Molly Mullin. Feminist Studies. Volume 17, Issue 1. Spring 1991.
In 1988, the city government of Dublin announced the one thousandth year of Dublin history, an event they entitled the “Dublin Millennium.” Undeterred by quibbles with their dating, the Millennium Committee sponsored numerous public festivities—parades, the erection of civic monuments, and reenactments of historical and literary events. The celebrations were timed to coincide with the busy summer tourist season and the slogan “Celebrating a Thousand Years” was used to sell—in the fashion of a Royal Wedding—a wide array of souvenir items, including coffee mugs, t-shirts, and plates in official Millennium shops. Commercial advertisers and the Catholic church were quick to take up the “Thousand Years” slogan and competed to define more precisely what there was to celebrate: Guinness trucks carried signs proclaiming “The Best Part of a Thousand Years,” and a Dublin church sponsored a multimedia tourist attraction chronicling “One Thousand Years of Christian Dublin.”
There were also more marginal, counterhegemonic representations of the Millennium, including several produced by Irish feminists. Among the counterrepresentations of the city’s past was a poster which attempted both to commemorate former Dublin women—a few who are not well known, but could be—and to protest against the consistent exclusion of women from the more widely distributed representations of Dublin history. In the middle of Dublin’s Millennium summer, the poster became the focus of controversy when an article appeared in the Irish Times reporting that shopkeepers were refusing to sell it—not because of its alternative version of history but rather on account of its scandalous graphic design. The story, and the article reporting it, indicate a struggle both to select and to interpret images of the Irish past.
Ms. Cathleen O’Neill, a mother of five from Kilbarrack, conceived of the idea of a poster called “The Spirit of Woman” after she saw the official Millenium poster, “Faces of Dublin.” Every face on the poster is male, so Ms. O’Neill decided to create a poster of women’s faces pertinent to the Millenium.
She admits to being “slightly bold” when she decided to use a slim, decorative border of sheela-na-gigs on her poster. The sheelas are discernible only at a second glance. “I was reclaiming a positive woman’s symbol for the Millenium,” Ms. O’Neill says.
The sheela-na-gig is a quaint medieval fertility symbol depicting woman showing her genetals [sic].
The article only inadvertently hints that sheela-na-gigs may have more than one meaning and that attempts to define them, like attempts to represent Irish history, are selective. Although the author claims that sheela-na-gigs are “quaint medieval fertility symbols”, to the shopkeepers they are scandalous, and to the poster’s designer they are “a positive woman’s symbol” to be reclaimed. Yet despite these suggestions of multiple and contested meanings, several days after this article appeared, a similar version of the story and the accompanying definition were repeated to me by a young professional Dublin woman. “Sheela-na-gigs,” she explained, “are primitive fertility symbols.”
My intention here is not to offer a better definition of the sheela-na-gig. Instead, I would like to use the disagreements surrounding it as a way of demonstrating connections among theories of meaning, feminist consciousness, and historical representation. Cathleen O’Neill’s Millennium poster provides an example of how these topics can intersect. But by emphasizing discordant beliefs, I do not mean to imply that the sheela-na-gig, however one defines it, is a common topic of discussion among Irish feminists or among Irish people in general. Public discussion of the sheelas’ appearance in the midst of Dublin’s Millennium was limited to several columns of newsprint over the course of several weeks, in addition, perhaps, to a few jokes and pub conversations. It is entirely possible, in fact, that the controversy was itself a media invention. Perhaps no shopkeepers ever seriously meant to censor Cathleen O’Neill’s poster (and if they declined to sell it, it may have been because they deemed it rather amateurish, as opposed to shocking), but rumor provided an opportunity to poke fun at a stuffy, conservative, more prudish Ireland; more cosmopolitan Dubliners could titter over the affair while distancing themselves from the backwardness of both the shopkeepers’ morality and the “primitive” sheela-na-gigs. Regardless of the story’s veracity and the short-lived attention paid to O’Neill’s poster, however, the discourses surrounding this peculiar naked figure can be instructive about a number of topics crucial to feminist theory, as well as to a more general understanding of the relationship between representations of history and political empowerment.
