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"The Female Voice in Irish Elegiac Poetry, 900-1500 AD"

Document Type


Publication Date

February 2014


We find two genres of poetry focused on death and the dead in Old and Middle Irish [900-1500 AD]: the elegy, marbhnadh, and the lament, caoineadh. The former is a highly formalized, literary, and male-dominated form, while the latter is traditional, oral, and entirely the provenance of women. However, elements of the caoineadh—whether linguistic, thematic, or metrical—often find their way into elegiac poetry. It will be argued here that this occurs for two main reasons: as an attempt at verisimilitude on the part of an author, and as a utilization of the feminine voice to express emotions of loss, pain and anger not traditionally suited to the male persona. This assumption of the female voice, in fact, can be seen as the precursor to the later tradition of elegy wherein the poet overtly mourns his patron in the persona of his wife. In both cases, the 'mask' of the feminine becomes the way to express themes and emotions that are not conventionally associated with a male author even if, perhaps, they are felt by a male author. Thus, by utilizing, or imitating, characteristics typically associated with women’s verse keening—such as wailing; vocables like ‘Ach!’ or ‘Och!’; repetition; praise mixed with accusation; even alternating metres—the Irish poet could potentially heighten the emotional response of the audience by evoking these well-known motifs of bereavement. This paper will examine the ways in which Old and Middle Irish elegies composed wearing the feminine ‘mask’ differ from those spoken by males, both in poetic form and narrative sensibility.

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