We now have an opportunity to celebrate women in all their glory on a new Irish public holiday, to be held next year on St Brigid’s Day. Pic: Modern Éire
What is the collective noun for a group of amazing women? A mnásome, anyone?
Whatever you call it, we now have an opportunity to honour women in all their glory thanks to the initiation of a new festival to mark St Brigid’s Day. The first of February might not be a public holiday until 2023, but Dublin Lord Mayor Cllr Alison Gilliland has already kicked off celebrations.
Brigit 22 begins on Tuesday with a series of free events designed to recall 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 in the years ahead.
“While acknowledging St Brigid, my inspiration is very much drawn from our Celtic heritage – the fierce yet protective and creative goddess Brigit and the Gaelic festival of Imbolc,” she said.
She hopes that Brigit 22 will provide spaces and opportunities to acknowledge women and highlight the rich tapestry of life that they have woven in all walks of life in our society.
In a sense, it is perfect timing because accounts of the lives of women have never been more to the fore. Books by, or about, women are having something of a moment. There is also a particularly pleasing trend of retelling old stories through female eyes.
The George Orwell estate has approved a retelling of 1984 through Julia’s eyes, Winston Smith’s lover. American writer Sandra Newman’s novel 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 the women caught up in the aftermath of the brutal Trojan war. Her beautiful, lyrical prose provides a welcome counterpoint to the chilling descriptions of the reality of war.
At one point, she describes the braying and laughter among a group of gathered fighters: “At the centre of this scrum was a girl. Blindfolded. They were spinning her around the circle, each man sending her careering off into the arms of the next. She didn’t scream or cry for help; probably she knew by now that nobody 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 does not flinch in revisiting Queen Medb, the intoxicating, scheming manipulator, and depicts her, flaws and all.
Writer Evelyn Conlon tackles a similar theme in Look, It’s a Woman Writer! (Arlen House). She allows her fictional women to think in crooked lines, she says. And to be equal, “meaning to be equally capable of being obnoxious, human enough to be bad rather than a cliché. I’m a great one for the Lady Macbeths. I’d prefer to be horrible than to be a cardboard cutout.”
That 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 her daughter was born, she spent the next few years trying to reinvent herself. “I had a secret that I couldn’t share with anybody. I thought about my beautiful lost daughter constantly and looked for traces of her in every child’s face I saw,” she writes.
Another aspect of the legacy of that harsh, heartless past was illuminated late last year in Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries, an excellent account of the campaign for justice for the 10,000 girls and women imprisoned in those laundries between 1922 and 1996.
It is a hard read but also an inspiring one as the authors, Claire McGettrick, Katherine O’Donnell, Maeve O’Rourke, James M Smith and Mari Steed, outline the anatomy of a campaign that brought real, if incomplete, results.
“Among the more positive lessons we learnt is that Irish civil society has a cohesive thirst for justice and will hold leaders to account, if given an opportunity,” they write.
It is time to see that inglorious past put evocatively on the page. It is also time to see the achievements and successes of women put into print. In recent months, there has been no shortage of publications commemorating and honouring the women who shaped Ireland — and “the voices that rocked the system”.
That is the sub-title of Sonja Tiernan’s book, Irish Women’s Speeches (UCD Press), which shines a light on women, past and present, who spoke out when it was not always easy to do so. It opens with Anna Parnell. As leader of the Ladies’ Land League, she spoke at open-air meetings all around Ireland in the early 1880s, inspiring women to directly challenge the landlord-tenant system.
Her words are uncompromising and vivid as she describes how the “red coats, green coats, foot soldiers, and horse soldiers” terrified and scared people out of their wits before smashing the furniture.
Anna Parnell is also the starting point of 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, you’ll find a meticulous study of those who played a role in the Irish revolution here.
The introduction to the book also tells the story of why so many of those women have been hidden 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 laborious newspaper searching.”
Yet, she succeeded in excavating the untold stories of women from the crevices of the past. The updated edition includes many rare photos, including a fascinating picture of Countess Markievicz playing Joan of Arc and a solemn study of Cumann na mBan women providing a guard of honour at Cathal Brugha’s wake. While the writing of women’s history is not new, it is relatively recent. When pioneering historian Margaret MacCurtain (aka Sr Ben to UCD students) wrote Women in Irish Society in 1978, it 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 sister and feminist said: “My determination to write women into mainstream history, though resisted for years, has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”
The 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 do think that books by men are reviewed more and that more men than women are asked to review. I think that there is plenty of research to corroborate this. All of this makes it more difficult for women who write specifically on women’s subjects to be recognised.”
Publisher at Arlen House Alan Hayes says the recent proliferation of books about women is a positive sign, but it will mean little without real systemic change.
The upside, though, is that there is no shortage of accounts of the lives of women, 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 from Máire Comerford. When she cycled through gunfire down Sackville Street (O’Connell St in Dublin) to deliver a dispatch, a cinematograph operator told the Daily Mail: “That girl has ruined my picture. I’ve risked my life for nothing for no one will believe that serious fighting is taking place if a girl cycles through the thick of it.”
The ‘girl’ — then 30 – recalls in her memoir that the bicycle frame had several bullet holes in it when she rode it, but that didn’t appear to weaken it. As for the cinematograph operator, she wrote:
There is a raft of books about the women who shaped Ireland’s cultural life too. Two volumes of The Golden Thread edited by David Clare, Fiona McDonagh and Justine Nakase (Liverpool University Press) refer to the golden thread referenced in Lady Gregory’s Grania, and trace it through the often invisible history of women’s writing. These impressive volumes cover three centuries, from 1716 to 2016.
In a perfect world, there would be no need to focus on women playwrights but, as the editors say, the gaping holes in the historical record must be filled before equality in the theatre world is established. By contrast, Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Cronin, the Cork ‘Queen of traditional song’, is well-known, though new material is included in a recent collection republished by Four Courts Press.
In a few weeks, that publisher will bring us Sarah Cecilia Harrison: Artist, Social Campaigner and City Councillor (edited by Margarita Cappock), a long overdue study of a woman who worked with Hugh Lane to set up a gallery of modern art. 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’, you might say — and happily, their stories are being told at last.
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