In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir noted the rarity with which women espouse a political subjectivity of their own. Attempting to explain the difficulty with which women come to say “we,” acknowledging a unity of political interests, she pointed to their living “dispersed among the males” and claimed that, unlike proletarians or religious, racial, or national collectivities, they could thus have no sense of a common history of themselves as women. Although more recent feminist scholars would take issue with de Beauvoir’s account of historical processes of women’s oppression, many would support her emphasis on the politically empowering aspects of a historically defined identity.
The emergence and expression of a feminist historical consciousness is not, however, impeded only by the dispersal of women among men. Historical consciousness and the definition of identities of any sort appear to be a matter of continual contest and negotation, rather than deriving automatically from “historical events” or political interests. Recent attention to the uses of history, in the definition of national and other collective identities, has focused particularly on the “invention of tradition.” “Tradition,” it seems, is often a convenient tool of legitimation, and it often matters little whether the practice in question is, in some objective sense, new or old. Unfortunately, however, there have been relatively few studies of the way in which assumptions about tradition and public representations of national pasts relate to gendered subjectivities. If we no longer assume that there is only one proper past, one history, but rather multiple and always selective versions of histories, what are the implications for the pursuit of historically defined feminist identities? What are the specific tools with which a sense of a feminist collective past is produced? Or suppressed? How does the emergence of a feminist historical consciousness mesh with other types of historically defined subjectivities?
In Ireland, questions about consciousness and identity have a particular urgency for feminist politics. During the same summer in which Dublin held its one thousandth birthday party, Irish feminists expressed bitter feelings of political defeat. One woman who had long been active in feminist politics claimed that feminism in Ireland had “reached its lowest point in twenty years.” Another woman I spoke with—who hesitated to identify herself as a feminist, given the term’s particularly strong potential for alienation in Ireland—shared the sentiment: “We’ve become like the Stepford wives,” she said, “smiling and professing happiness, but in fact, these have been terrible years for women.” In a review of the recent history of “The Contemporary Women’s Movement in the Republic of Ireland,” Ailbhe Smyth recounted a “litany of defeats,” including the 1983 constitutional “Fetal Rights” amendment, the failure of the 1986 campaign to legalize divorce, the 1988 Irish Supreme Court ruling against clinics trying to provide women with information and counseling about abortions obtained outside the country, as well as the cases of young women who had suffered public humiliation—and in at least one case, death—as a result of illegitimate pregnancies. “Over the past few years,” Smyth concluded, “women have been subjected to unprecedented social, psychic, and moral battering.” ln addition to the list of public defeats, she noted that Irish feminism had also been wracked with its own internal divisions—those between “reformist and radical perspectives, socialist and radical feminists, nationalists and nonaligned women.”
Yet in the midst of all this cause for gloom, Smyth reports that the repression and division have been accompanied “somewhat surprisingly by an unprecedented blossoming of cultural expression by women”—painting, publishing, theater, writing groups meeting in public housing projects. Whether all the women participating in these activities would identify themselves with a “feminist movement” is rather unlikely, but then it is perhaps a mistake to look for what might be called “feminist discourse”—or at least discourse which dissents from hegemonic ideologies of gender—only in organized overtly political forms. Although the fragmentation of organized feminist political activity—”political” in the more usual sense—reflects a grim situation for Irish feminism, feminist struggles are nonetheless still being waged in Ireland, and oppositional, feminist discourses are still being produced.
