Today’s post is a backward glance at the Trinity Week collaboration between the Library and the School of English on the theme of SILENCE. We have looked at silence imposed by imprisonment; we finish by looking at silence imposed by compromised mental health.
Our Trinity Week collaboration, proposed and curated by Dr Julie Bates of the School of English, sought to use the Library’s Beckett collection to interrogate the politics of silence, the cultural value of poor writing materials, and the body as a site of resistance. The collaboration took the form of a Long Room exhibition, a series of blog posts, and a panel discussion by Julie and her colleague Feargal Whelan.
Beckett is the perfect ‘hook’ on which to hang the linked issues we wished to investigate. He had an affinity with the imprisoned, writing a play as a tribute to Vaclav Hável. He inspired the San Quentin Drama Workshop. Furthermore, in his literary work he chose to use very poor quality material which, because he is venerated, is itself venerated. In contrast (and on exhibition in the Long Room alonsgside the Beckett material) Bobby Sands wrote letters on toilet paper which were smuggled out of Long Kesh to subvert the enforced silence of the prison. Sands, and others, also engaged in a hunger strike, using his own body to further resist being silenced.
This final post looks at the silence of other marginalised individuals, those who are mentally ill. The Library has a memoir by an eighteenth-century woman Dorothea Herbert (c.1767-1829) which illustrates a number different kinds of silencing and resistance to it. Herbert’s record, though rare and unusual, was dismissed as a useful historical record for decades because it failed to address the historical political narrative when the historical political narrative was the only show in town. It was adjudged to have made insufficient mention of the land war even though the author lived in Tipperary, a hot-bed of agrarian agitation. It was not only silenced by politics, but by gendered cultural standards which renders some experiences inherently ridiculous: the memoir, when it was cited at all, was dismissed with a patronising smile because Herbert’s obsession took the form of an invented love story.
It is only in recent years that Herbert’s voice as a talented writer and poet has been valued, and her sophisticated use of literature to manage her mental illness has been recognised as a conscious and complex stratagem. Interestingly, when experiencing a period of mental distress, Herbert used her own body as a site of resistance, by dressing herself in an unorthodox manner to go to a church service. One scholar describes this action as Herbert turning herself into a ‘kinetic sculpture’ to express her opposition to imposed modesty. Also interesting for our overall theme, other attempts were made to silence Herbert during her lifetime and shortly thereafter. When her behaviour was particularly distressing to her family they locked her in her room and, after her death, family members destroyed some of Herbert’s diaries, due to the negative stories they recorded about particular individuals.
The Library also holds the literary archives of the poet Brendan Kennelly (b. 1928), formerly Professor of Modern Literature. His collection contains material which illustrates how difficult it is for a research institution to enable a suppressed voice to be heard even when this is desired. The Library is using his archive to curate an exhibition to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Kennelly’s first publication. One of the poet’s defining characteristics, as a poet and an individual, was his openness, about himself and to others. Because of this and because of his celebrity status, the archive contains works by prisoners, to whom Professor Kennelly taught poetry, and by members of the public – some possibly vulnerable – who sent him their own work. Despite wishing to include this material in the exhibition, it is impossible because of copyright restrictions. The instance particularly regretted by the exhibition curator is the case of a Kildare woman who hand-painted a greeting card for Brendan, on good quality art paper, but who then said she could find nothing suitable upon which to write the poetry she wished to send him. She reached for the nearest piece of paper which came to hand which happened to be a large, multi-page Allied Irish Banks wall calendar. To the untutored eye (my own) these poems are not without merit. However, they will probably never see the light of day.
Dr Jane Maxwell