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Guns and Chiffon

Richard English

Irish Nationalist Women, 1900-1918, by Senia Pašeta, Cambridge University Press, 300 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-1107047747

Probably the most fluently articulate interviewee I have ever encountered was the former Provisional IRA bomber Marian Price. I disagreed profoundly with much of the political argument that she set out in interview. But there was no doubting at all the impressive articulation of her activist commitment and analysis. I was reminded of Price when reading Dr Senia Pašeta’s extremely well-researched study of early twentieth century Irish nationalist women. The book draws deeply and very impressively on first-hand sources from 1900-1918 (letters, speeches, newspaper articles, a wide range of archival documentation) and the female players’ zealous belief in changing the world is often matched by a striking felicity of phrasing on their part.

The book wonderfully recreates the world of politically active Irish nationalist women during the turbulent years at the start of the last century, and it does so with some real sympathy for the people under scrutiny. Dr Pašeta presents her women as cooperating across their various differences of opinion rather more than some previous accounts have suggested: “Women from all camps within the suffrage-nationalism debate did manage, despite their disagreements, to work well together on many occasions”; “friendships and working relationships could survive between women whose political views did not always correspond”.

This excellent work clearly establishes what it meant to be a female nationalist in the early 1900s; and in practice it often involved joining multiple organisations and groups. As Pašeta herself rightly concludes: “This was an exciting time for young activists.” They were not however always (to this reviewer’s eyes) innocent of annoying self-righteousness. In her commitment to buying Irish, the indefatigably impressive Helena Molony “would go into shops, ask for items she knew were made in Ireland but, having ascertained that the ones shown to her were imported, she would declare that she would buy only the Irish-made product and walk out of the shop”. It was claimed that this had a “wonderful effect”; it would be interesting however to have an account of the detailed reactions of some who witnessed it. (Anti-apartheid activists in Oxford in the mid-1980s used a modified version of the tactic, filling supermarket trolleys with South African produce, getting to the front of the check-out queue, letting the cashier process it all ‑ then declaring that they couldn’t buy it since it was South African produce, leaving it for others to restack. Those waiting behind in the long queues at Tesco were not always sympathetic. I witnessed one (black, working class) supermarket security officer on one such occasion chasing the (white, very middle class) protester from the store, with most shoppers seeming to side against the latter.)

But Dr Pašeta’s engaging book manages overall to make her subjects appear rather favourably. They certainly played an important role in these revolutionary Irish years, and probably more so than many general accounts suggest. The founding of Cumann na mBan in 1914 was something of a significant development within this process. The Irish Volunteer movement had been overwhelmingly aimed at men, and “Cumann na mBan was the most active of all the nationalist groups which allowed female membership at that time.” Pašeta is very good at disentangling various conflicting and reinvented accounts of this particular women’s grouping, and its aims as declared at the first meeting speak – despite their vagueness ‑ of the various competing impulses involved in female nationalism at the time:

To advance the cause of Irish liberty.
To organize Irishwomen in furtherance of this object.
To assist in arming and equipping a body of Irishmen for the defence of Ireland.
To form a fund for these purposes, to be called the ‘Defence of Ireland Fund’.

How did the different versions of Irish nationalist organised politics fare when seen through the lenses of women’s experience? Constitutional nationalism – at the start of the century clearly the dominant force across most of Ireland – emerges as strikingly myopic in regard to the enlistment of women in its cause: “not only did the Irish Parliamentary Party discourage interested women, it positively set out to alienate them”; Sinn Féin – the more progressive party, as recorded in these pages ‑ benefited as a consequence. The party was indeed broadly supportive of feminist demands, within the context of the views and limitations of this era. As Dr Pašeta points out, it was not that Sinn Féiners tended to favour full equalisation of social and political rights; but by the standards of the time – the proper measure of assessment, surely – they were comparatively pro-feminist in their politics, though they were willing to stress that Irish freedom must take precedence over women’s rights where the two were perceived to clash with one another. (Unionist women, it should also be stressed, emerge from this book as rather better organised, often enough, than nationalists; and Pašeta reminds us that James Craig was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage.)

Context is, of course, vital as we try to understand such activist politics. And its recreation is a strength of this fine book. Dr Pašeta points out what was then considered legitimate even in radical circles, with examples such as the

delightful fact that even the advanced nationalist paper, Spark, itself “ran a kind of nationalist beauty and popularity contest with its ‘Dublin’s Best Girl’ competition from early 1915”.

Such grace-notes should not eclipse the seriousness of the story, however. Some of the nationalist women studied here suffered markedly for their political beliefs, losing jobs and even loved ones during the struggles of these exciting years. A good number of them were genuine subversives, experiencing the heady awakening of these would-be revolutionary days. As is often the case, they could be vague about the precise details of how the revolution – nationalist, feminist, and/or socially radical ‑ would develop in fine-grained and jagged practice.

Some of Pašeta’s women were certainly socialist in their thinking, and the impressive James Connolly appears in the book as a comrade (“staunch feminist that he was”, as Helena Molony put it), and as a rather sympathetic figure. Numerous of Pašeta’s crew played a role in the 1913 Lockout, and much of that practical work seems to have helped people’s lives in significant fashion. Not all the women nationalists were entirely sympathetic of course: Molony evinced a suspicious attitude regarding what she termed “the revolting unwholesome Englishness of Larkin and the strike and all”.