A consideration of culturally encoded historical knowledge has especially important implications for feminist cultural politics. In Ireland, feminist contestations of received definitions, meanings, and modes of representation have included challenges to notions about the Irish national past, because much of the power of the prevailing hegemonic order rests on control over authoritative representations of history, both public historical spectacles as well as the more quotidian structuring of time, including notions of what is temporal and what is not; what is ordered into the “past,” “present,” and “future”; what counts as “backward,” “primitive,” or “modern.” The sheela-na-gig on O’Neill’s allegedly scandalous poster, although an exceptional image with which to depict Irish history, is nonetheless instructive about more hegemonic modes of historical representation, modes of representation which are a part of the specific conditions with which Irish feminists must contend.
The Irish Times story about O’Neill’s poster demonstrates that struggles over historical representation are also struggles over identities. When O’Neill contested popular notions of Dublin history, she was also challenging the dominant ways of constructing her gender. Similarly, competing versions of Irish national history may involve struggles to define the island as one nation or two. The connection between definitions of identity and notions of history means that ideologies of historical representation are closely bound up with ideologies of meaning. Just as it is generally assumed that there is one true version of history, it is similarly assumed that there are true, stable meanings and definitions—whether of genders or nations. In keeping with such assumptions, public spectacles like Dublin’s Millennium rarely call attention to their political bias or the selectivity of their representation. Similarly, definitions of “symbols”—such as that offered by the Irish Times journalist—disallow the mobility and multiplicity of meanings.
During the mid-nineteenth century, the stone sculptures found on the doorways of medieval churches and castles were described quite differently by scholars and collectors of Irish antiquities. Although they would generally concur with the designation of sheela-na-gigs as “primitive,” publications of the Royal Irish Academy from the 1840s to 1860s offer a variety of additional descriptions: sheelas were “fetishes, or charms to keep off the evil eye,” “grotesque” or “repulsive” female figures, and even “stone idol[s] of truly Eastern character.” There seems to have been no mention of either fertility or quaintness.
Contrary to twentieth-century assumptions that “primitive” objects and practices should be explained in terms of what they “mean” or what they “symbolize,” nineteenth-century discussions of sheelas were more concerned with their possible uses. Frequently offered explanations were that sheelas served as a terrifying—or at least thoroughly disgusting—means of protection against evil forces. Only during the 1930s did scholars begin to connect sheelas with “fertility,” an interesting shift especially in light of the familialism then being inscribed in the social policies of the new Irish state. More recently, academic interpretations have reiterated nineteenth-century speculations about protection; for supporting evidence, one archaeologist turns to Irish folktales in which women ward off the mythic figure Cuchulainn with the sight of their vulvas. Although in keeping with recent assumptions that “primitive” objects can be adequately defined in terms of their “meaning,” the 1967 Shell Guide to Ireland, more appropriately perhaps than the Irish Times journalist, defines “sheela-na-gig” as “an obscene female figure of uncertain significance.”
The guidebooks, however, are unlikely to mention the recent resurrection of sheela-na-gigs on the part of Irish feminists. Almost emblematic of Irish feminism, sheelas have appeared on newsletters, book covers, and announcements, as well as on Cathleen O’Neill’s Millennium poster. In an essay on the iconography of the vagina, Shirley Ardener makes a number of points that help to explain the more universal aspects of their current revival. Analyzing such disparate practices as ritual obscenities among the Bakole and Azande and feminist works of modern art, Ardener argues that vagina imagery has been used as an attempt to reevaluate the physical marks of otherness, a strategy of resistance similar to that of the negritude movement in its efforts to reverse negative evaluations of Black skin color. Ardener quotes a number of feminist artists who explicitly identified this type of resistance as their aim. According to Judy Chicago, known for her multimedia artworks which use vaginalike imagery to celebrate a female heritage or tradition: “the woman artist, seeing herself as loathed, takes that very mark of her otherness and by asserting it as the hallmark of her iconography, establishes a vehicle by which to state the truth and beauty of her identity.”
