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What brought me to the Alice Curtayne Project

I was interested in taking part in the Alice Curtayne group project due to the similarities with my own area of research. The project, though not directly concerned with genealogical research, has its apotheosis in the personal familial relationship between Niall Rynne and his grandmother, who happened to be a respected published author. It is through Niall’s family interest in this woman that the rest of us have heard of Alice Curtayne and the creative contribution she made to the literary world and to Irish history and culture as a whole.  As a woman in the early and mid 20th century, she accomplished this while raising a family,which was no mean feat when we consider that support structures for working women with families were poor in mid 20th century Ireland.

The cataloguing and documentation of her literary work is important due to the overall paucity of Irish women authors during this time period. Many of her books concern hagiography, a subject that has fallen out of popularity due to societal shifts in the intervening yeas since her books were marketed. This in itself makes for an interesting slice of social history.

Having met with the other members of the Alice Curtayne Project group, we discussed the interests of each participant and how each of us could best contribute to the project effectively. Based on our own individual skills, tasks were allotted. My own contribution to the project was to photograph the available book covers and any illustrations therein. Having used photography on a professional as well as personal basis, it was decided this was the way in which I could best contribute to the project.

Niall provided me with access to the collection of Alice Curtayne books in his own collection. This is not a complete collection but comprises some of her best known publications. Many of these were first editions; some had lost their dust jackets. Several had personal inscriptions from the author which provided a lovely individual touch and a tangible reference to the woman herself, and other familial relationships.

I laid the books flat on a prepared surface and ensured adequate lighting from above and photographed each book and plate from directly above to ensure no shadow or shine interference.

I processed the digital photographs by adjusting the light and contrast in Photoshop where necessary. The photographs were also cropped to minimise background distraction and to concentrate focus on the subject itself. I then embedded the titles of the books to which they referred and the page numbers of illustration plates where appropriate. This ensures that the information is not lost when viewing the photos in various programmes or when sending them elsewhere in differing formats.

The photographs were sent to Niall in his capacity as project coordinator via email and uploaded to the group’s shared Dropbox folder where all members are able to access them and utilise them in blog posts, and other media applications connected to the Alice Curtayne Project.

I am happy with the result of our collaborative project and liked how everyone was able to contribute in a way that reflected their own personal strengths and area of interests. I believe it makes for a more rounded and substantial piece of research, the presentation of which is very effective, user friendly, and engaging in my opinion

Saints and Scholars

By Lucy Lyons

As part of a core module in this Digital Arts and Humanities MA, it was required that we collaborate on a group project to demonstrate how the various skill-sets of a group of people can together be used to create information – in our case, a piece of magic! Collectively we have succeeded in bringing the life of Alice Curtayne, (writer, wife, mother), into public view.

It all started when N told us that his grandmother was a writer, and immediately I knew I had to get on board this project. Alice was an Irish writer and lecturer born in 1898 in Tralee, Co. Kerry. She lectured in Irish history and Literature in the USA and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Anna Maria College in Paxton Massachusetts. This project recounts the life-story of an amazing woman who had the courage to be a writer in a time when women were all but silenced.

Initially, I didn’t imagine that there would be enough work in this project for the number of people in the group (we were 8), because the Alice Curtayne Collection consisted of fifteen boxes of letters and documents which resided in the National Library in Dublin, and we had little or no access to the contents. As it turned out, there was plenty to go around, and I am thrilled to know that now the world can be aware once again of Alice and her work. Knowing what I now know, I can see what a disgrace it would have been for pieces of her life to rest undiscovered in 15 dusty boxes.

As a group, we held regular meetings, generally on Tuesdays at 2pm in the O’Rahilly Building, though we also communicated regularly via email, to facilitate those who did not live locally. It was necessary to decided on a plan of action – what would be the best and most appropriate way to create public awareness of Alice Curtayne, how could we work with the materials we had access to, how would we divide up the tasks, set deadlines, and communicate our progress on a regular basis. In addition, we wanted to incorporate some of the concepts and digital tools we had been introduced to since the beginning of the MA, and in this way, there was a lot to discuss, and much work to be done.

We decided on the creation of a website to honour the work of this great woman as it seemed to be the best way to gather all of the information in one place so that the world may come and view it as a whole.

It was my task to gather together some information on hagiography and what it is exactly that the hagiographer does, as this is probably what Alice Curtayne is best known for – writing about the saint’s lives, (Catherine of Siena, Anthony of Padua, and St Brigid, to name but a few), though she has written many other books. I also helped to look after the proofreading of the website.

