Dorothy Macardle: De Valera’s friend no exemplar of his ‘ideal woman’

Political propagandist and journalist was central figure within intellectual elite in Ireland

 

Dorothy Macardle’s opus, The Irish Republic (1937), offers a defence of the republican ideal she had gone to prison to defend in November 1922. Her use of documentary evidence and her refusal to accept a salary from Sinn Féin notwithstanding, the book falls into the category of history as political propaganda in support of Eamon de Valera. However, to categorise The Irish Republic under that genre does not detract from Macardle’s belief that de Valera’s political choices had veracity, nor does it prove that she subordinated her own beliefs in unquestioning service to him. That her politics aligned in many areas with those of de Valera does not render them invalid or derivative. Macardle’s political thought at all stages of her life was based on personal conviction and sustained intellectual questioning. Moreover, she was fully able to indicate her political disapproval of certain of de Valera’s policies.

Macardle was one of Ireland’s foremost female polemicists at a time when the Irish State worked to forge its political and cultural identity after 1922. She was considered by her peers – within post-Civil War Sinn Féin and later Fianna Fáil, as well as by the wider Irish political community – to be an intellectually strong, politically persuasive and robust voice. Having published Tragedies of Kerry, a pro-republican account of the Civil War in that county in 1924, she was then tasked by de Valera in 1925 with writing the history of the revolutionary period from his perspective. The result, The Irish Republic, was published to much acclaim, establishing Macardle centrally as one of the key political propagandists of her era. Macardle’s political writings - including her jail journal - suggest that women’s political voices, although very much in a minority in the first half of the 20th century, did exist, most particularly in arenas beyond the narrow sphere of parliamentary politics. The recent interest in her as a novelist, playwright and short story writer indicates that her life was multifaceted and that, in addition to her political propagandist writings and journalism, she also achieved success in the literary world.

An analysis of the development of Macardle’s political thought and feminism allows for a more nuanced understanding of the prominence and importance that Irish women of the era could and did achieve. While she never assumed parliamentary office, Macardle had political power and status as a propagandist. A central figure within the intellectual elite in Ireland in the mid-20th century, she was also part of the republican elect, interacting as an equal with key republican figures: Countess Markievicz, Éamon de Valera, Erskine Childers, Mary MacSwiney, Nora Connolly and Maud Gonne. An examination of her life facilitates a broadening of what constituted female political engagement in the period of her lifetime; political influence could be achieved outside of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Counter-cultural

With due regard to her class background and educational achievements, Macardle’s gender did little to hinder the realisation of her intellectual aims. In this way, a study of her life renders more complex the dominant understanding of Irish women’s lives in the first half of the 20th century. The focus is on the obstacles women faced in the areas of paid employment, career advancement and in achieving a life outside the dominant domestic paradigm. While legislative, religious and cultural obstacles to anything approaching full gender equality in Ireland in the period of Macardle’s life cannot be denied, it is nevertheless important to understand that a small minority of Irish women were able to achieve success and live a meaningful life other than as a constitutionally endorsed wife and mother. Macardle was one of an early cohort of Irish women educated to third level, which is worthy of emphasis. Educated at Alexandra College and University College Dublin, she was part of that first generation of Irish women who were able to make counter-cultural choices and subvert the identification of women and home enshrined in the 1937 Constitution.

Macardle was no exemplar of de Valera’s “ideal woman”. Unlike the self-effacing woman with “no work of her own to do” for which he praised Margaret Pearse while delivering her eulogy in 1932, her literary, historical and journalistic work was the defining facet of her identity. Both Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil viewed women only in domestic terms as wives and mothers. Yet, despite the dominance of the ideology of separate spheres among the political establishment, Macardle was able to forge a highly meaningful life that saw her respected within the public sphere as a political propagandist, journalist and successful writer of fiction. It was that sense of her intellectual independence and confidence, wide reading and a commitment to research - the latter evident in The Irish Republic (1937) - that ensured she would engage and parry with de Valera as an equal throughout her life. These same qualities allowed her to stand in opposition to him at crucial times in politics when she felt it impossible to stay mute.

