Marie-Louise Coolahan, Women, Writing, and Language in Early Modern Ireland, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

Marie-Louise Coolahan, Women, Writing, and Language in Early Modern Ireland, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010. £63, ISBN 978-0-19-956765-2 (hardback), pp. x + 294.

Reviewed by: Jenna Lay, Lehigh University, December 2010


In this ambitious first book, Marie-Louise Coolahan proposes a ‘narrative of genres of women’s writing’ in Ireland between the Elizabethan conquest of the 1570s and the Restoration settlement a century later (1). In chapters on petition letters, depositions, biography and autobiography, poetry in Irish and English, and the writings and translations of Irish Poor Clares, Coolahan not only studies women’s contributions to print and manuscript culture but also seeks to redefine our scholarly understandings of what writing and authorship entailed in the early modern period. She examines a number of documents in which the individual (or community) she identifies as the author may never have put pen to paper—documents, in her own words, in which ‘the construction and arrangement of arguments are more important than the physical skill of writing’ (102). This is a bold and compelling claim, one which the evidence of Coolahan’s book—especially her nuanced readings of the relevant texts—persuasively supports. As such, Women, Writing, and Language in Early Modern Irelandis essential reading for anyone working on the history of authorship, and especially for those of us hoping to better understand female engagements with the written word in a period before the idea of the author had fully taken shape.

At the same time, Coolahan’s project is an important addition to contemporary archipelagic studies, though she takes care to point out that her book is deliberately ‘Hibernocentric’: she is concerned with English writers only insofar as they are connected to Ireland (6). Her work on the now-canonical playwright and translator Elizabeth Cary, for example, focuses exclusively on the biography of Cary written by her daughter Lucy, an English nun at Cambrai, and does so because Lucy traces Cary’s Catholic conversion to a series of formative encounters in Ireland (223-228). The texts Coolahan examines in her chapter on life-writing all have this in common: they are not only concerned with understanding what an individual life means but ‘are simultaneously preoccupied with the question of what Ireland means’ (221). Here and elsewhere, Coolahan engages complex questions of national identity. Only one of the writers in Chapter 6 is Irish-born, and Coolahan is careful to remind her readers that Ireland included individuals of various religious affiliations, political leanings, and national communities—groups whose boundaries were often porous and unstable.

Chapter 1, on poetry written in Irish, deftly navigates the political entanglements and cross-cultural interactions of Old English settlers, Gaelic Irish, and those who actively supported the English crown. Coolahan first presents a sustained analysis of Irish bardic culture and the caoineadhor keen (a verse form that featured accentual meter and was closely associated with women), before suggesting a connection to syllabic verse and the court poetry of women such as Brighid Fitzgerald. Chapter 5, on poetry in English, offers an alternate perspective on Irish literary engagements, by way of readings of Anne Southwell and Katherine Philips, authors who imported ‘an English model of poetic culture for an elite audience in Ireland’ (180). While Coolahan could have done more to illuminate the substantial differences between Southwell’s attempt to forge a poetic community that invited and encouraged other female authors and Philips’s use of the female subjects of her poetry as ‘vehicles for accessing and flattering the men’ (210), her reading of a pseudonymous poem in praise of Philips by ‘Philo-Philippa’—who Coolahan accepts as an Irish woman—nicely demonstrates how a female community of authorship could be built upon the exclusive (and court-centric) friendship poetry of an author like Philips.

Chapters 3 and 4 are Coolahan’s most daring in both methodology and materials: in them, she reads petition letters to the state and depositions written in response to the 1641 Irish Catholic rebellion against the crown as narrative accounts that present opportunities for self-reflection and self-expression. In both cases, women did not write their own accounts—they were often dictated to a scribe and/or a commissioner—but they did construct oral narratives and craft their own self-representations. Coolahan’s flexible understanding of authorship allows her to uncover a treasure trove of archival material that is, in a very important sense, written by women. These chapters also reveal Coolahan’s sensitivity to the requirements and restrictions of particular genres. In petition letters to the Spanish state, for instance, Coolahan shows how women ‘exploit[ed] received assumptions about the physiological and intellectual inferiority of their sex as the readiest means of inducing sympathy for their plight. . . . The assumption that women were weak, conventional though it may have been, strengthened the female petitioner’s case’ (134). As Coolahan points out, the rhetorical deployment of gendered stereotypes is ‘but one tool in the composition of these life-narratives’, and in her chapter on autobiographies, she further argues that ‘the self which is written is not transparent, but a persona’ (134, 220). Too frequently, scholars of women’s writing have taken protestations of modesty at face value, and Coolahan is refreshingly clear on the difference between rhetoric and reality. In a particularly strong example of the potential restrictions imposed even by those genres that offered women an opportunity to share their narratives, her chapter on the 1641 depositions ends with a comparative reading of two texts authored by Lady Elizabeth Dowdall: the first a deposition and the second a holograph account of her own experience as a military leader. Coolahan argues that ‘the gulf between Elizabeth Dowdall’s deposition and her first-person narrative—most starkly obvious in the latter’s pride at the author’s military performance—suggests, first, that the deposition genre was confining for some, but secondly, that its incitement to life-writing stimulated other forms of authorship’ (173).

In the chapter that will be of most interest to members of this list, Coolahan is similarly sensitive to ‘other forms of authorship’. Chapter 2 follows an Irish community of Poor Clares, one of many post-Tridentine female orders engaged in the work of vernacular translation and monastic historiography. Based on the Irish translations of theRuleof St. Clare—carried out by male scholars but commissioned by the nuns—Coolahan proposes a model of female authorship grounded in ‘informed collaboration’ (65). As in her other chapters, Coolahan’s readings of both the Ruleand a chronicle of the convent written by Abbess Mary Browne reveal the hybridity intrinsic to both Irish culture and early modern authorship. Browne’s chronicle was originally written in Irish between 1668 and 1671 during a Spanish exile (a significant point of comparison for scholars working on the writings of exiled English nuns), sent back to Ireland, and translated into English. Only this translation survives, and Coolahan’s analysis of the text is cognizant of multiple levels of authorship: the communal knowledge of the monastery informs the individual author, whose text is mediated and adapted by the translator. Coolahan reveals instances of intertextuality that she argues could not have been present in Browne’s original Irish manuscript (based on the availability of texts), and thus suggests a ‘hybrid model of chronicle authorship, consonant with the prioritization of the collective over the individual’ (86). This chapter alone should be required reading for anyone working on early modern women religious, but Coolahan’s entire book is astonishing in both its range and depth. Historians and literary critics will find much to admire here, as well as a strong foundation for future scholarship.