Medbh McGuckian Essay - Critical Essays

McGuckian, Medbh (Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Medbh McGuckian 1950-

Northern Irish poet and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of McGuckian's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 48.

One of the few female Irish poets to attract both critical and popular attention, McGuckian writes poetry that infuses the traditionally masculine realm of Irish poetry with her own distinct brand of femininity. Throughout her career, she has simultaneously illumined and blurred patriarchal definitions of womanhood in collections ranging from the critically acclaimed The Flower Master (1982; revised, 1993) to The Soldiers of Year II (2002). Primarily writing on such themes as female sexuality, sex, and identity as well as marriage, fertility, pregnancy, and birthing, McGuckian has challenged the Irish literary canon which traditionally devalues woman writers. In addition, she has asserted a female Irish perspective on European poetry while honoring precursors of both genders in that tradition. McGuckian's themes are intimately linked with her literary style, which is not only densely literate and allusive but also deliberately oblique, deconstructing both logocentric thought and conventional grammar and syntax.

Biographical Information

McGuckian was born on August 12, 1950, the third of six children, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her family lived in the Newington District in North Belfast, a small area populated by Roman Catholics that forms an interface with the Protestant Tiger's Bay area and was therefore fraught with sectarian tension throughout McGuckian's childhood. Her father was a teacher, the vice principal of the local Holy Family Primary School, which McGuckian attended before completing her secondary education at the Dominican convent in Fort William. From 1968 to 1974, McGuckian studied English literature under the renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney at Queen's College in Belfast, earning both her B.A. and M.A. degrees. During her tenure at Queen's College, McGuckian interacted with a number of noted Irish poets, such as Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby, and Ciaran Carson. While working on her graduate degree, McGuckian began writing and publishing in local newspapers and magazines. In 1974 she started teaching English at her old convent school in Fort William and later accepted a position at St. Patrick's Boys' College in East Belfast. She married John McGuckian, a teacher of geography, in 1977, with whom she has four children. In 1979 McGuckian won first place in the National Poetry Competition, a well-publicized media event in Britain, for her poem “The Flitting.” She subsequently released two brief pamphlet editions of her poetry in 1980—Single Ladies and Portrait of Joanna—followed in 1982 by the publication of her first major volume of verse, The Flower Master, which she later significantly revised in 1993. During the 1980s, McGuckian issued two collections of poems, Venus and the Rain (1984; revised, 1994) and On Ballycastle Beach (1988). In 1986 she became the first woman poet-in-residence at Queen's University. She has also served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, from 1994 to 1997. In the 1990s McGuckian published three poetry collections—Marconi's Cottage (1991), Captain Lavender (1994), and Shelmalier (1998). She has won numerous literary awards, including the Rooney Prize in Ireland, the Cheltenham Award, the Bass Ireland Award for Literature, and the American Ireland Fund Literary Award. In 1993 she facilitated a controversial series of poetry workshops for both loyalist and Republican prisoners of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison. In the late 1990s, McGuckian joined Aosdána, a highly selective association of Irish artists representing literature, music, and the visual arts. In 2002 she was awarded the Tolman Cunard Prize for best single poem for “She Is in the Past, She Has This Grace.”

