Whose History?

Published in Features, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2000), Volume 8

MH:    At what stage did you become interested in history?

ML:    I’ve always been interested in history. I had a very good secondary school teacher, Mary Varley. I liked the story of history and when I went to teacher training college, I studied it. I worked as a primary school teacher for about ten years but I continued my interest in history and researched an MA on the Whiteboys in County Tipperary with Tom Dunne in University College Cork. By the time I had finished in 1985 I had started to read a lot about women’s history and decided to undertake a PhD again with Tom Dunne who was very supportive.

MH:    Your thesis was on women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century Ireland. How did you choose that topic?

ML:    I was very much influenced by American women historians and had been reading about charity and philanthropy. Many women do this kind of work even nowadays. It is seen as voluntary and not terribly significant in their lives. I thought about how this might have involved Irish women in the nineteenth century. At the outset I didn’t even know if there were very many charitable societies but within six months I discovered over 200 that women had been involved in and realised that this was a huge area of non-paying work for women in the nineteenth-century.

MH:    In this study and elsewhere you have devoted considerable attention to the question of prostitution. Why do you think this is important?

ML:    I am very interested in what I call ‘outcast groups’ and women who work as prostitutes are prime examples. I came across a large number of rescue societies and Magdalen asylums and I investigated the evidence on the extent of prostitution in Irish society in the nineteenth century. In the mid 1980s people did not seem to be terribly aware of Magdalen asylums even though they existed in Dublin, Belfast, Waterford and elsewhere. Some of the laundries still had signs over them. Unlike today there was no great public concern about these institutions. I did not have any great difficulty getting access to the nineteenth century records whereas now researchers seem not to have access to them at all. People tend to think of Irish society as being pure and sexually innocent, that we never had a problem such as prostitution. When you start to go through the records you find that prostitution was quite a significant problem all throughout the nineteenth century and there are lots of records which detail attitudes and reactions to this problem. I was interested in how Irish society viewed prostitution and I came to the conclusion that Irish society, surprisingly, had no absolute sanction against it. As long as prostitutes were not on your street and were not bothering you it was almost okay. You can see this in the legislation. When people were complaining about prostitution (including even some Catholic clerics), they would say things like ‘they should be confined to a particulararea.’ It was all about keeping the problem hidden. Few bothered to find out why these women were engaged in this kind of work. Religious and lay workers saw these women as being in need of rescue. Rescue did not mean rehabilitation because you could not rehabilitate them unless you got rid of the conditions under which they lived, unless you could improve their economic situation. But they were saving their souls, that was the main thing. You also had a response from the authorities which is reflected in legislation. The concern is usually about containment and women’s use of public space. For the authorities it was easier to manage prostitution if the women could be confined to particular areas of a town or city.
In any statistical analysis for nineteenth century Magdalen asylum registers, you notice that women go in and out very frequently. They use them for their own benefit. We tend to think of women who were marginalised, outcast, who were deemed not to be respectable as if they are complete victims and they couldn’t take care of themselves. Yet if you look at the evidence relating to women who worked as prostitutes they do take care of themselves to some extent. Often you see them going into the Magdalen asylums when business was slack and they come out after a couple of weeks, well fed, cleaned and washed, and they go back to prostitution; a couple of months later they go back in again. In the nineteenth century Magdalen asylums were not the places of incarceration they became in the twentieth century. The function of these asylums changes significantly from the late nineteenth century where they become homes for wayward girls or unmarried mothers. They become places where the shame of families could be hidden away. When you are looking at the issue of women and society and gender issues, you are talking about respectability, and the idea of respectability changes over time. Some of these women would not have been considered unrespectable. Respectability is very much associated with class. There is ample evidence that many women who worked as prostitutes were considered respectable within the working class areas in which they lived. Who is deciding that they’re not respectable and what does respectable actually mean?

MH:    Which historians have influenced you most?

ML:    Margaret MacCurtain and Mary Cullen have been mentors for a number of years. When I began researching women’s history I was very influenced by the American historians like Gerda Lerner, Joan Scott and Judith Walkovitz. Carolyn Steedman, a colleague at Warwick, has also been thought provoking. Her Landscape for a Good Woman (London 1986) is, at one level, about writing history about working class life, about how working class people have been written about by others, what it is to actually be written about, and how you can counteract some of those perceptions, assumptions, and even, the condescension of historians who are not of that class. Can you only write about women’s history if you are a woman? This would be a terrible thing to think of as being true. If so you are cutting off a whole range of experience and different perceptions which can be brought to that subject.

