Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Caitilin Dubh (fl. 1624–1629)

Caitlin DubhEdit

Caitilin Dubh was an Irish writer from the seventeenth century. She wrote in both old Bardic and accentual meter, using long meter and irregular stresses. (1) Her works date to 1624, this is the only date known about her.

Contextual influenceEdit

Unlike the English tradition, female authors in the Irish tradition were called banfhile, a term meaning “female poet” that lacked the scorn met by female writers in the rest of the Isles. (2) It was considered a symbol of power akin to a male poet. In many ways, Irish women were victims of oppression. Their sovereignty as Irish women was stolen, their nation and culture colonised from under them, in the same breath so was there power as authors. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons Dubh chose to hide her identity. In a world post colonisation, many female authors must maintain a distance from their true selves as not to be trampled by the harsh masculinity colonialism imparts. (3) The few female poets we know from Ireland have been painstakingly researched and restored by devoted scholars and academics. Even now there is very little that can be found on these influential women. (4)

The Seventeenth Century was a horrific time for the people of Ireland. The academic and cultural traditions were collapsing under the continued destruction of the English Crown. The Irish aristocracy did not survive into the Eighteenth Century. During this period a female image was conjured for the “failing” Ireland. “Gaelic society began to be represented in the inferior and dependent social status of a mortal woman.” (5) This was a way for the Tudor Crown to further degrade and oppress the Gaelic population of Ireland.

The Speculation of Caitlin DubhEdit

Caitilin Dubh is often assumed to be a member of the O’Brien family of Thomond, but there is no proof to show this. Dubh is a pseudonym, it means “dark” in Irish Gaelic. The name was often adopted by Irish women of the period to hide their lineage or social status. (6) It has been implied by scholars that to hide her birth must mean Dubh was of lower status, but in the tradition of female writers it is well documented that women of all status used pseudonyms. A prominent and well researched example being George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin). As Angela Bourke writes, “The confident way in which Caitilin Dubh speaks of these nobles suggests that her background was one of privilege. Since three of the poems concern one couple, she may have had a special place in their household.” (7) Dubh mentions in her works that she is a bean chaointe, or “keening woman”. This could be taken three ways: one, that Dubh was a “semi-professional” keening woman who wrote elegy for many people, or two, she is using the term in the metaphoric sense to culminate the magnitude of loss within her and the Thomond family. The third option is, of course, she was both these things.

WorksEdit

All Dubh’s surviving poems were elegies, they address the below members of the Thomond dynasty: Donnchadh O Briain (Donogh O’Brien), 4th Earl of Thomond, d. 1624 Dairmaid O Briain (Dermod O’Brien), 5th Baron Inchiquin, d. 1624 Maire O Briain (Maire O’Brien), Daughter of the 3rd Earl of Thomond and sister of the 4th Earl of Thomond, d. unknown Toirdhealbhach Rua Mac Mathghamhna (Of Cluain Idir Dha La), Maire’s husband, d. 1629

With intimate knowledge of those wherein. For example, half the amassed poetics for the 4th Earl are reminiscent of a elegy. Bourke claims the main bulk of the work can be “construed as a caithreim or ‘battle roll’”. (8) The elegy recounts the exploits of the Earl during the Nine Years War. It should be noted that despite the horrific and continued divide between Protestant and Catholic Irish, Dubh gracefully skirts this conflict by maintaining the Earl as a “Guardian of the Whole land of Fodla”. (9) Dubh’s elegy for the 5th Baron is decidedly different from that of the 4th Earl. Where the Earl appears to have had a long and heroic life, Dairmaid had a short life and a sad demise. Much of the elegy focuses on the attributes of the Baron, especially how young and handsome he was in life. Her two elegies and the gentleness and care she imparts imply a strong bond between the two. (10) Her last two elegy are cumulative works for Maire and her husband. Though we do not know Maire’s time of death, we can assume she was either closely before or in the same year as her husband. That her death isn’t noted is another example of the masculine hierarchy post colonisation. (11) Dubh writes about the couple in the same dutiful and caring way she wrong about Dairmaid. She takes time to discuss the pair as a couple and the importance of this in their lives and deaths. The bittersweet and tragic way she writes about these people, especially Dairmaid, shows her candour and skill as a poetic elegist. The care she takes to provide stunning verbal pictures of the O’Brien family is why her works continue to be studied.

LegacyEdit

Caitilin Dubh remains one of a small number of pre-eighteenth Century female Irish poets. That her works have survived so long is a testament to their importance and the beauty of her work. Though very little is known about who she was, where she lived, how she lived or where she roamed, the value of her poetics cannot be understated. Though only five of her elegies remain, it can be assumed she was a prolific writer. If she truly was a “semi-professional” keening woman then how many of her poetic elegies have been lost to time, poor management, or willful destruction? We may never know. She remains a cornerstone in the understanding of Gaelic poetics pre-Seventeenth Century.

ReferencesEdit

  1. Ni Domhnaill, Nuala (1994). [https:// https://www.persee.fr/doc/irlan_0183-973x_1994_act_19_1_1142 "The Feeling Soul: The Woman Poet in the Irish Tradition"]. Etudes Irlandaises. https:// https://www.persee.fr/doc/irlan_0183-973x_1994_act_19_1_1142. 
  2. Ni Domhnaill, Nuala (1994). [https:// https://www.persee.fr/doc/irlan_0183-973x_1994_act_19_1_1142 "The Feeling Soul: The Woman Poet in the Irish Tradition"]. Etudes Irlandaises. https:// https://www.persee.fr/doc/irlan_0183-973x_1994_act_19_1_1142. 
  3. Ni Domhnaill, Nuala (1994). [https:// https://www.persee.fr/doc/irlan_0183-973x_1994_act_19_1_1142 "The Feeling Soul: The Woman Poet in the Irish Tradition"]. Etudes Irlandaises. https:// https://www.persee.fr/doc/irlan_0183-973x_1994_act_19_1_1142. 
  4. Ni Domhnaill, Nuala (1994). [https:// https://www.persee.fr/doc/irlan_0183-973x_1994_act_19_1_1142 "The Feeling Soul: The Woman Poet in the Irish Tradition"]. Etudes Irlandaises. https:// https://www.persee.fr/doc/irlan_0183-973x_1994_act_19_1_1142. 
  5. Novakovic, Svetlana (1996). [https:// https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/3589 "The Allegorical Ireland Figure in the Irish National Theatre 1899-1926"]. Loyala University of Chicago. https:// https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/3589. 
  6. Nic Eoin, Mairin (2021). [https:// www.jstor.org/stable/30070591 "Secrets and Disguises? Caitilin Ni Uallachain and Other Female Personages in Eighteenth-Century Irish Political Poetry"]. JSTOR.or. https:// www.jstor.org/stable/30070591. 
  7. "The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Volume IV Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions". New York University Press. 2002. 
  8. "The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Volume IV Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions". New York University Press. 2002. 
  9. "The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Volume IV Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions". New York University Press. 2002. 
  10. "The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Volume IV Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions". New York University Press. 2002. 
  11. Novakovic, Svetlana (1996). [https:// https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/3589 "The Allegorical Ireland Figure in the Irish National Theatre 1899-1926"]. Loyala University of Chicago. https:// https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/3589. 

Further ReadingEdit

Coolahan, Marie‐Louise 2010. Women, Writing, and Language in Early Modern Ireland, e-book, Oxford University Press, Oxford. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.newcastle.edu.au/lib/newcastle/detail.action?docID=485725