The Keening Women’s Alliance

Members of the KWA in 1971 amongst the Irish Womens Liberation Movement

The Keening Women’s Alliance

Vocal group. A fugitive women’s improv singing group based in Cork in the 1950s and 1960s.

starting out as a community-based co-operative women’s group formed in opposition to the local branch of the Women’s Institute, which was felt to be excessively ‘hierarchical, hefty and church-worshipping’ (as a member of the Alliance is said to have put it, Quinny 2000: 7), the Keening Women’s Alliance was set-up in 1957 or 1958 as a performing arts group for women from around the Carrigaline and Ballygarvan areas south of Cork. Inspired by emerging trends in experimental classical music and improvisation, key member Shauna McCabe pushed the Alliance both into the wider Cork scene and into more exploratory musical areas throughout 1959 and 1960 (Quinny 2000). Activity was now no longer to be confined merely to private society meetings based on nebulous communitarian principles, but also to public performance inspired by composers such as John Cage. This exploration and expansion was such that by the time of the KWA’s first public performance, as part of the Cork International Choral Festival in 1961 (on May 21 at City Hall in a non-competitive event), the group could be seen, in the words of critic Stephen Fitzmaurice (Appendix 3), to produce ‘strange, feckless sounds without apparent order.’ These sounds were ‘based sometimes in poetry, sometimes song and other times scream.’ The City Hall performance, which ‘lasted only fifteen minutes but felt like a shattered eternity,’ saw the women move about in a ‘ritual frenzy’ that ‘climaxed with strange monotone group chanting, as if at the close of a wake’ (all Fitzmaurice 1961: 7).

The only concrete documentary evidence that survives of KWA’s activities, Extraordinary Proceedings of the Keening Women’s Alliance (see Appendix 4), echoes the descriptions offered Fitzmaurice’s review. It also suggests that KWA meetings and, later, performances would proceed according to something of a type. Each ‘programmediagram,’ as performance schedules were described, was headed with a mission statement-like short piece of prose. Below this would be printed various short texts (which sometimes included directions for performance). Amongst these can be detected a clear formal sequence, where a short solo ‘introit’ would be sung or recited by a different member of the group; massed vocal performance and readings of various poetic and political texts would follow from different factions; a central, wordless section of unloosed keening from all in attendance, in tribute to the ‘As we keen’ of the mission statement, would bring meetings to a climax; and finally unison chanting of Endocil 4 KWA would serve as Exit Music.

The KWA’s emphasis on turbulent, collaborative and largely improvised group performance, as described by Fitzmaurice and Quinny and as is suggested by the tenor of the texts collected in Appendix 4, was obviously modelled not on classical choral conventions but rather on both experimental classical principles of indeterminacy and local traditions of social performance. It can be seen to be taken up by later important figures in improvised music, from Phil Minton to Maggie Nicols, the latter of whom may even have attended one of the Alliance’s rumoured two performances at Dunne’s Dérives in Dublin in 1963 on a visit to Ireland that year (see Brand forthcoming). The Alliance also pre-echoes singing traditions such as Sacred Harp, which has lately taken up something of a position of prominence in Cork musical life. But spiritual correspondences such as these are some of the only traces of the Alliance that can be detected in the historical record post-1968 or so, which, apart from images of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement’s trip in 1971 to Belfast to buy contraception that show three separate members of the KWA amongst the throng (Margery Bird, Josephine Qualaney and Imelda Gogan), falls completely silent after the publication of Extraordinary Proceedings until Quinny’s valuable act of retrieval in 2000.

So as with other avant-garde and exploratory practices of the time, such community-building through radical culture as can be seen in the efforts of the KWA had little oxygen to breath in Ireland, which remained culturally and socially both a broken and a somewhat isolated country at that time. Beyond the tremors the group no doubt injected into its members’ lives during its ten or so years of existence and indeed into the few audiences lucky enough to see them, the improvised communal tempests of the Keening Women’s Alliance left little mark, being now heard only as faint scratches on the grunting pages of self-same history reproducing itself forever.


Brand, J. Forthcoming. Lipstick and Lashes: A Secret History of Queer Ireland, Dublin: Five Courts Press.

Fitzmaurice, Stephen. 1961. ‘Highlights from the Cork Festival of Choral Music’, in Cork Press, 21 June, pp. 6 – 9.

Fleischmann, Ruth (ed.). 2004. Cork International Choral Festival 1954-2004: A Celebration, Herford: Glen House Press.

Quinny, Tiner. 2000. ‘Lost Women and Lost Music: The Keening Women’s Alliance and Improvised Music in Ireland,’ in Journal of Music in Ireland, October, pp. 7 – 9.

Various. 1968. Extraordinary Proceedings of the Keening Women’s Alliance, Scabrithe Press. Only surviving copy held in the Irish Countrywomen’s Association collection (MU/ICA) of the National Library of Ireland.

by Stephen Graham