From Socialist Voice, November 2010


Republican women in the early years

Ann Matthews, Renegades: Irish Republican Women, 1900–1922, Cork: Mercier Press, 2010; ISBN 978-1-856-35684-8; €17.99.

Ann Matthews sets out to explore the role of the numerous women who were active in both the nationalist and the republican movement in those years. To do this the book traces the fortunes of the various women’s organisations that intervened in the great developments of the period but also to shape the modern Ireland.
     Before 1900, auxiliary “ladies’ committees” not only intervened in cultural and political life but enabled women to circumvent Victorian social mores, in particular the one that deemed it improper for unmarried women to mix freely in the company of men.
     The main political intrusions of women into national affairs prior to 1900 were the Fenian women and the Ladies’ Land League. While these were complementary to the male movements, they helped inspire the first autonomous all-female Inghinidhe na hÉireann in 1900.
     When Sinn Féin was formed, in 1905, women joined in their own right. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. Working-class women were introduced into the social and political scene with the foundation of the Irish Women Workers’ Union by Delia Larkin in 1911. With the arrival of the Irish Volunteers prior to the First World War, Cumann na mBan was formed to operate alongside it.
     The book follows the life of these movements up to the split in Cumann na mBan on the signing of the Treaty. As well as tracing the fortunes of these organisations, Ann Matthews gives pen pictures of the individual women who were deeply involved in them.
     Apart from the Citizen Army and the Women Workers’ Union, the majority of the women involved in the nationalist, suffrage and cultural movements were middle-class. In the early days many of them brought their romanticism and their social prejudices to the nationalist movement, like the wearing of designer Celtic kilts and jewellery. The book quotes a fisherwoman on seeing some of them going to a Gaelic League function so attired as “Will yez look at the Irishers trying to look like stained glass windows. What is the country coming to at all? Them Irishers are going daft.”
     But these women were breaking the taboos of Victorian mores, whereby, regardless of marital status, both sexes mixed freely and defied the concept that a woman’s place was in the home.
     As Ann Matthews points out, there were societal reasons for the emerging vocal female voices that had to do with the spread of secondary, vocational and technical education, including those from less well-off backgrounds. Her analysis of the categories of female occupations from the 1911 census shows that, because of openings for employment prospects in administration and secretarial work, for example, these enhanced educational avenues were opened up.
     Throughout the book the examination of the social considerations on individuals and events is a valuable part of the narrative. Much use is made of statistical information as primary sources.
     More controversial is the stated aim of questioning the role in the current iconography of the two dominant women in Irish nationalism, Maud Gonne MacBride and the Countess Markievicz. On Maud Gonne there is a debunking of her own autobiography, Servant of the Queen. She appeared to be influenced by a dubious French politician, Lucien Millevoye, to be her country’s Joan of Arc.
     The book states: “So despite having spent no more than two years of her young adult life in Ireland, within the confines of the British garrison and consequently ignorant of life and politics in Ireland, she devised a plan to launch herself on the Irish peasantry as a self-proclaimed Joan of Arc.”
     In similar fashion the book expresses serious misgivings about the Countess’s role in this period, which contradict many of the heroics associated with her name.
     There is no doubt that the famous two, and others, brought their romanticism and some of their social conservatism into the national movement, as indeed did their male counterparts. But these were marginal compared with the thinking and attitudes of Cosgrave, Collins, MacNeill and Mulcahy when they unleashed the Free State counter-revolution.

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