Irish Women's History

Sally Richardson reviews Irish Women's History, Alan Hayes and Diane Urquhart (eds), Irish Academic Press, £17.50/22.50 euros pbk ISBN 0-7165-2716-2  

THE ESSAYS in this collection cover an extraordinarily wide range of subjects and periods, from the cult of St Brigit in early Christian Ireland to Irishwomen's war work during the Second World War, and a thread running through many of them is the great variety of ways which women found to challenge or escape the standard norms of behaviour.  

Aine McCarthy's examination of Enniscorthy Lunatic Asylum's records of 1916-25 shows how women's refusal to submit to male domination was pathologized as madness. Rebellious daughters and unhappy wives could be sent to the asylum. Some women were simply unable to carry out their allotted roles.  One women was admitted, aged forty-five, after a miscarriage - not her first - left her childless. Her distress was compounded by her perceived failure as wife and woman.  

Louise Ryan's findings show that in 1920s Ireland 'infanticide was a monthly, if not weekly, reality.'  Yet juries were usually unwilling to convict the women of murder. Underneath the veneer of conventional morality, Ireland was full of complexities.  

Sharon Lambert shows that while emigration to Britain provided many women with an escape from the constrictions of mid-twentieth-century Irish society, they were careful to maintain strong family ties back home and their Irish identity.  

Sometimes women rebelled openly but often their rebellion took underground or even subconscious forms while outwardly they conformed to standard patterns of female behaviour. Throughout history, even the most unpoliticized women have found ways in which they could subvert or evade oppressive social mores and patriarchy. The enthusiasm with which women in particular embraced Methodism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is an example of how some women escaped the patriarchy of the Anglican church, as Rosemary Raughter shows.  

A few Catholic women found relative autonomy and career opportunities in holy orders. Moira E Egan describes the impact made by the Irish Sisters of Mercy who volunteered for nursing duties during the Crimean War, in spite of the distrust and suspicion with which they were treated by Florence Nightingale and the British authorities.  

Isabella Tod, feminist and Ulster Unionist, opposed Home Rule from an unexpected angle: she supported the Union partly on the grounds that the Irish Parliamentary Party were almost to a man(!) antagonistic to women's rights.  

Women's history has opened up whole new vistas and changed the way we view the past. This collection throws light on many neglected corners of the past and points the way forward to some interesting new areas for future study.

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