Biographical study lacking in focus

Sally Richardson reviews The Politics and Relationships of Kathleen Lynn by Marie Mulholland, Woodfield Press, £9.99 pbk

MARIE MULHOLLAND’S study of Kathleen Lynn, 1916 veteran, feminist, republican and pioneering health reformer, is the first volume in Activist to Activist, a new venture by the Woodfield Press, which is to consist of a collection of biographical studies of Irish women, written by women political activists.

The relationship between the demands of Irish independence and women’s rights is a complex one and it’s a pity that Mulholland fails to address it adequately. She writes of ‘the narrowness of men’s political vision and resistance to sharing power with women’. One has to ask which men she has in view with this blanket condemnation. James Connolly? Ernie O’Malley?

This is not to ignore the problems women had, and still have, in being taken seriously in the republican movement. But women’ rights were an integral part of the Irish republican agenda from the start.

For activists like Lynn, republicanism was about equality and inclusivity as well as independence from Britain. This outlook informed Lynn’s founding of St Ultan’s children’s hospital and the great advances in paediatric medicine she was responsible for.

But it is Lynn’s sexual orientation, and her relationship with Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, that is Mulholland’s main concern. Nothing wrong with that; and her claim that Lynn was a lesbian may well be correct.

She dismisses heterosexual women republicans as ‘appendages to men’ and ‘patriot’s widows’ -- a description that hardly does justice to women like Kathleen Clarke and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.

There is a lack of focus throughout. Mulholland’s prose is diffuse and careless and she provides far too much background material for a book of just 80 pages. She would have written a better book if she had structured her material properly and concentrated more on factual detail and analysis.

Men are not the enemy; inequality is. And if you came off your high horse, you would find that many of your heterosexual sisters are on your side. It gives me no pleasure to write such a negative review, because Woodfield Press have initiated a very worthwhile venture, and I very much hope that future volumes will live up to their promise.

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