A Garden in the Rain

By Perry O’Donovan

“Sometime in early February 1935, when she looked out from her bedroom window”, writes Dr Andrew Rynne, son of Alice and Stephen Rynne of Downings House, County Kildare (see ‘My Mother Alice Curtayne’, below) , “written in large white letters on the lawn below her was the word ‘ALICE’. Stephen it appears, ever the romantic, had, the previous autumn, purchased a few pounds of snowdrop bulbs, dug shallow trenches in the lawn spelling ‘ALICE’, and dropped the bulbs in. And every spring thereafter, indeed well into my adult life, ‘ALICE’ would emerge, bright and sparkling and triumphant from the winter’s glooming. A statement, if ever there was one, of love pure and simple.”

This lovely story explains the snowdrop motif in my little video above, which is my contribution to the Alice Curtayne Project.

The writer Alice Curtayne (1898-1981) is grandmother to one of my classmates. We are reading for a Master of Arts degree, (Digital Arts and Humanities), at University College Cork and, as part of our DH6004 module, in addition to our individual assignments, class members are required to work on a collaborative project. Donal Niall Rynne, my classmate, suggested doing something on the life and work of his grandmother, Alice Curtayne, who is/was a figure well on her way to becoming a forgotten Irish writer. (And, indeed, even though I would consider myself reasonably well informed vis-a-vis 20th century Irish writers, she was someone of whom I was not aware.) The Alice Curtayne Project is about digitally reconstructing Alice Curtayne.

In her heyday, which is to say the middle part of the 20th century, Alice was quite a prominent figure, publishing sixteen books in all, (no small achievement for a mother of four children in an age before most modern household conveniences), as well as contributing to newspapers, journals, and to the output of RTE, the national broadcast service in Ireland.

Some of the picture files I’ve had to work with are very small, but they’re the best available, so that while they’re just about acceptable on small screens, I fear they will break up altogether if viewed on anything above a tablet size viewer, (and certainly if viewed in ‘full screen’ mode).

The audio track for the video is a recording of John McCormack singing ‘A Garden in the Rain’, (from 1929). John McCormack (1884-1945) was something like a Tony Bennett or a James Taylor of his time, and, at least until John F. Kennedy came along, was (possibly) the Irishman Irish people were most proud of.

A couple of final points: I believe that video features such as this need to be kept as short as possible. It may be different if you have a wealth of good material but, in a situation such as this, the shorter the better, (otherwise people will not even bother with them. You might feel that your holiday photos and your music selection are super-interesting, but, believe me, [as I’ve learned from experience], the rest of the world will not). So, to adapt an Orwellian dictum, two minutes good, four [or more] minutes bad.

And yet, in addition to the Alice Curtayne material, I wanted to give a sense of the world Alice lived in. She lived in extraordinary times; she was born at a time when cavalry officers still led battlefield charges on horseback and yet, by the end of her life, the United States and the Soviet Union were filling the planet with intercontinental ballistic missiles — nuclear missiles! When she was born, the hot-air balloon was the only means by which a human being could get his/her head up into the blue dome of the heavens, and yet she lived to see people land on the moon, (and, not only lady astronauts, but an iron lady in Downing Street!).

Nothing that I could do with the resources at my disposal could hope to fully represent the extraordinary times in which she lived, so I concentrated on just two of the very many revolutions of the 20th century — Irish independence, and women’s breakout onto the path which would lead to much increased levels of equality. I also focused on these because, really, (in my view), one’s whole outlook and make-up is formed in the first twenty or so years of one’s existence, and the war of 1914-18, and the fight for Irish independence, and the reformation of the concept of womanhood must have constituted major pillars in Alice’s cultural and cognitive architecture.

The principal pillar in Alice’s life, however, aside from her family, of course, would have been her religion. This, I feel, is fully represented in her literary output, book-length treatments of Catherine of Siena, Anthony of Padua, St Brigid of Ireland, Oliver Plunkett and so forth, and it is also pointed to at the very end of this little video with the scene of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, (which addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world), which Alice reported on for various Irish media outlets.

As a closing note, let me explain the cedar tree broach: when Alice Curtayne agreed to marry Stephen Rynne, to mark and celebrate the occasion, Stephen planted a blue Lebanese Cedar tree in the garden at Downings House. Because I could not get hold of a photo of the tree itself, the gold cedar tree broach is a symbolic stand-in for this strikingly romantic gesture by Stephen in what was clearly a true love story, (of which there are all too few in this life as it seems to me).

The best years of Alice Curtayne’s creativity

By Aleksejs Jackovs

Alice was very intelligent, modest person, hardworking as I found her words really approving “I did not grow up with the ambition to be a writer, still less a hagiologist. Whatever equipment is supposed to be necessary for such a career, I was sure I hadn’t it. When I left the convent school in my native Tralee, I took a modest secretarial job.”

“I always ympathize with people who rush up to me asking, “What’s a hagiologist and is that how it’s pronounced?” The first time I heard myself so described at a public meeting, I was confused, wondering what strange avocation had been thrust on me. I had to find out from a dictionary that the word means a writer of saints’ lives.

