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08 Mar

Writing History, Making History, Rewriting History. Women in Ireland 1888-1938.

Painting portraying the 1916 Rising in the GPO, including Pearse, Connolly and two nurses.
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In this year in which the 1916 Rising is to be commemorated, some have expressed concern about its history being rewritten 1. This suggests that there is a complete and perfect history in place that should never need revising – an idea that is clearly mistaken. History is always being rewritten as new perspectives and new data emerge, and this has always been the case for Irish history. Since at least the 17th century there have been different accounts of Irish history conflicting with each other, reflecting different understandings. And even when women weren’t mentioned in those histories, they were still there.

Writing History
When Maud Gonne first came to Ireland in 1888, she met with John O’Leary with the aim of working for Ireland, but found that all the nationalist groups were closed to her. Arguing that women should be involved and citing the work done by the Ladies Land League, Gonne was told that “they did too good work and some of us found they could not be controlled.”2

The Gaelic League was the first nationalist organisation since the dissolution of the Ladies Land League that allowed women to be members. This organisation, launched by Douglas Hydes’ 1892 manifesto ‘The necessity for the de-anglicising the Irish nation’, was a key part of the Irish-Ireland movement3. Its key concerns were with reviving the Irish language and Irish literary culture, spawning classes, groups and magazines.

Cover of the Shan Van Vocht, July 1898. UCD Digital Collections

Cover of the Shan Van Vocht, July 1898.
UCD Digital Collections

One such was the Shan Van Vocht, run by Alice Milligan (1865–1953) and Anna Johnston. An organiser of the Gaelic League in Ulster, the Presbyterian Milligan had a radically inclusive view of nationalism taking inspiration from the “imagined Protestant nationalism of 1798”4, which she saw as an unifying force rather than a radical one. She wrote plays that reflected her conviction that such work should be constructed “from ancient, historical and legendary themes” 5. Though these popular history plays were condemned as “tawdry” by Lady Gregory, they were popular with community groups and local theatres.

The Shan Van Vocht was primarily a nationalist literary magazine which was published from 1896 to 1899. A mix of stories, reportage, popular history and Gaelic Revivalism, it also had a column for political and social ideas such of those of James Connolly, that Milligan and Johnson did not agree with. This meant that the magazine addressed issues such as the morality of armed resistance, organized socialism, and the use of literature in politics”6. Milligan, though her plays, her life of Wolfe Tone printed for the anniversary of 1798, and the Shan Van Vocht was “a key influence on literary minded young nationalists such as Bulmer Hobson, Patrick McCartan and Terence MacSwiney.” Praised by Thomas McDonagh as “the most Irish of living poets and therefore the best”, she also knew James Connolly and Roger Casement7.

Alice Stopford Green

Alice Stopford Green
from “Cassell’s universal portrait gallery” (1895)

Milligan was not the only writer of history Casement knew. Through the African Society, he had met Alice Stopford Green (1847–1929), widow of the historian J. R. Green and a historian in her own right. As a result, Casement and Green combined to lobby the Irish Party to support the Congo Reform movement and became friends. Born in Kells, Co. Meath, Green had become interested in the Gaelic Revival through a friendship with Dublin barrister John Francis Taylor, though whom she came to know Arthur Griffith, John O’Leary and Edward Carson. She became increasingly interested in Irish history, objecting to the focus on Anglo-Irish culture and history at the expense of the Gaelic equivalents. Her first Irish history, The Making of Ireland and It’s Undoing (1908) outlined Irish history from 1200 to 1600 concentrating on Gaelic culture 8.

The nationalist, even provocative tone of the book cause outrage, which she did nothing to dispel: “In the subsequent wave of controversy, she made reference to a tradition of conspiracy in the writing of Irish history that had deliberately sought to distort the past and misrepresent the Irish as the barbaric ‘other’”9. Her next books were equally nationalistic, Irish Nationality (1911), and The Old Irish World (1912). Her outlining of an ancient Irish civilisation, attached to spiritual rather than material values, had obvious political implications. It argued for “the unbroken continuity of a national tradition in Irish history”10.

Sophie Bryant

Sophie Bryant
from “Cassell’s universal portrait gallery” (1895)

While less provocative than Green, the work of Sophie Bryant (1850-1922) supported the implicit argument of Green. Her Celtic Ireland(1889) had, before Green, outlined an Ireland in which the Irish had successfully governed themselves and in which she referred repeatedly to the Irish as a nation. Her next book, The Genius of the Gael (1913) incorporated historical points in an overall argument that the Irish Gael was capable of self-government, and was part of a single Irish nation encompassing the whole island. (See Sophie Bryant, (Irish) Renaissance Woman on this blog.)

