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A nation of eunuchs or athletic youths? Irish nationalism’s masculine anxieties

A new book likens Irish nationalism’s conflation of sovereignty and masculine strength to similar movements in India and Israel and links it to the repression of women’s rights

Na Fianna Éireann boys learning first aid c1914-1923. In his famous 1913 essay, The Murder Machine, Patrick Pearse talked of the Irish as a nation of eunuchs and slaves, but presented the Gaelic Revival as a way to revive their masculine power

In his famous 1943 St Patrick’s Day Speech, Eamon de Valera laid out his vision of the ideal homeland that Irish men might soon be called upon to protect from a possible German or Allied invasion. His Ireland was a country “of sturdy children” and “the contest of athletic youths”. It was an Ireland that sought “the laughter of happy maidens” and “whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age”. As the wartime taoiseach concluded, it would be “the home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live”.

Irish historians have long recognised the implications that the de Valerian vision of “cosy homesteads” had for Irish women. This speech was nothing short of an elegy to an imaginary, ever-agrarian Ireland, with harmonious ideals of submissive femininity at the very centre. For all its soothing rhetoric, this was the vision of a society of Magdalene Laundries, literary censorship and social control.

But masculinity also played a key role in this idealised vision of Ireland. The vigorous masculinity of “athletic youths” was the implied flipside of de Valera’s laughing “happy maidens”. In fact, idealised depictions of a manly Ireland were major themes in Irish nationalist culture throughout the 20th century. And long before de Valera’s famous speech, Irish nationalists had conflated national sovereignty and masculine strength; they conceived of national power as a form of male potency. The recovery of one would supposedly parallel the recovery of the other. There are many examples of this.

In his famous 1913 essay, The Murder Machine, Patrick Pearse talked of the Irish as a nation of eunuchs and slaves, but presented the Gaelic Revival as a way to revive their masculine power. This was a common view within the Gaelic League. An early pamphlet for this organisation said that an Irish-speaking Ireland “will enrich the world, like a strong, healthy-hearted man”. At the height of the War of Independence, militants like Dan Breen presented themselves as reborn versions of heroic men from the Irish past. And in the 1918 general election, despite this being the first election in which women could vote, Sinn Féin was urging voters to “be a man for Ireland’s sake. For your own sake. Think of the blessedness of Freedom.”

All of this did important propaganda work, legitimising Sinn Féin as the new heirs to male nationalist icons from a heroic past. This cult of masculinity also served to refute widespread British stereotypes about the Irish. As the medical student turned IRA soldier, Ernie O’Malley, later remembered, one positive effect of the War of Independence was that the “familiar stage Irishman had disappeared”, now replaced by the confident, armed men of the IRA.

Nationalism across Europe often made claims about masculine power and about the need for a fraternal brotherhood to come together to defend the nation. Irish nationalists followed this trend. But Ireland’s status as a quasi-colonial nation on the fringes of Europe also played a part in this. Minority nationalism and anti-colonial nationalist movements have often used masculine ideals as a way to refute racist assumptions about their nations.

Indian nationalists were deeply troubled by British imperial accusations that they were an effeminate people; Indian nationalism thus promoted sport and militias to re-masculinise the nation. Zionism, the movement to create a Jewish State in the Middle East, spoke of the need for a “New Jew”, a farmer-soldier who would refute antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish weakness whilst also taking control of Palestine. Irish nationalists’ anxieties about their declining male power drew on the same colonialist dynamics and they offered similar redemptive solutions - sport, military power, agrarian labour, revived languages - as ways to reconnect with ancient heroic ideals.

Masculinity would continue to play a dominant role in Irish nationalist politics and culture after 1922. Even before the founding of the state, the key roles played by women were being supressed in favour of a smooth narrative of men united in the singular cause of the nation. PS O’Hegarty, the closest thing Cumann na nGaedheal had to an in-house intellectual, took a harsh line on women’s involvement in contemporary Irish politics. In The Victory of Sinn Féin, his early history of the War of Independence and Civil War, O’Hegarty said that women had been irreparably damaged by their wartime experiences. These women were “Furies”, he claimed, and he blamed them for the excesses of the Civil War, when their “hysterical” dedication to Republicanism violated the bond of brotherhood that had previously prevailed between nationalist men.

“Left to himself, man is comparatively harmless” but “it is woman… with her implacability, her bitterness, her hysteria, that makes a devil of him. The Suffragettes used to tell us that with women in political power there would be no more war. We know better now. We know that with women in political power there would be no more peace.”

O’Hegarty represented some broader trends in post-1922 politics. WT Cosgrave, newly installed as president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, pined for a gendered public-private split. He felt that rather than being involved in anti-Treaty politics, women “should have rosaries in their hands or be at home with knitting needles”. Similarly de Valera informed his anti-Treaty comrade Mary MacSwiney that, “I must be the heir to generations of conservatism. Every instinct of mine would indicate that I was meant to be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory or even a Bishop, rather than the leader of a Revolution.” These attitudes were central to the repression of women’s rights after 1922 and to the building of a male-dominated state. Indeed, understanding 20th century Irish history in general requires recognising how much masculine politics and masculine anxieties were at the very heart of the Irish nationalist project. This is a history with a long half-life.

Aidan Beatty holds a PhD in History from the University of Chicago. His first book, Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938, is published by Palgrave Macmillan