Irish women’s stories finally told in all their glory

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Whatever you call it, we now have the opportunity to honor women in all their glory with the initiation of a new festival to mark Saint Brigid’s Day. February 1 may not be a public holiday until 2023, but Dublin Mayor Cllr Alison Gilliland has already kicked off the celebrations.

Brigit 22 begins on Tuesday with a series of free events designed to remember the contributions and achievements of Irish women through the ages. For now, it is confined to Dublin, but the mayor hopes the festival will be celebrated as widely as Culture Night for years to come.

“Whilst acknowledging St Brigid, my inspiration is drawn very much from our Celtic heritage – the fierce but protective and creative goddess Brigit and the Gaelic festival of Imbolc,” she said.

She hopes Brigit 22 will provide spaces and opportunities to recognize women and showcase the rich fabric of life they have woven across all walks of our society.

In a way, it’s the perfect time because the stories of women’s lives have never been more important. Books written by or about women are on the rise. There’s also a particularly enjoyable tendency to tell old stories through female eyes.

The estate of George Orwell approved a 1984 account through the eyes of Julia, Winston Smith’s lover. The novel by American writer Sandra Newman is due out next year. It will join a series of retellings of the classics from a woman’s perspective. The Women of Troy, Pat Baker’s sequel to Silence of the Girls (both published by Hamish Hamilton), focuses on women caught in the aftermath of the brutal Trojan War. Its beautiful, lyrical prose offers a welcome counterpoint to the chilling descriptions of the reality of war.

At one point, she describes the braying and laughter among a gathered group of fighters: “In the center of this melee was a girl. Blindfolded. They spun her around the circle, each man sending her crashing into the arms of the next. She did not scream or call for help; she probably knew now that no one would come.

But women are not always the victims. Closer to home, Karina Tynan takes a nuanced look at mythical women in The Táin: The Women’s Stories (Bard Mythologies), her retelling of the Irish epic. She doesn’t flinch as she revisits Queen Medb, the intoxicating and intriguing manipulator, and portrays her, her flaws and all.

Writer Evelyn Conlon addresses a similar theme in Look, It’s a Woman Writer! (Arlen House). She allows her fictional wives to think in twisted lines, she says. And being equal, “meaning also being able to be obnoxious, human enough to be evil rather than a cliché. I’m a big for Lady Macbeths. I’d rather be horrible than be a cutout cardboard-based.

This collection of essays also includes a contribution from Phyl Herbert who writes movingly about her own experience of giving birth in a mother and baby home in the 1960s. When she left the institution six weeks after the birth of her daughter, she spent the next few years trying to reinvent herself. “I had a secret that I couldn’t share with anyone. I constantly thought of my lost beautiful daughter and looked for traces of her on the face of every child I saw,” she wrote.

To celebrate Brigid's Day, the Herstory Light Show will illuminate iconic landmarks across Ireland this Sunday 31st January and Monday 1st February in honor of Mother & Baby Home victims;  pandemic heroines and heroes, Black Lives Matter, and more.
To celebrate Brigid’s Day, the Herstory Light Show will illuminate iconic landmarks across Ireland this Sunday 31st January and Monday 1st February in honor of the victims of Mother & Baby Homes; pandemic heroines and heroes, Black Lives Matter, and more.

Another aspect of the legacy of that hard and heartless past was brought to light late last year in Ireland and Magdalen Laundries, an excellent account of the campaign for justice for the 10,000 girls and women imprisoned in these laundries between 1922 and 1996.

It’s a tough but also inspiring read as the authors, Claire McGettrick, Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke, James M Smith and Mari Steed, describe the anatomy of a campaign that delivered real results, albeit ‘incomplete.

“Among the most positive lessons we have learned is that Irish civil society has a cohesive thirst for justice and will hold leaders to account, given the opportunity,” they write.

It’s time to see that inglorious past put evocatively on the page. It is also time to see the achievements and successes of women in print. There has been no shortage of publications in recent months commemorating and honoring the women who shaped Ireland – and ‘the voices that shook the system’.