From 1914, Macardle worked as a teacher in Stratford-upon-Avon. Here she was able to indulge her growing love of the theatre. She was out of Ireland when the 1916 rebellion broke out and up to this point her political focus was the British Empire. Macardle’s early political influences were two-fold, reflecting the different viewpoints of her parents. Dundalk brewery owner Thomas Macardle was a constitutional nationalist who supported the restoration of a domestic Irish parliament with limited powers under a Home Rule solution. Her mother Minnie’s English background ensured that her children celebrated the British army and Empire, although to do so was not necessarily at variance with the political beliefs of their father: a Home Rule government would still see Ireland remain part of the British Empire.

On her return to Ireland in early 1917 to take up a teaching job in Alexandra College, Macardle immersed herself in the theatrical world of Dublin and began writing and staging plays. This was the formative period of her republican self-fashioning as she came in contact with women such as Gonne and Markievicz and joined Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin. Adopting an anti-Treaty stance, Macardle was arrested on November 9th, 1922 and spent six months in various Civil War sites of incarceration. Having made the initial sacrifice of breaking with her family on political grounds after her return from England, Macardle saw jail as a means of fully consolidating and establishing her bona-fide credentials within republicanism. “Please God”, she wrote, “I’ll go out from this prison a better republican than I came in”.

Power of propaganda

The early development of Macardle’s understanding of the power of propaganda can be traced to her work with Erskine Childers who was director of publicity from February 1921. She was involved in the publication and dissemination of An Phoblacht and Irish Freedom. In jail, Macardle observed the power of hunger striking as propaganda, noting in her jail journal on November 27th, 1922 that she intended to send a letter to the newspapers challenging the false reports of the provisional government on the treatment of Mary MacSwiney, then on hunger strike in Mountjoy. When she emerged from prison in early May 1923, her work for Sinn Féin was again in the area of propaganda, harnessing the treatment of women in the Free State jails in an attempt to discredit the Free State government and its officials.

In 1926 Macardle rejected Sinn Féin’s policy of non-recognition of the State and declared her support for Fianna Fáil. While her official involvement with the party was short lived, she would continue to support Fianna Fáil in terms of her vote and with much of her journalistic output. She wrote for the party newspaper, The Nation and its direct successor, The Irish Press. However, Macardle’s support for de Valera was not unconditional. The issue of the taking of the oath of allegiance in 1927 placed her in opposition to his position. Moreover, in the period after the party came to power in 1932, she was increasingly alienated by the Catholic nature of the State. She would also dissent from de Valera when he declared neutrality in 1939. Macardle moved to London for the duration of the war to utilise her propaganda skills in the wider theatre of European war.

The key source of political friction between Macardle and de Valera, however, was the continued introduction of repressive legislation against the equality of women in the State. The publication of The Irish Republic in March 1937 was followed in May of that year by the unveiling of de Valera’s new Constitution that enshrined women’s role in the home as wife and mother.

De Valera disappointed Macardle in not deviating from Cumann na nGaelheal’s gendered treatment of women. Her oppositional stance was contained in the public statements she made via the print media, a vehicle of political protest she had deployed since the period of the War of Independence. She also signed letters as a member of various women’s organisations. The treatment of women under the auspices of Fianna Fáil placed a certain strain on her relationship with de Valera and complicated her commitment to the subversive republican state that he had constructed in the 1930s.

Macardle’s use of the novel as a feminist forum allowed her to subversively assemble and negotiate her viewpoints on the legislative treatment of women by Fianna Fáil in a manner that did not involve continued overt opposition to de Valera. Her fiction was a form of politics by other means. In all four of her novels, The Uninvited (1941), The Seed Was Kind (1944), The Unforeseen (1945) and Dark Enchantment (1953) – she drew sharp attention to the limiting concept of the maternal figure as innately nurturing and self-sacrificing as enshrined in the 1937 Constitution, the founding document of de Valera’s republic. Macardle’s critique of the patriarchal Irish family was based on an argument for greater equality between the spouses and the right of married women to engage in paid employment. The manner in which marriage in Ireland was legally constructed as a tie that bound for life and damaged all individuals within the family, was also a theme in her novels.

Dr Leeann Lane is author of Dorothy Macardle (UCD Press, November 2019). ucdpress.ie

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