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Not a Woman’s Place

Bryan Fanning

The Shaping of Modern Ireland, Eugenio Biagini and Daniel Mulhall (eds), Irish Academic Press, 272 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-1911024002

In 1960, six years before the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, The Shaping of Modern Ireland, a collection edited by Conor Cruise O’Brien, was published. It comprised essays about key figures, all men, whose influence, as O’Brien put it, “was felt in Ireland in the period between the fall of Parnell in 1891 and the Rising of 1916”. In varying degrees, O’Brien argued, they had all played a part in the shaping of modern Ireland. The essays originated as a series of Thomas Davis Lectures which were broadcast by Radio Éireann in 1955-56. The authors included some then prominent writers and academics. Some had met the figures they wrote about. At the time when the project was conceived some veterans of the Rising still dominated politics and ran the country. In 1960 Eamon de Valera was president, having been succeeded as taoiseach by Seán Lemass, the youngest of the revolutionary gerontocracy. Another veteran, Seán MacEntee, was tánaiste and O’Brien’s father in law.

Fifty-six years later, in 2016, another collection, edited by Eugenio Biagini and Daniel Mulhall, also called The Shaping of Modern Ireland, has set itself a similar task and revisits most of the same shapers examined in the 1960 book. There is an added focus on some previously neglected figures from the 1891 to 1916 period, including a few women, but these are, in the main, from the same social milieu as many of the men identified in the 1960 book. Some of the essays selected by Biagini and Mulhall are as much about the authors of the earlier collection as about their mutual subjects.

Both books, for all their good points, point to the depressingly low status of social history in Ireland. For all that both are called The Shaping of Modern Ireland the focus is mostly on individual shapers rather than on society. The 1960 chapter on Michael Cusack and the GAA mostly deals mostly with the man, for all that O’Brien in his introduction described the GAA as a mass movement of ordinary people whose importance had perhaps not been fully recognised. A chapter in the 2016 book, also called “Michael Cusack and the GAA”, by Stephen Collins, examines the GAA as a social movement. However, for the most part, the focus of other chapters is on great men and a few great women.

Both volumes, for example, present chapters on William Walsh, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, rather than ones that deal with how Catholicism more broadly helped shape modern Ireland. The influence of Catholicism is taken for granted in some chapters and bemoaned, as a block on republican or feminist aspirations, in a few. Yet, Patrick Maume’s chapter on Douglas Hyde opens with a telling anecdote about Catholic power. In a 1938 speech marking Hyde’s inauguration as the first president of Ireland de Valera proclaimed “a Protestant and descendant of colonists to be the embodiment of a resurgent Ireland founded on the Gaelic tradition in whose revival Hyde had played a central role”, Dev’s inference being that religion did not define who was Irish and who not. This message was absolutely lost on the local parish priest (of St Paul’s Arran Quay, in which Áras an Uachtaráin was located), who demanded that President Hyde should pay his parish dues on the grounds that he was president of a Catholic nation.

The Shaping of Modern Ireland Mark Two is at its best where it questions a tendency towards hagiography in some chapters in the 1960 book and addresses the absence of a focus on women. Some of the chapters in the 2016 book offer deft and nuanced reassessments of key figures such as Arthur Griffith (by Michael Laffan) and Hyde that draw on original research. As straightforward essays some of these are clearly better than earlier takes on the same key figures. Other essays in the 2016 book work best as analyses of the state of play during the late 1950s, when the earlier book was put together. Taken together, both books exemplify mainstream debates within Irish historiography, illustrate the evolution of modern Irish history as a subject and illuminate O’Brien’s observation in his 1960 introduction that a given historical period will look different to different generations who write and think about it.

A chapter by Diarmaid Ferriter, which revisits Dorothy Marcardle’s earlier essay on James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, exemplifies the general approach. Marcardle was the sole female contributor to the 1960 book. Her ten-page chapter was hardly a landmark contribution to the scholarship on either figure. Connolly and Pearse were, she declared, the prime movers of the revolution: “By causing the Rising of 1916 they caused the verdict of the electors in 1918, and the creation of Dail Éireann and two and a half years of fighting against the British forces in its defence.” After that, Macardle argued, Irish history took a series of turns that neither were responsible for. She was adamant that neither should be blamed for the “calamity” of partition. She thought it unlikely that the aspirations of either – “Connolly’s kindly socialist state and the proudly bilingual Ireland Pearse dreamed of” – would ever come to pass but they succeeded in what she called their larger purpose: “Their ultimate aim in their lives as in their deaths, was to rouse a nation half moribund from long failure; revitalise its withering pride and confidence; create a generation of insurgents, selfless and stalwart; and this was done.”