Such efforts to revalorize the feminine have been subjected to numerous critiques, most legitimately on the grounds that they tend to reproduce stereotypes that have more often been used to countenance oppression than to resist it. They are the quintessential tactics of what has become known—especially by its critics—by the term “cultural feminism,” an ideology summed up by Linda Alcoff as that of “a female nature or essence reappropriated by feminists themselves in an effort to revalidate undervalued female attributes.” Although recognizing that feminist struggle must involve redefinition of identities and meanings, “cultural feminism”—like negritude or “cultural nationalism”—sometimes assumes, problematically, that oppositional definitions and identities can become universal and eternal. Embracing “the physical mark of otherness”—whether with sheela-na-gigs or paintings—runs the risk of reinforcing assumptions that gender naturally follows from the physical and that women are especially determined by their bodies. It could also be argued that the association of sheela-na-gigs with fertility—however disputed the archaeology—could provide support for the primary identification of women as mothers. In Ireland, where the press consistently follows the mention of a woman’s name with “mother of x number of children,” and where the state and church hold a particularly daunting power over reproduction and sexuality, this is a matter of considerable concern.
Ardener, however, makes an important point about vagina iconography which should serve as a warning against dismissing its use at a particular moment as the expression of essentializing ideology. Although feminist artists like Chicago have tended to promote a systematic ideology of reverence for the female body, Ardener argues that it is precisely the irreverence and vulgarity of feminist vagina imagery which is most effective in specific contexts. As an example of the subversive possibilities of deliberate vulgarity, Ardener quotes Germaine Greer extolling the political virtues of “sheer impudence of speech and gesture.” Impudence, I would add, is always contextual and relies heavily on the unexpected. The use of sheela-na-gigs should, then, be considered an intervention which may have strategic value in particular contexts. The same case has been made for negritude: Aimé Césaire, both defending and critiquing his own neologism, asserts his opposition to “building an ideology on negritude” but can still defend its value as “a concrete, not abstract, coming to consciousness.”
“Concrete” expressions of feminist consciousness and a humorous, witty irreverence can be found in the work of one of Ireland’s most controversial journalists, Nell McCafferty. In her frequent newspaper and magazine columns, McCafferty critically examines the daily effects of power on the lives of individuals struggling with gender, class, and colonial domination. In an introduction to a collection of her essays, McCafferty describes her role on an Irish television show as a sort of “feminist court jester, encouraging women to laugh at the silly things that were said and written about us.” Hers is necessarily a dark humor, however; in the same introduction, she echoes the persistent lament of Irish feminists that the 1980s were a disastrous period for Irish women and claims she has only been “whistling past the graveyard.” Her response to the reports about the shopkeepers’ boycott of O’Neill’s alternative Millennium poster was made with her usual impudence: the column featured a cartoon of a sheela wearing a nun’s veil. In the accompanying essay, McCafferty connected the censorship of sheela-na-gigs to the censorship of information about sexuality and the body, particularly the female body. She protests a formal, institutional censorship as well as a more subtle, culturally pervasive one. “If you have not by now heard of Síle na Gig [the Irish spelling],” she begins, “you cannot tell your arse from your elbow. Then again, given the nature of Catholic-controlled education in the Republic of Ireland…it is possible that that is precisely what you cannot do.” McCafferty goes on to argue that sheelas should be considered a joyful expression of physical difference between female and male. Yet this is not simply an assertion of the beauty of the female body—McCafferty moves from celebrating difference to argue that a sheela-na-gig is a perfectly appropriate decoration for a poster commemorating one thousand years of Dublin history; in marked contrast to the distancing adjectives used in the Irish Times article—for example, “quaint” and “primitive”—McCafferty claims an ordinariness, a familiarity for sheelas. In a final sales pitch for O’Neill’s poster, she urges her readers not to wait “another thousand years to find out the difference [between female and male bodies]. Bring Síle home, into every Irish home, where she belongs.”