After a couple of years, Alice “I went to Milan, still in a secretarial job, now perhaps not quite so modest” . Alice “was twenty, harrowed by loneliness, with nowhere to go and nothing to do on the long summer evenings.” They had told me in the office that “her salary would be increased when she was competent in Italian, so she  began to read books in the language in order to hasten the day. With a mercenary rather than a cultural motive, she began to explore library facilities. But nearly all the reading left her with an empty sense of dissatisfaction. Nothing that she read corresponded with her own inner perception of her singularity: she did not find in the books about her the radiance of that unchanging gaiety expressed in her letters, nor the strong comfort of her unending endurance. Then she began to read the history of the fourteenth century in Italy. She had solved the problem of my empty evenings. The same personage dominated her reading for several years. She filled many notebooks. But still it never occurred to her that she would ever make any use of those notes. Then she was transferred to the Liverpool branch of the same firm in which she held a secretarial post. In that northern English city, she joined the Catholic Evidence Guild and there met Frank Sheed, who was very active in the same work. When he married Maisie Ward, another Guild member, shortly afterwards (in 1926), they founded the publishing firm of Sheed & Ward. But they continued their work for the Catholic Evidence Guild and they often discussed their publishing problems over cups of coffee with Guild speakers after street-corner meetings. One of Sheed & Ward’s first ventures was a series of saints’ lives by Henri Ghéon, Rev. C. C. Martindale, S.J., and others.”. Suddenly the contents of those notebooks, unopened for years, rose up in my mind. “St. Catherine of Siena would,” I eagerly interposed. I began to talk and found it very difficult to bring myself to a halt. “You should write about her,” they told me.

This obsession that the writer succeeds only by rigid specialization is evidence of the artistic poverty of our time. Separation of the arts is a symbol of weakness and decay. Nowadays a poet is hardly expected to venture on prose. But that a writer should be labeled with a theme and expected never to deviate from it is surely the last stage of artistic poverty before complete bankruptcy. She” held out against the tide, however, and her second book was A Recall to Dante (Macmillan, 1932), whom she had also studied during her nearly four years residence in Italy.”Her book is an easy approach, a sort of “Dante without tears.” Father Calvert Alexander, S.J., in his book The Catholic Literary Revival (Bruce, 1935) was kind enough to describe it as “one of the few really helpful books on the Florentine we have had by Englishspeaking Catholics.” Afterwards she tried “straight biography with a Life of Patrick Sarsfield before returning again to hagiology with lives of St. Brigid of Ireland and St. Anthony of Padua. Then she tried a novel with House of Cards, and essays in the volume Borne on the Wind. It was at about this stage of her writing career (1935) that she married a farmer, Stephen Rynne.

As a writer, she “ found that the training as a speaker she had received in the Liverpool Catholic Evidence Guild stood me in good stead.”She “ remember speaking in one of the principal theatres of Dublin a couple of years after the appearance of her first book and once again finding herself committed to a road she had never really intended to travel.” This road led her” in the nineteenfifties on three extensive lecture tours of the United States, two of them transAmerican. Like so many other writers, she was induced to commit herself to the phantasmagoria of rocking in planes, swaying in diesel trains, or speeding over highways in highpowered automobiles to declaim my views on literature, on Ireland, or even on world affairs. There were months when she would hear in her sleep the introductory formula “Our Speaker Tonight,” or she would quail again before the admonitions of the lecture agent when she had missed that train, or plane. She would stay awake over the problem why programme chairwomen are always so nervous and Madam Presidents so formidable. A programme chairwoman in Boston once pounced on her in the lobby of a convent retreat house” saying “I am Alice Curtayne . . . .” Once, when nearing the end of her talk, she used the age-honoured formula “If I am not exceeding my time… “, expecting the usual smiles of reassurance. But instead, Madam President icily interjected, “Remember that every woman here has to get home in time to prepare her husband’s dinner.”

But writers will continue to flock to the United States as to the Mecca of opportunity and for an unrivaled stimulus to their efforts. Nowhere else in the world is the writer enfolded in quite the same genial, tolerant, and immensely kind encouragement, a mental environment that is remembered and honoured in the heart forever. It was in America ”sheI was persuaded in a certain college library to turn my attention to books for juveniles, and as a result I wrote Twenty Tales of Irish Saints and More Tales of Irish Saints.”

The most thrilling assignment in her” life reached  in 1958 when she was asked to give a course on Irish history and literature under the Medora A. Feehan lectureship, sponsored by Bishop John J. Wright, then Ordinary of the Worcester diocese, but since promoted to the diocese of Pittsburgh.”

