A bit player in the who's who of Irish radicalism


BIOGRAPHY: NIAMH PUIRSÉILreviews Rosamond Jacob: Third Person SingularBy Leeann Lane University College Dublin Press, 324pp. €30

A BIT PLAYER in Irish radical politics in the early decades of the 20th century, Rosamond Jacob has been cast as the lead in this new biography.

Born into a Quaker family in Waterford in 1888, she developed an early interest in women’s suffrage and nationalism. Visiting Dublin regularly as a young woman, she moved there in 1919, her room-mates a who’s who of Dublin feminism and republicanism, including Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and de Valera’s official scribe, Dorothy McArdle. An early member of Sinn Féin, she joined Fianna Fáil on its foundation. She was active on the periphery of the socialist republican movements in the 1930s and travelled to the USSR. In certain ways she was typical of the sort of non-conformist activist of the time, taking an anti-vaccination stance, combining agnosticism and anti-clericalism, and, with anti-vivisectionism and later vegetarianism, adding to her radical credentials.

Between 1909 and 1936 she met almost everyone who was anyone in nationalist or radical circles in Ireland but lacked status or influence. After 1916 she complained that she was “all the time suffering from envy and jealousy of the people I met who had been out in the Rising. It seems as if I was destined to be an outsider and a looker-on in everything all my life; never to be in it”. This type of lament appears frequently in this book.

Later, Peadar O’Donnell advised her not to publish her autobiographical novel, Third Person Singular, as it was “too full of self pity”, but Jacob’s diaries, on which Leeann Lane draws for this biography, suffer from a similar problem. As a result the woman in the book can seem tiresome, whereas she is fondly remembered by her many friends in other accounts.

Still, she had good reasons to feel dejected. Her activism involved little more than attending meetings and doing the graveyard shift on church collections. Her aspirations as a writer came to little. Sales of her first novel, Callaghan(1920), the story of a young suffragette who converts a handsome republican to feminism before they begin a relationship, were poor. Other books were rejected or published only with her subsidy.

Her personal life was also a disappointment. She was a prickly individual, and the young woman who stares out from the book’s cover is intense and unsmiling. Peadar O’Donnell once told her he “felt a cold draft all around” her, which, combined with her plain appearance, did not help her win the attentions of male republicans which she craved and who feature prominently here. Admiring Cathal Brugha, she pronounced “I do like a man who cannot surrender.”

But it was to Frank Ryan that her heart belonged. Their “affair” began in 1928 in the Gaelic League, where love stories begin. He was 24, she 40, but he had the upper hand in the relationship, such as it was. Her “black panther”, as Jacob described him, would call at her flat in the middle of the night, much to the annoyance of her flatmate, Dorothy McArdle. But he refused to be seen in public with her and ignored her at events, much to her distress. When Jacob tried to have a “talk about us”, Ryan “took refuge in his deafness”. Still she swooned: “a Limerick accent beats all, especially when he can’t say th”.

Lane has chosen to foreground the affair, “not just because it was a defining experience from Jacob’s perspective, but also to make a number of wider points to counter the stratified thinking about women’s roles in Irish society in the period”. This approach is not without its problems, and foregrounding the affair to the point of putting an image of Ryan on the book’s cover seems to me to do Jacob a disservice.

Ultimately, Jacob was atypical in practically every sphere in which she was active. I wonder whether, as Lane suggests, she does offer “a key into lives more ordinary within the urban middle classes of her time”. But her milieu and her political journey are interesting, and if Jacob was not successful she was certainly not ordinary, as this ambitious biography well shows.

Niamh Puirséil is the author of The Irish Labour Party, 1922-73