Ferriter’s 2016 essay addresses “the charge”, as he puts it, that Macardle was a one-dimensional writer or a narrow-minded keeper of the republican flame. She was certainly, according to Ferriter, a defensive flame-keeper. In her defence Ferriter argues that scholarship on both Connolly and Pearse was still poorly developed; Macardle did not have access to research that would have allowed her to produce something more that the one-dimensional hagiographies of Pearse and Connolly contained in her 1960 chapter. Connolly’s archive was widely scattered and the first major biography of Pearse by Ruth Dudley Edwards, The Triumph of Failure, did not appear until 1977.

There is a strange sense of special pleading here. Macardle was a protagonist in the revolution she wrote about. She was twenty-seven years old when the 1916 Rising took place. She admired Connolly and Pearse as “tireless thinkers, writers and propagandists” and became an anti-Treaty propagandist. She wrote for the republican journal Éire and also worked for the Women’s Prisoner Defence League, an organisation that protested against the treatment meted out by the Free State forces to IRA prisoners. She was imprisoned in 1923 by the Free State government. She taught a class on “Revolutionary Irish History’ to her fellow prisoners in Kilmainham and in 1937 published a hugely successful book on this. As Elizabeth Kehoe’s chapter on Maud Gonne MacBride, Kathleen Lynn and Macardle makes clear, she was a significant figure in her own right.

The 1960 book included a chapter by Desmond Ryan, who had been a teacher at St Enda’s and served as Pearse’s secretary in the GPO. Ryan had edited the first posthumous anthologies of Pearse’s writings for Phoenix Press in 1917 and wrote a biography, A Man Called Pearse, that first appeared in 1917. He also published a biography of Connolly with Talbot Press in 1924. For all that Ferriter describes Ryan as “a devoted disciple” of Pearse, Ryan was no simplistic hagiographer. Pearse and Connolly emerge as complex figures in books he wrote that were published decades before Macardle wrote her chapter. There was, Ryan recalled in his 1934 memoir Remembering Sion, a disconcerting side to Pearse. No honest portrait could hide “a Napoleonic complex which expressed itself in a fanatical glorification of war for its own sake, an excess of sentiment which almost intoxicated him both on the platform and in private ventures, a recklessness in action and the narrow outlook of a very respectable Dubliner who has never left his city or family circle for long”.

Ryan wrote about Connolly’s response to Pearse’s apparent enthusiasm for nationalist blood sacrifice. In his 1915 essay “Peace and the Gael”, Pearse had written that “[t]he old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields”. War, he continued, was a terrible thing but not an evil thing: “Ireland has not known the exhilaration of war for over a hundred years.” And when war came to Ireland, “she must welcome the Angel of God”. “No,” James Connolly replied in a December 1915 issue of The Workers’ Republic, “we do not think that the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of millions of lives. We think anyone who does is a blithering idiot.” Ryan described Pearse as looking hurt when he read this. Whilst Ryan was willing to complicate the narrative Mcacardle was not. Her own 987-page history of the revolutionary period, the product of several years of research and extensive interviews, glossed over such differences of opinion and admitted no conflicts. No one, she wrote by way of skating over any differences, was more persuasive than Pearse, more vehement than Connolly.

For her own part, she saw the violence of 1916 and the War of independence that followed as justified and necessary. As she put it in her essay in the 1960 book:

I think that few Irish people of my generation, who remember the desperate bitterness of subjection, and remember the obtuseness, at that time, of the British governing class concerning Ireland – the insolence of the many of the powerful, the factiousness of a multitude, the ruthlessness of a few – will agree that the happy optimists’ view; nor will those of us who have studied the long struggle of India and of other countries held down by great powers believe easily in that ‘natural course.’

In her 1937 book Macardle wrote that: “The instinctive craving for national freedom was in the blood of the Irish people; the tradition of armed resistance was in their families.” Elsewhere in The Irish Republic, she argued that the main rationale for the 1916 Rising was to galvanise a people who might otherwise be content to accept Home Rule. Against this O’Brien maintained that Ireland during the early twentieth century was scarcely oppressed but that the Irish were acutely sensitive to the memory of past oppression.