Changing History

While writing allowed women to participate in the Gaelic movement, it was not enough for those who wanted to take more direct action.

Inghinidhe na h-Éireann was set up in 1900 by Maud Gonne and other women, with the aims of re-establishing the independence of Ireland, encouraging Irish manufacture and combating Anglicisation11. The group included Maud Gonne as president, Anna Johnson as one vice-president and Alice Milligan, Constance Markievicz, Helena Molony and Katherine Lynn as members. In 1903 Helena Molony replaced Maude Gonne as president and brought the group in a more radical direction, “emphasising separatism, socialism and feminism much more explicitly than before”12.

Eva Gore Booth and Constance Markievicz From "The Prison Diaries of Constance Markievicz"

Eva Gore Booth and Constance Markievicz
From “The Prison Diaries of Constance Markievicz”

Constance Markievicz (1868-1927) had already been involved in the suffrage movement. She and her sister Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926) had established a branch of the Irishwomen’s Suffrage and Local Government Association in Sligo in 1896. Eva Gore-Booth had moved the following year to Manchester to join Esther Roper to campaign for working women. Through letters to newspapers, articles and pamphlets, she outlined the barriers they faced, from exclusion from certain trades to legislative proposals. In Women’s wages and the franchise and certain legislative proposals (1906) she put her finger on the core problem: “the position has become very dangerous to all working women who are threatened, through their want of the protection of the franchise, with a further reduction of already low wages” 13.

Eva Gore Booth used art as well as rhetoric to fight for female suffrage. Her first play Unseen Kings (1904) is subtitled “The Enchantment of Cuculain”, but unlike other versions of the story from the Celtic Revival, it places the female protagonists front and centre, making them fully rounded characters. (In contrast, Yeats’ The Death of Cuchulain, Cuculain’s main adversary Queen Maebh never appears on stage). The action centres on the luring away of Niamh the wife of Cuculain, and Badh who assumes Niamh’s shape and convinces Cuculain to battle Maebh. Gore-Booth’s 1905 drama The Triumph of Maebh focuses on the relationship of Maebh with her daughter Fionavar, and Maebh’s unsuccessful attempts to shield her daughter from the atrocities of war. This combines both a feminist message and a pacifist one14.

In contrast, Constance Markievicz appealed directly to ancient Irish culture when arguing for increased activity by women in the national movement. In a lecture she gave to the Students National Literary Society, later published as a pamphlet in 1909 by Inghinidhe na h-Éireann and 1918 by Cumann na mBan, her argument starts with a reference to the women of the ancient past: “the magnificent legacy of Maebh, Fheas, Macha and their other great fighting ancestors”15. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946) was sceptical of such appeals, and was more concerned with the present day: “it is barren comfort for us women to know that in ancient Ireland women occupied a prouder, freer position than they now hold even in the most advanced modern states”16.

The question of the proper role of women in the nationalist movement continued as the Irish Volunteers and (after much discussion) Cumann na mBan were formed. Appeals to history came from both sides: “Will [the women of Ireland] do their part as nobly as the ladies of 1782, who made and ornamented flags and colours, embroidered uniforms with their own hands, contributed their trinkets and jewels to purchase ornaments…”17. Constitutionalist, Cumann na mBan member and supporter of the Irish Party Alice Stopford Green had more practical purchases in mind. She was chair of the illegal London Committee, which raised funds for and coordinated the purchase of arms, personally donating a large sum. The Howth Gun-running was planned in her house18.

While many from Inghinidhe na h-Éireann (including “advanced nationalists”) joined Cumann na mBan when the former organisation disbanded, some joined the Irish Citizen Army. ICA member Constance Markievicz’s “buy a revolver” speech to the Irish Franchise League in 1915 criticised the subordinate role of women in Cumann na mBan in radical terms, again invoking Maebh19:

Ancient Ireland bred warrior women, and women played a heroic part in those days. Today we are in danger of being civilised by men out of existence. What distinguished Ireland chiefly of old was the number of fighting women who held their own against the world, who owned no allegiance to any men, who were the super-women – the Maeves, the Machas, the warrior-queens…

Women played a key role in the Easter Rising, as messengers and nurses, co-ordinators and combatants. Of the women mentioned above, both Markievicz and Moloney took part in the fighting for the ICA and were subsequently imprisoned.

