Through Her Eyes: a history of Ireland in 21 women

Through her eyes

Book Review by Dymphna Lonergan

Clodagh Finn. THROUGH HER EYES. A New History of Ireland in 21 Women.

Gill Books. October 2019. 272 pp

ISBN: 9780717183197

RRP: h/b $30.26

The title Through Her Eyes: a history of Ireland in 21 women raises expectations and causes speculation. Who could these women be? Grace O’Malley, Countess Markievicz, Nell McCafferty, and Mary Robinson surely. And maybe even Queen Elizabeth 1 whose political move through plantations in Ireland ultimately led to the country splitting in two and has come home to roost in the thorny question of Brexit and the Irish border. This book is none of the above. Delightfully so, as it turns out.

The writer Clodagh Finn ‘has a degree in French and Archaeology from UCD and has a particular interest in history and archaeology’.  She is also a journalist. These skills and experiences have worked well in telling an Irish history based around 21 women’s lives. One of her subjects, Mabel Colhoun, worked with folklore and local knowledge or seanchas during her archaeological research to great success, and Finn has adopted this methodology in the book: she uses whatever is available to tell these women’s stories and at the same time illuminates a particular part of Irish history.

Poulnabrone

Poulnabrone the Burren, Co. Clare

The book begins with ‘Woman of the Burren’ whose speculative image is captured by Dublin illustrator Holly Ingram in her preferred medium of ballpoint biro. Each chapter is likewise prefaced by one of Holly’s illustrations. The woman of the Burren, this chapter begins, ‘would look like a woman from modern-day Sardinia’. The book is replete with such startling facts. This one is backed up by DNA. Many visitors to Ireland will have come across the Poulnabrone portal tomb in County Clare that dates back 6000 years. When I saw it in the 1980s it was a not very spectacular dolmen, in the middle of a field, and looking small. Since then there have been archaeological digs on the site that unearthed human remains from Neolithic times. Wikipedia now says the tomb is in the ‘car park’, so the site has clearly been upgraded to represent the importance of the tomb. The discovery of the human remains under the dolmen has enabled greater insights into Neolithic life in this part of Ireland, and the habits and customs associated with death and burial. One point that I found particularly interesting was the speculation that ‘bones were sometimes moved in and out of the tomb’. I was immediately reminded of a re-burial of bones ritual in the recent Columbian movie Birds of Passage.

The goddess Macha is the subject of the second chapter of Through Her Eyes. Finn uses stories and legends from The Ulster Cycle to tell Macha’s story. Macha remains with us in the place name Emain Macha (the twins of Macha). We learn that Aonach Mhacha (the Assembly of Macha) is this year the site of a new Irish-language focused centre in the city of Armagh.

We’ve heard of St Brigid, but how many of us know of St Dahalin, the third woman of Through Her Eyes who lived in Kerry around 500 A.D? Her feast day of June 4 is celebrated still in an open-air mass ‘better attended than weekly Mass’ and attracting overseas visitors too, such as ‘a Swiss choir accompanied by Alpine horns’. Finn uses Dahalin’s story to tell a smaller but significant one about another female saint, St Canir, who on being refused her request to be buried on Scattery Island (that she managed to reach by walking on water) because it was reserved for men only, retorted ‘Women, no less than men, enter the Kingdom of Heaven’. Her wish was granted.

While these early women’s lives have been brought to light with the aid of folklore and legend, the rest of Through Her Eyes: a history of Ireland in 21 women is no less interesting. We learn about the artist Whistler’s muse, the red-haired Jo Hiffernan; Irish-speaking Jennie Hodgers who passed as a man and served with Lincoln during the American Civil War; mountain climber Lizzie Le Blond; Sr Concepta Lynch whose Celtic artistry can still be seen in Dun Laoghaire; the book ending with biotechnician Jemma Redmond’s work on printing human tissue and her campaign against fixing gender at birth. She died unexpectedly at 38 in 2016.

I was delighted and learned so much from Through Her Eyes: a history of Ireland in 21 women. It will inform my next trip to Ireland when I will seek out those places associated with many of these remarkable women.

Dymphna is a member of the Tintean editorial collective

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