Where Macardle and Ryan did agree was in their view that the true makers of modern Ireland were the insurgents, and not the parliamentarians. Desmond Ryan’s own chapter in the 1960 book on James Stephen, John Devoy and Tom Clarke presented a history of post-1848 revolutionary nationalism born out of the betrayal of Ireland ‑ as the Young Irelanders, the Fenians and Ryan himself saw it ‑ by Daniel O’Connell’s reformism and stoked by the horrors of the Famine. RV Comerford’s equivalent chapter in the 2016 book challenges Ryan’s one-line dismissal of pre-1848 parliamentary nationalism to argue that successive generations of revolutionaries built upon the organisational structures and political achievements of parliamentarian reformists. Whilst Fenianism rejected O’Connell’s legacy, the independence movement that followed in the wake of the 1916 Rising did not. Thanks to an embedded political culture that dated back to O’Connell’s time, independent Ireland emerged in 1923 as a parliamentary democracy. In the century before independence, Irish nationalism developed through sequential and overlapping parliamentary and revolutionary phases. Ryan’s (and Pearse’s) pantheon of shapers admitted just the insurgents. Comerford’s chapter on Stephens, Devoy and Clarke ends with an account of Devoy’s return to Ireland in 1924 for the first time since 1879. During an awkward official reception in his honour Devoy declared that he wished he could have been shot alongside Tom Clarke in 1916.

Just two and a half biographical chapters (out of sixteen) in the 2016 book focus on six female shapers of modern Ireland. There is a chapter on Countess Markievicz and her sister Eva Gore-Booth by Sonja Tiernan, the aforementioned one by Elizabeth Kehoe titled “Daughters of Ireland: Maud Gonne McBride, Dr Kathleen Lynn and Dorothy Macardle” and another by Margaret Ward focused on Hanna and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. The 1960 book included a chapter that grouped Tom Kettle with Francis Sheehy-Skeffington into a kind of tragic bromance which included just one sentence about Hanna. This depicted her as her husband’s helpmeet. Roger McHugh’s 1960 chapter referred several times to Francis’s feminism but not to Hanna’s, to Kettle’s horror at the news of Francis’s death but not to its profound effect on her.

In the run-up to the 2016 centenary commemorations of the 1916 Rising the Abbey Theatre was excoriated for its lack of focus on women. This oversight mirrored the exclusion of women from the first three volumes of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing edited by Seams Deane during the 1980s. Yet, a plethora of books and articles about women shapers of modern Ireland have been recently published. These have built on the pioneering scholarship of Margaret Ward, Rosemary Cullen Owens, Maria Luddy and some other female historians. Many of these have focused on revolutionary women born into prominent Irish Party families such as Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, who became alienated from an Irish political establishment that was unwilling to support votes for women lest this compromise the campaign for Home Rule. They were drawn to the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War but saw their rights as citizens reduced by both Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil governments after independence.

Macardle herself was born into a wealthy Dundalk family, owners of the Macardle and Co brewery. Her mother was the daughter of a British army officer who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Like Kathleen Lynn she was educated at Alexandra College. Like Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington she received a BA degree from University College Dublin. Again like Sheehy-Skeffington she turned to journalism to support herself but she also wrote successful novels, including Uneasy Freehold (1941), a gothic thriller that went on to sell half a million copies and was made into a film in 1944. Her aforementioned 1937 opus, The Irish Republic: A Documented Chronicle of the Anglo-Irish Conflict and the Partitioning of Ireland With A Detailed Account of the Period 1916-1923, to give the book its full name, had been commissioned by de Valera and included a foreword by him. When she was writing the book de Valera visited her on a number of occasions and he presumably had some influence on the tone of the text. According to Elizabeth Kehoe, The Irish Republic portrayed de Valera as a visionary politician dedicated to creating a republican nation. The fifth edition, published in 1968, even had a picture of de Valera on the front cover with his name spelt out underneath. Yet long before 1937 Macardle was, according to Kehoe, “horrified by the increasing censorship and closed-mindedness that had started to engulf Ireland from the 1930s”.

