Continuing our series on methodologies of writing Irish diaspora histories, Olga Walker brings us a post about her creative-practice project on Irish female emigration to Britain during the mid-twentieth century.
I would like to introduce my creative-practice project which takes the form of an exegesis and an historical novel. Creative-practice PhD projects particularly suit students who are interested in the creative arts. At the University of Canberra (Australia) one can undertake a thesis which combines creative and scholarly artefacts, for example, a novel, poetry collection, exhibition, curatorial project or digital art project, which would be presented for examination together with an extended critical essay (exegesis). More information can be found at the University of Canberra website. My creative artefact is an historical novel of 70,000 words accompanied by a critical essay (exegesis) of 30,000 words. The aim of my project is to provide insights into a particularised experience of Irish female emigration to Britain during the period 1948 to 1954. Importantly, the exegesis is not a critique of the novel; rather, the two components work together to address my research question. This type of study also allows me as a writer to question how history is written, and in writing a historical novel, I look beyond the constructed images of Irish women I found in official discourse and archives.
As such, the exegesis, Fallen Angels: The Proclamation’s Lost Warriors illuminates some of the issues surrounding hegemonic power structures in Ireland from 1948 to 1954. It considers the extent of power held by female Irish emigrants during that period, the homogenisation of their abilities and experiences, and how this was reflected in various official discourses and literatures. The creative work, The Filing Cabinet and the Suitcase uses the literary genre of historical fiction to evoke the lived experiences of women working in Dublin and Belfast as domestic servants, office staff in a small business, and staff in the Irish civil service.
When considering a methodology for the project, I drew on the explanation of what it means to use a creative practice-led approach provided by Carole Gray (1996) in “Inquiry through Practice”. Gray defines this approach as “research initiated in practice and carried out through practice”.[ii] New knowledge is provided through both the means of the practice and the outcomes of that practice, where a creative artefact is the basis of the contribution to knowledge. A traditional historical approach was not considered to be appropriate for my study because of the lacuna in official discourses and literatures about a particular lived experience of some Irish women. I am interested in the extent to which the identity of Irish women from 1948 to 1954 was constructed through a range of tropes and discourses and, the historical novel provides a way of interrogating the results of this construction. I found it resulted in a distorted picture of Irish women’s abilities and achievements.
In choosing a theoretical frame for the project I took into account the following considerations: that we do not always understand how to read a woman’s resistance to hegemonic power structures [iii];the role historical fiction can play in history-writing [iv]; and the tactics used by the individual to reclaim back some autonomy over their lives from society’s constraining power structures [v]. By employing the work of these three eminent scholars, I was offered a cogent means to respond to my research question with a creative and scholarly expression of my argument. It also helped me to add nuanced layers to questions about what Irish female emigrants lived experiences between 1948 and 1954 might have been like, as distinct from the negative stereotypes and tropes that were widely portrayed. Ultimately, the project explores the connections between: creative and critical practice, scholarship on Irish female emigration, and Irish history relevant to the period of interest, to write a story set in the past.
Understanding that both the exegesis and the novel work together to address my research question, gave me the opportunity to question how history can be written. History in its traditional mode cannot always tell us enough about the individual. Through creative practice, historical fiction can be used to take a nuanced approach in questioning and/or challenging the dominant narratives that cluster around important issues such as gender equality. For example, while I discuss in the exegesis the extent to which Irish women took action to determine their own economic and social outcomes, in the novel I show how they may have achieved this. The novel’s part in addressing the research question is reflected through the story and the actions of the characters. In the novel, I wanted to portray that although there are moments when people are vulnerable there are also those moments when they find great strength. Our lives are lived from second to second so it was important that my characters capture the nuances, interactions and tactics that make up an everyday lived experience.
In the exegesis I ask what the negative stereotypes and tropes say about the narratives that clustered around Irish women. In the novel I show how Irish women might have gone about their daily lives. In the exegesis, I question what Irish female emigrants’ lived experiences might have been as they left Ireland between 1948 and 1954. In the novel I show how some women might have organised their departure from Ireland. In the exegesis, I suggestthat it is relevant to challenge whether the character and ability of Irish female emigrants were grossly misrepresented by the Church and the governments. Was this deliberate? In my novel, the lived experiences of my characters do not reflect this negative narrative. Instead, the novel shows how the daily lives of Irish women were filled with hard work, humour and dreams of a better future, either in Ireland, or somewhere else.
History and historical fiction can work together to weave an interesting perspective on the past and it is worth considering what stories could be told. Challenges could be made to counter the hegemonic stereotyping of individuals and groups that have been built through official discourses. Historical fiction based on rigorous research is one way of moving beyond national histories which elide the lived experiences of previous generations. Learning about, and gaining an understanding of, the lives of people in the past will help us understand our lives in the present. Otherwise, history-writing may simply risk reinforcing the status quo.
Following a career in financial management in the private sector, and as a financial analyst with the Public Service in Canberra, Olga Walker is now a PhD Candidate with the University of Canberra. You can contact Olga at firstname.lastname@example.org or owalker74407298
[iii]Spivak, G.C. (1988). “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Morris, R.C. (Ed.) (2010) Can the Subaltern speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea. New York: Columbia University Press.
[iv]White, H. (2014). The Practical Past. Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
[v] De Certeau, M. (1984).The Practice of Everyday Life. (S. F. Rendall. Trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Image: This photograph of the author’s mother (one of the many young women who left Ireland) was taken in 1954.