Deirdre Foley: No Country for Lone Women

Two women in ancient Irish dress at the 1928 Tailteann Games. Note the lone nun in the background. This photo points to the divide and lack of options that Irish women faced in the decades after Irish Independence was declared.
Two women in ancient Irish dress at the 1928 Tailteann Games. Note the lone nun in the background. This photo points to the divide and lack of options that Irish women faced in the decades after Irish Independence was declared.

We are almost halfway through 2015, which will mark the perfect midway point in a decade of centenaries – both world wars and national uprisings. As due commemorations take place, I can’t help but return to the same thought several times over- that what happened post-independence is what’s most pertinent to the true history of Irish female identity. Women’s citizenship – still debatable in terms of equality – was entirely redefined after independence.

In recent years, historians have begun to debate the extent to which De Valera’s Ireland was truly “a graveyard for women’s rights” –  but it is undeniable that the early period of independence was an era during which strict gender roles were redefined on a narrower basis. After independence, the State had a deliberate part to play in legally defining these roles, leaving a long-reaching influence on Irish society for decades to come.

Our constitution was written in 1937. After the traumatic years of rebellion and civil war, Ireland had reached a curious point of juxtaposition where women were utterly central to romantic, prescribed imagery of Ireland, but had been completely pushed out of full and qualified Irish citizenship by means of careful legal construct.

The 1916 proclamation, once described by noted Irish suffragist (and James Joyce’s adolescent muse) Mary Kettle as “the charter of women’s liberties,” had given equal rights to the sexes; this was followed by the 1922 Free State Constitution, which also guaranteed equal rights and opportunities to all. But things were soon to change. A certain kind of deliberate reduction on this progress was made in the ‘30s; legislation was built with Catholic social teaching in mind, placing the Irish woman firmly in the domestic sphere. By the ‘40s, the Constitution would eventually be dismissed as mere “empty formulae” by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington.

A newly self-conscious type of nationalism was fully formed by the time the 1937 constitution was written. Increasingly, men and women were separate in their roles, despite the fact that they had worked closely together to achieve independence. In the era that followed the Gaelic cultural revival, the bulk of Irish visual identity continued to be built out of femininity. Éire, or Hibernia, was so strongly associated with feminine ethnicity; an example of this prescribed nationalism being the Tailteann Games, which were presented as a revival of an ancient Irish custom. The opening ceremony of the first Games in 1924 took place in Croke Park before an estimated crowd of 20,000, and the ceremony began with the entrance of Queen Tailte, flanked by young men dressed in the costumes of 11th century Gaelic warriors, carrying spears and accompanied by Irish wolfhounds. It was an event of pageant and sentimentality, reflective of the symbolic role assigned to Irish women by the State during these years. 

A photograph from one ceremony shows two women in Celtic dress, embodying the kind of popular national symbolism that had come to be commonplace. In the background stands a lone nun, symbolic perhaps of another option that many Irish women felt compelled to take as a result of increasingly narrowly defined gender roles. The historian Margaret Mac Curtain, herself a nun, has spoken about why women may have made that choice as the years progressed:

The simple truth is that the options here in Ireland for women in the 1940s were very very narrow indeed. And entering religious life, going abroad… this was high adventure…. Marriage was not attractive to them.  They were going to go for a life of adventure…Irish women couldn’t work after marriage.  There was a state marriage bar. And of course the whole expectation of Catholic moral teaching, there was no such thing as contraception for Catholic mothers.  So I suspect that a lot of young women, probably unconsciously, went for consecrated religious life as a life of adventure.”

Marriage was certainly at the core of Irish life, and an increasing emphasis on women’s role in the domestic sphere was apparent well before the 1937 constitution. The 1927 Juries Bill was originally designed to bar all women from sitting on juries. Eventually, pressure from women’s groups led to an ‘opt-in’ amendment; women could still sit on juries, but only if they specifically applied.  In the Irish Senate, the Seanad, Jennie Wyse Power was a vocal opponent to the bill, and described it as “an injustice to what is really a necessary asset to every state, the co-operation of its men and women.”  Despite these protests, the bill passed, and women were still automatically left off the register for jury service until 1976.  This was an explicit case of the State’s prescription of gender roles; certain aspects of Irish citizenship, particularly in public life, were now presented as optional or unnecessary for Irishwomen.

