Irish women and nationalism: soldiers, new women and wicked hags

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Irish women and nationalism soldiers, new women and wicked hags 1Irish women and nationalism: soldiers, new women and wicked hags
Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward (eds)
(Irish Academic Press, €25 paperback)
ISBN 0716527677This book explores Irish women’s engagement with nationalism from a variety of perspectives, including history, sociology, cultural and language studies, law, anthropology and community-based research. The editors, Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward, who describe themselves as ‘feminist scholars both critical of, and sympathetic to, Irish republicanism’, believe that better understanding of that engagement will further the cause of gender equality in the search for new political structures in Northern Ireland. Wisely, I think, they do not try to present a unified argument; instead the book challenges the reader to engage with and reflect on a range of different approaches to complex issues over a long time-span. While most previous research on women and nationalism in Ireland has concentrated on the first decades of the twentieth century, the present book moves from the seventeenth century to the present.
The first two essays argue that women were active in anti-colonial nationalism long before the twentieth century. Andrea Knox finds that Irish women from all social strata were involved in the 1641 rising, and that kinship, sept and legal systems gave women of landholding families a political autonomy which many used to such effect that ‘Irish wives’ became an issue of concern to English authorities. As the latter increasingly viewed the Irish population as a Catholic and hostile entity, she sees an embryonic nationalism developing in response, and ‘Ireland’ beginning to replace the sept as the focus of loyalty. Moving to the risings of 1798 and 1848, Jan Cannavan argues that the evidence of women’s participation questions theories of innate female pacifism, while its erasure from most written history distorts the record and undermines the basis for debate. She also sees some evidence of the emergence of a feminist awareness among the women involved, and argues that, just as participation in political movements such as anti-slavery can nurture feminism, so can participation in national liberation movements.
The next four essays focus on the politics of myth and memory in representations of women’s activism in the years from 1916 to 1923. Louise Ryan’s study of the memoirs of IRA men involved in the War of Independence and the Civil War concludes that they ‘contain, sanitise and depoliticise’ women’s involvement. Guerrilla war depends on communities for safe houses, medical aid, supplies, information and message-carrying, all often provided by women as battlefront and home front merge. The memoirs acknowledge women’s contribution, but see it as supporting a campaign by men and largely apolitical; younger women are brave ‘girls’, while older women are inspired by motherly feelings, and sometimes merge into a symbolic ‘Mother Ireland’. Ryan notes that contemporary newspapers and women’s testimony give a very different picture.
A case in point is that of Constance Markievicz. Karen Steele’s study finds her purposefully putting her version of events on record in her prolific journalism during the 1920s. In this her own participation and that of other women, whether as combatants or in support roles, is based on political decision rather than personal relationships. She also wrote two plays featuring female protagonists: one a young woman who tricks and shoots a cruel British officer in 1798, and the other a mother who ensures that her captured IRA son dies rather than betray the cause.
Some evidence of self-questioning emerges in Danae O’Regan’s comparison of the novels of Annie M.P. Smithson and Rosamond Jacob, both republican activists and members of both Cumann na mBan and the Gaelic League. Each set her novels in the years leading up to 1916 and during the War of Independence; each presented strong women who supported male fighters from political conviction. However, while Smithson did not question either the republican cause or the use of force, Jacob’s characters, both female and male, experience divided loyalties within families, ambiguities as to motive and allegiance, and moral dilemmas about the use and effects of physical force. Perhaps significantly, Smithson’s novels became best-sellers, while Jacob had difficulty in getting her small output published at all and they did not sell well.
Jayne Steel analyses the depiction of Irish nationalist women in British and Irish novels, plays and films from the 1940s to recent ‘realist’ films dealing with Northern Ireland. She sees them linked to universal, and contradictory, archetypes of ‘woman’, from passive beautiful maidens to ambiguous mother figures who can be loving or threatening or sexualised, or a hybrid of these characteristics. The archetypes, which she notes have more to do with the male psyche than real women, surface in the centuries-old tradition of allegorising Ireland as a woman, whether as Cathleen ní Houlihan or the Shan Van Vocht, and continue in nationalist mythology to the present, where they range from the apolitical supporting woman in the memoirs studied by Ryan to fictional fantasies of the beautiful, sexually desirable, but unstable and trigger-happy female activist, as well as the insatiable mother who demands the blood sacrifice of her sons.
