Nationalism in exotic clothes? Postcolonial thinking, gender and translation in the field day anthology of irish writing

Aidan OMalley


Field Day has been the most important collective cultural initiative in Ireland since Yeats and Lady Gregory’s National Theatre movement in the early twentieth century. Founded in 1980 to articulate a cultural intervention into the crisis in Northern Ireland, it brought together some of the most important cultural figures in Ireland, such as the playwright Brian Friel, the actor Stephen Rea, and the poet Seamus Heaney. While it was originally conceived of as a touring theatre company, the enterprise also became a publishing imprint, and has produced some of the most challenging scholarly work on Irish culture and history. Its most ambitious project was The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, a massive undertaking that looked to compile and rethink 1,500 years of Irish writing. When the first three volumes of the Anthology were published in 1991 the egregious lack of women’s writing in their 4,044 double-columned pages, and the fact that not one of the editors of the 44 different sections was a woman, were immediately noted. In an embarrassed response, the editors commissioned a second instalment, which was entirely edited by women and devoted to women’s writing, and was published in 2002 in two volumes. The focus of this article is on the modes of postcolonial thinking that informed these two instalments. The first three volumes were clearly influenced by thinkers such as Said, who published a pamphlet with the group, and considered Field Day an archetypal postcolonial enterprise. Indeed, Field Day is credited with having introduced postcolonial thinking into Irish Studies, a move that was by no means uncontroversial. For many critics, theories emanating from African, Caribbean and Indian colonial experiences had no relevance in an Irish context, and they strongly suspected that Field Day’s interest in postcolonial thinking was little more than an attempt by the group to re-dress nationalism in exotic clothes. The blindness to gender evidenced in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing was taken as confirmation of this, as it showed that Field Day was a group that could not see beyond the ‘national’ question and engage with other urgent issues. In many ways, then, attention to gender and to women was construed in these, at times fiery, debates about the first three volumes as a symbol of progress and modernisation. Particularly in the Republic of Ireland, Field Day was characterised as a group of middle-ged, patriarchal Northern Irish men, who would drag the whole island backwards; who could not provide a viable narrative for it at the end of the twentieth century. However, volumes IV and V of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, (those devoted to women’s experiences), are, in fact, even more vertly postcolonial  in their outlook than the first three volumes. But rather than looking towards Said, Fanon and Memmi, this second instalment was indebted to Subaltern Studies. Through giving an account of this episode in contemporary Irish cultural history, this article thinks about the problems and possibilities that attended upon this translation of postcolonial thinking from a non-European to a European setting.


Irish studies; Touring theatre; Field Day


Copyright (c) 2008 Aidan OMalley

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