Despite McCafferty’s defense of O’Neill’s “Spirit of Woman” poster and its controversial decoration, she cannot be neatly pegged as a “cultural” or “radical” feminist. Although the feminist deployment of sheela-na-gigs is similar, in its impropriety, to Chicago’s artworks and Greer’s Female Eunuch, it does not signal a systematic ideology of “cultural feminism.” It is, rather, a gesture with contingent meaning, offered within a particular historical and cultural context, a context in which representations of history must be contested in order to construct an alternative historical and political consciousness. For Irish feminism, recovering sheela-na-gigs from a censored past is an attempt to subvert the dominant images of Irish history and to construct a positive political identity, a way of implicitly turning to the past to forge a connection in the present between the adjectives “Irish” and “feminist.” Whether sheelas ever had anything to do with fertility or not, in present day Ireland they are potentially subversive, both Irish and Other.
The otherness of sheelas is, in an Irish context, in many ways more complex than that of Ardener’s examples, because they are not only associated with the feminine and the tabooed, but also with the precolonial Irish, the ancient, and the pagan. All these aspects were recently foregrounded in a caption accompanying a sheela on an announcement for a symposium on Irish women’s art and poetry held in San Francisco. Although there are numerous ways in which the term “sheela-na-gig” can be translated from the Irish (sheela-na-gig being already an Anglicization), it is significant that the definition selected for the caption reads “Shelia, the laughing one, an ancient Celtic symbol.” In addition to suggesting an impish reversal of negative evaluations of the female body and a protest against the censorship of knowledge of bodies, the definition implies the possibility of a specifically Irish feminist tradition, using the sheela as a symbol of continuity.
As a claim for continuity in Irish feminist resistance, however, the sheela-na-gig makes an ambiguous appeal to “tradition” as a means of legitimation. Not all appeals to antiquity are equally authoritative or legitimating. “The traditional” can be as negatively laden as it can be positive—what, after all, are the boundaries between a legitimating, positively valued tradition and the “backward,” or the “primitive”? When Irish feminists use sheelas to suggest a tradition or resistance, they use an image that carries the baggage of the “backward” and “primitive” as well as the “traditional.” And, as the Irish Times article so well illustrates, sheelas can even be relegated to the “quaint.” To be effective, then, the feminist use of the sheela-na-gig entails a reversal of much more than a negative evaluation of the female body and sexuality. It also demands a revision of prevailing oppositions of the primitive and the modern, past and present, the Christian and the pagan.
Most importantly, the sheela-na-gig demands a more general revision of prevailing popular constructions of Irish history. In the dominant historical popular consciousness, lewd ladies fit uncomfortably, if at all, on the doorways of medieval churches. Popular images of the Irish past—found on greeting cards, school textbooks, multimedia tourist attractions, in the discourse of everyday life—typically construct a version of Irish history in which women are absent, insignificant, or domestic and dainty creatures who lean on the arms of powerful men. These images help to legitimate and naturalize the present social order, announcing the inevitability of the way things are, including the recently reasserted constitutional bans on divorce and abortion. They also help to marginalize feminist discourse, constituting demands for change as an aberration of modern times, or, at best, a privilege of modernity.
The exclusion of women from popular representations of Irish history presents particular problems for both the development of feminist consciousness in Ireland and for connecting feminist and Irish identities. Writing about the relationship between feminism and the accepted canon of Irish literature, Nuala O’Faolain describes an uneasy relationship between feminists and received notions of “Irish history.” Not only are women usually excluded from Irish historical representation, but the situation is also complicated by the fact that the most recent wave of feminism in Ireland has relied heavily on authors and ideas from other countries, especially North America. Hence, not only do dominant versions of Irish history marginalize feminism in Ireland, but the impact of feminist writing from other countries has also problematized the relationship between Irish women and their national history, and made even more difficult the construction of a subjectivity that is both “Irish” and “feminist.” According to O’Faolain,
On the one hand, within the history of great literature, being Irish is to have a large, if vicarious, share in great triumphs. On the other hand, to women newly conscious of themselves, being Irish is neither here nor there, except to know that a vicarious share in male triumphs is no share at all. Inside feminism there is a desire to wipe history out: it was not ours, but the future might be. But inside feminists there are women, and women have always been forced to be reasonable and to compromise with the given facts. What is the relationship between conscious women and any history?