MH:    Your Women in Ireland: a documentary history (Cork 1995) is an invaluable source for students. What were your aims in assembling this material?

ML:    Its purpose was to demonstrate the variety of sources and to encourage people to look at the material themselves. One of the excuses often made, by way of dismissing women’s history, was that adequate sources did not exist. The Documentary History was a way to disprove that. Of course such a collection can only be subjective. I had looked at a lot of material over the years and these were things that struck me as being very human or reflected some sort of truth about women’s place in society or attitudes towards women at a particular time. If you want to see women in Irish history in terms of sources, women appear everywhere, not just in what they wrote themselves. Women were also written about. If you think of committal forms for various institutions, lunatic asylums for instance, you see women being described, categorised and analysed. You are being told why these women should be locked up and that is a source that tells you how society views women. You don’t often get women’s experience directly, especially of poorer women, because they don’t often leave a written record behind them. But that does not mean that their experience is completely inaccessible to us as historians.

MH:    You have spent two years working for the Women’s History Project. What does this project entail?

ML:    The Project was funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands and our brief was to locate documentary sources relating to women in Irish history. We visited a number of repositories around the country to see what material they had on women. We contacted over 420 individuals and organisations, we visited over 300 and we ended up with 262 on our database. We’re talking about sources such as diaries, letters, minute books of organisations that women ran, family papers, estate records, rentals and other material relating to women. We listed the sources that are in libraries around the country, museums, convents, diocesan archives, the National Archives, the National Library and the Public Records Office, Northern Ireland, amongst other places.  We went through the entire catalogues of the Society of Friends Library. We found material in basements, in attics, in boxes, in plastic bags. We climbed over dead rats to get at some stuff. We listed all of the material relevant to women and placed it on our database. We had that produced as a CD-ROM, A Directory of Sources for Women’s History in Ireland (Dublin 1999), and we are now investigating placing the material on the web. Our hope is that it will literally open up completely new areas of study, not just in women’s history. This is about Irish history, social history, economic history, political history, cultural history and I hope it’s going to be a good resource for anybody who wants to research Irish history. Leanne Lane, Diane Urquhart, Catherine Cox and I have been working on the directory of sources.
Another aspect of the Project was to publish sources relating to women in Irish society. We published the Drennan-McTier letters which date from 1776 to 1819 which are a wonderful source. They have been edited by Jean Agnew and are now available in three volumes. The letters demonstrate that women’s history is not a narrow subject. Within this correspondence between United Irishman William Drennan and his sister Martha McTier you can uncover medical history, social history, family relationships, explore how people constructed their letters, how they communicated with each other, the kind of things that they said about their personal relationships, what they read. There is a lot of gossip about servants, family members, or acquaintances, a huge amount also about the politics of the period. We also produced, in association with the National Library of Ireland, a book of photographs from the Eleanor Wiltshire collection which was edited by Orla Fitzpatrick. Within the next six months we will publish a calendar of the papers of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council.
The third aspect of the Project, still in progress, involves going through the files of the Department of the Taoiseach in the National Archives, and entering any information relating to women onto our database. The time period covers the 1920s to the 1970s. There is wonderful stuff here on, for example, women civil servants, employment conditions, republican women in the 1920s, those who were imprisoned, women who went on hunger strike. There’s also a lot of information about women who lost their jobs on account of their republican activities trying to be reinstated, little bits of information on women who were diplomats and a wonderful file on women’s opposition to the 1937 constitution. It’s the whole array of women’s political, social and economic life, and will open up new areas of study for women in Ireland in the twentieth century once it becomes available.

MH:    What are your thoughts on the difficulties of gaining access to certain types of material?

ML:    There is a particular difficulty in getting access to institutional records. Researchers find it difficult, if not impossible, to get access to the Magdalen registers, for example. There are also those records relating to reformatories and industrial schools. There is a fundamental question about whose history this is. Who should actually control access to those documents? Is it just the history of a particular school or is it the history of those individuals who passed through that school or that convent or that institution? Obviously I would have great sympathy with ideas of confidentiality and the use of people’s names. You have to be very careful in institutions like workhouses or psychiatric hospitals; families can be easily identified. If, on the other hand, you need information for statistical analysis, why should access be denied? Why do organisations or institutions claim they have no records when in some instances I have previously seen those records. As a historian, should I be allowed see them? Am I trustworthy? I might not be to those who hold the records. Do they want anyone ever to see them? Will they ever allow someone to do that kind of social, institutional history? And if they don’t, isn’t that making Irish society even poorer in the sense that we won’t ever know how a particular institution dealt with cases. It’s not just about the institution but also about society’s attitudes at that time which might come through that institution’s records. If we don’t learn from our past we can’t understand what is happening now. How accountable should institutions and organisations actually be to the public in terms of their history? There are matters that must be dealt with sensitively but I believe that openness is a much healthier way of developing a responsible society than secrecy.