The Catholic social concept of a ‘living wage’, to be earned by the male breadwinner, was central to the thought process behind the introduction of a marriage bar. The 1935 Conditions of Employment Act enabled the government to bar women from certain areas of employment and to impose gender quotas where it saw fit in certain industries.  This only affected a small amount of working women (as female employment was already low) but it was also a major roadblock for the future of generations of Irish women. This was wrapped up nicely two years later in Article 41:

41.2.1° In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

41.2.2° The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

The Constitution was, above all else, about emphasising Ireland’s dedication to Catholic social teaching, and the domestic role of the woman came hand in hand with that; this was narrowly defined, and did not apply to all female citizens as many remained single for life. These women, already denied ordinary citizenship as envisaged in 1916, were effectively pushed further out of place. Marriage rates were low during the 1940s in particular – 24% of women remained unmarried into middle age.  In this sense, the constitution did not provide for all Irish women – if they did not marry and take up a role within the home, were they ‘lesser’ citizens?

Outside of marriage, women’s options were limited to entry into domestic service, entry into religious vocations (which only declined in the 1970s) or emigration. Female emigration was persistently high up until the 1960s, particularly among the 15-24 age group. Those who stayed at home faced a volatile future. The solitude, loneliness and internalised anger felt by unmarried older women in these decades was dissected perfectly by Sebastian Barry in Annie Dunne. Both Annie and Sarah are at times bitter, and always all too aware of their vulnerable position as lone females, just managing to eke out a simple living in 1950s county Wicklow.

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The de Valera family at home, summer 1935. From back L-R: Ruairí, Vivion, Éamon, Brian, Máirín, Sinéad, Dev, Emer and Terry. Source: The Irish Times

Women like Sinéad de Valera were model citizens – though she was a public figure, she never courted the public sphere. Sinéad met Eamon de Valera, a man who would cast one of the longest shadows in Irish history (literally and figuratively) while tutoring Irish with the Gaelic League on Parnell Square. After she and Dev married, she brought up a large family of children and endured some hardship during long periods away from her husband, as well as the tragic death of their son. Brian was killed the year after the above picture was taken, in a riding accident in the Phoenix Park. Sinéad never expressed views on political matters, despite the fact that her brother, Michael O’Flanagan, was a diehard Sinn Féiner who politically split with De Valera in 1926. Sinéad later went on to write children’s stories, and appeared rarely in public, but did regularly attend children’s drama competitions and some Gaelic League functions.

Occupying the polar opposite side of society were those who got ‘into trouble’. The Magdalenes occupy a curious space between the past and present. Google ‘magdalene laundries’ in Ireland and the first answer will be paid-for contextual placement from a solicitor – ‘Magdalene Laundries – Start Your Claim Today’. The laundry building on Seán MacDermott Street in North Dublin stands empty and intimidating. It’s a reminder to me, each time I pass, that the Magdalene chapter of our history remains unfinished – official apologies may have been made, but survivors continue to fight for due compensation and recognition. Both this building and High Park in Drumcondra are due to be redeveloped. It’s possible that in a few years there will be no visual reminder of these prisons, just as there is no great memorial to them anywhere in the capital.

The legacy of those women who were left out of place in today’s Ireland is a very quiet one. At a time when the meaning of marriage continues to evolve, it’s worth reflecting on what such a strict emphasis on this rite of passage meant for previous generations. Those older women, who aren’t our married grannies and grandaunts, had no voice and a smaller legacy than their married counterparts. Some are retired missionaries, some nuns, some are institutionalised. So many have passed away without a trace.

Deirdre Foley is a history grad, a freelance writer and one half of Viva Adonis, one of Ireland’s best-known beauty blogs. She tweets at @DeirdroFoley.

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