Although the urge to “wipe history out” may be a powerful one, some feminists have attempted to bridge the gap O’Faolain describes by rewriting history, by reinventing “the past.” Fortunately for Irish feminism, there is no shortage of material with which to construct alternative, counterhegemonic representations of Irish history. The association of gender equality and modernity is, in fact, particularly ironic in Ireland. According to Robin Morgan’s introduction to the section on “Ireland(s)” in Sisterhood Is Global, “Few peoples have as rich, preserved, and recorded a tradition of gynocratic myths, legends, and religio-philosophical beliefs as do the Irish…. Irish Folklore is a dense tapestry of faerie figures (such as the goddess faerie Niamh and the magic witch Scatbach, Queen of Darkness), legends and spells which encoded political and religious records of reverence for the female.” Although I would not want to characterize precolonial Ireland as a “gynocracy,” Irish folklore and history do contain a wealth of material in which gender is, at least, constructed quite a bit differently than in more recent cultural forms, such as twentieth-century Irish Catholicism or consumerism. Such information can be used to develop oppositional historical representations, in which gender at least has a history, and—of considerable importance in a country like Ireland—more specifically, a national history.
Academic history is one important site of feminist struggles to reinvent the Irish national past. Fighting against the canon of legitimate historical subjects, feminist historians have recently published works on the Irish women’s suffrage movement and on the role of women in the struggle for national independence. These works perform a similar role as the sheela-na-gigs in that they also help to construct a tradition of feminist resistance that is Irish, contradicting popular assumptions that struggles over gender politics were a product only of the 1960s and that they remain somehow foreign to Ireland. As some indication of how powerful and politically stifling such assumptions are in Ireland, the back cover blurb of Rosemary Owens’s history of the Irish suffrage movement begins by announcing their erroneousness: “When did the women’s movement start in Ireland—1960? 1970? WRONG—the first attempts at organising women to demand equal rights began in the 1870s….” In addition to rooting feminism in an older Irish soil, such alternative histories also contradict assumptions that gender equality is a natural consequence of modernity. Moreover, in their process of historical recovery, feminist historians expose the politically motivated censorship of dominant representations of Irish history.
Irish social history—whether explicitly feminist or not—can be used effectively to point out the irony of essentialist notions that the heterosexual nuclear family and conservative Catholic morality are timeless features of Irish social life. Arriving on the heels of a particularly vigorous turn-of-the-century feminism, and an independence movement with socialist feminist leaders, the 1937 Irish Constitution enshrined the patriarchal nuclear family as a cornerstone of the new state. “The State,” it proclaims:
recognises the Family as the natural, primary, and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law….
The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.
In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman [sic] gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.
The language of the Constitution illustrates, once again, the importance of struggles over definition. Not only does the Constitution assume the right to define “Family,” but it also assumes that “woman” can be used interchangeably with “mother,” and that both are automatically associated with domesticity.
Some Irish scholars have recently challenged assumptions that the Constitution’s values originate in a timeless, unchangingly religious and conservative rural Ireland. They argue that this sort of patriarchal familialism—whether expressed in the Constitution or in nationalist literature—is an ideology that developed partly in response to social and economic conditions resulting from British colonization and the nineteenth-century famine. The nuclear family, then, has little justifiable claim to Irish “tradition.” Indeed, one could make an easier case for a tradition of celibacy; in 1926, Ireland had the lowest marriage rates recorded for any country. The enormous growth of Catholic orders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has also been linked to colonial social and economic transformations. As for divorce, although still not permitted by law, and often assumed to be antithetical to the most fundamental of Irish values, one historian has claimed that in the history of modern Ireland, “if divorce was scarcely known…separation in its many guises was ubiquitous.” Irish historians have thus taken on the task of pointing out the discrepancies between “Images and Realities,” not only demonstrating that ideas about Ireland promoted by church and state have often been erroneous, but also demonstrating (even if sometimes not very deliberately) the strategic, inevitable selectivity of national self-representation.
