One of the distinctive features of eighteenth-century women’s poetry in Irish, is that it was composed and circulated primarily through oral recitation. Among the poems I have worked on for this project, not one has been preserved in the poet’s own hand. Many of these poets were not literate, at least not in Irish, and Irish-language scribes of the eighteenth century (almost all of whom were men), only occasionally sought to preserve women’s compositions. For these reasons, the extant corpus of women’s poetry in Irish is tiny in comparison with poetry written in English during the same period, or even in comparison with the body of Irish-language poetry written by men. Indeed, the texts available to us today are likely just a fraction of what was originally composed.
Women’s poetry, for the most part, occupied a very different social space from the Irish-language poetry being written by men. Most male poets in the eighteenth century were in fact amateurs, while many female poets were professionals. As a bean chaointe, or “keening woman,” she would be hired by families of the recently deceased to compose and sing poems at wakes and funerals. This ancient custom continued into the nineteenth century in some places and was essential to the social context in which women poets worked.
Through regular and frequent practice, professional keeners became adept at extempore composition, often relying on set formulae and motifs to fill out particular compositions. By their very nature, these compositions were occasional and thus rarely written down. However, a number of caointe, or “keens,” especially those on prominent figures, were committed to memory, circulated through oral recitation, and eventually written down in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. The corpus of Scottish Gaelic poems by women was preserved in much the same way.
Remarkably, some poems composed in the eighteenth century were not written down until the early decades of the twentieth century. For example, a well-known poem by Cáit de Búrca, composed in 1766 on the politically charged execution of her brother, Father Nicholas Sheehy, was first published in 1956. The source for the poem was a retired Gárda officer, James O’Neill of Galway, who had written the poem down from oral recitation by his late wife, Áine Ní Fhoghludha. As with many other Irish-language poems by women, the complicated process by which they were circulated, collected and preserved raises thorny questions of attribution. In other cases, such as “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” (The Keen for Art O’Leary), the process of oral circulation has meant that several, very different versions of the same poem compete for claims of authority.
As literary scholars, we are therefore often compelled to employ methodologies more typically employed by folklorists. Where documentary evidence contemporaneous to the time of composition is unavailable, we must instead rely on the evidence of local folklore accounts to determine who the poet was, when and where she lived and which poems can be attributed to her. Often we must be content with evidence and conclusions that are incomplete, highly contingent and less than fully satisfactory. However, the alternative, all too often, has been to give this material less attention than it deserves.