The third section moves to Northern Ireland in the decades of conflict from 1969. Based on interviews with women imprisoned for political offences between 1972 and 1999, Mary Corcoran argues that gender issues influenced two different sets of power relationships. While the women saw themselves as political activists, organising and resisting on the same lines as the male prisoners, they felt that they faced a double challenge in asserting their autonomy with both the prison authorities and the republican leadership outside, both influenced by similar stereotypes of female passivity. Rhiannon Talbot, also drawing on prison experience, raises questions about the emergence of feminism within the republican movement and how it related to the growth of feminism in Irish society north and south. Did the latter influence the IRA decision to admit women to full membership in 1977–8 or was it solely a strategic decision? While nationalism was the primary motivation for women joining the IRA, did such activism per se indicate a feminist awareness? Did imprisonment, including the opportunity it gave for debate and analysis, help to develop the theory of double discrimination against republican women, as women and as republicans, and later of gender discrimination in the broader society?
The next two essays, also based on interviews, move the focus to communities in nationalist West Belfast. Within the siege conditions experienced by many of these, Claire Hackett tracks the merging of public and private spheres. As the internment of large numbers of men pushed women to the front, care of family and community survival became as political as signalling the presence of the British army by bin-lid patrols, while visiting family members in prison could combine with support for the campaign for political status or smuggling messages for the Sinn Féin POW department. Activism led to self-development, widening awareness and links with feminist activists, including international feminists’ support for the women in Armagh prison. Such interaction in turn helped republican women, prisoners and others, to challenge sexism, including domestic violence, within the republican movement, and led to the setting up of the Falls Women’s Centre.
Callie Persic follows developments after the 1994 cease-fire as a women’s group in Ballymurphy housing estate moved from nationalist to community activism. This aimed at betterment of the whole community, with emphasis on the future for children. It interacted with other developments, including the women’s new-found confidence, their continuing commitment to self-development through education and the acquisition of new skills, as well as power struggles in the home. While many of the women were unwilling to call themselves feminists, they saw their domestic and political roles interacting. Community development broadened to include issues such as unemployment and health and the setting up of a resource centre, plus a continuing commitment to self-development and discussion meetings. Few of the women moved into the arena of party politics, now coming to the fore, and Persic suggests that we may need to reconceptualise the meaning of ‘political’.
Finally, Margaret Ward compares the period of resistance to British presence in Ireland in the early twentieth century with that of the last three decades, and feminist and republican women’s claims for women’s voices to be heard in both periods. In each republican women won unprecedented prominence, Constance Markievicz as minister for labour in 1919 in the Dáil Éireann government, and Bairbre de Brún as minister for health in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1999. Non-aligned feminists were elected to local government in 1920, while the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition won two seats in the Assembly. However, Ward argues that in neither period was there a serious shift in gender balance within political parties or in the location of political power; the status quo reasserted itself in the 1920s, and today’s challenge is to prevent this happening again.
The book should achieve the editors’ aim of contributing to a better understanding of the engagement of Irish women with nationalism. For this reviewer two impressions were particularly thought-provoking. The first is the long struggle by women, and not only nationalists, to be recognised as autonomous persons in the face of stereotypes of ‘woman’ and a paradigm of two mutually exclusive ‘spheres’—the public, populated largely (until recent times virtually exclusively) by men, where decisions are made about the affairs of society, and the private, populated largely by women, of domestic family life, which is guided by ‘natural’ instincts and is apolitical. Variations of this paradigm still inform the work of many historians and others, allowing them to avoid engagement with the historical reality that differences between women and men in access to personal autonomy, as well as political power, wealth, education and other resources, have not been the result of a simple biological determinism but of laws, regulations and customs created by human beings.
The second relates to the political potential of women’s community work. Perhaps because both the activists and the researchers have spent so much energy combating the stereotypes, the book provides little analysis of what either nationalism or republicanism meant to the women studied, and the two terms are regularly used interchangeably. I think it is necessary and profitable to distinguish between them, and to consider the potential and the limitations of each. Women’s community activism in West Belfast, as described by Hackett and Persic, has parallels in urban areas in Dublin and elsewhere in the south. They all have resonance with the current revival of interest in republicanism as a political tradition with roots in classical Greece, and specifically with civic-republican citizenship, based on citizens who are free from domination from within or without their own society, who develop their human potential through active participation in political decision-making and who have a commitment to the common good above the clash of individual interest. Developing a comparative analysis could offer something of value to both women and the wider society, given growing doubts about the ability of current representative parliamentary structures to deliver meaningful democratic participation. It could also draw on and dialogue with the growing body of work on the history and content of republicanism. This, as well as addressing the relevance of republican thought for today’s challenges, demonstrates its role in the matrix of ideas current in Western societies in the late eighteenth century and from which, as well as the American and French revolutions, both modern feminism and modern Irish republicanism emerged.
Mary Cullen


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