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Rewriting Irish Women into Our History

18/12/18
Reading Time: 6 minutes

#vote100 on 14th December marked the centenary of the vote for women over 30 years of age in Ireland. As an Irish woman on 13th December 1918, you had no voice as a citizen (of the United Kingdom) and no say over decisions that were made on your behalf or indeed, 50% of the population. So, this was a earth-imploding landmark for women. 100 years later and 35 out of 158 (22%) TDs in our parliament, Dáil Éireann, are women and we have 18 (30%) women Senators. Ireland ranks 81st in the world classification table for women’s representation in parliament just behind the United Arab Emirates. Hmmmm have we come far enough? I wonder if our infamous sister Constance Markievicz, politician, nationalist, socialist and suffragette… would approve?

Photo: A poster outside Connolly train station, Dublin of Constance Markievicz to celebrate the centenary of the right to vote for Irish women. It reads: “Keep straight and do not shirk the fight” in English and as Gaeilge

Pondering our political progress, my train of thought puffed back to a recent quiz in work on International Women’s Day. The image below on the far right was displayed in our canteen with the question, What’s Missing? 

The photos on the left and middle capture Padraig Pearse and Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell surrendering to British soldiers at the end of the Easter Rising. Although Elizabeth is obscured you can see her feet. In the final image that’s what’s missing – her feet. She is eventually airbrushed out and her contribution erased from history. 

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Manipulating the representation of women in Irish history did not begin with the Easter Rising. Our notorious mythological figure, Queen Medb, “Warrior Queen of Connacht”, is often depicted as a fierce pre-Christian Goddess. Or, as an example of how the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century resulted in the vilification of powerful Celtic female heroines in an attempt to silence Early Irish women. This sparks an important question: How has the misrepresentation of women in Irish history contributed to our poor representation in parliament since 1919

Image: Queen Medb by J.C. 
Leyendecker 

We’ve missed the opportunity to grow up with SO many role-models but alas, all is not shamefully lost. There are a number of exciting initiatives profiling Irish women in history that will fire up your belly and inspire your mind. So as we head towards Christmas break and celebrate Nollaig na mBan on 6th January, grab yourself a cuppa and learn about the extraordinary lives of your Irish sisters… 

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Vote 100 – The Irish Times

Vote 100 curates Irish women’s reflections on the centenary through a diverse portfolio of engaging content. You can read Eavan Boland‘s rousing poem, ‘Our future will become the past of other women’ or watch her recite it at the UN headquarters in New York. Here’s a taster:

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All those who called for it,

The vote for women.

All those who had the faith

That voices can be raised. Can be heard.

All those who saw their hopes

Become the law. All those who woke

In a new state flowering

From an old nation and found

Justice no longer blind.

Inequity set aside.

And freedom re-defined.

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Or delve into this illuminating comic, ‘Constance Markievicz: The Rebel Countess’ by Dearbhla Kelly.

There’s also a timeline illustrating the long road to how women won the right to vote in 1918 along with this article from Senator Ivana Bacik on the Votáil 100 programme and the road ahead – we need more women in Irish politics. 

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Herstory

Herstory is a cultural movement to share the life stories of historical, mythological and contemporary Irish women. 

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In contrast to the handful of women we learn about in Irish schools, Herstory discovered that there are over one thousand remarkable women featured in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. Countless names are missing. The amnesia of women’s stories is not just an Irish problem – this is a global phenomenon.


It’s time to rewrite history and the future
History censored women’s stories in the past. Today, popular culture dictates the stories deemed ‘worthy’ of our attention, diluting women’s representation and leaving countless authentic role models in the shadows.

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It is a literal inspiration goldmine. From Beatrice Hill-Lowe Ireland’s First Female Olympian to Kay McNulty, our first computer programmer to Madame Dragonfly, explorer and entomologist (someone who studies insects), you could while away the hours in captivation by these awesome ladies. Here’s an excerpt from one story I was enthralled by about surgeon Dr. James Barry who was in fact born Margaret Bulkley…

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When Bulkley was 18 or 20, it appears some kind of audacious plan was made to enter her into medical school in Scotland. Women were not permitted to do study medicine, but it was not as a young woman that Bulkley arrived into Edinburgh University; it was under the disguise of a man, named James Barry. If you are not looking for something, you won’t necessarily see it, and it appears nobody realised Barry was actually a woman.


In an era when amputation was done with saws without anaesthetic, during which time patients had to be physically restrained, Barry successfully qualified as a doctor. Women, it was evident, could do those things as well as men, but alas, if this had been revealed at the time, Bulkley, now living as Barry, would not have been allowed to continue in the profession. After graduation, Barry then went to London and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons.

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Riveting stuff! It was only after Barry died of dysentery that it was discovered he was a woman, causing scandal throughout the British Empire. 

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Women’s Museum of Ireland 

Photo: Neillí Mulcahy in The Irish Independent, 13th May 2012

The Women’s Museum of Ireland was founded in 2012 as a virtual museum to promote the formal recognition of the role of Irish women in history and our contribution abroad. Although it has no psychical location, the museum hosts temporary pop-up exhibitions and events, details are posted on the site. The exhibit is designed around themes like activism, adventure, journalism, literature, medicine and politics. And again, it’s a rabbit hole of inspiration.  There’s the mesmerising Florence Balcombe, wife of Bram Stoker, Veronica Guerin, who many of us remember as a tenacious award-winning investigative journalist, and Neillí Mulcahy, one of the founders of the Irish Haute Couture Group who designed the Aer Lingus uniform in 1963.

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One heroine who ignites personal memories is Kathleen Clarke, Dublin’s first woman Lord Mayor. Also, wife of Tom Clarke, the first signatory on the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. When I was 16, following a week of Transition Year work experience in my former school, St Brigid’s in Killester, Mrs O’Shea, an amazing teacher gave me a 10 quid voucher for Books Unlimited. With this, I bought Revolutionary Woman: My Fight For Ireland’s Freedom by Kathleen Clarke. I had learned about Tom Clarke in History with no reference to his wife. As a teenager, I relished the life stories of women in history. They were role-models. But, I rarely had an opportunity to delve deep in school so books like this filled the void. Here’s a snippet from Kathleen’s story…

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After the week-long fighting and the surrender, Kathleen was taken to visit her husband in Kilmainham Jail the night before his execution. The interview lasted almost two hours, then Kathleen had to leave; Tom was shot in the early morning on 3 May. The following night she was back in the jail, with two of her sisters, to say goodbye to their brother Ned; he was executed on 4 May. Kathleen was expecting another child, but did not tell her husband in their last interview. She fell seriously ill shortly afterwards, exhausted by her work establishing a fund for Volunteer dependants, and lost the baby.

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I could go on but I’ll stop here. There’s enough INCREDIBLE Irish women to fill a thousand blog posts. I’m so glad we found them and there are so many more like you who will make our future histories. 

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2 responses to “Rewriting Irish Women into Our History”

  1. Katherine says:

    An absolutely brilliant article, well researched, acknowledging the role of women in our Irish history! Making history by continuing to support Irish Mammies

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