Other women, such as constitutionalists Green and Bryant, were horrified at the violence of the Rising. Despite this, Green campaigned for Casement, first regarding his treatment in prison and his defence, then after his conviction seeking a reprieve. After his death Alice Milligan wrote a eulogy to him, ‘The Ash Tree of Uisneach’, and involved herself in campaigning for political prisoners20. Gore-Booth was also involved with the campaign to save Roger Casement and campaigned successfully for a reprieve for her sister Constance 21

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington Wikimedia, Public Domain

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Combatants were not the only causalities. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington’s husband Francis was arrested and shot without trial while he was organising anti-looting parties during the Rising. Her campaign to uncover the truth led to campaign tours in the US and the publication of the major speech from her first tour as British militarism as I have known it as a pamphlet in 191722.

The Irish Party had declared against female suffrage in 1912 and had no women’s groups in Ireland (there were some in Britain – both Bryant and Green were members.) The years after 1916 saw women gravitate towards Sinn Fein who, in terms of accepting women in active roles, were at least moving in the right direction. At the Sinn Fein Convention in October 1917, Helena Molony with Jennie Wyse Power (founder member of Cumann na mBan) put forward a proposal which was recommended by Arthur Griffith and accepted by the convention23:

“Whereas, according to the Republican proclamation which guarantees ‘religious freedom and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’, women are equally eligible with men as members of branches, members of the governing body and officers of both local and governing bodies, be it resolved: that the equality of men and women in this organisation be emphasised in all speeches and leaflets.”

The spirit of this declaration continued into the 1922 Constitution of the Free State, which stipulated that “every person, without distinction of sex” was an equal citizen and extended voting rights to all citizens over 21, allowing women equal voting rights with men six years before women in Britain had that right24 This was plausibly due to the lobbying of women, including Markievicz and five other women members of the Second Dail. Writing to Gore-Booth earlier in 1922, Markievicz said, “quite spontaneously, the demand arose here, women everywhere thoughout the country suddenly finding their position to be humiliating…they say they must have a say as to the Treaty”25. They did not get that chance, and the outrage fueled the drive towards full female suffrage.

Rewriting History

Green, who had moved to Ireland after 1916, was made a member of the Senate in 1922. Strongly pro-treaty, she had sheltered Sinn Fein activists in her home in Stephen’s Green, and become friendly with Michael Collins. In 1924, in a speech made when presenting a casket to the Senate, she said26

No real history of Ireland has yet been written. When the true story is finally worked out – one not wholly occupied with the many and insatiable plunderers – it will give us a noble and reconciling vision of Irish nationality. Silence and neglect will no longer hide the fame of honourable men.

Whether or not such a history has yet been written, silence and neglect has been the fate for some women.

Sophie Bryant died in 1922. She hoped that her (posthumously printed) 1923 Liberty, Order and Law under Ancient Irish Rule might prove useful to the new Irish State. But Brehon Law, let alone Bryant’s feminist reading of it, were not to prevail in the new Ireland27.

In 1916, the death of Alice Milligan’s parents meant she had to rely on her brothers for support. Moving between England and Ireland, she was forced to flee Dublin in 1921 owing to her brother’s links to the British army and settled in a village near Omagh. The Treaty spelt the end of her dream of an Ireland unified. “Milligan remained marooned across the new Border in an unsympathetic family environment…more or less forgotten by the inheritors of the Irish revolution” until her death in 1953. 28.

Constance Markievicz Bust, St Stephens Green © William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Constance Markievicz Bust, St Stephens Green
© William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Eva Gore-Booth died in London in 1926. She left no monument behind her. Her obituary claimed that she would be remembered as a mystical poet, but in fact her epitaph is that of W. B. Yeats; ‘In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Constance Markievicz’, written in October 1927: “Two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.” Yeats’ claim that she dreamed of some ‘vague Utopia’ fails to capture her activism and concrete work to better the lot of working women, just as the description of “conspiring among the ignorant” fails to capture Constance Markievicz29.