Writing about Irish literature and history, Declan Kiberd has stated that for the Irish, “history is a form of science fiction, by which their scribes must rediscover in the endlessly malleable past whatever it is they are hoping to find in an ideal future.” This is as true in Ireland as anywhere, but persuasive representations of history are not restricted to the traditionally linear narratives of written texts, nor are they only the work of scribes. In the way that an individual may construct narratives of a life, an identity—with a photo here, an object of “sentimental value” there—bits and fragments of historical narratives as well as nonnarrative signs of the past are selectively produced continuously in everyday life. Millennium spectacles, statues and historical markers, exhibits in the National Museum, postage stamps—all of these produce notions of a collective past which in turn help to shape the future course of Irish history. The impressions of the past promoted with mass-produced images and public spectacles need to be seen as constructions of the present, serving present political purposes. It is not insignificant that until recently the National Museum’s collection of sheela-na-gigs remained in a corner of the museum basement, to be seen only by appointment, while the gold collars and bronze chests suggesting a glorious precolonial past filled the glass cases upstairs.
Because hegemonic representations of Irish history are not limited to those found in academic texts, feminist resistance must also resort to fragments of historical narratives, as well as to the guerrilla tactics of nonnarrative representations, such as sheela-na-gigs and alternative Millennium posters. These fragments of suggested historical narratives do not necessarily accompany systematic ideologies of cultural feminism or cultural nationalism—a sheela-na-gig, for instance, may appear without explanation on the cover of a newsletter devoted to eclectic feminist concerns. Similarly, the title of a feminist newsletter published in Dublin during the mid-seventies was “Banshee,” referring to the female figures who mourn the dead in traditional Irish folklore, although the newsletter itself had little direct concern with history or folklore—its pages were instead filled with discussions of pornography, access to contraception, and the role of women in trade unions. Other counterhegemonic historical productions lie somewhere in between academic linear narrative and nonnarrative sign; an example is the packet of materials recently published by an Irish feminist press and sold in bookstores. Entitled “Did Your Granny Have A Hammer?” the packet contains a collection of reprinted documents pertaining to the Irish women’s suffrage movement, including a feminist newspaper from 1912, along with cartoons, postcards, and a badge. The title itself suggest a genealogy of feminist resistance, drawing on the suffragettes’ strategy of smashing the windows of government office buildings. The collection, designed to be accessible to a wider audience than an academic history would be, is intended for use in schools, trade unions, and community groups.
Feminist counterdiscourse in Ireland occasionally involves a critique of the very process of historical production. Although feminist uses of sheela-na-gigs can be read as implicit critiques of commonly accepted notions about historical representation, the critique is made more directly in a recent play, which had its debut appropriately in the midst of the Millennium festivities. In “Shady Ladies”—the title connecting modern notions of sexual transgression and predation with the female “shades” of Irish folklore—playwright Mary Halpin employs a cast of characters absent from more typical versions of Irish history. Her Ladies intrude on the present of an actress being treated in a clinic for a nervous breakdown and paralysis—the metaphor of paralysis an appropriate one for the present state of Irish feminist organized politics. Not willing to leave the ailing actress with the numbing flow of her valium, VCR, and remote control TV, the Ladies tell a fragmented history of oppression and resistance to patriarchal domination, blurring traditional boundaries between the public and the private, and mocking “official” versions of national history and metonymic signs of Ireland sold to American tourists. As Grace O’Malley, the sixteenth-century Irish pirate, complains in the play: “They’ve wrenched women out of history or left us as pale shadows.” And Saint Brigid, turned into a “symbol of spring,” “a Christian personification of a pagan festival,” protests that it is Saint Patrick rather then she who has been exported around the globe as a symbol for Ireland: “Now when people think of Ireland they think of that blow-in Patrick and his stupid shamrock.” Not only does Halpin thus request a reselection of Irish national heroes, she also uses her alternative cast of characters to call the very notion of history into question. O’Malley asks us, “Do you know what history is?” And then answers: “History is an incestuous old man who has raped every one of his daughters.” Halpin’s voices of the past thus scorn the living’s historical consciousness, a consciousness constructed from television programs and the tourist industry as much as from history textbooks.
