Rediscovering the voice of poet Ethna MacCarthy

Portrait of MacCarthy by Séan O’Sullivan RHA used as the cover of her published poetry.

Ethna MacCarthy’s name is well-known in Irish literary circles but mostly in that way which infuriates those of us energised by the #WTF revolution – as a ‘friend’ and muse of a Great Man.

MacCarthy (1903-1959) was an undergraduate in Trinity in the  twenties; one of her circle was future Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett who promptly fell in love with her. He was to immortalise her as Alba in Dream of Fair to Middling Women and it was MacCarthy’s association with Beckett, along with her beauty and the recorded comments of men such as playwright Denis Johnston, which seemed destined to be all that survived of her biography.

MacCarthy was among the brightest of her undergraduate cohort; she won Scholarship, was a First Class Moderator, and went on to lecture in modern languages. She was a feminist before the word was invented, ‘prodigiously’ witty in French as well as English, outspoken, intellectually fearless and independent. Not content with her academic career she retrained as a medical doctor, as had her father, and became a pediatrician. And all the while she wrote poetry; a small number of her works appeared in literary journals and newspapers.

Ireland professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin at the launch.

After the death in 1979 of her husband, theatre critic Con Leventhal, his private papers came into the hands of his friend Eoin O’Brien. Among them was discovered the single notebook which represents all that remains of MacCarthy’s poetry. Professor O’Brien began the work of preparing them for publication and, when he showed them to poet Gerald Dawe, this plan grew wings.

The result is a beautiful production by Lilliput Press of MacCarthy’s first and only collection which was launched in the Long Room by Ireland Professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin. The event, which was attended by members of Con Leventhal’s family, was enhanced by readings from the poetry by actress Cathy Belton.

‘Barcelona’ by Ethna MacCarthy (From MS 11602)

Gerald Dawe, who with Eoin O’Brien is an editor of the new collection, outlines in his introduction the many influences on MacCarthy which are revealed in her poetry; her literary and scientific professional experiences, the city of Dublin itself (which inspired some of her best work) and, as Dawe perceptively points out, the tension between the ‘performative’ and conventional elements of her life.

He goes on: ‘It was in the mid- to late 1940s that MacCarthy hit her stride as a poet with several very moving and self-confident poems. The decade sees the writing of ‘Lullaby’, a truly remarkable poem, which foreshadows the exposed lunar and death-haunted landscapes of Sylvia Plath’s poetry by well over a decade:

Each night the dragnets of the tide

take the shattered moon

beyond the harbour bar

but she reluctant suicide

nibbles her freedom and returns

to climb beside the nearest star.

One clear night endures her pain

to plunge to baptism again.’

Given what is known of MacCarthy’s personality, it cannot be doubted that, had she lived she herself would have ensured that her poetic voice was heard. Her death in her mid-fifties threatened this voice with being silenced. The editors of this wonderful collection are greatly to be thanked for the act of genuine friendship which secures MacCarthy’s place in the history of modernism in Ireland.

 

Dr Jane Maxwell

 

 

‘Gwynnity College’

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Photo of the Gwynn family taken in the Provost’s Garden, Trinity College, June 1934.  Included are the following more well-known members.  Back row: Aubrey Gwynn SJ ( 5th from L), Rev. RM Gwynn (6th from L), Maj. Gen. Sir Charles William Gwynn (4th from R); middle row: Stephen Gwynn (4th from L), Edward Gwynn (Provost) (3rd from R).

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John Gwynn, (1827-1917). Regius Professor of Divinity, Trinity College (1888-1907). He was also a mathematician, a scholar of old Irish, and a Syriacist. He edited the seminal edition of the Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52).

An exhibition showcasing highlights from the Gwynn family papers will be on display in the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin from 11 January to 1 March.  The Gwynns are an extraordinary family who have had a long and distinguished association with the university since the early 19th century.  They counted among their number a Provost, Vice-Provost, the first Lady Registrar, several Scholars, professors and Fellows, as well as numerous alumni.  They excelled academically in the areas of Old Irish, Syriac, classics, theology, mathematics and engineering.  On the sports field they showed themselves to be gifted rugby and cricket players, playing at both university and national level.  Such was their success in various areas of College life that the university was at one point dubbed ‘Gwynnity College’.  Their achievements outside College, in Ireland and abroad, were no less impressive, in politics, in military engagements and in exploration.  

