use of either term, and historians’ unwillingness to differentiate the two as represented by their relative interchangeability within modern scholarship depending on the ideological position of the critic while retaining a positioning subtext, represents the same effect on the materials to which they are applied.

Once understood, the consignations of the archive and the ideological reinscriptions they represent are not inescapable. To approach the subject as a material product, to bypass the ideological judgments and focus on the subject in isolation, creates a viable means of bypassing the established history and examining the statements of the subject themselves. Examining the product of a specific individual, such as the poetry of Bridget O’Donnell, requires not only separating the material text from the archive, but also duplicating the conditions under which the texts were created.

It is helpful in this context to consider Ireland as essentially two countries in the early modern period, the localized (though spreading) English Pale and Gaelic Ireland. The sites of interaction between the two serve as examples of how these ideological devices are able to reproduce themselves and reinscribe their functions within the structure and superstructure of a given state. It should be noted, in the case of the Irish aristocrats, that these structures were rooted not in a popular conception of the state, but in a much more traditionalist and post-medieval model edging toward that of the modern nation-state. This liminal situation is closer to nacent capitalism than to the true medieval model, placing the ruling classes of the island at a disadvantage for the dissemination of their power base. This difference at first seems semantic, but is important in understanding the failure of the system to reproduce itself adequately in the face of external pressures from alternate ideologies.

The structuralist approach of Althusserian interpretation provides a global view of the state of Ireland circa 1607 and permits the reader to position O’Donnell within a larger schema. Althusser’s concept of inescapable ideological apparatuses in their myriad forms of agency and reinforcement resonates within Irish society in this period. Specifically, this moment in Irish history represents the confluence of two distinct state organizations and the sublimation of one by the other. The English ideological victory can be seen in terms of the reproduction of the ideology and the efficacy of their programme as compared to that of the native Irish, recasting the issue in material and historiological terms.

The failure of the native ideologies to lead to conclusive or successful revolution speaks to Parsons’s theories of social survival. According to Parsons, the lack of revolution or the maintenance of the established order is less associated with the ideological schemas Althusser proposes, than dictated by the resistance to instabilities within the culture (DiTomaso 21). This urge toward survival rather than revolution, resistance rather than revolt, is more in line with the individual interests and positions of women such as O’Donnell, whose cross-cultural connections place them simultaneously in and out of the cultures in which they operate. The position of the individual between these systems has less to do with class and status, but rather with the interrelations between the social structures. The failure of the authorized histories to fully integrate the social structures of the period to their interpretation of the individual arises from this oversimplification of the context. However, as Althusser and later critics remind us, in the study of history and of any culture, there is not a singular relationship between the superstructures and their bases, but rather a multiplicity of relationships dependent on the subject’s position within these structures.

For the modern reader to effectively place O’Donnell within her society, it is also necessary to examine how she and her contemporaries placed themselves within their societies on a daily basis. Such biographical contextualization necessitates examining the formation of the collective identities of these women, as per Spivak, as well as the formation of the historiographical whole. The creation of collective identities must be tempered by the limitations of the modern archive and the distance from the original time and materials. This distance, further distorted by the state of the archives, is the final barrier to fully engaging with Irish women writers, such as O’Donnell, on their own terms. These are not insurmountable barriers, but must be deconstructed as thoroughly as they have been raised.

Underlying the archival materials, and the Althusserian interpretations of the social structures and ideological mechanisms of both the Irish and the English, is the position of the subject itself within society. These identities are fluid, dependent not only on the identification of the self within the given structures, but also on the creation of collectivities and redefining identifications within and between each structure. In the case of O’Donnell, the creation and re-creation of the self is a matter of necessity for both social positioning and survival. It is her association and construction of cultural identities that define her, not strictly her identification within her class, her religion, or her defined ethnicity.

The historical O’Donnell and the cultural O’Donnell are representative of two separate identities, each represented in the archive and serving as both the teleological foundation of historicization if Habermas and Derrida are correct and the ontological origins of identity as it has been preserved. The construction of multiple biographies resonates with Spivak’s analysis of the role of women’s writings in the construction and deconstruction of empiric spaces when she describes “identity as a wound, exposed by the historically hegemonic languages, for those who have learned the double-binding” of writing in the conqueror’s language (770). This written wound, open to inspection and authorization outside the body and the body politic, is then the visible aspect of the identity(ies) that can be used as a basis for reconstructing a biography and self-constructed reality of women writers such as O’Donnell.

The English O’Donnell and the Irish O’Donnell, as presented in the available histories and archival materials, are representative of the cultural aspects both assigned to her and those which she sought for herself. These are not in themselves fully formed identities, as they can be read today, but are the avatars of O’Donnell’s subject positioning within each culture. The formations and apparatuses of culture are themselves shaped by currents within their society that predate the individual and irrevocably influence the interpretation of them.

