The women who shaped Ireland

Martina Devlin salutes the trailblazing women who drove change in Ireland

Martina Devlin. Photograph: Moya Nolan

Martina Devlin. Photograph: Moya Nolan


“No coward soul is mine/No trembler…” Emily Brontë’s words could be tailor-made for the trailblazing women who drove change in Ireland more than a century ago. Their courage and determination are the reason women today have the vote, access to education and the professions.

We owe this social progress, long withheld, to women such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, a suffragette who was jailed and continued her protest on hunger strike; Countess Markievicz who believed in national determination and labour rights; and Anna Parnell who ran the first women’s political organisation.

But the problems they faced haven’t gone away. The workplace isn’t fair. Political power isn’t shared. That’s why I wrote a collection of short stories called Truth & Dare about some of these women. By translating their lives into fiction I hoped to humanise them.

And I wanted to reclaim them – because they were pushed to the shadows, submerged, reduced to two-dimensional figures. I wanted us to learn from them – because they were true to themselves, their comrades and their cause.

Could there have been a more vibrant period in Irish history than the early 1900s? Three powerful movements, sometimes overlapping, sprang into life: nationalism, labour rights and feminism, specifically the battle for women to win the vote.

Underpinning them was the cultural revival, and many of the participants in those three causes were also poets, playwrights, novelists, actors, theatre producers and campaigning journalists. Women played an important role – when they organised and took direct action, they were a force to be reckoned with.

They operated at a time when the notion of female autonomy was ridiculed by the majority of people, other women included. Why should a woman even care about earning her living when a husband, father or brother had a duty to look after her? Many people were mystified by the notion that self-respect and self-determination might be factors. Political parties saw women’s suffrage as a divisive issue and none would adopt the cause. In an Irish context, many focused solely on home rule.

But a century ago, in December 1918, some women finally won the vote: those over 30 who fulfilled property qualifications or had a university degree. It was a start – they looked to be unstoppable. But after the formation of the Irish Free State, women were all but excluded from political decision-making. Systematically, women were pushed out of the public sphere and into the home.

One of the women I write about in the collection is Countess Markievicz, born Constance Gore-Booth of Lissadell House in Sligo, the first woman elected to Westminster in 1918. As a Sinn Féin politician she refused to take her seat and participated instead in the first Dáil Éireann. She was named minister for labour – only the world’s second woman to hold ministerial office (Soviet Russia had the first).

She may have been gentry but the plain people of Ireland loved “Madame” as she was known. How do we know? From the size of her funeral and because among the wreaths was a nest containing some eggs. A countrywoman had promised them to her as she lay dying in hospital and wanted her to have them anyway.

It was to be another 60 years before another woman was appointed to an Irish Cabinet, when Máire Geoghegan-Quinn followed in Madame’s footsteps in 1979. Consider: there were five women TDs in the 1923 Dáil – and that would be the high point until 1977 when six were elected. Today some 22 per cent of TDs are women, following the introduction of quotas to incentivise political parties to select female contenders for seats.

Post-independence Ireland was a cold house for women. Exempted from jury service, which meant they were rarely selected; subjected to the marriage bar; disproportionately affected by divorce and contraception being banned; unable to earn the same pay for the same work as men until Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 and Europe insisted on equal pay laws.

Where had all the revolutionary women gone? In fact, women such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington didn’t take this rollback of the 1916 Proclamation lying down. She warned they “would be relegated to permanent inferiority” and lobbied hard against the clause in the Constitution which contained women in the home. While a campaign to delete it is under way, it’s unfortunate that in this suffrage centenary it remains in place.

Hanna was co-founder, with Margaret Cousins, of the Irish Women’s Franchise League which embraced militancy in their push for the vote. For them, the vote was the cornerstone of democracy and a vital part of citizenship.

Opposition to suffragettes’ activities ranged from mockery to violence, while often they met with family disapproval in addition to the might of the law ranged against them. But they persevered. They supported one another. They found ways to circumvent obstacles.

Campaigners such as Hanna were inspired by the women who preceded them – Anna Parnell, for example, who ran the Ladies’ Land League in 1880-2. Anna was a practical patriot, active on behalf of evicted tenant farmers during the Land War. Her organisation used funds raised in the US to build shelters for homeless families, feed Land League prisoners and support their families. She devised tactics to subvert unjust laws and occupied a highly visible role at a time when women were expected to restrict themselves to the domestic space.

When her brother Charles Stewart Parnell struck a political deal to pull back on land agitation, the two quarrelled, and he used underhand tactics to try and control the ladies’ organisation - withholding its funds so that large debts mounted. Anna refused to have the Ladies’ Land League dictated to and it was disbanded

She drowned in Ilfracombe in Devon in 1911. Her contribution was finally recognised last month (September) at an event organised there by campaigner Lucy Keaveney, with the Irish ambassador to Britain Adrian O’Neill paying tribute to Anna on behalf of the Irish people at her graveside.

The Ladies’ Land League acted as a forerunner to influential groups such as Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan. Maud Gonne, who struggled throughout her life for prisoners’ rights, knew of Anna and admired her, as did Hanna.

Those are some of the women who dared to imagine a world in which a woman and a man were equal, with the same chance to shape their own destinies. To forget them is to distort our history.

Truth & Dare: Short Stories About Women Who Shaped Ireland by Martina Devlin is published by Poolbeg

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