Highlights of the exhibition include: a letter written by the Young Irelander William Smith O’Brien to his daughter Lucy (wife of John Gwynn) from Van Diemen’s Land in 1850; a watercolour sketch of the Donegal countryside from Lucy Gwynn’s album; a letter from Maude Gonne McBride to Edward Gwynn congratulating him on his appointment to the Provostship of Trinity College in 1927; a letter from Charles Gwynn to his nephew John David Gwynn describing the Battle of Gallipoli; and photographs of various members of the family on and off campus.

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John Gwynn’s son Lucius (1873 – 1902), playing cricket in College Park. He was a Fellow of Trinity College and talented cricketer.  The buildings of Nassau Street can be seen in the background.

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Edward J Gwynn (left) and others enjoying a cricket match in College Park.

The papers were generously donated to the Library of Trinity College in 2016/17 by several of John Gwynn’s great-grandchildren.  Many of the present generation of the family retain strong links with the College, as academics and alumni.  The Library is very grateful to them for making the decision to transfer the collection to the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library.  Its contents, including correspondence, diaries, photographs and legal documents, would be of enormous research interest to academics and students alike.  The documents cover a vast range of subjects: Irish nationalism, Irish education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the history of Trinity College, Protestantism in Ireland, the First World War, the 1916 Rising, the geo-politics of West Africa in the late nineteenth century, and much more besides.  Once catalogued, the collection will be available for general consultation.

The exhibition is curated by M&ARL, in conjunction with colleagues in Digital Collections and the Preservation and Conservation Department.

Ellen O’Flaherty

Æthelflæd: an Anglo-Saxon ‘Queen’ and Viking Nemesis

Detail of Æthelflæd glass from the West Window of Chester Cathedral, by WT Carter Shapland, 1961.

12 June 2018 marks the eleven-hundredth anniversary of the death of the remarkable Æthelflæd: daughter of King Alfred the Great, Lady of the Mercians and – to her Viking foes – ‘most famous Saxon queen’. Her impressive reputation and unique position in Anglo-Saxon England are recorded in two medieval sources housed in the Library, one English, one Irish. Both stand as testament to her enduring legend at home and abroad.

Diagram of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms identified as making up England (Essex, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia). The kingdoms appear as petals with Mercia appearing bottom left. TCD MS 496, ff. 127v-128

The eldest child of Alfred the Great (d.899) and Eahlswith (d.902), Æthelflæd was born into a fragmented England: Alfred’s Wessex was one of a number of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in turbulent co-existence with the constantly encroaching Viking Danelaw. Alfred, it seems, intended each of his children to play important roles in furthering his aim of uniting the English kingdoms against the Danes, and this was to be achieved through a variety of means: through political power, through property, through strategic marriages, and through religious influence. However, Alfred’s contemporary biographer, Asser, describes a society that did not promote female leadership: ‘The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife’. This makes Æthelflæd’s achievements all the more startling.

It is not known where Æthelflæd grew up, although she was possibly raised with maternal relatives in Mercia rather than Wessex. Her marriage to the Mercian ruler, Æthelred (d.911), was a strategic power-play for both her father and husband. Despite being a princess of Wessex, she did not officially graduate to becoming Queen of Mercia, rather she was merely designated the wife of the Lord of Mercia in recognition of Alfred’s overlordship of that kingdom.

Statue of Æthelflæd with her foster son and future King of England Æthelstan, Tamworth Castle grounds, Edward George Bramwell, 1913.

From 910 the Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles records her rise to prominence, possibly due to the fact that her husband became gravely ill at this time. On his death in 911 she assumed the leadership of Mercia apparently uncontested and was identified as ‘Myrcna hlœfdige’ – Lady of Mercia. The language is important, as this was the precise equivalent of Æthelred’s habitual title of ‘Myrcna hlaford’. This indicates that the Mercian rulers’ assembly did not draw any distinction between her authority to rule and that of her husband’s. She led the Mercians so successfully that on her death in 918, her daughter, Ælfwynn, was also accepted as her successor (albeit for only six months). The uncontested transference of power from one female ruler to another was unprecedented, and it would not be repeated for another six-hundred years, when the English throne passed from Mary I to Elizabeth I in 1558.

