Beyond Mothers and Colleens

— Allison Rolls

WOMEN IN IRELAND appear before the world as sacrificing mothers, lovely and helpless colleens, or even heartless, repressed terrorists. It's not so much that Irish women have bought into these representations as that they are bound to them by the legal strictures that describe and proscribe their lives. The 1937 Irish Constitution—the constitution that still outlaws divorce and abortion in Ireland —enshrines the role of women in Article 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 goodcannot be achieved ... 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.

This, of course, translated into the active prevention of women taking any place in public life Seven years later, President Eamon deValera described his vision of the new "ideal Ireland, which consisted of "the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens." For many, this vision remains a guiding force in the formation of public policy in the Republic of Ireland.

The Grip of Nationalism and Sexism

Women's causes have stayed subordinate to those of nationalism as long as nationalist interests remain tied to the Catholic Church (though the Church is not solely to blame for the deeply ingrained sexism). Even Sinn Fein, the nationalist party, that claim its "demand for a 32-County Socialist Republic is also the demand for a pluralist state in which the rights of women to full equality are constitutionally guaranteed will only accept the need for abortion where a woman's life is at risk or in grave danger ...and in cases of rape or child sexual abuse."

In the North of Ireland, the national-1st SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party—Northern Ireland's sister party to Britain's Labour party), which last year unseated Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams in parliamentary elections, was part of an alliance of political, religious and community groups who fought unsuccessfully to prevent the opening of a clinic in Belfast to provide non-directive advice on contraception, sexuality and AIDS to teenagers.

Of course, Protestant women in the North have it no easier. They are bound by the same legal and social strictures as their Catholic sisters Abortion is iIIea1 in the North, despite its political designation as part of Britain, because the political power in the North is concentrated in the hands of parties with deep ties to fundamentalist religions. Even Rhonda Paisley, Democratic Unionist Party councillor and daughter of the notorious DUP leader Ian Paisley, recognizes herself as Unionism's token woman and complains bitterly of the sexist brotherhood that dominates Unionist politics and refuses women admission.

Women living in the North of Ireland live with the additional burden of sectarian strife, whether they are Catholic or Protestant, politically active or not The incidence of violent death for women is higher in Northern Ireland than in the United States, as is the suicide rate. The rate of alcoholism among women rose eighty-eight percent over the past five years, and seventy-eight percent of all psychiatric patients are women.

Women who are politically active are victims of sexual harassment and threats by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and by the occupying British army. Sinn Fern women have been targets of assassinations, the most recent being university student Shena Campbell in Belfast Since 1982, women in the Armagh jail have been subject to humiliating and degrading strip-searches.

Yet for many women nationalism and imperialism are simply abstract, and generally irrelevant, forces in their lives In the increasingly urbanized Republic of Ireland, daily concerns are less and less about "the Northern question" and more about improving Ireland's economy and St of living through industrial development schemes and foreign investment.

Ireland's membership in the European Community (EC) has raised hopes not only for the economy, but for the situation of women. In fact, EC directives were partly responsible for implementing, in 1978, some of the recommendations of the first Commission on the Status of Women having todo with equal pay and education, equal rights before the law, the abolition of the marriage bar in civil service and teaching jobs, and some legal protections for married women. Some of the most strenuous campaigners against the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in last June's referendum were the anti-abortionists, who feared the imposition of European standards on Ireland's abortion protocol, despite measures to secure the primacy of this amendment over European law.

Despite integration into the European Community, poverty is an overwhelming fact in the lives of Irish women, in both rural and urban areas.

Ireland has the highest rate of female dependency on state benefits in the EC and the lowest rate of married female employment in Europe. And while women make up a third of the work force, as well as a third of trade union members, the jobs they perform are overwhehningly low-paid, low-status ones. In the rapidly de-industrializing North, women have been the hardest hit, also performing mostly in the service sector. Women who are employed still only earn sixty-five percent of the male average.

In the Republic, with divorce still an unavailable option, many women are left victims of "Irish divorce"—deserted by a husband, left with children and no alimony or child support. Homelessness, especially for women and children, is rising in Dublin and other urban centers.

Change from the Grassroots

There is, though, some cause for cautious optimism. There have been some significant changes in the lives of women in Ireland in the past twenty years—some brought about by electoral or legislative reforms, but many others occurring on the level of small communities through grassroots organizing.

