Sile Concannon discusses lack of women representation, focus on masculinity in novels

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, Síle Concannon, a professor of Irish language at the University of Ottawa through the Irish Canadian University Foundation, gave a glimpse into the role of women in Irish-language historical novels in a lecture at the U of O.

Concannon became interested in the subject while writing her Ph.D thesis on modern Irish-language historical novels, where she was drawn toward the lack of female voices in the genre. Though there was a surge in the the historical fiction genre after 1993, the role of women in Irish historical novels remained very minimal.

“(The stories contain) warfare, action, and adventure as the primary themes, with a conservative, nationalistic narrative with men almost always being the main characters,” Concannon said.  

The underrepresentation is partially because women were historically not a part of the adventurous, and often warlike, settings of the stories, but sexism and the oppression of women throughout history is also to blame.

“Women were under the proverbial control of men, and kept in distant areas, where they would not be disruptive to men,” said Concannon.

Therefore, in historical fiction, women either do not show up at all, or only show up as small background characters, who Concannon said were usually portrayed as “fussy and troublesome.” She used an example from a novel called 1260 AD, in which a troublesome woman flirts with a monk, and when he rejects her, she kills herself; no other characters, however, pay any attention to her death.

Concannon shared how talkative female characters were always creating problems for men, and women’s only role within the society of the genre was to give birth to a son. Concannon also noticed that the women in these stories were always giving birth to sons, failing to find a single mention of a mother and daughter relationship.

“Female character archetypes are limited,” Concannon said.  

Concannon also mentioned that the underrepresentation of women in Irish-language literature goes beyond the lack of female characters—there is also a lack of female authors. Out of all the prominent, modern authors from the genre, only one is a woman, and even she writes stories from a male perspective, without ever having any female protagonists in her work. Concannon said that “women were left in one side of history, in the margins of society,” and that such blatant sexism is displayed throughout modern Irish-language historical novels.

Concannon remains skeptical that this situation will ever change—she believes that since women were marginalized in the past, they will remain marginalized in Irish-language historical fiction, at least until the distant future when the historical subject of such novels is the present day.