Irish women who rocked the system

To mark the centenary of women’s suffrage, a new book for teenagers profiles 20 Irish women who deserve to be celebrated

It is pretty well impossible for young people in today’s Ireland to imagine an Ireland in which women were not entitled to vote. It’s equally unimaginable that women were debarred from universities and excluded from professions and were subjected to centuries of misogyny so ingrained it was hardly recognised, much less named. Changes in women’s lives, opportunities and status have been hard won, and it seemed to us in Little Island that the achievements of remarkable Irish women needed to be celebrated – particularly in this centenary year of women’s suffrage.

Our first thought in Little Island, as the centenary year approached, was to commission a novel for young teenagers from our award-winning author, Sheena Wilkinson. As we knew she would, Sheena wrote a powerful novel for us, Star by Star, which is set in the North of Ireland as the Great War is coming to an end and women are going to the polls for the first time.

Suffrage was a central achievement of the early part of the last century, but it went hand-in-glove with other, inexorable changes in how women live their lives. We had a growing conviction that women’s achievements in all kinds of areas – as artists, activists and adventurers, poets and writers, medics and sportswomen – also needed to be celebrated. As we thought and talked about it, the names of really fearless and amazing Irish women came tumbling to mind: Paula Meehan, Queen Medhbh, Anna Parnell, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Dervla Murphy, Garry Hynes …

The trouble was not finding amazing women’s achievements to celebrate; the trouble was keeping within the practical limits involved in publishing a book. We decided on 20 essays – which meant only 20 fantastic women could be featured in the book. Tricky!


Collaborative project

As our first nonfiction title, this book gave us an opportunity to invent a new way of working. We decided to make it a collaborative project . So we gathered an enthusiastic team of people with various interests – librarians, teachers, historians, writers. We invited Celia Keenan to chair this motley research crew. Celia used to run the master’s in children’s literature in St Patrick’s College Drumcondra (now part of DCU), and she is passionately interested in Irish history.

Meetings of the research group were lively, with everyone clamouring for their favourite fearless and amazing Irish woman to be included, and of course those who couldn’t make particular meetings were invariably vociferously opposed to decisions made in their absence!

We had various criteria for inclusion, above and beyond choosing women who had done amazing things in the face of daunting opposition or oppressive situations. We wanted a spread across time – not all that easy, as women’s place in society was so very curtailed in the past. We wanted to represent women whose first language was Irish alongside the majority English-speakers, and we did. We also wanted a social mix – not easy either, given the very limited opportunities poorer women have had to come to the fore in public life, especially in the past. We noted a distinct broadening of the social mix, however, as the book approaches more recent times.

A difficult decision was not to include younger women, because we wanted to be able to cover each woman’s whole career, as far as possible, and celebrate her main achievements, so the book ends around the close of the last century. But the list for inclusion in any follow-up volume is steadily lengthening.

Mary Robinson was always going to be a central figure in this book, considering she is such a touchstone for female achievement and such an iconic figure in Irish social history. And as soon as we started to think about Mary Robinson, the title, Rocking the System, just appeared among us as if by magic. She is of course herself the chief system-rocker among mná na hÉireann in recent times and really, we thought, how else could we describe what all these powerful and passionate women down the centuries were doing?

As the research material started to come in, I found myself offering to gather the drafts and write up the material in child-friendly style for the book. My voice is no doubt to be heard across the chapters, but I know that this book belongs to all the “rockers” who collaborated on this energising and satisfying project. Little Island is immensely grateful to all our collaborators for their time, their expertise and their passion. By chance, we were invited to Áras an Uachtaráin, to celebrate Children’s Books Ireland and the Writers-in-Schools programme, and I found myself describing the rocking project to Sabina Higgins – who very gamely agreed to be a rocker too.

Meanwhile, our artistic director, Gráinne Clear, who had a strong vision for how this book should look, set about sourcing an artist to create the illustrations, based mainly on photographs. She tracked down Bren Luke, and we are delighted with his handsome artwork, complemented by the excellent book design of Fidelma Slattery of Someday Design.

Rocking the System is being launched – by Senator Ivana Bacik – into a very different Ireland. Different from the old, historic Ireland, different from the struggling, rebellious Ireland of a hundred years ago, and – more surprising, perhaps – different even from the Ireland we knew at the turn of the millennium. Rocking the System goes out there to greet its young readers at a time when women internationally are standing up and saying, No, we won't be treated like that any more! We've got the vote and our civil rights and we are working on equality of opportunity and equal pay – but we also want respect, bodily integrity and the right to be ourselves and not to be bullied either by powerful men or by the system itself.

Young women of Ireland, rock on!
Rocking the System is published by Little Island