The most obvious symbol for change at the official level is Mary Robinson, Ireland's fist woman president Though she has made the presidency a more visible position and taken astand on various women's issues, including reproductive rights, her position still remains limited in its political clout A newly-formed coalition government between the Labour party and the more conservative Fianna Fail has named two new women ministers: Make Geoghegan-Quinn (FF) as Minister for Justice, and Nianih Breathnach (Lab) as Minister of Education.

The abortion referendum, which came in the wake of publicity surrounding the case of the fourteen-year-old rape victim who had initially been denied the right to travel to England to secure an abortion, revealed much more support for abortion rights than had hitherto been expected. Unfortunately, the wording of the substantive proposal was actually more restrictive than the current Article 40.3.3, though not any more acceptable to the "pm-lifersff because it allowed for abortion in cases where "there is a risk to the life—as opposed to the health—of the Mother, that risk not being a risk of self-destruction? Apparently, they had hoped to force the government into holding another, even more anti-choice referendum.

While this part of the proposal was soundly defeated, two others—one that secures the right to travel to another state for an abortion (an estimated 5,000 women from the Republic of Ireland travel annually to Britain for abortions) and one that allows the right to information on abortion—passed overwhelmingly to the dismay of the Catholic hierarchy and the governing Fianna Fail party. (Last year, thousands of copies of one edition of The Guardian were seized at the airport because they contained an ad for a women's health clinic that performed abortions.)

Many of the real changes, however, that have taken place in the lives of Irish women have occurred, not within the context of electoral politics or national referenda, but in the communities, which are very tightly-knit and strong in Ireland. Local groups of women have been organizing since the 1970s into educational, cultural, personal development, social and political support networks. In the 26 Counties (Irish Republic) there are an estimated 452 such groups, while in Northern Ireland 190 groups are linked through the Women's Support Network.

Working-class women, especially, have become increasingly active in working outside the traditional system to improve their lives. One such organization is the Dublin Women's Educational and Trammg!nitiative (WETI), formed in 1990 in response to the perception that the discourse on "women in poverty had been co-opted by academics and politicians in a way that was not only alienating to working-class women, but completely inadequate to their needs.

WETI uses drama as a tool to express their concerns around issues of class and inequality in their communities. Their first play, "Class Attack," based on input from all members of the group, dealt with
the problems of women who try to develop themselves as community workers and students. It was first performed at the Irish Transport and General Workers Union Hall in 1991, and has since toured over Ireland, in Scotland and in Denmark On May Day 1992, WEll organized a conference for community-based women's groups, out of which came the decision to create a political lobbying course for working-class women.

Another typical local group is the Ardoyne Women's Research Project, who in 1991 produced "Unheard Voices—Women's Needs in Ardoyne." The Ardoyne is a community of around 7200 in Belfast, with an official unemployment rate of sixty-eight percent, and particularly hard hit by the violence of the ¶froubles.M The report reflected not only the economic difficulties of women in this area, but revealed the emotional stresses about which Irish women are normally encouraged top quiet Depression, suicidal feelings, alcohol and drug addiction, sexual abuse, isolation, domestic violence and fear of paramilitary action all surfaced in the report The group came up with a list of recommendations which they plan to pursue. As one member said, 'We started as 'Unheard Voices,' but we're not going to shut up after this."

The Cultural War for Women

Eamon deValera's fantasy vision of Irish womanhood is reinforced by the virtual absence of real women and their lives from Ireland's social and cultural consciousness. Irish feminist historians have noted, again and again, the excision of women from Irish historiography, while in the cultural arena a debate still rages about the best way to rectify the glaring omission of all but a small handful of women writers from the recent three volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, a monumental work whose goal is to recreate a canon of Irish literary and cultural thought.

No one should have been surprised by Field Day's negligence The Field Day enterprise, a Northern-based collective aiming to redefine the literary and historical contours of nationalist debate in Ireland, is simply reiterating a tradition of apathy (or hostility) by the nationalist community towards women's issues. In Ireland, both North and South, the questions of nationality, identity, and history have so far overshadowed those of gender that only recently have the relations between the terms been explored.

Dublin-based filmmaker Pat Murphy articulates the struggle of women to resist co-optation by the republican struggle and to define a legitimate space for women within Irish nationalism in her 1981 film, Maeve. The title character explains her dilemma to her unsympathetic boyfriend:

"Nationalism is a reaction to attack, to imperialism. We are like a nation within a nation. Men's relationship to women is like England's relationship to Ireland. You are in possession of us. You occupy us like an army."

The most visible strides have been made by women in the cultural sphere as the tradition of women's place in the Irish consciousness (especially the cultural nationalist consciousness) as object gives way to women's demand for subject-hood of her own history. The last ten years have seen an explosion of women writers, musicians, filmmakers, feminist publishing houses, as well as the opening of a space for discussion of women's issues and real women's experiences on television and radio chat shows.

