Celebrating Irish Feminism

Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward: Irish Women & Nationalism: Soldiers, New Women and Wicked Hags, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, New Edition, 2019 [2004].

ISBN: 9781788550970

RRP: €25

Margaret Ward has a formidable track record as an Irish historian of women’s social history, and this is an older book that the publishers have decided to reissue with a new foreword by Marie Coleman. Although an academic work, I venture to suggest it will interest many beyond the academy. Since the original publication of the first edition, much has changed in Ireland, partly as a result of many feminist historians’ interventions in the field of Irish history and in other disciplines (notably sociology and literary studies). We’re now thoroughly familiar with the heroic work of women during the Easter Rising and less likely to trivialize it.

Marie Coleman, in the new foreword, also draws attention to how digitization has revolutionized how the material is available to a much wider cohort of scholars and general readers, important in a culture which has such a large and active diaspora. The Bureau of Military History’s records of service in 1916 is one such example of how records formerly available only to professional historians are now in the hands of anyone who chooses to search the records, and as a result the findings of earlier eras (especially those by the patriarchs who demoted the activities of women to the same status as that of children) are open to revision. Louise Ryan proffers the astonishing figure of 3,000 members of Cumann na mBan in 1914, on the eve of the Rising, and while they often occupied service roles, which were risky, they also feature as combatants and in ‘splendidly silent’ intelligence-gatherers well into the Civil War period.

There’s much to interest a general reader in this collection. I enjoyed the theorization of gender and nationalism by Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward, and their awareness that the hopes of the revolutionary women of 1916 for more equal treatment under the newly proclaimed republic were cruelly dashed by its first governments and by men’s failure to understand or accept their political agendas.

There’s a chapter by Andrea Knox on the extent to which women operated as diplomats, spies, armed combatants, raisers of arms and troops during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in particular in the 1641 Rising. Knox rejects their characterisation by the British as aggressive rebels and prostitutes, and argues that they were engaged in legitimate resistance to invasion and in protection of their way of life. She demonstrates how Agnes Campbell and her daughter Finola brokered a peace between the O’Neills and the O’Donnells, thereby strengthening opposition to the settlers, and negotiated with the English, and adopted an Irish identity (based, it must be said, on sept and clan loyalties) long before we usually think of nationalist imperatives being ‘a thing’. Under the Brehon laws, these women had control over their dowries, and this was the source of their power. Further down the social scale, well-armed ‘she-soldiers’ were also a phenomenon that gave more grist to the critics on the other side. In addition to many sexualised demeaning tags, they also wore the label (intended to be derogatory) of ‘amazons’.

Similarly, Jan Cannavan reports women active in the United Irishman Rising of 1798 at Vinegar Hill, and not only in support roles. Politically their influence increased during the 1848 Young Ireland Rising, and John Mitchel’s wife, Jenny, worked as a war correspondent for the Nation which served as a forum for debating women’s rights. Henry Joy McCracken’s wife, Mary Ann, was very much a daughter of the Enlightenment, and especially metaphorically, of Mary Wollstonecraft, and it is very intriguing to find other women prosecuting feminist ideas of female equality as active members of the Nation writers, and demanding women’s rights. The literary histories of this period tend to style the Nation writers as exclusively male.

A very pungent analysis by Louise Ryan of the ways in which the homefront and the battlefront merged during the Civil War also highlights the risks women were prepared to take with their own safety and that of their children in providing ‘safe houses’ (‘In the Line of Fire’: representations of women and war (1919-1923) through the writings of republican men’). The need to provide shelter and food, and to hide guns and ammunition, effectively guerrilla warfare, was a scenario that was likely to brutalise, and to confer little by way of recognition on the combatant women, while the men accrued the status of heroes. Ryan points out that it was also a way to reassert the gender hierarchy whereby men occupied the public spaces and women made the home cosy and feminine and occupied maternal roles towards revolutionary men, very much part of de Valera’s vision for Irish womanhood.

Karen Steele’s assessment of Constance Markievicz’s intellectual achievements in her journalism and theatre writing in the 1920s also challenges the accounts of men, and especially Yeats’s view of her as ‘ignorant’ and ‘hysterical’. She argues that Markievicz valued the pen as highly as the sword, and documents her constant reminders (in journalistic and theatrical modes) to the conservative Free State functionaries of the eclipsed legacy of the socialists and feminists of the Rising.

Four chapters on the politicised women of Northern Ireland from both sides of the sectarian divide, and their role during the Troubles and leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, make for sober and inspirational reading. How republican women were mobilized into civil disobedience and rental strikes, imprisoned and criminalized, and how they fared in the Armagh Prison and the ‘model prison’, HMP Maghaberry, compared with their more visible and numerous menfolk in the Maze Prison/Long Kesh/H-Blocks in the ’70s, is a story Mary Corcoran sees as leading to the series of ceasefires and the political agreement of 1998. She sees them not as victims but as active resisters with agency.

Likewise, Claire Hackett, using the oral testimonies of eight female street protestors, tracks the development of resilience and resistance, and the slow growth of feminist consciousness, among the nationalist women resisters of the British Army in West Belfast from 1969. Their methods were simple: ‘hen patrols’, ‘bin-lid brigades’ alerted communities to Army presence in their neighbourhoods with wit and humour. The work was, however, dangerous: shootings and deaths could be the price to be paid, and many of these women agonized over their responsibilities to their children, and babysat for others, thereby building close communities.

A different set of resistance strategies is dealt with by Callie Persic, who details how a women-centred photographic exhibition at a West Belfast Festival in 1997 effected politics, and feminist consciousness-raising, through art.

This book is a fascinating analysis of how feminism and nationalism converged to challenge traditional gender binaries at some key points in modern Irish history. I found it disturbing and hopeful. The gains of women have been slow and subject to regression, but clearly progressive. It’s a very good move on the part of Irish Academic Press to reissue it to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage in Ireland in 2019.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective, and a card-carrying feminist and pacifist of many decades.