Conference attendance is often difficult, particularly when it requires international travel. In a bid to bring together the important and fascinating conversations which are happening around the world, conference reviews help to highlight the work that is being carried out at the moment. Catherine Healy brings us our first conference review, focusing on the Transatlantic 3: Women of the Green Atlantic conference which was held at the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin on 21-22 June 2018.
Over six months in 1893, Chicago played host to a mock Irish village complete with thatched cottages and a replica of Blarney Castle. Visitors to this strange, sprawling exhibit could pick up sods of turf and sample native stew or ham, washed down with mouthfuls of Guinness to the rattle of an Irish jig. The display had been carefully curated for the Chicago World’s Fair by Lady Aberdeen, wife of Ireland’s former lord lieutenant and a tireless champion of Irish crafts, as Joanne Paisana of the University of Minho explained in a recent presentation at the Royal Irish Academy. Keen to showcase the uplifting potential of homegrown industries, Lady Aberdeen put on weaving, milking and lace-making demos, and reportedly went as far as to move into the village for a few weeks. It might be reasonable, of course, to regard the production as quaintly paternalistic, a self-aggrandising project, but it could also be taken as a well-meaning appeal to the American public, presenting a case for investment and custom.
Lady Aberdeen’s Irish village was the subject of one of 38 papers delivered at the Women of the Green Atlantic conference in late June, a two-day gathering exploring Irish-American connections over the long 19th century. Held under the banner of Transatlantic Women, a literary research project supported by the Catharine Maria Sedgwick Society and Harriet Beecher Stowe Society, the event brought together researchers from the United States, Ireland, Britain, France and further afield. Its remit was similarly expansive, probing themes as diverse as transatlantic politics, travel writing and domestic labour. The overriding goal, though, as described by its organisers was to “celebrate, and question, women who crossed the Green Atlantic, wrote about it, or in other ways connected the United States with Ireland through networks, translations, transatlantic fame or influence”.
Literary heavy hitters formed the focus of a number of panels. One session resituated Kate Chopin within the canon of Irish-American writing, considering the extent of Irish influences on her fiction, while another on Edith Wharton covered questions of motherhood, ambition and transatlantic poetics. Harriet Beecher Stowe was also discussed in a standalone panel, with Beth L Lueck of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater examining the Irish response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Nancy Lusignan Schultz of Salem State University taking up correlations between her work and The Juvenile Uncle Tom’s Cabinby Scottish writer Catherine Crowe. In a dynamic keynote speech, meanwhile, Rita Bode of Trent University considered Stowe’s stimulating friendship with the Dublin-born art critic Anna Jameson. A further panel on textual exchanges saw Sarah Ruffing Robbins of Texas Christian University analyse Maria Edgeworth’s engagement with Americans before Margaret Robbins of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School shifted our gaze to the present century with a presentation on Louise O’Neill, reviewing her novels’ “transatlantic exploration of feminist political issues”.
Representations of Irish women in American literature were a key consideration too. Papers falling into this category discussed the writings of authors including Sedgwick, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Doyle Curran and Harriet Prescott Spofford, and a wide-ranging presentation by Dara Downey of Trinity College Dublin examined the position of Irish domestic servants in gothic fiction. American press depictions of the US-based Fenian Sisterhood were assessed by Patrick J Mahoney of Drew University in a session on world affairs, while fellow panellist Síobhra Aiken of NUI Galway looked at Irish female immigrants’ participation in the Gaelic revival movement. Nationalist politics were also the focus for Denise D Knight of SUNY Cortland, whose paper sized up Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s world view.
A particular strength of the programme was its inclusion of African-American topics, allowing for reflection on the intersections between women of the Black and Green Atlantic. Sirpa Salenius of the University of Eastern Finland, for instance, discussed the anti-slavery lectures of Sarah Parker Redmond, a free black woman who received a warm welcome during her speaking tour of Ireland in the late 1950s. Chelsea Adewunmi of Princeton University weighed in on the writings of another remarkable woman, Eliza Potter, whose experiences in the United States, Canada and Europe were documented in her 1859 memoir, A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life, and Jacqueline Couti extended the boundaries even further with a fascinating presentation on colonial feminism in the French Atlantic during the 1890s. The travels of African-American African-American evangelist Amanda Berry Smith were also considered by Nicol Michelle Epple of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
As well as offering a diverse range of panels, the conference provided an encouraging space for more junior researchers. A prize for best graduate paper was awarded to Hannah Champion, a PhD student at Université Bordeaux Montaigne and the University of Eastern Finland, for her presentation on Spofford’s The Servant Girl Question, and audience members were unfailingly convivial in their questioning of younger speakers. The conference concluded with a series of readings by contemporary Irish female poets, hosted by Arlen House publisher Alan Hayes at Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street, and here, too, fittingly, transnational connections were inescapable.
Catherine Healy is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar at the Department of History in Trinity College Dublin. She is working on a cultural history of Irish domestic servants in the United States and England from 1870 to 1945. You can contact Catherine on Twitter @Chealy_ or through email at healyc7[at]tcd.ie.
Image: Lady Aberdeen, chief organiser of the Irish exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893; credit: Wikimedia Commons