A ‘manly study’? Irish women historians, 1868–1949

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

A ‘manly study’? Irish women historians, 1868–1949
Nadia Clare Smith
(Palgrave/Macmillan, £45)
ISBN 9780230009042

In this timely monograph, Nadia Clare Smith has made a significant contribution to Irish women’s history and Irish historiography. Her careful analysis of the careers of twenty women historians not only challenges W. E. Gladstone’s definition of history as a ‘manly study’ but also illustrates the central importance of these women historians in shaping the themes, debates and methodologies of Irish historical discourse from the Home Rule era to the end of the Irish Free State.
Smith’s analysis takes into account the intense contemporary intellectual and historical debates over the longevity and authenticity of a distinct Irish nation and the legitimacy of Ireland’s claims to self-government. The author categorises these historians as unionist, nationalist and republican. The details provided on the family backgrounds, education, social and political connections, and beliefs of her subjects illustrate the linkages and interactions between their historical interests and their individual positions on the national question.
The first two chapters are devoted to six Protestant-born women who became influential historians despite a lack of formal university training. Mary Ferguson, Mary Ann Hickson, Emily Lawless and Eleanor Hull are grouped as unionist historians, while Margaret Cusack and Alice Stopford Green are considered nationalist historians. Smith argues that, despite their anti-Home Rule views, Ferguson, Lawless and Hull were cultural nationalists whose publications on early Celtic and medieval Ireland served to refute the negative views of Irish society and people in the writings of J. A. Froude, Richard Bagwell and Goddard Orpen. Although born Protestants, Margaret Cusack and Alice Stopford Green came to espouse the nationalist cause. Cusack’s ‘faith and fatherland’ history was popular and influential in the 1880s, while Stopford Green’s 1911 Irish nationality provided a compelling rationale for Irish self-government in the run-up to the third Home Rule bill and sold very well between 1919 and 1921.
Opportunities for women to become academic historians opened up with the founding of the National University of Ireland (NUI) in 1908 and the opening of Trinity College to females. Separate chapters cover the women who taught at these institutions. Women historians at the NUI came from Catholic-nationalist backgrounds and had higher profiles and positions within their institutions than did their peers at Trinity College. Mary Hayden, the most prominent of the former group, was the first Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, and her Short history of the Irish people was widely used as a nationalist text until the l960s. Galway’s history department was staffed solely by Mary O’Donovan Sullivan and Síle Ní Chinneade for many years. The three women historians at Trinity College, Constantia Maxwell, Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven and Olive Armstrong, were less politically active than NUI women and that may account for their greater productivity as writers. Maxwell’s books on Georgian Dublin sold especially well, and Otway-Ruthven was unique among women historians for her Ph.D and her focus on political, economic and administrative history rather than economic and social history.
Smith also discusses women historians who worked outside academia as independent authors, journalists, archivists and museum curators. The most prominent of these were Helena Colcannon, Dorothy Macardle and Rosamond Jacob, all of whom were active in the War of Independence. Macardle, the most prominent of this group, published The Irish Republic in 1937. This work emphasised the historic and democratic roots of the republican movement and served as the bible of Fianna Fáil for the next few decades.
Smith weaves interesting sociological and gender analysis into her narrative. Almost all of her subjects were from affluent or middle-class backgrounds. Sixty-five per cent were Protestants while 35 per cent were raised as Catholics. Only 35 per cent were married and of these only one had children. Smith provides examples of how gender constricted the careers of her subjects long after women had access to university training. Politics also influenced the career paths of some of Smith’s subjects. Macardle, for instance, lost her Alexandra College teaching position in 1923, yet her republican bona fides were an asset in securing work as a journalist and when writing The Irish Republic.
This well-written and researched study will undoubtedly encourage its readers to examine for themselves the writings of this remarkable group of Irish women who wrote, and often made, history.

Catherine B. Shannon is Emerita Professor of History at Westfield State College, Massachusetts.


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