In her recent blog, ‘Reflections for Poetry Day Ireland 2016’, my colleague, Felicity Maxwell, queried the dearth of extant poetry by early modern Irish women. As she pointed out, while poems and political tracts composed by men (especially in response to the hostilities and upheavals of the 1640s and 1650s), are plentiful, poetry by women is virtually non-existent. Of course the survival of poetry (and other forms of literary production) by women in early modern Ireland depended on a wide range of factors, not least the socio-economic background and linguistic tradition of the author. As Wes Hamrick has recently highlighted, uncovering Irish language poetry by women is particularly problematic: because it was ‘composed and circulated primarily through oral citation’, the extant corpus of women’s poetry in Irish is negligible. In the case of Irish women’s writing in English survival rates are of course much higher. However, the destruction of the Public Record Office, Dublin in 1922 meant that swathes of potentially (if immeasurably) valuable records (some dating as far back as the thirteenth century) were destroyed.
One method of retrieving writing by early modern Irish women that has since been lost, is to ‘mine’ antiquarian journals, many of which pre-date the destruction of the Public Record Office, some ranging as far back as the 1840s. These include journals such as, the Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society (1849-67), the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries (1890-1969), and the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society (1900-65). As such these journals are especially valuable sources for scholars of early modern Ireland as they published transcriptions of primary source material that is no longer extant. Thus, systematic mining of these sources can yield intriguing, albeit disappointingly rare, discoveries about the authorial endeavours of early modern Irish women. One such discovery is a poem composed by Lettice Digby née Fitzgerald (c.1580-1658), Baroness of Offaly. Published in the 1922 volume of the Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society as a miscellaneous addendum, the poem is titled ‘Verses maide by Lettice Fitz Gerald ye Lady Ophaley, after she lost her eye-sight being above fourscore years of age’. Unfortunately the journal does not indicate the original provenance of the poem (which evidently survived in manuscript format, probably as part of the Digby family papers), or the date of its composition. Nevertheless, this source provides important insights into the literary dexterity of one early modern Irish aristocratic woman.
Born c.1580 into one of the most politically powerful and socially influential Old English families in sixteenth century Ireland, Lettice was the only child and heir of Gerald Fitzgerald (1559-80), Lord Offaly and his wife Catherine Fitzgerald née Knollys (d. 1632). Her paternal grandparents were Gerald Fitzgerald (1525-85), eleventh earl of Kildare and Mabel Browne (d. 1610), daughter of Sir Anthony Browne of Cowdray Park, Sussex. In April 1598 she married Sir Robert Digby (d. 1618), from Coleshill, Warwickshire, brother of John Digby (1580-1653), first earl of Bristol. The couple settled in Ireland and had a large family; seven sons and three daughters. Lettice was a determined promoter of Protestant values and fostered a spirit of zealous Puritanism at her home in Geashill Castle near Phillipstown in King’s County, her principal residence from 1620 onwards. Her religious outlook evidently continued in subsequent generations of the Digby family; her son, Essex Digby (d. 1683), and grandson, Simon Digby (c.1645-1720), were both educated at Trinity College, Dublin and later held senior offices within the Church of Ireland.
Following the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland in October 1641, the Digby residence was besieged by rebel forces, among them Henry and Lewis O’Dempsey, local rebel leaders and Lettice’s second cousins. During the four-month siege (which began in January 1642), Lettice, by then a widow, conducted a vigorous defence of the Castle. In a combative exchange of correspondence with the O’Dempsey rebels, excerpts of which were subsequently published, Lettice refused demands that she surrender, commenting that if she should die, she ‘doubt[ed] not’ that she would ‘receaue a Crowne of Martyrdome’. On this occasion, however, martyrdom evaded Lettice as in April 1642 Geashill Castle was relieved by Sir Charles Coote (c.1609-61), lord president of Connacht. Renewed attacks meant that the elderly baroness was ultimately compelled to abandon her Irish residence in October 1642. She subsequently left Ireland and travelled to Warwickshire, where she resided at Coleshill until her death in December 1658.
While the epistolary exchanges of Lettice Digby have garnered scholarly attention (McAreavey (2007) and Coolahan (2010)), her poetic endeavours are less well known. Written towards the end of her life (probably while she was living in England), Lettice’s verses are composed in the contemptus mundi tradition, which literally translated means ‘to disdain the world’. Originating in early Christian Latin religious writing, the genre became popular in early modern vernacular poetry, particularly among Puritan authors, including women (for example, Anne Bradstreet’s ‘Contemplations’ (1650)). Consisting of a reflection upon the transitory nature of worldly possessions and concerns, Lettice’s poem envisages the spiritual fulfillment her impending death will engender. Pre-empting this, at the end of her extended devotional verse, Lettice penned a quatrain to serve as her epitaph, in which she presents herself according to traditional paradigms underpinning early modern conceptions of womanhood; virgin, wife and widow.
Ultimately, Lettice Digby’s poetry reveals how, early modern Irish women, like their English and European counterparts, contributed to and drew upon a vibrant culture of literary production, even if those contributions are less easily retrieved.
Coolahan, Marie-Louise, Women, writing and language in early modern Ireland (Oxford, 2010).
Fitzgerald, Walter, ‘Lettice, Baroness of Offaly, and the siege of her castle of Geashill, 1642’ in Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, iii (1902), pp 419-24.
McAreavey, Naomi, ‘“Paper bullets”: Gendering the 1641 rebellion in the writings of Lady Elizabeth Dowdall and Lettice Fitzgerald, Baroness of Offaly’, in Thomas Herron and Michael Potterton (eds), Ireland in the Renaissance c.1540-1660 (Dublin, 2007), pp 311-24.
‘Miscellanea: Verses maide by Lettice Fitz Gerald ye Lady Ophaley, after she lost her eye-sight being above fourscore years of age’ in Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, x (1922), p. 108.