This is the subtitle of Sonja Tiernan’s book, Irish Women’s Speeches (UCD Press), which highlights women, past and present, who have spoken when it wasn’t always easy to do. It opens with Anna Parnell. As a leader of the Ladies’ Land League, she spoke at outdoor meetings across Ireland in the early 1880s, inspiring women to directly challenge the landlord-tenant system.

Her words are uncompromising and vivid as she describes how “red coats, green coats, foot soldiers and horsemen” terrified and frightened people before smashing furniture.

Anna Parnell is also the starting point for historian Dr Margaret Ward’s recent book, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism, 1880-1980. If you are looking for women to commemorate or celebrate, here you will find a meticulous survey of those who played a role in the Irish Revolution.

The book’s introduction also tells why so many of these women have been hidden away or overlooked until now. When this book first came out in 1983, there was little source material. As the author puts it: “It was a time of microfilm, index cards, manual typewriters and painstaking research in newspapers.

Yet she managed to unearth the untold stories of women from the crevices of the past. The updated edition includes many rare photos, including a fascinating image of Countess Markievicz playing Joan of Arc and a solemn study of the Cumann na mBan women providing a guard of honor at Cathal Brugha’s funeral wake. While the writing of women’s history is not new, it is relatively recent. When pioneering historian Margaret MacCurtain (aka Sr Ben for UCD students) wrote Women in Irish Society in 1978, she broke new ground. It also sold over 10,000 copies, proving that there was widespread interest in the other side of the story, so to speak.

Later, the Cork-born Dominican and feminist sister said, “My determination to write women into mainstream history, though resisted for years, has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

Progress is certainly evident in the number of new books on the market, but there are still obstacles. As historian and author Margaret Ward observes, “I think books written by men are commented on more and more men than women are asked to do so. I think there is a lot of research to back this up. All of this makes it harder to recognize women who write specifically about women’s topics.

Arlen House editor Alan Hayes says the recent proliferation of women’s books is a positive sign, but it will mean little without real systemic change.

The upside, however, is that there is no shortage of stories from women’s lives, some of them in their own words. On Dangerous Ground (edited by Hilary Dully and published by Lilliput Press) is a memoir of the Irish Revolution by Máire Comerford. When she came through gunfire in Sackville Street (O’Connell St in Dublin) to deliver a dispatch, a cinema operator told the Daily Mail: ‘This girl has ruined my picture. I risked my life for nothing because no one will believe serious fights are going on if a girl crosses the line.

The “daughter” – then 30 years old – remembers in her memoirs that the frame of the bike had several bullet holes when she used it, but that did not seem to weaken her. As for the cinema operator, she writes:

I’d like to think his ‘ruined’ shot still rests in a forgotten chest of discarded holds!

There are also a wealth of books about the women who shaped Irish cultural life. Two volumes of The Golden Thread edited by David Clare, Fiona McDonagh and Justine Nakase (Liverpool University Press) reference the golden thread referenced in Lady Gregory’s Grania and trace it through the often unseen history of women’s writing. These impressive volumes cover three centuries, from 1716 to 2016.

In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary to focus on women playwrights but, as the editors say, the gaping holes in the historical record must be filled before equality in the theater world is established. By contrast, Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Cronin, Cork’s ‘Traditional Queen of Song’, is well known, although new material is included in a recent collection republished by Four Courts Press.

Sarah Cecilia Harrison self-portrait 1889, who worked with Hugh Lane to create a gallery of modern art.
Sarah Cecilia Harrison self-portrait 1889, who worked with Hugh Lane to create a gallery of modern art.

In a few weeks, this publisher will bring us Sarah Cecilia Harrison: Artist, Social Campaigner and City Councilor (edited by Margarita Cappock), a long-awaited study of a woman who worked with Hugh Lane to establish a modern art gallery. Sarah (1863-1941) was also one of Dublin’s finest portrait painters and the first woman elected to Dublin City Council (1912).

There are so many more – a veritable “mnásome”, one might say – and thankfully their stories are finally being told.

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