In the Republic of Ireland, an important part of what feminists are struggling against is the construction of an essentially Catholic and patriarchal Ireland, constructed in part as a form of resistance to British colonialism. Feminists are now left with the task of trying to redefine Catholicism, Ireland, or both. In attempting to do so, they necessarily produce alternative visions of the Irish past which must compete with the dominant historical constructions sponsored by the state and the popular media.
In an essay on Yeats and Irish cultural nationalism, Edward Said criticizes the attempts of many cultural revival movements to recover an imaginary past that is assumed to be somehow more authentic than the present. Said argues that cultural nationalist or revival movements tend to use only “images” of the past, while retreating from more truly historical understandings. I would argue, however, that we cannot expect political movements to restrict themselves to academic practices of historical production, especially when this is not what they most have to compete with. The Dublin city government’s representations of one thousand years of Dublin history were hardly less influential because experts contested the Millennium Committee’s calendar.
In their study of historical consciousness among the Tshidi in South Africa, John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff note that “historical consciousness is not confined to one expressive mode. It may be created and conveyed—with great subtlety and no less ‘truth’—in a variety of genres.” A similar point is made in an essay by the Birmingham School “Popular Memory Group,” which argues for a need to explore the ways in which “a knowledge of the past and present is produced in the course of everyday life” as well as the ways in which some versions of the past become dominant and others marginal. This requires expanding “the idea of historical production well beyond the limits of academic history writing. We must include all the ways in which a sense of the past is constructed in our society. These do not necessarily take a written or literary form. Still less do they conform to academic standards of scholarship or truthfulness. Academic history has a particular place in a much larger process….”
I would add that we especially need to explore ways in which a knowledge of the past helps to construct gender in the presenty as well as the ways in which nonacademic modes of feminist practice can work to produce oppositional forms of historical representation. It is helpful, but not sufficient, to work toward feminist historical consciousness with courses in women’s studies or women’s history. It is also not sufficient to produce only linear, textual narratives of alternative histories. Because representations of collective histories (of women, nations, individuals) are continually produced, reproduced, and contested in everyday life and culture, strategies for developing feminist historical consciousness must also include feminist representational practices, which will vary depending on the specific conditions under which feminist struggles must operate. Although it is not possible or desirable to attain permanent and universally shared meanings, values, or final representations of history, representation, definition, and meaning are still important sites of contest and struggle. Feminist cultural politics is necessarily oppositional and contextually contingent; it must, therefore, be flexible, diverse, and experimental.
As an experiment in subversive historical representation, Cathleen O’Neill’s sheela-na-gig rebels against constructions of Irish femininity in which women are meant to be chaste, passive, and invisible. In its refusal of these constructions, the sheela-na-gig also threatens to unravel various supporting narratives—particularly those in which the past is repressive for women, modernity is liberating, and in which the Catholic church has always sought the same control over women’s bodies as it does at present. Unfortunately, the image may be too easily dismissed as primitive, amusing, or quaint; yet it clarifies the broader struggle to construct a form of historical consciousness in which Irish feminism can exist. The importance, and difficulty, of that struggle should not be underestimated.