Indeed, the media has contributed to widespread discussion and debate over a number of highly-publicized events having to do with women's experiences that turn de Valera's visions of "comely maidens dancing at the crossroads" on their heads. Such incidents include not only the rape victim, but the earlier case of Ann Lovett, a fifteen-year-old convent schoolgirl who died giving birth in the Grotto of Our Lady in her hometown in County Longford—she was alone and no one claims to have known that she was pregnant.

Poet Paula Meehan wrote of Lovett in her poem, "The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks." The Virgin recalls:

On a night like this I remember the child
who came with fifteen swnmers to her name,
and she lay down alone at my feet
without midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand
and she pushed her secret out Into the night
far from the town tided up in little sandals
bargains struck, words broken, pnayers, promises,
and though she cried out to me in extremis
I did not move,
I didn't lift a finger to help her,
I didn't intercede with heaven,
nor whisper the charmed word in God's ear.
(from The Man Who Was Marked by Winter, Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 1991)

Similarly, the Kerry Babies became a household word during the trial of Joanne Hayes, a young single woman who gave birth in a field to a child who lived for only a few minutes. The birth and death went unreported and Joanne was then charged with the murder of another baby found washed upon shore not far from her home, stabbed twenty-eight times. Even after blood tests proved that she was not the mother of the murdered baby, she was hounded and her family harassed by local officials, police and the press.

Only an incredible show of support by feminists all over Ireland eventually helped Joanne clear her name. Both of these cases inspired powerful poems by Irish women attempting to come to terms with the conditions that allow these things to happen in their country.

Another manifestation of the growth of what might be called a women's culture—of resistance and of celebration—in Ireland was the 1992 International Women's Day in Dublin, when three generations of Irish women poets sold out the Abbey Theatre for a twelve-woman poetry reading whose main theme was solidarity among Irish women. The guest of honor was President Robinson and the proceeds for the evening went to the Focus Point homeless shelter in Dublin.

Women poets and novelists have in large measure become the voice of heterogeneous Irish womanhood. The range and quality of their work has become astonishingly good since the 1970s, when an initial literary response to newly introduced feminist thinking involved a fairly uniform outpouring of confessional poems and short stories whose main purpose seemed to be therapeutic.

Much of the improvement in quality is due to the high standards of the Attic Press, an independent Irish-owned press specializing in books by and for women, and of the Salmon Press, a Galway-based publishing house that carries a very strong list of women poets. At least three anthologies of writings by Irish women have appeared within the last four years. With channels available for getting work published, the voices of Irish lesbians, women prisoners, unmarried mothers, working women, nationalist women, Protestant women and Catholic women are being registered loud and clear, explor4 all aspects of their lives, their identities, their polities, their sexuality, their histories.

Feminism In the Vortex of Change

As everywhere, feminism in Ireland is a relative concept Women who associate themselves with feminism, like President Robinson, may have less of an impact on the real lives of women than women who would be appalled at being considered feminists. The questions of identity, national and European, have become inseparable from those of gender as Ireland is svept up in the new Eurovalues and global consumer culture.

While it may seem that the destiny of Irish women and Irish feminism lie in the hands of the Catholic Church and the European parliament, it's clear that women, whether working in groups like WETI or the Ardoyne Women's Project, or as poets or playwrights or singers, or within the liberation struggle, are learning to circumvent the institutions that have longoppressed them in the creation of a culture of their own.

For further reading

Jenny Beale, Women in Ireland: Voices of Change (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
C Curtin, P. Jackson and B. O'Connor (editors), Gender in Irish Society (Galway: Galway University Press, 1988).

Louise DeSalvo, Louise Walsh D'Arcy and Katherine Hogan, Territories of the Voice: Contemporay Irish Stories (London: Virago, 1990).

The Irish Reporter, Special issue "The Many Voices of Feminism" (#8, fourth quarter, 1992).

Nell McCafferty, A Woman to Blame (Dublin: Attic Press, 1985). [An amazing account of the Kerry Babies case by one of Ireland's foremost feminist/socialist jpurnalists.j

Catherine Shannon, "The Balance Tilts," Fortnight #308 July/August 1992. [An otimimic evaluation of the position of Irish women in the '90s.)

Sinn Féin, Women in Ireland: Sian Féin's Women's Policye, Dxument, (Dublin: Sinn Fein Head Office, 1992).

March-April 1993

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