[I]nstitutions in culture must precomprehend an institution or instituting of culture, not simply as a chronologically prior event but as a philosophically subtending layer. In fact at this level, continuous with the possibility of being in the world, “culture” is one of the many names that one bestows upon the trace of being othered from nature, and by so naming, effaces the trace. This intimate proximate level is already sexed and ready for the supplement of gender, like that other most intimately distanced text of culture, the so-called experience of the inside of the body. However we narrativize the difference-deferment of cultural identity or the subjectship of culture, in this place culture is a word like value in Marx, simple and contentless, immediately codable as ground of difference.
(Spivak 775)

The deferment of cultural identity based on the presuppositions and concurrent relevancy of the apparatuses of the culture effectively removes the individual’s freedom to construct identities that are seen as being at odds with the cultural and historical identities enforced by the dominant interpretive ideologies. The English O’Donnell must therefore claim in her letters to the Lord Mayor of Dublin to need an interpreter to converse with her tenants, as the culture dictated that a “good” woman of English descent would not abase herself by speaking Gaelic. The external narritivization of this identity is what is preserved within the archives and is taken as the representative truth, even as it belies its origins. Recalling Dunnigan’s observations of the double marginalization of Gaelic women, O’Donnell by her heritage and class is immediately coded as “other” within the English cultural system as she is not truly “English” in the accepted sense and is a landed woman in the time of masculine imperialism. Within the English order, the major source of contention is the Irishness of her origin, regardless of the professed loyalties of her constructed identity as staged within the culture.

The issue of origin is extremely relevant to the discussion of women, such as O’Donnell, who needed to function in both Anglo and Irish spheres of influence. The staging of the self as a demonstrative act cannot be ignored. As Spivak notes:

A most tenacious name, as well as the strongest account of the agency or mechanics of the staging of experience-in-identity is “origin”: “I perform my life this way because my origin stages me so.” National origin, ethnic origin. And, more pernicious: “You cannot help acting this way because your origin stages you so.” The notion of origin is as broad and robust and full of affect as it is imprecise.

While the status of Ireland as kingdom or colony in the early modern period is a subject of semantics and debate, the Anglo-colonialist mindset referenced by Spivak is formed prior to the conquest of Ireland and bears heavily on the interpretation of themselves and of the Irish. O’Donnell’s subjective nature is complicated for the English as she claims to be one of them and is able to function within their strictures, while still being nationally Irish in the eyes of the bureaucracy. The suspicions aroused by her colonial origin are clearly evident in the accusations leveled against her of receiving funds from her exiled husband and relatives, delivered by a visiting priest. These charges were vigorously denied by O’Donnell, whose assertions of her own Englishness were recorded in official documents as late as 1609, including in her appeal to James I for the restoration of her husband’s lands to her control (Casway 60). While these documents provide the material historian with evidence of O’Donnell’s self-positioning within the English culture, this was not the only culture within which she functioned, and is only a minor part of her complete identity.

As both a woman and, to the Irish mind, of English descent, O’Donnell must also justify her position as a Gaelic-speaking Catholic landholder within her own native society. While many of the official Irish documents have been lost after the archival fire of 1922, O’Donnell’s poetry can be used as an archival basis from which to reconstruct aspects of her subjective position within the Irish framework. Her best-known poem “A mhacoimh dhealbhas an dan” (O young man who composes the poem), is an answer to a poem sent to her by a suitor in the period immediately preceding her engagement to the earl of Tyrconnell. The suitor’s poem is written in dan direach, the meter of traditional bardic poetry, and the actual composition is frequently attributed to the bard O’Hussey, based on similarities between the final poem and similar love poems found in the bard’s working manuscripts. The poem by O’Hussey was sent to O’Donnell shortly before her marriage and signed with the name of Cuchonnacht, a minor lord who was actively courting O’Donnell prior to her engagement. Katherine Simms’s analysis of the circumstances surrounding O’Donnell’s response summarizes both Cuchonnacht’s purchased composition, and for the vigor in O’Donnell’s response, is typical of the structuralist analysis of the work.

The poem (sent by Cuchonnacht) was in faultless, ornamented dán díreach and evoked a verse reply attributed to Bridget reproaching Cuchonnacht with dishonesty. If he had addressed her with inept, amateur verse (dán bog) like everyone else, he would have made a better impression. (Simms 36)

While the purchase of love poems was common among the Irish gentry, the desire to be addressed outside of the traditions of her class speaks to O’Donnell’s position simultaneously within and excluded from the Irish nobility. While the daughter of landowners, and later married to a Gaelic lord, her origins were as concerning to the Irish as they were to the English. The rejection of the bardic convention offered by her suitor and the desire to be addressed in the common forms indicates an awareness of the duality of her position. Simple acceptance of the poem as the work of the suitor would culturally mark her as a ignorant of social conventions, while rejection of the poem or refuting it with similarly purchased poetry would isolate her from her constructed Irish identity, which is integral to the culturally grounded response she uses to negotiate between her constructs.