Kehoe does not explain clearly why Macardle stuck by de Valera for so long and it can scarcely be the case that the conservativism that appalled her began only during the 1930s or that it just reflected the general views and beliefs of men. De Valera took up the reins of power in 1932, the year of the thirty-first Eucharistic Congress, during which between a half million and a million of the Free State’s population of under three million attended a Mass in Phoenix Park. Two hundred thousand also attended a special Mass for women in the same venue. In April 1932 the newly elected de Valera delivered a eulogy at Margaret Pearse’s funeral that praised her modesty and her motherly sacrifice in giving her sons for Ireland. It was what he wished for all Irish mothers (and perhaps even what many wished for themselves): to produce good nationalist sons whilst staying out of the public arena, unless exceptional circumstances required them to fulfil the work of their menfolk. De Valera’s 1937 Constitution reflected this zenith of Catholic power and the power of Catholic ideas.

When founding Fianna Fáil de Valera had carefully cultivated the support of prominent republican women but in time he cast them aside. That these would endorse him is hardly surprising given where they stood during the Civil War. All six female members of the Dáil had voted against the Treaty, including Mary MacSwiney, whose brother Terence had died on hunger strike during the War of Independence, Margaret Pearse, Kathleen Clarke and Constance Markievicz.

Anti-Treaty activism by women such as Macardle and Sheehy-Skeffington engendered a palpable misogyny amongst Free State leaders. In March 1922 Arthur Griffith rebuffed a delegation of women that had sought to extend the franchise to women under thirty, claiming that their real purpose was “queer the pitch of the Treaty”. PS O’Hegarty’s pro-Free State polemic The Victory of Sinn Fein (1924) described them as “unlovely, destructive-minded, arid begetters of violence, both physical violence and mental violence”, a conclusion according to O’Hegarty, “that was shared by Cosgrave’s entire cabinet”. Such middle class Irish women became less free under the Free State than they had been under British rule. Pre-independence legislation in 1919 had extended the duty of serving on juries to women as well as men. In 1927 legislation introduced by the Cumann na nGaedheal minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins removed this right.

Under de Valera the overt misogyny of Cumann na nGaedheal was succeeded by a heavy blanket of paternalism. In 1932 a ban on the employment of married women in the civil service was introduced and this was extended to one against the employment of married women as primary school teachers in 1934, an area where they had traditionally worked. The Conditions of Employment Act (1936) introduced by minister for industry and commerce Seán Lemass ‑ the portfolio first held by Constance Markievicz ‑ gave the state various powers to limit the numbers of women employed in any branch of industry in order to protect male employment. These powers were never used but the marriage ban affected educated women like Sheehy-Skeffington.

Conor Cruise O’Brien ended his 1960 chapter on the 1891-1916 period with a reflection that “modern Ireland did not take the shape that any of its shapers desired”. It was not only Redmond that was defeated. The union of Great Britain and Ireland, the cause for which Carson had struggled, was wrecked. The Republic of All Ireland for which Pearse, Connolly and others had died never came into being. These facts, O’Brien argued, must prevent us from looking at the men and events of the time from any one point of view. We cannot be too sure, O’Brien reflected, who the shapers of Ireland at a given time really were: “From the standpoint of ten or twenty years hence the ‘true precursors’ who are seen to have flourished in the 1900’s may be quite different people.”

If women were hiding from O’Brien and Co. in 1960 they were doing so in plain sight. In O’Brien’s own subsequent writings, in which he explained Ireland’s conflicts to the wider world, he tended to place his own family and their social circle (and therefore himself) centre-stage. His 1965 essay “Passion and Cunning” opened with a recollection of where he was when Yeats died (on January 29th, 1939). He was lunching with his mother’s sister Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington – he explained who she was ‑ and Maude Gonne McBride, who he described as one Aunt Hanna’s closest political friends and the rest of the opening paragraph painted a vivid portrait of her. In many subsequent books and articles he restated his distinctive qualifications to write about this milieu. He peppered many of his subsequent writings on Irish nationalism with quotes from Yeats’s poetry or retellings of his familial connections to Maud Gonne, repeatedly reminding the reader of his place, in the company of women, in their firmament.

Bryan Fanning is a professor in the School of Social Policy, Social Justice, and Social Work at UCD. His most recent book, Irish Adventures in Nation-Building, is published by Manchester University Press. 

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