Sinead McCoole: No Ordinary Women. O’Brien Press, Dublin. 320 pp.
ISBN 978-1-84717-789-6; RRP €16.99
The part played by women in the fight for Irish Independence has not been well chronicled. We know that there were women in the GPO in 1916 and that Countess Markievicz was 2IC to Michael Mallin in St Stephen’s Green.
We know too of the role of Cumann na mBan, founded by Maud Gonne, Mary Colum, Louise Gavan Duffy and others, initially inspired by the suffragette thinking that women should play their part in the emerging nationalism. Our relatively recent understanding of the many aspects of Michael Collins’s war has alerted us to the vital parts played by many young women in his intelligence work.
This book devotes separate chapters to the period before 1916, to the Rising itself and to the War of Independence, but almost as long as all of those combined, is the account of the role of women in the Civil War.
Whatever we may read about the reputation of women as peacemakers, it appears that to a person, all the political women took the anti-Treaty side. During the Treaty debates, the opponents of compromise became known as the Women and Childers party. The role of Margaret Pearse and the raging Mary MacSwiney is reasonably well known. When the country divided disastrously, the women who in the earlier struggle had played a noble part, were now shown to be incorrigibly regressive. For them, it had to be the pure republic or nothing.
Many spent months in Kilmainham jail or in the North Dublin Union, on and off hunger strikes, poster women for futility, encouraging each other in their pointless ineffectiveness at a time when their country needed them as nation builders. Their stories are told here in some detail, with individual biographies of about 90 of them.
The sad fact is that in the aftermath of the Rising, women were quickly put back in the kitchen, the laundry or the first aid tent. Statements affirming the equality of the sexes turned out to be mere words. To take just one example, not mentioned in this book: in the 1918 general election in which Sinn Féin swept the board, the party nominated only two women as candidates. One of those was in an unwinnable Unionist seat; the other was the Countess mentioned above, the first woman to be elected to Westminster.
Although the book is intended as a tribute to the female activists of the revolutionary years, the truth is that they come poorly out of the story. The writing is clear and the exposition thorough. It will make a vital reference for anyone interested in that aspect of Irish history.