Uncontrollable revolutionaries, women and the Irish national struggle – People’s World
Margaret Ward’s groundbreaking 1983 book on revolutionary women in Ireland, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish nationalism, 1880-1980, has been republished in a new, updated, revised and lavishly illustrated edition by Arlen House at the end of 2021. This is a superb introduction to some of the great women in Irish history since Anna Parnell and an excellent detailed biography women’s movement in Ireland. It provides readers with knowledgeable portraits of Anna Parnell, Constance Markiewicz, Maud Gonne, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and others. It gives detailed historical context for the work of the Ladies’ Land League, Inghinidhe na Éireann and Cumann na mBan, and fleshes out, among other things, the significant and later airbrushed participation of women in the Easter Rising.
Ward sheds light on women’s participation in the first and second Dáil and sheds light on their political position within this body. For example, interestingly, the six women of the second Dáil opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty, as did Cumann na mBan. Muriel MacSwiney, Linda Kearns and Kathleen Barry remained on the front line in the Battle of Dublin after all other female fighters were sent home.
Ward points out that only Constance Markiewicz, as Minister of Labour, along with Liam Mellows defended the interests of the working class. Connolly’s words in the Easter Proclamation that an Irish Republic would guarantee “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens” were important to women in struggle and often quoted by them. In this context, it is unfortunate that Connolly and Francis Sheehy Skeffington’s comprehensive understanding of the need for women’s emancipation as an integral part of the liberation movement is not highlighted a bit more in the book.
Ward shows that the Irish women’s movement is aware of international developments, particularly in relation to the USSR. She points out that Constance Markiewicz was (apart from royalty) “the second woman in the world to enter government, after Alexandra Kollontai in the Soviet Union”. She also states: “De Valera was again elected President of the Republic of Ireland and Countess Markievicz was reappointed Minister of Labour, but this time her post did not have cabinet status. She and the labor movement have been effectively demoted. Ward also details the progressive betrayal of women in Irish constitutions, and readers will not be more fond of Éamon de Valera in this respect.
Although the book focuses primarily on the most famous women, Ward has done a magnificent job of picking up the names of lesser-known and even unknown activists, such as Eithne Coyle, for example, or Mary Colum. The author addresses this difficulty in his Introduction,Uncontrollable revolutionaries Revisited”, where she details how the archives, more recently available sources, even the Internet, have opened up new possibilities for research, such as the opening of the archives of the Office of Military History in 2003, access to information relating to requests military pensions (1619 made by women) and for service medals (4612 made by women). These figures alone demonstrate the significant number of women involved in the fight for Irish freedom.
Research on these women has fallen to more recent historians, especially now that labor history is beginning to become an acceptable field of exploration in universities. In this context, it would also be interesting to know if research has been carried out on the involvement of Gaeltacht women in the struggle. These women have been even more marginalized in mainstream history than their English-speaking counterparts.
The left-wing political group Saor Éire, open to both sexes, is taken into account in this book and placed in a class context: “Sighle Humphreys was elected co-treasurer while the other women in the executive were Helena Moloney, Sheila Dowling (who had been in prison during the Civil War and was now a member of Friends of Soviet Russia and an organizer of the Irish Working Women’s Union) and May Laverty of Belfast, an organizer of Cumann na mBan. Ward goes on to quote Humphreys and provide insight into the limitations of Cumann na mBan:
“Before, I felt like a lot of our activities were going nowhere and the first time I felt we could impact everyday people and show them what freedom really meant was when I joined Saor Eire. We were finally doing something worthwhile….’ Cumann na mBan… did not officially endorse the actions of those who joined him. This would have precipitated a disastrous internal crisis as many completely disapproved of this “socialist tendency…”. Speaking at a Sinn Fein meeting in Dublin, Mary MacSwiney forcefully declared her opposition to the organization because it “seeks to divide the Irish people on a class basis”. Old-fashioned nationalists could accept a number of divisions on republican principles, but they viewed with horror the “artificial” division between economic classes.
Of these women’s interest in the emancipation of women in the USSR, Ward writes: “And many women were favorably disposed towards the Soviet Union, which seemed to be the only country in the world where women were not only accorded to full equality, but positively encouraged to take their rightful place in the construction of the new socialist society. In the summer of 1930, Charlotte Despard, Sheila Bowen Dowling and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington toured Russia for six weeks. Helena Moloney had been there the previous year. Kathleen Price of the Union of Irish Nurses was secretary of Friends of Soviet Russia, and she and the other women lectured extensively on aspects of life in the USSR.
A book like Uncontrollable revolutionaries probably can’t do it all, and some questions remain unanswered. Women in the labor movement do not figure in this book which focuses, as its title suggests, on women and nationalism in the narrow sense. This means that Betty Sinclair receives only a very passing comment, Edwina Stewart and Madge Davison, prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, are not mentioned at all. Such omissions are regrettable as this book would have been well placed to elaborate on the fact that nationalism, like indeed the term republican, must surely encompass all anti-colonial and later anti-imperialist liberation efforts on the island of Ireland. , including socialist/communist movements. In fact, a remark by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington to Charlotte Despard, quoted by Ward, would suggest that there is every reason to assume that such a book about northern women is waiting to be written. Ward writes: “It was Sheehy Skeffington who informed Charlotte Despard (whose Workers’ College in Eccles Street had been ransacked and looted by the Blueshirt Fascists) of the possibilities of socialist agitation in the north, which she thought might create a more congenial atmosphere for the communist-feminist than the nationalist ethos of Southern politics.
Another reason for featuring these prominent communists would have been to broaden the image of northern Irish women, which was missing in the first edition, and which the author has attempted to redress in the brand new chapter titled ” Northern Republicans and ‘The Troubles.’ This chapter, as the title suggests, offers insight into the struggle of women within the IRA to assert their right to full equality within the movement and the rise of Sinn Féin since then. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association is not mentioned here.
What emerges from this final new chapter is, however, that much research remains to be done in an attempt to better recover its history for the North of Ireland as well – a history which began no later than Mary-Ann McCracken. , activist and Presbyterian social activist from Belfast. and supporter of the United Irishmen, and who, like the United Irishmen, was an advocate for the emancipation of women and took a lifelong stand against slavery. Naturally, she must be counted as both a Republican and a Nationalist.
Margaret Ward did a lot to reclaim Herstory from the clutches of history, a truly significant achievement. The book has lost none of its interest and is now accessible to a new generation. There is still a lot of research to be done before we can truly say that Our history from the perspective of class, women and men with insight into the need for global emancipation, like Connolly and Francis Sheehy Skeffington, can be written.
Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism, 1880-1980
Arlen House, 2022, 460 p.