Constance Markievicz remained in politics until her death in 1927. Due to her ongoing hostilities with the Free State government, she was denied a state funeral. However the people of Dublin lined the streets to honour her funeral cortege. An attempt to honour her was made in 1932, when a bust of Markievicz was unveiled in St. Stephen’s Green. de Valera’s speech on that day infuriated Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who wrote in An Phoblacht30

Monuments to the dead are often misused – sometimes, no doubt, unconsciously – by the living to misinterpret what those whose memorial is unveiled truly stood for…Constance Markievicz was primarily and essentially a revolutionary, an iconoclast, with the direct vision, the divine discontent of a Joan of Arc…The picture painted by Éamon de Valera of labour’s revolutionary heroine is conventionalised beyond recognition…the image of a chocolate-box heroine

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Helena Molony lived on to battle the changes in Irish politics. Portions of the 1935 Conditions of Employment Bill were intended to ensure industrial jobs went to men rather than women. The Republican Congress reports Helena Molony telling a protest meeting about the efforts made by the Trades Union Congree to fight the bill, and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington’s point that it was immoral to drive women out of jobs when they perhaps had dependants (something highlighted by Eva Gore-Booth some thirty years earlier in Manchester)31.

Irish women parading through Dublin in memory of victims of 1916 Easter uprising. 1933. Library of Congress

Irish women parading through Dublin in memory of victims of 1916 Easter uprising. 1933.
Library of Congress

The introduction of the 1937 Constitution saw protests by women in the sole remaining paper edited by a woman, Maud Gonne McBride’s Prison Bars. Sheehy-Skeffington denounced it as a departure from the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation, and as “Fascist proposals, endangering [women’s] livelihood, cutting away their rights as human beings”32.

From the time of the Civil War on, women were once again marginalised, and their contributions during the period spanning 1916 and the War of Independence made little of33. This went hand-in-hand with a tendency to simplify history, to produce a tidy narrative for the new state. If Markievicz became a chocolate-box heroine, her comrades became plaster saints, and women got tidied out of the picture. “Writing women into Irish History became a subversive activity for women historians in the 1970s”34. But then, Irish women have a long history of subversion and of writing history.

Painting portraying the 1916 Rising in the GPO, including Pearse, Connolly and two nurses. Featured Image: “Birth of the Irish Republic”, painted before 1936 (detail)
Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Further Reading

Speech by President Michael D. Higgins To Commemorate the Role of Women in the 1916 Easter Rising, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, 8th March, 2016

RTE (1963) Documentary on One: Women of the Rising, first broadcast 16th April 1963 [podcast]

Sinead McCool “Adding Women’s Substantive Role to Narrative of the Rising” on TheIrishRevolution

Niall Murray “The Forgotten Army…meet some of the ‘Women of 1916′” on TheIrishRevolution, 21 Feb 2016 (online) – originally published in the Irish Examiner

Sinead McCool “Seven Women in the 1916 Rising and Beyond” on TheIrishRevolution, 22 Feb 2016 (online)

Brian Murphy (1994) “The First Dail Eireann” in History Ireland, Vol. 2, Issue 1 (online)

“Women in History – Biographies” on Scoilnet (short biographies of Irish women in history, including those mentioned here plus many others involved in 1916).

Margaret Ward (ed) (2001) In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism, Cork:Attic.

Alice Milligan (1865–1953)
Freya McClements (2010) “Omagh’s hidden cultural ‘heroine'” BBC News Radio Foyle, 18 Nov 2010

Angus Mitchell (2012) “Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival” Vol, 20, Issue 6(Nov/Dec 2012) (online)

UCD Digital Library: The Shan Van Vocht – the magazine digitised and available online. Originals located in the Library of the National Folklore Collection, John Henry Newman Building, University College Dublin.

Alice Stopford Green (1847–1929)
Angus Mitchell (2006) ‘Ireland, South America, and the Forgotten History of Rubber’, in History Ireland, Vol 14, Issue 4(July/Aug. 2006), (online)

TCD Digital Humanities: The 1916 Diary of Dorothy Stopford Price. Dorothy Price was the sister of Alice Green.

Alice Stopford Green (1908) The Making of Ireland and Its Undoing, London:MacMillian and Co. [archive.org]

Alice Stopford Green (1910) Irish Nationality, London: Williams and Norgate [archive.org]

Sophie Bryant (1850-1922)
See the blog post Sophie Bryant, (Irish) Renaissance Woman

Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926)
Sonja Tiernan (2012) Eva Gore-Booth: An Image of such Politics, Manchester University Press.
Sonja Tiernan (2015) The political writings of Eva Gore-Booth, Manchester University Press.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946)
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (1918) Interview with Mrs. Sheehy-Skeffington. : Irish Republican cause in America – pamphlet. [archive.org]

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (1918) “British Militarism as I have known it” in Francis Sheehy Skeffington A forgotten small nationality : Ireland and the war, NY: Donnelly Press. [archive.org]

