Note: Bridget Keown was the 2017 recipient of the Larkin Research Fellowship in Irish Studies. She has nicely agreed to give us a glimpse of her plans for next year as she takes new steps in her research on Irish and British women’s history.
The Larkin Fellowship is not only a source of financial help to graduate students who require funding to complete their dissertation, but it is also a deeply meaningful source of encouragement that makes it that much easier to accomplish the task. My research focuses on Irish and British women who suffered psychological trauma as a result of their experiences during the First World War at the home and battle front. Because so little has been written about women and trauma, particularly during this period, I was concerned when I began researching that sources would be scare. I was thrilled —- if slightly intimidated -— to realize this was far from the case. In fact, the archives of Ireland and Northern Ireland have provided me with some fascinating, moving, and critically important sources for my work, and I am so grateful for the chance to explore more.
The significance of my work is not only in understanding how women’s symptoms of war trauma were understood and treated, but in uncovering examples of women’s subjectivity and understanding the war as they experienced it. While working at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, I found a folder of letters written by VAD nurses serving at various fronts replying to a request for photographs to be made into a commemorative booklet. In their responses, it is evident the pride these women took in their professional knowledge and service — and also how helpless they felt, how tired and hungry. The conflict they experienced between trying to describe the realities of warfare and trying to maintain the standards of decorum is clear. That enforced silence make their experiences that much more difficult to read -— and necessary to discuss.
In my work, I utilize feminist critiques of psychological history to argue that the diagnosis of trauma generally, and “shell-shock” specifically, was designed exclusively for men. The female brain was assumed to be fundamentally different from, and inherently inferior, to that of men, and, thus, when women broke down, their symptoms were attributed to a natural susceptibility, and not in any way related to the heightened stress and increased emotional caused by wartime. Doctors’ notes and hospital casebooks, therefore, offer intriguing sites of contention where women, often unable to behave in socially acceptable ways as a result of their experiences, came into direct confrontations with medical assumptions about their emotionality and their mental capacity. With the money from the Larkin award, I am looking forward to doing more investigation into the effects of the 1916 Rising on women in Dublin by looking at the case books of Richmond War Hospital, as well as requests for financial compensation and doctor’s notes such as those of Dr. James Ryan. The assistance of the Larkin Grant will make this research possible, and I truly cannot express my gratitude for the support.