Major Works

A palpable eroticism suffuses most of McGuckian's poetry, articulating concerns about ambiguous marginal states traditionally represented by the feminine in patriarchal literature. Such bodily experiences as pregnancy, birth, and death often focus these themes, particularly in her early poems. For instance, The Flower Master, McGuckian's most critically acclaimed and best known work, is thematically centered around childbearing and dying, engaging floral imagery as both a generating idea and a metaphorical resource. In such poems as “Gladiolus” and “Spring,” the language of flowers is used to describe the manner and method of poetry, highlighting the female poet's movement from adolescent potential to maturity through subliminal, oblique narration. McGuckian's second collection, Venus and the Rain, develops similar themes and techniques, delving into growth and womanhood in terms of fertility and pregnancy. In addition to dealing with female responsibilities for childrearing and relationships, On Ballycastle Beach engages the realm of modern European lyric poetry, exploring that poetic tradition through the symbolism of flags and national languages while pondering the political possibilities for Ireland beyond its historic association with England. Similarly, Marconi's Cottage stresses the importance of Ireland's links to European poetry and considers the nature and value of poetry itself, pitting the chaos of nature against the order of art. Incorporating the symbolism of marine and domestic imagery, the volume also contains numerous poems specifically addressed to women that reflect the possibility of dreams and female intuition. Divided into three parts, Marconi's Cottage opens with a sequence that focuses on the conflict between motherhood and artistic creativity, followed by a section that celebrates the birth of a daughter. The collection concludes with a series that asserts the fertility of both types of creation and affirms the mutual relationship between the poetic and the ordinary. The title of Shelmalier (1998) alludes to the ancient name of a clan in County Wexford, Ireland, who successfully rebelled against the English but were eventually exterminated. The title also recalls a term later used by the United Irishmen in Ulster, Northern Ireland, during their insurrection in 1789. In relation to these historical events, the volume explores the continuing links between the Irish and the English, southern and Northern Ireland, the historic past and the present “troubles,” and Catholics and Protestants. Presented as an act of both remembrance and reconciliation, Shelmalier offers a contemporary perspective not only on the 1790s but also on the 1890s, recasting the heroic visions of that era's poets in terms of an injured, feminized masculinity. One of McGuckian's more accessible works, the collection experiments with the possibilities of such traditional poetic forms and devices as sonnets and rhyming couplets. During 2002—in addition to releasing the short collection The Face of the Earth—McGuckian published The Soldiers of Year II, a selection of poems that focuses on the overlap between public and private lives. In poems such as “Ballerinas” and “The Colony Room,” McGuckian uses rich imagery and unconventional associations to portray the personal and emotional impact of major events in Irish history from the Great Potato Famine to the present.

Critical Reception

Eliciting a great deal of critical interest since the publication of The Flower Master, McGuckian's poetry has prompted a variety of responses from readers and academics alike. While some reviewers have hailed her work as visionary, artistic, and perfectly suited to her material, others have regarded her verse as discursive, oblique, and virtually incomprehensible. Many commentators have praised the striking quality and associative nature of her poetic imagery, asserting that her poems skillfully examine contemporary cultural notions of “womanliness.” However, McGuckian's difficult syntax, densely allusive style, and intimate tone has continued to alternately delight and confound readers. Her supporters have praised the degree of control, assuredness, and intellectual courage her poetry exhibits, while her detractors have pointed to the unwarranted obscurity of her poetry, noting that it notoriously resists paraphrase. Although many critics have been exasperated by the excess verbiage in McGuckian's verse, some scholars have aligned her dense poetics with feminist literary theory, interpreting its apparent obliqueness as a sign of écriture feminine, or “female writing.” According to such feminists as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, women have traditionally articulated language in a decentered, irrational, and nonlinear manner, unlike the logocentric, hierarchical expression of patriarchy. Nonetheless, critics have generally acknowledged McGuckian as the first woman to rank among the Ulster poets who came to prominence in the 1970s who are often referred to as “The Northern Voices.”

Principal Works

Portrait of Joanna (poetry) 1980

Single Ladies (poetry) 1980

The Flower Master (poetry) 1982; revised as The Flower Master and Other Poems, 1993

Venus and the Rain (poetry) 1984; revised as Venus and the Rain: Revised Edition, 1994

On Ballycastle Beach (poetry) 1988

Marconi's Cottage (poetry) 1991

Captain Lavender (poetry) 1994

Selected Poems, 1978-1994 (poetry) 1997

Shelmalier (poetry) 1998

Horsepower Pass By! A Study of the Car in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney (criticism)...

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Molly Bendall (essay date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Bendall, Molly. “Flower Logic: The Poems of Medbh McGuckian.” Antioch Review 48, no. 3 (summer 1990): 367-71.

[In the following essay, Bendall discusses the style and imagery of McGuckian's poems in relation to the subversion of phallocentric literary conventions.]