Annals of Ulster containing the entry for the year 918. TCD MS 1282 f.46v

Æthelflæd was both a warrior and a builder, planning and leading military campaigns against the Danes, whilst also extending her father’s policy of establishing a series of fortified towns or burhs. She either rebuilt or founded the county towns of Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester, Chester, Shrewsbury, Warwick, and Stafford. Militarily, she was a smart tactician, and just before her death the Danes of York indicated that they were ready to surrender to her. By this point the extent of the lands under her influence was rivalled only by the realms of her brother Edward the Elder Burhs and the King of the Scots, Constantín Mac Áeda (d.952).

Æthelflæd in the Library

Genealogy of Alfred, roundels containing the names of Alfred, Edward and Elfleda (Æthelflæd) TCD MS 496 ff.129v-130r

Ætheflæd appears in two sources in the Manuscripts & Archives section of the Library. She is profiled in an early-fourteenth-century diagrammatic genealogy of the kings of England, ‘Summary chronicle of English history from Beorhtric’s accession (AD 786) to Edward I’s (AD 1272)’ (TCD MS 496). This contains the family tree of Alfred in which she appears in one roundel, with genealogical lines linking him to his children Edward and Elfleda (Æthelflæd). The accompanying inscription reads:

Elfleda sapientissima filia eius cum aliis quattuor
Æthelflæd the wisest daughter of [Alfred] with four others.
And, beneath the circle:

Ista Elfleda omni mulierum sapientissima dicebatur, que multum[?] fratrem suum regem ab regnum suum gubernandum per sapientam suam instruxit. Haec nupsit comiti Edredo.
This Æthelflæd was called the wisest of all women, and through her wisdom greatly instructed her brother the king on the governance of his kingdom. She married count Edred [Æthelred].*

The annals of Ulster’s (TCD MS 1282 f 46v) record of Æthelflæd’s death in 918 also reflects her status:

Eithilfleith, famosissima regina Saxonum, moritur
Æthelflæd, most famous Queen of the Saxons, died.

‘Eithilfleith, famosissima regina Saxonum, moritur’ from the Annals of Ulster record for 918 TCD MS 1282 f.46v

 

 

 

 

 

The inclusion of the death of an Anglo-Saxon royal in the Irish annals may have been due to Ӕthelflӕd’s position as an opponent of the Norse-Gael leader Ragnall Ua Ímair (d.920/921), one of the Vikings expelled from Dublin in 902. The fragmentary Annals of Ireland, (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale 5301-5320) also suggest that she allied herself with Constantín Mac Áeda, King of Scotland, against Ragnall at the Battle of Corbridge in Northumberland in the year of her death.

Neither her father Alfred’s nor her brother Edward the Elder’s deaths are recorded in the annals, but Æthelflæd is referenced in Irish and Welsh sources as a most famous Saxon Queen. Although this title was not technically correct, the scribe’s singling out of Æthelflæd in such a way is in clear recognition of her unique position and the importance of her achievements from an opponent’s perspective.

The Library’s online exhibition, ‘Transmitting the Anglo-Saxon past’ provides further examples of Anglo-Saxon history manuscripts from the Library’s collection.

The Anglo-Saxon world will become the focus of a major exhibition ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms‘ at the British Library from October 2018.

‘Our Aethel’ statue, Tamworth, Luke Perry, 2018.

The cities of Tamworth (where she died) and Gloucester (where she was buried) are both hosting ‘Aethel’-festivals in June and July 2018, www.aethelflaed2018.co.uk and www.visittamworth.co.uk/aethelflaed

Estelle Gittins
*With thanks to Dr Laura Cleaver, School of Art History

Violence, ridicule and silence: the campaign for female suffrage in 1918

Suffragists Kathleen Emerson & Meg Connery in Green Street Dock 1912

Making public spaces unsafe for women, and denying authority to the female voice has, as we are told by Professor (or SAINT!) Mary Beard, a long and dis-honourable history. The campaign for female suffrage in 1918 was part of this story.

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