References

  1. For example, http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/women-in-irish-history-1.2446425
  2. Margaret Ward (ed) (2001) In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism, Cork:Attic Press, pp. 3-7. The quote is originally from Maud Gonne McBride (1938) In the Service of the Queen, p. 96.
  3. Tomás A. O’Riordan “Irish Ireland” in UCC – Multitext Project in Irish History (online)
  4. R. F. Foster () Vivid Faces, p. 100
  5. Foster (2014), p. 87
  6. Oonagh Walsh (2004) ‘Milligan, Alice Letitia (1866–1953)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press
  7. Forster (2014), pp. 146, 100
  8. Roy Johnston (1999) “Life and Times of Alice Stopford Green (ASG)” (online, S. Pašeta (2004/2006) ‘Green , Alice Sophia Amelia {Alice Stopford Green} (1847–1929)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press; online edn, May 2006)
  9. Angus Mitchell (2006) ‘Ireland, South America, and the Forgotten History of Rubber’, in History Ireland (July/Aug. 2006), pp.41-45 (online)
  10. Diarmaid Ferriter (2015) A Nation and not a Rabble, London: Profile Books, p. 7
  11. “The Objects of Inghinidhe na h-Eireann”, United Irishman, 13 Oct 1900 reprinted in Ward (2001), p. 20
  12. Senia Pašeta (2013) Irish Nationalist Women, 1900-1918 Cambridge University Press, pp. 94-5
  13. Sonja Tiernan (2012) Eva Gore-Booth: An Image of such Politics, Manchester University Press, pp. 45-47. Sonja Tiernan (2015) The political writings of Eva Gore-Booth, Manchester University Press, pp. 26-37 and quote from p. 37)
  14. Tiernan (2012), pp. 82-6
  15. Constance Markievicz (1909) “Women, Ideals and the Nation” in Ward (2001), p. 37).
  16. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in Bean na h-Éireann (the magazine run by Inghinidhe na h-Éireann), November 1909 in Ward (2001), p. 36
  17. Caitlin de Brun, Irish Volunteer, 4 April 1914 in Ward (2001), p. 41
  18. Pašeta (2004/2006), Mitchell (2006)
  19. Constance Markievicz, Irish Citizen 23 October 1915 in Ward (2001), p. 51
  20. Pašeta (2004/2006), Mitchell (2006), Mitchell, 2012
  21. Gifford Lewis (2004) ‘Booth, Eva Selina Gore(1870–1926)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
  22. Maria Luddy (2002) “Skeffington, (Johanna) Hanna Sheehy” in Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press
  23. Pašeta (2012), p. 229. Sinn Fein Convention Report in Ward (2001), p. 84.
  24. Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) Act, 1922 (online
  25. Ward (2001), pp. 137-138
  26. Speech quoted in Bruce Stewart’s RICORSO site:
    Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929)
  27. See Sophie Bryant, (Irish) Renaissance Woman
  28. Pašeta (2004/2006), Mitchell (2012). Quote from Foster (2014) pp 138-9
  29. Lewis (2004). Poetry Foundation: “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz”
  30. Sonja Tiernan (2016) “Countess Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth” in Eugenio Biagini and Daniel Mulhall (Eds) The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment, Dublin:Irish Academic Press. Full speech online at The Irish Revolution
  31. Republican Congress, 30 Nov 1935 in Ward (2001), pp. 181-3
  32. Prison Bars, July 1937 in Ward (2001) p.184
  33. Diarmaid Ferriter (2015) A Nation and Not a Rabble, Profile Books, p. 282
  34. Margaret Mac Curtain (2008) Ariadne’s Thread: Writing Women into Irish History, Dublin: Arlen House, p. 47

3 thoughts on “Writing History, Making History, Rewriting History. Women in Ireland 1888-1938.

  1. Pingback: Irishwomen and the Parliamentary Party – Figaries

  2. Thanks for this. Dr. Noëlle Davies, née Ffrench of Bushy Park, Mount Talbot, Co. Roscommon, was very much part of this noble tradition. She was one of the leading intellectuals in the Welsh Nationalist Party from the late 1920s until she returned to Bushy Park in the 1950s. Her published works and unresearched archive – political and literary – show continuous engagement with progressive Irish causes and the transference to those values into Welsh nationalism.

  3. Pingback: From Ireland to Manchester: Eva Gore-Booth and the labour movement | Irish Philosophy

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