IRISHNESS IN MY PRACTICE
Being (northern) irish, having recently moved to England, I often find myself feeling like an outsider. My voice sounds vastly different to all of those around me, my words aren’t enunciated the same as those around me, and quite often my peers and mentors struggle to understand what I am saying when I speak. When I’m in a public place, speaking aloud, I can see people cringing, forming their own preconceived notions of my irishness- and remembering old stereotypes they’ve always held about us. At a bar once in Camden, North London, a man asked me where I was from, rather innocently. When I told him I was from Ireland, he responded eagerly, “North or South?”, my answer of “North” was met with a cringe and a quick ‘I guess we probably shouldn’t be speaking then” as he turned away. I have always been aware that where I am from has a divisive effect on english people. Most people love my irishness, and urge me to repeat words, sayings and phrases, as the way I speak is so garishly different to how they do. However, some people associate my irishness as a perceived, tangible threat. If you’re from the north, as I am, they think of the Troubles, domestic terrorism, shootings, bombings, riots and civil unrest and the IRA. If you’re from the South they think of drunken alcoholics, the potato famine, the IRA, and paedophile priests.
Feeling disconnected from my irishness whilst in London led me to think critically about my cultural identity. Regional politics and the divide in gender politics between the UK and Ireland played on my mind more than ever before, as it is an issue that affects me every day as a (northern) irish woman, yet being in England, it felt as if I had somehow ‘cheated’ my way around certain issues. On the mainland, (the UK), there are huge cultural and political differences, specifically in the way women are treated there, compared to in Ireland, both north and south of the border. The most immediate is the right to, and the access of, safe and legal abortions on the island of Ireland, which was only legalised in the Republic of Ireland on 26 May 2018. In Northern Ireland, MP’s voted to legalise abortion in July 2019, however, the legislation is still being drafted, and the law has not yet come into force here, meaning there is still no access to abortion in Northern Ireland as of the writing of this post, June 2020. There is a fundamental difference in the way women are, and have always been treated, in Ireland and in England. At home, I have little to no bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. My body is not mine, it belongs to someone else.
Now, being in England, and suddenly in close proximity to these services which I had been denied my entire life in Ireland, caused me to consider the nature of being female in Ireland, and the ways in which my physical and spiritual body were commandeered. I have a reluctance to continually hurt myself by reading about how men, and some women in power here, were continually and actively telling me that I could not be trusted with my own body, so I instead chose to look backwards, to explore the places where this idea of irish female body as landscape to be conquered and traversed came from.
Looking at irish mythology and folklore, I have found myself growing increasingly interested in the notion of the irish female body as landscape, as ‘place’ and ‘forbidden ground’, and its connection to the irish natural landscape. Throughout irish folklore and mythology, there are many tales regarding femininity, and the nature of being a woman in Ireland. Most are cautionary tales, warning women of the dangers of straying too far outside their village, into unchartered and mysterious land, where all sorts of insidious threats lay. Thinking about these areas beyond the realms of the known land, it struck me as a direct metaphor for the sexualised female body. These young women in these stories, and the young women who read them, were being warned of the threat of sexualisation, of polluting your body, of going beyond acceptability. If they were to breach the code of femininity, or cross the ‘village’ borders, they would be open to threat, danger, and possible death. In these unchartered zones lay fairies or ‘changelings’ which would abduct the innocent woman, and proceed to take her place in the human world, leaving the woman stuck in the ‘otherworld’.
In “Deposited Elsewhere”: The Sexualised Female Body and the Modern Irish Landscape”, Cara Delay notes,
“According to legendry, unsuspecting mortals (usually women and children) could be stolen away or “taken” by the fairies. Supernatural imposters, or fairy-changelings, then took their place in the human world. As Eugene Hynes reminds us, nineteenth-century Irish people associated fairy-women with “specific places”; as they did so, they mapped meaning onto the female body and the Irish topography. Women who wandered in forbidden or profane places were particularly likely to be “taken away”. The dangerous terrain into which women drifted was often liminal space, located on the margins of the town or village.”
In these stories, there is a female character present; known as the “cailleach, or “otherworld female”. As Gearóid Ó Crualaoich wrote, the cailleach or ‘otherworld female’;
“…personified the landscape and the climate – from “the power of the wind and wave… to the pastoral and nurturing fertility forces of plant and animal life…”.
Legends about the cailleach were tied to “natural features of the physical landscape”,
which established a firm link between the irish topography and the sacred feminine body/ presence. When these women were abducted by these fairy changelings, they were said to have been taken to an alternative world, or realm of existence, and kept there, before they were returned.
Along with the notion of the female irish body as a landscape, I want to explore this non-place where these folkloric women were taken to, its shapes, colors, contents and environment. How might it look? I want to imagine the textures, the sounds and the atmosphere in such a place. How might my body be represented as a landscape in this place? Is it human or something else? Perhaps biological or organic? Through my work I am exploring this non-place, and how it, and the objects, space and environments within, might behave.