Potted biographies to whet an appetite

Sally Richardson reviews Wild Irish Women, extraordinary lives from history by Marian Broderick, O'Brien Press, £15.99 hbk

Sally Richardson reviews Wild Irish Women, extraordinary lives from history by HERE IS a cornucopia of potted biographies of Irish women -- a real mixed bag that includes pirates and prostitutes, revolutionaries and writers, aristocrats and actresses.

Most of the well-known names are in here -- Anne Devlin, Maria Edgeworth, Constance Markievicz. However, Broderick gives space to women whose lives and work have not yet been given much attention, such as trade union leader Delia Larkin and artist Mainie Jellett.

Kathleen Lonsdale, professor of crystallography, was of Irish birth, although most of her life and career were spent in England. An active pacifist and anti-nuclear campaigner, she ‘did time’ in Holloway. An in-depth study of her career would be worthwhile.

Dr James Barry, who dressed as a man in order to pursue a brilliant career in medicine, is claimed as Irish (she was born, apparently in Cork, around 1797).

Broderick evidently relishes her often juicy subject matter, although her approach is even-handed to an extreme, and lacks critical or historical perspective.

She certainly does not let too much analysis get in the way of a good story. Broderick’s writing is lively and accessible, although her prose has a looseness and a tendency to cliché that sometimes sinks to the banality of tabloid journalese.

Nevertheless, she seems to have carried out her research with care, albeit almost entirely from secondary sources.

Her book is not intended as a reference-work, but details and dates do appear to be all present and correct.

The author has made some good choices in what she admits is ëan idiosyncratic collection’. Even so, she leaves out quite a few women who perhaps deserved inclusion -- how about Frances Sheridan (best-selling novelist and mother of R B Sheridan), Matilda Tone or Dr Dorothy Stopford Price (who introduced the BCG vaccination to Ireland)?

This is not a work of scholarship, then it does not pretend to be one. For all its shortcomings, Broderick’s book is an entertaining if undemanding read that makes women’s history available in an accessible, non-academic form.

The O'Brien Press has done a splendid job with the design and has produced an exceptionally handsome book that would make a good gift -- perhaps one to whet a teenager's appetite for history?

February/March 2002

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 14:55:31.
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