Ariadne’s thread: writing women into Irish history

Published in Book Reviews, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

Ariadne’s thread: writing women into Irish history
Margaret MacCurtain
(Arlen House, €25)
ISBN 9781903631423
Like the Venerable Bede, the seventh-century Jarrow monk and ‘father of English history’, Margaret MacCurtain (a.k.a. Sister Ben to thousands of University College Dublin graduates) serenely glides over the troubled waters of Irish historiography opening up new fields, which flower in her wake. But who is this remarkable woman? Her life is described by Maureen Murphy in a lengthy foreword to this book. Born into the Munster Catholic middle classes, she spent her childhood in Kerry and her teenage years in Cork. An outstanding graduate of University College Cork, she won the Peel prize for English and turned down the opportunity to study with J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford. Instead, like many of her generation, she joined a religious order. As a Dominican, she completed a first-class honours history master’s degree on aspects of Dominic O’Daly’s career as a Kerry-born bishop-diplomat in the sixteenth century; she extended her analyses for her history Ph.D, which involved consulting several European archives. MacCurtain began lecturing in UCD in 1964 and retired 30 years later. She has remained active. This is her magnum opus and is a tribute to her historical range as well as her intellectual endurance.
MacCurtain has remained loyal to Arlen House in Galway, as they published a seminal collection of articles co-edited with Donncha Ó Corráin in 1978, Women in Irish society: the historical dimension, that included contributors of the calibre of Mary E. Daly, Joe Lee, Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh and Mary Robinson. It sold over 10,000 copies and is, regrettably, out of print. An enterprising publisher should re-publish that collection of essays: they have all stood the hardest test of history, that of time. The same can be said of MacCurtain’s insightful work in this book’s sixteen chapters. The elegant and informative writing of the author never overwhelms the reader. MacCurtain’s early work was on higher education for women, first published in 1963. She then explained the politicisation of women in the twentieth century in her book with Ó Corráin. This oft-cited article paved the way for many publications on women in early twentieth-century Ireland. Not surprisingly, religious themes predominate in these essays. MacCurtain examines modern phenomena, such as moving statues in the 1980s, as well as lament poetry in the eighteenth century. Never assuming intellectual superiority, she muses on the role of memory for grieving women.
For someone who is familiar with the historical works of MacCurtain, the essays that stood out were those that used historical sources such as memoirs and poetry in an imaginative way. The work of Máire Mhac an tSaoi and the memoir of Nuala O’Faolain are all scrutinised by MacCurtain. Her study of the painting the ‘Real Molly Macree’ places women of the nineteenth century in historical context and politely critiques historical training that privileges documentary sources. The stunning picture on the front of the book draws the reader into engagement with a source that MacCurtain describes as a ‘social document’. This careful mingling of written and visual sources provides a compelling analysis of the historical experience of Irish women. Another essay discusses the religious reformation and its impact on women. Here MacCurtain takes issue with historians who are ‘seduced by the persuasiveness of a master narrative, which neatly divides the medieval world from the modern by a chronology which situates all the significant changes in the contemporary world by a hypothetical but real period designated “early modern”’. In reality, women in Ireland were affected by the medieval inheritance and their lives changed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because of the imperial project. Her last essay is a bibliographical survey of writing on women’s history in the past quarter of a century. It is a beautifully composed essay and a stimulus for further research. Margaret MacCurtain has done a great service to Irish history through her teaching, research, writing and mentoring of all scholars. Ariadne’s thread is a triumph.

Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh lectures in history at the University of Limerick and is the author of Kathleen Lynn, Irishwoman, patriot, doctor.

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