MH:    Where do you see the most serious gap between the popular image of Irish women in the past and the image which emerges from the type of evidence you have examined?

ML:    I worry that a lot of Irish people only know about Countess Markievicz and Maud Gonne and that they are somehow typical of Irish women generally, that they are the only significant women in Irish history. We need to find out about  the ‘ordinary woman’ in Irish society. By ‘ordinary’ I mean women who stayed at home, who worked, who couldn’t find work, who emigrated, who were vagrants, who were prostitutes, who had to survive, who were sometimes very comfortable in middle class homes, who had access to education, and who didn’t have access to education, who had to marry men twenty years older than them, who had to go, maybe in the 1940s and 1950s, into farms where they had to look after elderly relatives. How did they cope with children, with ordinary life, how did they deal with things? We have this concept of the idealised Irish mother yet up to the 1950s or 1960s the ideal life for any Irish girl was not to be a mother but to be a nun. It was about purity, sacrifice, commitment, it was vocational and there was no sex. The second best thing was to be a wife and a mother.

MH:    Which areas do you consider most urgently in need of research?

ML:    All aspects of women’s history need more research. We still know so little about women and work in Ireland. We know almost nothing about women landowners, for example. Go through any rental of any estate and there are lots of women there and yet we never seem to think of women as managing farms. We still have a lot of research to do on different aspects of women’s work, both rural and industrial. Mary Daly has done some research but much remains undone. There is also the subject of women’s political involvement. Studies of the Ladies’ Land League, for instance, tend to focus on Anna Parnell but we know almost nothing about the women in local areas who organised branches. What was their relationship to the Land League itself? What was their agenda? Was it different from Anna Parnell’s? If you looked at the sources you would probably find that land, access to land, owning your own land—the same kind of concerns that were there for men—were very significant for these women in the Ladies’ Land League. We need to explore the world of professional women. Very little work has been done on women in education in Ireland or in trade unions. We have the history of the Irish Women Workers’ Union and Teresa Moriarty has done some really good work on the role of women in early trade unions in Ireland. Suffrage is relatively well covered and there does seem to be a market for biographies. Too little is being done on women in Ireland prior to the nineteenth century. It is tremendously exciting that you can take any aspect of women’s history and use material that has never before been used by historians.

MH:    Where do you see your own research going?

ML:    I am becoming more and more interested in outcast women, women who were involved in crime, who ended up in prisons, in asylums generally, particularly in lunatic asylums. I am intrigued by the idea of incarceration, the idea of respectability, things that are taboo, the kind of meanings that are given to behaviour and transgression, and what that says about women in Irish society and how women were actually judged. I am interested in the boundaries that women always seemed to be breaking, despite being told not to, but which they transgressed anyway. Also in the idea of institutionalisation, and how women in particular, and also children, were affected by the notion that institutions were there to sort out society’s problems.

MH:    What do you see as the greatest challenges facing those engaged in women’s history?

ML:    It’s about our work being taken seriously. One of the things that has amazed me about doing the Project, is how often I have been asked to defend the fact that we were looking at sources relating to women in Irish history. I used to defend it when we started but I stopped because some critics just wanted to rant and rave. How often have I heard, ‘Who would want to know about women in Irish history, sure isn’t all this about everybody, why do you have to do women?’. What was being revealed was a level of defensiveness or fear at some very basic level. Is it a fear of women? I don’t know. The work on women’s history isn’t being taken seriously enough. It does not seem to be integrating itself into the history that is being taught in the universities or schools. I hope that with the new Leaving Cert syllabus there will be a lot more women appearing in the text books. And why it is seen as something only women should do? That’s another thing that we should fight against because that’s what ghettoises it. In academic life, how many women make it to professorships in history departments in Ireland or any other country, or, even senior lectureships? If your area of research is women’s history and you are not taken very seriously, the chances of securing a post, moving up the ladder and having influence are much less than if you are into political history or some other supposedly ‘serious’ kind of history. The interesting thing is that in terms of publishing, never has there been so much published on women as there has been over the last number of years. There is a huge popular interest in women’s history, and publishers are very, very keen to publish because there’s a market out there. So somebody wants it, but whether the scholars and academics are actually reading it is another matter. I would like to think that they are but sometimes I’m not absolutely certain that this is the case.

Mary Harris lectures in history at NUI, Galway.


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