Of particular interest to the discussion of the poem as representative of O’Donnell’s Irish identity are the opening stanzas of the poem, written as Simms notes, in the dan bóg vernacular style often associated with women’s poetry in the period.

A mhacoimh dhealbhas an dán
Tig aníos ar scáth na sgol;
An dán lér chuiris do chlú,
Maith a dheanamh, is tú id’ thocht

Na Roinn-se do-rinne sibh,
Adéarthaoi rinn, a fhir ghráidh,
Nach tú do dhlighfeadh an duas
Dá dteagmhah a luach ‘nar láimh.

(O young man who composes the poem,
Stop sheltering behind the poets.
The poem, by means of which you spread your fame,
Is well made, while you remain silent.

These quatrains which you made,
It would be said to me, dear man,
That it is not you who would deserve the prize [for them]
If I should happen to have the price of them in my hand.)
(Qtd. in Davidson 167)

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin reinforces the traditionalist view of O’Donnell’s attempt to interpret the bardic and neo-bardic styles by noting that “[B]oth she and her lover, as amateurs, are capable of judging a virtuoso performance if not of equaling it” (Ní Chuilleanáin 113). The difficulty of Ní Chuilleanáin’s commentary lies in the assumption that O’Donnell is attempting to place herself on equal footing with the bard O’Hussey in the composition of her reply. Instead, the argument can be made that O’Donnell is placing herself firmly within the feminine tradition of the lower style. Structurally, the poem is not imitative of the original, nor does it cite the source work as would be required in the dán díreach, as imitation and dissection, as both tribute and criticism, are intimately tied to true bardic responses. O’Donnell grounds herself firmly within the defined tradition, as is appropriate for her sex and social position within her cultural sphere, and does not presume to judge or imitate the work of the professional bard. This interpretation would be much more in keeping with both O’Donnell’s identification of herself among the Irish as an Irish woman of good character and education, as well as representing Spivak’s interpretation of nationalist subject positioning outside the archive.

O’Donnell deliberately positions herself through her use of stylistics and cultural rhetoric in the poem. Within the Irish tradition, the written word was assumed to be the true voice of the author, even when purchased for the occasion. This sense of cultural autobiography through art is equally important today, despite the intervening layers of interpretation and isolation within the archives. In the establishment of a cultural biography, Spivak claims that “In the field of rational analysis, a feeling of recognized kinship is more desirable than nationalism” (Spivak 773). This recognizable kinship, the expression of cultural awareness and shared history, is what O’Donnell represents in her poem. By grounding herself within the lower poetic form and claiming the Irish feminine poetic tradition as her own, she is able to express her position within the culture as a whole in two stanzas. Her knowledge of history, and the acknowledgement of it through the poem, also speaks to the duality of O’Donnell’s position. As Spivak observes on the writing of identity:

“History lurks in it somewhere,” I had written, but now I think that sentence would have to be revised: History slouches in it, ready to comfort and kill. Yet to feel one is from an origin is not a pathology. It belongs to that group of grounding mistakes that enable us to make sense of our lives. But the only way to argue for origins is to look for institutions, inscriptions and then to surmise the mechanics by which such institutions and inscriptions can stage such a particular style of performance. This preserves and secures the minority voice in Anglo cultures and also reveals the manipulation of the very same minorities into superpower identification in the violent management of global cultural politics.
(Spivak 781)

This acknowledged duality of history, as a living thing with the capacity to both comfort and kill, is not passive. Access to it through the poem requires active engagement on the part of O’Donnell and her use of the “institutions and inscriptions” that invoke it in the work. These formal cultural apparatuses evoke images of Althusser’s formalism, but transcend them in their redeployment for specific ends. O’Donnell does not seek to equal the poetry of O’Hussey in her response, but rather to speak in her own voice from her specific subject position and to prove her own validity within the culture as woman and writer. It is here that the “minority voice” speaks not only to the Anglocentric, or masculine, majority but also to the Irish self O’Donnell seeks to deploy.

The reconstruction of the subject positions of early modern women such as O’Donnell is a complex negotiation of the archives, social and political history, and individual identity in the global sense. If the archives are to be seen as the basis for all legitimate history and provide a material record of the lives and work of these women, the limitations and prescriptions of the archive must be understood and circumvented in order to reinsert them into the realities of their societies. Beyond the archival materials, the construction of the socio-economic and political structures of a divided Ireland must be taken into account when evaluating the interpretations of the lives and works of these women. This is complicated by the multiplicity of specific identities they have constructed for themselves in an effort to realize their own individual place within those societies. There is no singular teleology in the materials available to reconstruct the realities of their social worlds, but rather a multiplicity of positions reminiscent of those visible in the postmodern and postcolonial third world today. Despite privileged positions within their own spheres, the archival reframing and historical revisions have effectively placed these women on par with the modern subaltern. Their voices are present but are only audible when they speak to the centers of power, not from them.

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