Putting women in their proper place – at the heart of Irish history

Ireland from 1810-1930 was not renowned as a hotbed of feminism but, when the literature of the period is examined, the feminisms were various and the feminists were legion

Over the centuries, the ruling house of the principality of Monaco has been home to several remarkable and very talented and determined women, from Louise Hippolyte onwards – she was the only sovereign princess to reign there and that was in the early 18th century. Today, October 6th, an audience at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco will be introduced to some significant Irish women from the period between the beginning of the nineteenth century and 1930. That was a time when many people would not see any evidence of feminisms or feminists, nor would they have attached much importance to either. Yet, when the evidence is examined, the feminisms were various and the feminists were legion. In a short lecture, it would seem difficult to cover such a long timeframe comprehensively but with the aid of examples from prose and poetry, cartoons and portraits, newspaper reports and letters, an overview will document an impressive and oft-hidden history of beliefs, attitudes and actions in Ireland. The lecture will provide a unique insight into a multiplicity of Irish feminisms, and vividly recreate the literary and historical climate in which they were written.

In fact, the magnitude of contributions that can be called feminist is considerable. I recently published a selection of such documents (Irish Feminisms 1810-1930, Vols 1-5, Routledge 2010). Initially surprised that I could compile, edit and fill five volumes of about 500 pages each, I subsequently discovered that it would have been quite easy to double the number. Research uncovered a diversity of viewpoints and positions, all expressed in different ways by people who were relatively unknown as well as by the more famous, such as Lady Gregory, Lady Wilde, and the Parnell sisters.

In common with the history of feminisms in other countries, the Irish experience displays conflicting interpretations of the female role in society. Moreover, the situation in Ireland was overlain by Victorian values and significantly complicated by the backdrop of national uprisings, land war, world war, and by the growing hegemony of a strongly religious patriarchy. All the disparities of interests are apparent as writers and artists either confront, or covertly negotiate, the burning issues of education, personal freedom, suffrage, political action, and even participation in charitable work.

Some key articulations of Irish feminist beliefs emerge not just in lengthy reflection but also in short poems and in newspaper snippets where frustration with societal norms can hop off the page. Could such feeling be more clearly expressed that it was in an anonymous verse entitled Of Female Complaint and published in a local Cork newspaper in 1814?


Custom, alas! does partial prove, nor give us even measure,

A pain it is for maids to love, but ‘tis to men a pleasure.

They freely can their thoughts disclose, but ours must burn within;

We have got eyes and tongues in vain, And truth from us is sin.

Men to new joys and conquests fly, and yet no hazards run,

Poor we are left if we deny, And if we yield, undone;

Then equal laws let custom find, Nor thus the sex oppress,

More freedom grant to womankind, Or give to mankind less.

That verse may be amusing in tone but it sets out some of the discrimination experienced by women. The problems and solutions addressed in those lines would continue to be re-stated in various ways for at least the best part of the next hundred years. Interestingly, the spirit of the verse is reflective of what I would put forward as a definition that clarifies how feminism of the era can be understood. It was the desire, both on the part of men and women, for greater personal and civic freedoms for women, an aspiration underpinned by the intention that such liberty and parity must be recognised and accorded as of moral and legal right, and definitely not by grace and favour of the well-disposed or of a patriarchy or hegemony.

In pursuit of greater freedom, the means and tactics employed even by the same person could vary substantially. Lady Morgan subtly promoted the worth and entitlement of women in her many successful novels, notably in The Wild Irish Girl: a National Tale and in Woman: Ida of Athens, both published in the first decade of the nineteenth century. She later confronted the theme in a much more academic fashion in her serious, lengthy history, Woman and Her Master (1840).

Constance Markievicz offered gardening advice with a difference, designed visual imagery, and delivered powerful speeches, all of which were totally based on the right of female agency. Fixed notions of gender and gender-related issues were challenged novelistically by Katherine Thurston's Max (1910) and poetically by James Stephens in The Red-haired Man's Wife (1909). A fin-de-siècle/Irish literary revival tendency to romanticise the west of Ireland, and the Aran Islands in particular, was severely tested by Emily Lawless's novel Grania (1892), as it was by Padraic Ó Conaire in Nóra Mharuis Bhig & Scéalta Eile (1909).

Along the way, there was much else to ponder: there was soulful poetry that asserted both the right of women to publish, and the entitlement to arrogate a particular sphere of authority to themselves, particularly on moral themes and in caring; there was a thundering response to a sexist archbishop; there was detailed and persuasive argument on the economic and social benefit of educating women and of their full participation in those spheres; there was co-operation between unionist and nationalist. In addition, the prejudice of judges and the flaws of the legal system were highlighted and the consequences for all were spelt out. On several occasions, a close identification with war and war-mongering was linked to strong anti-feminism. As the mention of James Stephens and Pádraic Ó Conaire implies, there were many men who were vocally and actively feminist: the names of Thomas Haslam and Francis Sheehy Skeffington would stand out but they were far from alone.

The lecture in Monaco will be a selective and rapid run-through more than a hundred years. It will feature the bitterness and the co-operation, the fun and the misery, the toil and the legacy. It will entertain and, in so doing, it will make a case for the proper reinstatement of people, events and writings into the record, into history texts and literary canons. After all, any history is seriously deficient without account and proper evaluation of the contributions made by at least half of any population – and that has been the sad fact of most history texts to date.

Dr Mary Pierse is a former IRCHSS post-doctoral research fellow, and later a research fellow at UCC. She has taught feminist theory on the MA programme in women's studies, as well as courses on Victorian and fin-de-siècle literature at the School of English, UCC. In addition to Irish Feminisms, she has published on the writings of George Moore, Kate Chopin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Antonio Fogazzaro, Dennis O'Driscoll and Cathal Ó Searcaigh. She is a board member at the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies.