“I know being a woman for me for a long time was being less, being excluded, being somehow cheap, being inferior, being sub. I associated being a woman with being a Catholic and being Irish with being from the North, and all of these things being not what you wanted to be. If you were a woman, it would have been better to be a man; if you were Catholic, it would have been a lot easier to be Protestant; if you were from the North, it was much easier to be from the South; if you were Irish, it was much easier to be English. So it was like everything that I was was wrong; everything that I was was hard, difficult, and a punishment.” (Sered)
Medbh (pronounced “Maeve”) McGuckian is a poet born on August 12, 1950 into a Catholic family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. As a northern Irish, Catholic woman, McGuckian dealt with severe social, political, and religious tensions. McGuckian is the third of six children. Her father worked as the headmaster of a school and as a farmer, and her artistic mother served as an early influence on McGuckian. For her secondary-school education, she attended a Dominican convent, where she came to the conclusion that she wanted to be a poet. She went on to attend Queen’s University, Belfast in 1968. There, she studied English, met and took classes from Seamus Heaney, and received her B.A. in 1972. McGuckian continued her education and did post-graduate work in the English department of Queen’s University until 1974 when she received an M.A. During that time, she began to write for local papers and magazines. One of her poems was first published in 1975. After graduation, she went back to her secondary-school to teach English. She also taught at St. Patrick’s Boys’ College in East Belfast. In 1977, she married John McGuckian, also a teacher. They have three sons and one daughter and currently reside in Belfast.
Since the publication of her first volume of poetry, The Flower Master in 1982, she has written numerous collections. She became the first woman to be named writer-in-residence at Queen’s University in 1986, and has received many other honors as well. McGuckian uses a rich, lyrical style and well-defined grammatical structure to hold together her mysterious feminine imagery. Although McGuckian’s poetry focuses on many subjects common to the female experience, it is written in a voice so undeniably private that it is almost impossible to gain an understanding of her personal experiences with femininity and motherhood. McGuckian’s secrecy serves both as a protective barrier for her and as a seduction of the reader. Commenting on poetry, she writes,
“I feel that you’re going public – by writing the poem you’re becoming a whore. You’re selling your soul which is worse than prostitution – in a sense you’re vilifying your mind. I do feel that must be undertaken with the greatest possible fastidiousness.” (Wills 63)
Most of the themes and issues that McGuckian addresses in her poetry are typically feminine. She is generally read “as a poet obsessively concerned with femininity, with her personal life, even with the dimensions of her house, to the exclusion of wider, more public concerns” (Wills 61). Her poetry is full of images of nature and the home, such as the moon, flowers, water, house, pregnancy, and birth; and in many of her poems, nature is representative of the feminine unconscious. It is also important to note that she only indirectly describes the body by using these symbols. For example, McGuckian typically uses the home as the metaphorical equivalent for a woman’s body. Similarly, she also concerns herself with a woman’s shape, her function as a container for a child, and the subsequent “fragmentation of the woman’s body” (Wills 63). This is exemplified in her poem, “Marconi’s Cottage.”
Another primary theme in McGuckian’s poetry is familial relationships. These take the form of both the maternal relationship between mother and child and the sexual relationship between husband and wife. Describing her poetry, McGuckian says: “It’s like embroidery. It’s very feminine, I guess. They are very intricate, my poems, a weaving of patterns of in’s and out’s and contradictions, one thing playing off another” (Wilson 19).
McGuckian is not an ordinary Northern Irish poet. She does not clearly address the social or political circumstances of her region; what references she does make to the Catholic or nationalist image of Ireland are veiled and obscure. In fact, she undercuts the archetypal, nationalist myth of Mother Ireland by turning this public image into a private discourse about her body. In her poems “The Heiress” and “The Soil Map,” McGuckian creates a tension between politics and her personal, feminine experience. McGuckian identifies woman with the land, yet does not reduce her to the common Mother Ireland. It is also characteristic of her to imagine the body as a place of struggle, and, oddly, the mother as an alien figure: “Rather than representing the continuity of generations, maternity for McGuckian is associated with historical discontinuity, bodily disruption, and loss” (Wills 161). Like many Irish contemporaries, she expresses her strong feelings of both love and hatred towards Ireland. On this subject, McGuckian says in a 1988 interview, “I don’t think anyone can really be Irish in Ireland. It is such a dreadful place. It’s blood-sucked, you feel like you’re walking in blood” (Wilson 21).
