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IRELAND’S FORGOTTEN MUSES

In Irish folklore, the leannán sí or ‘fairy-lover’ is a beautiful female member of the Aos Sí or Aes Sídhe, the people of the barrows, who takes a human lover. These chosen men are permitted to live brief but inspired lives and their interactions with their supernatural muse results in the creation of great works of art.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

The Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan (Dundee City Council)

While it seems unlikely that our great poets, painters and writers have benefitted from productive liaisons with beautiful mythical beings, what is certain is that Ireland’s foremost artists have long been inspired by the real women who inhabit their lives. These women are often lovers, but they are also mothers, sisters, cousins and friends.

When Oscar Wilde, aged twenty-seven, embarked on a lecture tour of America, he was introduced in Minnesota as ‘a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters’. In an interview with journalist Mary Watson, Wilde described how ‘his mother, of whom he is very proud, inspired him with the desire to become a poet’. As Speranza, Jane Wilde emboldened a nation to challenge the authority of her colonizer.

Wilde wrote poetry throughout his life. His most moving and beautiful poem, ‘Requiescat,’ was written in memory of his beloved little sister, Isola, who died when she was nine and he, twelve. When W.B. Yeats included ‘Requiescat’ in A Book of Irish Verse (1900), it was hailed as ‘the brightest gem’ in the collection. The first four lines are inscribed on Isola’s tombstone:

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

Yeats himself is most closely associated with fiery Maud Gonne, revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). He called her ‘the new Speranza,’ not least because she stood over six feet tall as Jane Wilde did. Among many poems, she inspired his magnificent ‘No Second Troy’:

What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

Yet Yeats’s early plays – Time and the Witch Vivien, The Island of the Statues, and Mosada – were inspired by Laura Armstrong, an earlier target of his infatuation. A lesser-known muse was fellow poet Katharine Tynan with whom Yeats collaborated on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888).

Iseult Gonne

Iseult, Maud Gonne’s beautiful daughter, played muse not only to Yeats but also to Ezra Pound, American poet and critic. Pound’s great friend James Joyce was inspired by lifelong partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle: ‘I love you deeply and truly, Nora,’ he wrote. ‘I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours’. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘On Raglan Road’ was written for Hilda Moriarty, a raven-haired medical student from Kerry who was two decades his junior.

Two women who inspired each other were Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote as Somerville and Ross, and gave us The Irish R.M. By the time Martin died in 1915, they had completed fourteen books together. Insisting that she retained a spiritual connection to her partner, Somerville continued to write and publish stories under their joint names. The women are buried side by side at St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.

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Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Ross)

Ireland has a proud tradition of producing inspirational women, all of them highly accomplished in their own right of course. Without their influence, we would be deprived of many of our finest literary masterpieces.

International Literature Festival Dublin 2017 presents Herstory Salon: Ireland’s Lost Muses in Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday 25 May at 6p.m., followed by a reception at The Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay. Speakers include Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at UCD, and author Eleanor Fitzsimons, with poetry by Dani Gill and Maria Bourke. The event marks the first anniversary of Herstory, Ireland’s new cultural movement created to tell the life stories of historical, contemporary and mythological women.

To discover more about Herstory please visit www.herstory.ie & to find out more about Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons visit here.

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Culture Night 2016: Wilde & Women in The Arts

efculturenight

I was absolutely thrilled to be invited to participate in Ireland’s wonderful and vibrant Culture Night this year. I spoke at a brilliant event organised by herst_ry at the lovely Liquor Rooms on Dublin’s quays. My topic was how Oscar Wilde helped women in the arts. Here is a taste of just three of the women I spoke about. All three are included in my book Wilde’s Women:   

PBCover

Alice Pike Barney (1857–1931)

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Self portrait: Alice Pike Barney Renwick Gallery, Washington D.C.

One day in July 1882, Oscar Wilde took time out of his arduous lecturing schedule to go to the Long Island resort of Long Beach with one of his patrons Sam Ward. There he was introduced to Alice Pike Barney and her six-year-old daughter, Natalie. When Alice injured her foot in the water, Oscar, well over six feet tall and broad-shouldered, gallantly carried her up the beach and they got talking. Although hugely talented, Alice’s ambitions to study art were opposed by her boorish husband, Albert Clifford Barney, a hard-drinking man with a nasty habit of infidelity.

Oscar encouraged her to ignore her husband and so she did. She took art lessons in Paris and studied under Carolus-Duran and James McNeill Whistler. Later, she was admitted to the Society of Washington Artists and had solo shows at major galleries including the Corcoran Gallery of Art. With newfound confidence, she also wrote and performed in several plays and an opera, and worked to promote the arts in Washington, D.C. Many of her paintings are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Elizabeth Robins (1862 –1952)

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Elizabeth Robins: So much more than a beautiful face

American actress Elizabeth Robins was determined to break into English theatre. When she met Oscar at a party in July 1888, he told her: ‘Your future on our stage is assured’. He introduced her to influential theatre directors and even helped her to secure an agent. She found it amusing that he encouraged her to emulate Lillie Langtry since she saw herself as an altogether more serious performer with ambitions to manage and direct too.

The course of Robins’ life changed when she travelled to Norway and studied the works of Henrik Ibsen, a playwright who was sympathetic to the plight of women. In his notes for A Doll’s House, Ibsen asserted:

A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.

Robins formulated a plan to introduce Ibsen to English audiences. She also hoped to end the stranglehold that male actor-managers had on English Theatre, a situation that resulted in women being undervalued as actors, writers and producers. When she struggled to attract subscribers to fund a series of twelve of Ibsen’s plays at the Opera Comique, Oscar stepped forward: ‘The English stage is in her debt,’ he declared, ‘I am one of her warmest admirers’. He funded her project and encouraged others to do so. Although audiences found the realism of Ibsen’s plays alarming, Oscar turned up several times and gave her productions his full attention. He assured her: ‘I count Ibsen fortunate in having so brilliant and subtle an artist to interpret him’.

Robins, grateful for Oscar’s support, acknowledged:

…he was then at the height of his powers and fame and I utterly unknown on this side of the Atlantic. I could do nothing for him; he could and did do everything in his power for me.

E. Nesbit (1858-1924)

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E Nesbit; Pioneer of Children’s Literature

When Edith Bland, who wrote as E. Nesbit, sent Oscar her poetry collection Lays and Legend in 1886, he responded with an encouraging letter. As editor of The Woman’s World, he reviewed her collection Leaves of Life and published three of her poems. In his review of Woman’s Voices, an anthology edited by Elizabeth Sharp, he described Nesbit as ‘a very pure and perfect artist’, and lauded her ambition to ‘give poetic form to humanitarian dreams, and socialist aspirations’.

Nesbit, the main earner in her unconventional family, was obliged to all but give up writing poetry, her true passion, in favour of writing serialised children’s stories. Drawing on her own childhood fears and insecurities, she invented the children’s adventure story in which her protagonists faced genuine peril. Her best loved tales include the classics Five Children and It and The Railway Children. Nesbit changed children’s writing and influenced CS Lewis, JK Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson among many others. She is the subject of my next biography.

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