In casual discussions of the Irish poet Medbh (pronounced like Queen Maeve) McGuckian's work, I've often heard the responses “flowery,” “irrational,” or “strange” used. Yet I think “sensual” and “intricate” are far better words to describe this poet's compellingly original poems. McGuckian's imagination does more than enhance a realistic sequence of events in the rendering of...

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Clair Wills (review date 10 July 1992)

SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “Making Waves.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4658 (10 July 1992): 23.

[In the following review, Wills surveys Marconi's Cottage, situating McGuckian's achievement within the context of twentieth-century European poetry.]

One of the questions currently much in vogue concerns our relative “Europeanness”, or lack of it. In keeping with the Republic of Ireland's recent affirmation of a European self-image, Medbh McGuckian in Marconi's Cottage stresses the importance of Ireland's links with European poetry. This was true of her last volume too, but whereas in On Ballycastle Beach (1988) her engagement with European poets...

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Peggy O'Brien (essay date December 1992)

SOURCE: O'Brien, Peggy. “Reading Medbh McGuckian: Admiring What We Cannot Understand.” Colby Quarterly 28, no. 4 (December 1992): 227-38.

[In the following essay, O'Brien defends the obscurity of McGuckian's poetry, comparing her thematic and stylistic treatment of female sexuality and sex to other major poets of the traditional canon.]

When detractors speak of Medbh McGuckian, the first sin they name is an unwarranted obscurity. My purpose here is double: to defend that obscurity as necessary within the terms of McGuckian's poetic by looking at a few poems closely; and to place that poetic within the canon by making some broad comparisons with other major poets....

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Thomas Docherty (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Docherty, Thomas. “Postmodern McGuckian.” In The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, edited by Neil Corcoran, pp. 191-210. Chester Springs, Penn: Dufour Editions Inc., 1992.

[In the following essay, Docherty assesses McGuckian's poetry in terms of its concern with ritual, its “ idealist” subjectivity, and its links with surrealism.]

McGuckian's poetry is pointless, in a sense akin to the way in which Molly Bloom's soliloquy is without point, unpunctuated or unpunctual. A typical sentence meanders around a point, apostrophically veering from it whenever it seems to be about to touch ground, so to speak:


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Anne Fogarty (essay date March 1994)

SOURCE: Fogarty, Anne. “‘A Noise of Myth’: Speaking (as) Woman in the Poetry of Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian.” Paragraph 17, no. 1 (March 1994): 92-102.

[In the following essay, Fogarty analyzes the Irish feminist aesthetics of the poetry of Eavan Boland and McGuckian, highlighting both poets' rejection of feminist literary politics.]

Although feminist theory has led to the welcome rediscovery and reinstatement of women's writing in many other European cultures, the attempt to recuperate and map out a specifically female literary tradition and aesthetics in Ireland seems to be peculiarly beset by conflict. Indeed, many critics have come to the uncomfortable...

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Steven Matthews (review date 15 April 1994)

SOURCE: Matthews, Steven. Review of The Flower Master and Other Poems, by Medbh McGuckian. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4750 (15 April 1994): 26.

[In the following review, Matthews praises the revised edition of The Flower Master, commenting on McGuckian's literary method and the volume's content.]

Medbh McGuckian's poetry studiously and notoriously resists paraphrase. It is protective towards its influences and origins, being concerned to present the essence of experience rather than its surface events. This is poetry full of the weather, flowers, the seasons, trees, earth, water, the sun, the moon, shifting light. Images of the familial, of nurture...

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Susan Porter (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Porter, Susan. “The ‘Imaginative Space’ of Medbh McGuckian.” In International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Gooze, pp. 86-101. Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Porter examines the similarities between McGuckian's poetics and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, revealing the ways McGuckian evades co-opting English literary traditions as a Northern Irish woman writer.]

Because she is an Irish Catholic from the North of Ireland, Medbh McGuckian is surrounded by insistent reminders of her national and religious identity. She belongs to a minority within...

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Patricia Boyle Haberstroh (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Haberstroh, Patricia Boyle. “Medbh McGuckian.” In Women Creating Women, edited by Patricia Boyle Haberstroh, pp. 123-58. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Haberstroh evaluates the language and style of McGuckian's poems in light of specific conflicts and ambivalences encountered by the contemporary Irish woman poet.]