Alice gave the “course in the spring of 1959 at the Anna Maria College, Paxton, Massachusetts, where an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Many of the students in both colleges were of Irish American descent and “work together” and gave her “an insight into the mind of the Irish in America.” Her “latest book, The Irish Story (Kennedy, 1960), was inspired by and is the fruit of that valuable experience.”

In a World of Women’s Words

By Rae McKinley

It is not unusual for me to have mixed feelings about groups. Groups have been a big part of my life, in fact my primary degree covered a lot about groups. I have been in some groups where we all got on well, groups where we spent weeks on trying to sort out just one item, (such as what colour a banner should be), to groups where people fell out and never spoke again. Groups! I equally love and hate them in equal measure.

Call it serendipity perhaps, but when I walked past Niall as he was discussing this group project with others, my ears caught the words ‘woman writer’. A female writer, and one I had never heard of! When I asked myself the question ‘why’, I was set on the path of being a member of this group.

Our second meeting was held in the first floor foyer of the O’Rahilly Building in UCC after our first class. We sat together and tasks were shared out. I was delighted when I was given the task of exploring Irish Female Writers and I went away happy that I would be doing something I was interested in.

Nowadays, the internet is probably the most popular means of gathering information, especially if one is looking through a digital lens, but I wanted to check other sources. I wanted to experience that essence of the book, the printed word. My first source was actually one of my own books that I got for €2 at a car boot sale, “A writer’s Ireland: Landscape in Literature”, by William Trevor. It was there that I found Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Somerville.

The next part of the journey took me to Cork County Library Headquarters, where I found Philo-Phillipa. Phillipa is known only because of an English writer called Katherine Phillips. Phillipa apparently sent Katherine Phillips a poem, and it is only through this letter that she is recognised as a poet. Did she write anything else? I cannot answer that question.  However, I decided that I had to include her in the ‘blog’ on the strength of this one poem. This poem sheds light on an all but forgotten woman, someone who, some commentators say, wrote  a poem which broke the codes of feminine behaviour and wrote on LGBTQA sexuality, which would have been considered taboo even for a man in 17th century Dublin. I admit that I wielded a bit of power with regard to my decision. The lives of women in the 16th and 17th century fascinate me as it was a time of great change in ‘ways of being’ – think etiquette and decorum, and of course, this meant that there were new modes of thinking, so Phillipa’s poem is included because it shows us the words of a woman who broke the rules of feminine decorum. I needed to read it, mull over it, and reflect on it, and I hope others will equally find something of value in it.

I loved working in the group because Niall is a good group facilitator and my group ‘style’ fits well with his method of facilitating. I liked how he trusted us with each of our tasks. We kept in contact via email and Facebook, and this meant we didn’t need continual group meetings. This was much appreciated by me because I live in Bandon.

The shadow, or ‘down-side’, of this project was that I was too interested in the subject. On reflection, it has to be said that being too interested in a topic can be a problem. When an individual is interested in a subject it can mean that too much time is allotted for that particularly project to the detriment of other assignmets, as was the case with me.  Of course, I wanted my article to be worthy, but I could have ended up spending more time locked away in the archives. I was writing an article after all, not a book.

One of the hardest parts of the process was to decide on who to include in my article. One of the questions I had to consider was who the audience would be. For instance, Elizabeth Bowen would be known to those who have an interest in literature, regardless of whether they had attended third level English lectures, but does that mean she is well-known?  I decided to go and ask some folk and  put it to the test I asked several writer friends and some non-writer friends. Out of ten people asked, only two had heard of Elizabeth Bowen, and niether knew an awful lot about her.

I decided to omit Maria Edgeworth and Lady Gregory, because they are probably more well known, and of the ten people I had asked, seven said that both women where familiar to them. I did mention them though, in the introduction in the hope that interested parties who read the blog can do more research if they so wish.

Although there was an amount of learning involved in the process of completing this task, I have to say that the steepest learning curve came from reading the women’s writers biographies. Reading their personal stories, (some were quite tragic because of the  rigorously defined gender codes at the time that they lived), I sensed their frustrations. Their roles were defined simply, they had few choices. The first was a life in the Church, and the second was that of the dutiful housewife and mother.

It is my opinion that the testemonies of these women open a window into ‘herstory.’ Especially so with regard to the women writers who lived at the time of the birth of the Irish State.  My regret was only that  I could not write more about them. However, what I can say is that women writers like Macardle and Martin did try to carve out a more authentic lifestyle defined by their own terms, and did try to remove the shackles of ‘etiquette’ which bound them. Unfortunately, there were consequences too. People, in this case women, who question society’s behavioural codes can often end up misunderstood and resented, and can develop dysfunctional traits like the self-sabotage of addictive behaviour patterns like Brennan.

During the course of this assignment, I laughed, I cried, and I was amazed by the strength of these women. Furthermore,  I know that some time in the future I will continue this search.