McGuckian’s first poetry collections, The Flower Master (1982) and Venus and the Rain (1984), concentrate on familial relationships. Although both collections are full of images of reproduction, McGuckian approaches the subject with antithetical emotions in each volume. The Flower Master, filled with images of death, focuses on a disillusionment with bearing children. This depression is contrasted with the feelings of expectation and joy that are found in Venus and the Rain. Here, the predominant images are of growth, newness, and the mystery of womanhood. In this collection, McGuckian uses the idea of pregnancy on a dual level: the speaker can be seen as being pregnant with child or with the idea of a poem. In McGuckian’s third collection, On Ballycastle Beach (1988), she explores the inner life of a woman within her body and home, and also a woman’s relationship with her children and husband/lover figure. These relationships are associated with violence and loss, in contrast to the purity and wholeness that one might stereotypically connect with the maternal image (Wills 182). Her language is extremely emotional and personal. Marconi’s Cottage (1991) is a collection of McGuckian’s most mysterious poems in which she even invokes the presence of a Muse. It centers on the value of poetry itself and is broken down into three parts. The first appears to focus on the conflict between two opposing types of fertility: motherhood and artistic creativity. The second section celebrates the birth of a daughter, and the third represents a realization that both types of creation (birth and poetry) are worthy of celebration. Captain Lavender (1995), represents a slight shift in focus away from the feminine. This collection is divided into two parts. The first poems attempt to deal with her father’s death, and the second half of the collection is an articulation of her experiences teaching a writing workshop to republican and loyalist prisoners at the Maze prison.
Works By The Author
- McGuckian, Medbh. Blaris Moor. County Meath: Gallery Press, 2015.
- —. The Book of the Angel. County Meath: Gallery Press, 2004.
- —. Captain Lavender. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1995.
- —. The Currach Requires No Harbours. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 2010.
- —. Drawing Ballerinas. County Meath: Gallery Press, 2001.
- —. The Face of the Earth. County Meath: Gallery Press, 2002.
- —. The Flower Master. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, reprinted as The Flower Master and Other Poems, Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1993.
- —. The Greenhouse. Oxford: Steane, c. 1983.
- —. The High Caul Cap: County Meath: Gallery Press, 2012.
- —. Marconi’s Cottage. Oldcastle: Gallery, 1991.
- —. On Ballycastle Beach. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, reprinted, Oldcastle: Gallery, 1995.
- —. Portrait of Joanna (chapbook). Belfast: Ulsterman, 1980.
- —. Selected Poems. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1997.
- —. Shelmalier. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1998.
- —. Single Ladies: Sixteen Poems (chapbook). Buldeigh Salterton: Interim Press, 1980.
- —. With Damian Gorman and Douglas Marshall. Trio Poetry. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1981.
- —. Venus and the Rain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
National Poetry Competition prize, 1979, for “The Flitting”
Eric Gregory award, 1980
Rooney prize, 1982
Ireland Arts Council award, 1982
Alice Hunt Bartlett award, 1983, for The Flower Master
Cheltenham Literature Festival Poetry Competition prize, 1989 Forward Poetry Prize, 2002
- Sered, Danielle. “Personal interview with Medbh McGuckian.” Emory University, Atlanta, GA. April 1998.
- Wills, Clair. Improprieties: Politics and Sexuality in Northern Irish Poetry. New York: Clarendon Press, 1993.
- Wilson, Rebecca. “The Mutiny of Selves: An Interview with Medbh McGuckian.” Cencrastus. (Spring 1988): 29.
- Boland, Eavan. A Kind Of Scar: The Woman Poet In A National Tradition. Dublin: Attic Press, 1989.
- Bradley, Anthony. Contemporary Irish Poetry. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.
- Corcoran, Neil. “Medbh McGuckian.” The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 40: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland since 1960. A Brucoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Vincent B. Sherry Jr., Villanova University. Gale Research, 1985. 352-55.
- Docherty, Thomas. “Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian.” The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland. Ed: Neil Corcoran. Bridgend: Seren Books, 1992. 191-210.
- Haberstroh, Patricia Boyle. Women Creating Women: Contemporary Irish Women Poets. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996.
- McGuckian, Medbh. “Comhra, with a forward by Laura O’Connor (An Interview).” Southern Review 28.1 (1995): 581-614.
- —. Private Papers. Special Collections, Emory University.
- Murphy, Shane. “Obliquity in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian.” Eire-Ireland 31.3-4 (1996): 76-101.
- —. “‘You took Away My Biography’: The Poetry of Medbh McGuckian.” Irish University Review 28.1 (1998): 110-32.
- O’Connor, Mary. “‘Rising Out’: Medbh McGuckian’s Destabilizing Poetics.” Eire-Ireland. 30.4 (1996): 154-72.
- Porter, Susan. “The ‘Imaginative Space’ of Medbh McGuckian.” International Women’s Writing: New Landscapes of Identity. Eds. Anne E. Brown & Marjanne E. Gooze. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995.
- Wolff, Janet. “Women’s Knowledge and Women’s Art.” Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. 120-141. 67-84.
Author: Suzanne Temple, Spring 1999
Last edited: May 2017