Medbh McGuckian's poetry has elicited a great deal of interest since the publication of her first major volume. The Flower Master, in 1982.1 Born in Northern Ireland, she was the first woman to be recognized among the “Northern Voices,” the Ulster poets who came to prominence in the...

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Guinn Batten (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Batten, Guinn. “‘The More with Which We are Connected’ The Muse of the Minus in the Poetry of McGuckian and Kinsella.” In Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland, edited by Anthony Bradley and Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, pp. 212-44. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Batten explores the thematic and stylistic effects of “nothingness” or “absence” in the poetry of McGuckian and Thomas Kinsella.]

When we make nature over again,
The experience not bright, the thought not red,
The soul being a substance cannot explain
Just that red as felt in the room or bed:
Or how the rest of the merely...

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Medbh McGuckian and Sawnie Morris (interview date July 1998)

SOURCE: McGuckian, Medbh, and Sawnie Morris. “Under the North Window: An Interview with Medbh McGuckian.” Kenyon Review 23, nos. 3 and 4 (summer/fall 2001): 64-74.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in July 1998, McGuckian talks about her writing process, the politics of her poetry, the influence of Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney on her work, and her place within the Irish poetic tradition.]

Medbh McGuckian was born in Belfast in 1950, where she now lives for most of the year with her husband and their four teenagers. Her poems have won the English Poetry Society Competition (1979), an Eric Gregory Award (1980), and the Bass Ireland Award for...

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Kate Daniels (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Daniels, Kate. “Ireland's Best.” Southern Review 35, no. 2 (1999): 387-402.

[In the following essay, Daniels compares and contrasts the themes and style of Shelmalier with those of Eavan Boland's The Lost Land and Derek Mahon's The Yellow Book, delineating each poets’ relationship to the patriarchal traditions of Ireland.]

If one were to compose a scale of oppositions upon which to consider contemporary poetry by Irish women, the Dublin poet Eavan Boland (b. 1944) would appear at one end, and Medbh McGuckian (b. 1951), from Belfast, at the other. Although their work is fundamentally different—Boland the mistress of a highly...

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Clair Wills (review date 2 April 1999)

SOURCE: Wills, Clair. “In Time's Turning.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5009 (2 April 1999): 26.

[In the following review, Wills evaluates the style and themes of Shelmalier.]

Some years ago, the Northern Irish poet Medbh McGuckian made the startling confession that “I began to write poetry so that nobody would read it. Even the ones who read it would not understand it, and certainly no other poet would understand it”. There could hardly be better ammunition for those who accuse contemporary poets of wilful obscurity. And even readers sympathetic to McGuckian must sometimes find themselves fighting off a sense of exasperation. Take these lines from...

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Helen Blakeman (essay date May 2002)

SOURCE: Blakeman, Helen. “Metaphor and Metonymy in Medbh McGuckian's Poetry.” Critical Survey 14, no. 2 (May 2002): 61-74.

[In the following essay, Blakeman studies the role of metaphor and metonymy in McGuckian's poetry with respect to the theories of American linguist Roman Jakobson and French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan on the same topics.]

What this essay offers is not a definitive way to read a McGuckian poem, as not only is this an unfeasible task but it would compromise McGuckian's deliberate refusal of a single voiced, univocal reading. Rather, what this essay provides is a consideration of McGuckian's application of metaphor and metonymy in relation to the...

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Further Reading


Brandes, Rand. “A Dialogue with Medbh McGuckian.” Interview: Studies in the Literary Imagination 30, no. 2 (1997): 37-61.

Brandes provides an overview of McGuckian's writings and career, particularly the poet's decision to conduct a poetry workshop for prison inmates.

D'Evelyn, Thomas. “Verses for a Troubled Time.” Christian Science Monitor (3 April 2003): 20.

D'Evelyn discusses the range of poems in The Soldiers of Year II, commenting that McGuckian's “art, notable for the fission of its imagery, rises to each occasion, lifting it to terrible beauty.”


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