Most of the prominent women studied here were suffragists. So what about after the revolution? What kind of world was left for women after the ambiguous Irish revolution? Dr Pašeta rightly refers to “the extraordinary political atmosphere of the early 1920s”, but the subsequently emergent nationalist Ireland was in very many ways a socially conservative and clenched one, not least for women themselves. Small bunches of zealots can indeed change the world (though –from Dan Breen and his IRA comrades to the 9/11 hijackers – they have frequently done so in ways that they did not fully intend or want). Here, it is hard to see that the kind of radical overhaul envisaged by these activist women was what emerged during their lifetime in nationalist Ireland’s recalcitrant world. Hints of this were evident during the revolutionary years themselves. Dr Pašeta is clear, for example, about what did and did not happen militarily: in the Irish Revolution, “More women cleaned, carried, hid and procured weapons than learned how to use them with any proficiency.”

But the personalities and lives of some of the women themselves are genuinely fascinating. The atheistic (or agnostic?) Rosamond Jacob is a central figure in Dr Pašeta’s book. We know from other accounts (such as the excellent work of Fearghal McGarry) that Jacob was after the revolution to become sexually involved with the bellicose socialist republican Frank Ryan. The two met in 1925, and Rosamond was apparently enthralled: “You could learn anything from him, his mixture of intense interest and knowledge and natural equal simplicity is so delicious, combined with the pleasure of looking at him.” Ryan insisted that their relationship be kept secret, and apparently ignored Jacob at some social events; but there is little doubt that Jacob’s post-revolutionary life found some of its passionate expression through this relationship, despite some logistical and emotional obstacles (“made love eagerly for nearly an hour … but it was a horrid uncomfortable place … a motor car is infernally cramped’). Apart from this Senia Pašeta’s intricately detailed account of nationalist women contains virtually no sex at all, which is a shame. She does point out that membership of groups like Cumann na mBan offered women opportunities to mix with men, but says little in detail about how that developed.

There was certainly a current of bohemianism about the movement: many of these people were atypical of nationalist Ireland at the time – something which, as Pašeta acknowledges, did not always help their cause: “[a] bohemian lifestyle did little to reconcile the women to more staid nationalists, who looked in despair at their unconventional lives. Rumours about [Helena] Molony’s relationship with [Bulmer] Hobson, her excessive drinking and, later, of Markievicz’s inappropriate relationship with James Connolly did little to enhance their reputations in nationalist circles.”

There is some enjoyable colour in the writing. Constance Markievicz is described by George Russell as “the Gore-Booth girl who married the Polish count with the unspellable name” (97). Again, the separatist-feminist paper Bean na hÉireann (founded in 1903) was described by one of its contributing writers (Molony) as a mixture of “guns and chiffon”: “a funny hotch-potch of blood and thunder, high thinking, and home-made bread” which endeavoured to ensure that women were not narrowly defined by overly prescribed social roles: as the paper itself put it, the view was that women’s sphere should not be “bounded by frying pans and fashion plates”. It also argued in January 1909 that “A great many, if not all, the various pressing social problems could be much more effectively dealt with by women than by men.”

How were these women’s reputations to fare in subsequent years? They were not always to be represented accurately, as we now know from analysing later memories. The politicising of Irish cultural nationalism was a trend to which women gave much impetus. Dr Pašeta mentions the writer Anna Johnston/Ethna Carbery, co-founder of the literary nationalist publicatio, Shan Van Vocht. Intriguingly, in the H-Blocks in the North in 1979, Bobby Sands read some work by Carbery and wrote her a note expressing the hope that she might write something for the republican prison campaign; she had, in fact, died in 1902.

How does this splendid book relate to wider patterns of scholarship and understanding? Dr Pašeta recognizes that many Irish women played down their feminism when it was judged that it might impede progress towards nationalist advance. As with committed people of the left, women’s rights activists could sometimes drown in the wider nationalist river. It would have been interesting to hear from the author more about why she thinks this was so. The debate on nationalism and its capacity to eat up rival causes is now a well-established one internationally, and Dr Pašeta’s close and expert reading of Irish evidence from this pivotal era might have been intriguing as the basis for some reflection on that wider debate. It remains one of the curses of the often tremendously impressive literature of modern Irish history that it so often eschews dialogue with wider intellectual discussions of world-historical themes except as they relate to one – or possibly two – small islands. Dr Pašeta’s own bibliography is innocent of scholarship on nationalism as such; the book therefore cannot and does not assess the broader relationship between the Irish female nationalism which it so ably scrutinises and the wider dynamics of nationalism.

There might also have been some more sustained engagement with the wider debate on the Ireland of these years. The politics of Home Rule provide the backdrop to much of Pašeta’s account: expectations of what Home Rule would bring, frustrations in nationalists’ incapacity to achieve it, and then the febrile politics consequent upon its failure to appear. But much of the recent scholarly literature on the subject of Home Rule (by Alvin Jackson, Eugenio Biagini, Paul Bew, Patrick Maume) is missing from these pages and even the bibliography, which is a shame.

Irish Nationalist Women states in its introduction that it hopes to make “a modest contribution to feminist scholarship”. I think it does far more than that. There is much new and fascinating detail. And there is some very valuable correcting of hagiography ‑ though this is not done in an overly harsh manner: Pašeta is rightly respectful of the ways in which so many of these women wanted to improve the world. So while she is admirably keen to set memories straight where they have gone astray, she does not do this in a mocking manner. Her political radicals are treated with dignity, and that is as it should be.

Senia Pašeta has already written extremely valuable studies of pre-revolutionary Irish nationalism and of the beguiling Thomas Kettle. In this book she offers us a deeply-researched and powerful account of a very significant subject. Our understanding of women’s role in Irish nationalism – and therefore of Irish nationalism itself – is greatly enriched by this excellent study.

Richard English is the author of Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (2003) and Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland (2006).