Dorothy Macardle (1889-1958): republican and internationalist

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2007), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 15

‘I am a propagandist, unrepentant and unashamed’, Dorothy Macardle, author of The Irish Republic, announced in June 1939. Many readers familiar with her classic history of the Irish revolution, commissioned by her political hero Éamon de Valera, might be only too ready to concur with Macardle’s candid self-assessment. In this instance, however, she was speaking not in relation to her activities as a republican journalist or Fianna Fáil supporter, but as a proponent of the League of Nations who was urging an American audience to speak out against fascism and to support international cooperation. A half-century after her death, Macardle, a historian, journalist, novelist, playwright, activist and student of the occult, is mainly remembered as the politically engaged author of The Irish Republic.
An unlikely republican, Dorothy Macardle was born in Dundalk in 1889 to Minnie Ross Macardle, a troubled and enigmatic Englishwoman, and Thomas Callan Macardle, the chairman of Dundalk’s Macardle Moore brewery. The Macardles were a wealthy Catholic family with both unionist and Home Rule sympathies. Dorothy moved to Dublin in her teens and was educated at Alexandra College and University College Dublin. In Dublin she met prominent nationalists, such as Maud Gonne MacBride, and moved from cultural nationalism to republicanism while forging a career as a teacher and playwright. She worked as a journalist and publicist during the War of Independence and the Civil War, when she supported the anti-Treaty side and served a prison sentence. In 1926 she left Sinn Féin and joined Éamon de Valera’s new Fianna Fáil party, believing that an Irish republic could be achieved through political means. During the late 1920s and 1930s she researched and wrote The Irish Republic, commissioned by de Valera, while continuing to work as a journalist and playwright.
Macardle worked on The Irish Republic during a critical phase in the development of the modern Irish historical profession. She was one of many accomplished Irish female historians during the Free State period. Others included Mary Hayden, Mary Donovan O’Sullivan, Síle ni Chinneide, Constantia Maxwell, Alice Stopford Green, Eleanor Hull, Rosamond Jacob, Helena Concannon, Isabel Grubb and Ada Longfield. Like Macardle, many of these women were noted for their political and social activism as well as for their historical works; Green and Concannon, for instance, were both senators. Macardle stood out from her counterparts by writing contemporary Irish political history, as most of the other women historians wrote on early modern Ireland. The 1930s also marked the emergence of the modern, university-based Irish historical profession, whose leading figures were the young academic historians Robert Dudley Edwards of University College Dublin and Theodore Moody of Trinity College, founders of the journal Irish Historical Studies. While the new professionals concentrated on early modern rather than contemporary Irish history, they were aware of Macardle, and R. D. Edwards praised her efforts.
The Irish Republic met with much popular acclaim in Ireland, as well as some misgivings, and brought Macardle widespread recognition when it was published in 1937. The Irish Press, the newspaper linked with de Valera and Fianna Fáil, actively promoted the book by publishing extracts as well as a glowing review. The Irish Times review offered measured praise, as did the Times Literary Supplement, which brought the book to the attention of British readers. The most hostile responses in Ireland came from the Irish Independent, the newspaper of Fine Gael supporters, which opposed Macardle’s treatment of the Free State side in the Civil War and her exaltation of de Valera, and the Catholic Bulletin, which felt that Macardle had slighted the role of the Catholic Church in the Irish independence movement. Overall, the responses to The Irish Republic combined praise for Macardle’s research, thorough documentation, range of sources and narration of dramatic events with reservations about the book’s political slant. Although stocks of the book were blown to bits when the Luftwaffe dropped bombs on a warehouse in London during World War II, The Irish Republic, like the phoenix, rose from its own ashes and was reprinted several times, most recently in 2005. It was pressed into political service by de Valera and Fianna Fáil over the years, as de Valera considered it ‘the only really authoritative account of the period 1916–26’.
Ironically, The Irish Republic was published at a time when Macardle began to raise objections to Fianna Fáil’s policies, particularly censorship and legislation pertaining to women in employment. Her secular, liberal vision of republicanism came into conflict with the official, more conservative nationalism promoted by Fianna Fáil in the 1930s. Like other Irish feminists, she spoke out against the 1937 Constitution because of its clauses on women. In the late 1930s Macardle turned her attention to international affairs and became a strong supporter of the League of Nations and a vocal opponent of fascism. In the late 1940s she reached a rapprochement with de Valera and Fianna Fáil, although she continued to speak out against censorship. At this time she became a supporter of the United Nations and its humanitarian efforts in post-war Europe, and wrote Children of Europe in 1949. An account of the plight of children during and after the war, the book was an early contribution to the social history of World War II and the Holocaust.
The completion of The Irish Republic allowed Macardle to concentrate on writing novels, and she wrote four between 1941 and 1953. A student of the occult, three of her novels dealt with supernatural themes, including ghosts, extra-sensory perception and witchcraft, while her least successful novel was a wartime romance. Her novels, like some of her earlier plays, tend to feature dysfunctional families, troubled marriages and parent–child relationships, and problematic sexuality, and allowed Macardle to grapple, in creative and coded ways, with some of her own preoccupations. Her most successful novel, Uneasy freehold, a haunted-house mystery set in England, was adapted for the screen and released as a film called The Uninvited in 1944. It was compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rebecca (1940), based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel, and indeed the two works contain some similar characters and plot devices. Tim Pat Coogan, in his biography of de Valera, recounts how the taoiseach watched The Uninvited at the Savoy in Dublin with his staff members Kathleen O’Connell and Maurice Moynihan. De Valera apparently disliked the film’s twist ending, in which one character, seemingly an icon of conventional womanhood whom the framers of the 1937 Constitution might like, turns out to be not quite what she seemed.
Dorothy Macardle was an accomplished and successful writer in twentieth-century Ireland whose engagement with global events and international currents of thought interacted with her Irish republican thinking. A sophisticated and liberal nationalist and internationalist, her career challenges the related notions that Irish women disengaged from public life between the 1920s and the 1960s and that Irish republicans in the Free State period were simply xenophobic nationalists unconcerned about world events.

Nadia Clare Smith lectures in history at Boston College. Her Dorothy Macardle will be published shortly by Woodfield Press.

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