Review of Elite Women in Ascendancy Ireland, 1690-1745: Imitation and Innovation, by Dr. Clare O’Halloran, UCC.

elite womenRACHEL WILSON, Elite Women in Ascendancy Ireland, 1690-1745: Imitation and Innovation, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2015. ISBN 978 1 78327 039 2, £60.

When reviewing a book, sometimes it makes sense to start at the back. In this case, even a brief perusal of Rachel Wilson’s lengthy bibliography reveals a striking paucity of published work on the history of the Irish Protestant elite, or Ascendancy, in the aftermath of the Williamite victory in 1691. This is made painfully clear by the contrasting profusion of research into their class counterparts in England and Scotland, which makes up the bulk of Wilson’s bibliography of secondary works, and which she usefully draws on throughout her monograph. The dearth is even more pointed, when considering work on the women of the Irish elite in the early modern period, where one can, without much exaggeration, call Mary O’Dowd a lone pioneer, up until now.

In Elite Women in Ascendancy Ireland 1690-1745: Imitation and Innovation Wilson sets out to make a significant contribution towards that scholarship by producing a study that is neither a general survey of a lengthy chronological period nor a case study of an individual, but rather deals with a group of elite women in a relatively tight time frame of a half century or so.  Her research questions are broadly shaped by the work that has been done on the female elite of the rest of the composite state of Britain and Ireland, but with a conscious inflection which acknowledges the distinctive history of Ireland as England’s first colony, which had had a recent and abrasive experience of renewed settlement from there and from Scotland. Her declared aim is ‘to question how far their lives changed’ but also ‘to establish to what extent [elite] women in Ireland were influenced by their closest neighbours’ (page 5).  Through a series of seven chapters on marriage, birth and child rearing, domestic responsibilities, estate management, socialising, political activities, and finally philanthropy, we should get an understanding, not just of the lives of elite women, but also of the nature of Ascendancy society and its peculiar relationship to the mother country of England.

Wilson’s key findings can be grouped under the twin themes of female agency and motivation.  She demonstrates that once married these women were given considerable responsibility for running the household and managing the domestic budget. In the case of two of the sample, who controlled large family estates in England and Ireland for over a decade during the minority of their sons, Wilson has used the abundant records of their day-to-day management of all aspects of the business, including their relations with male land agents. She shows that Juliana Boyle, dowager Countess of Cork and Burlington, followed strictly the rule that the guardian’s duty was to preserve the minor’s income and existing inheritance, while Catherine O’Brien of Dromoland, Co. Clare, did not, and increased the financial difficulties of the estate by carrying out extensive renovations to the castle.  The records for Juliana’s guardianship of the Boyles’ Irish estates are particularly rich because she never set foot in Ireland and managed all business by letter.  These dowager guardians exercised direct political power, particularly at election time, when they ‘possessed electoral and patronage influence which could, for a time at least, equal and in many cases surpass, that of the men around them’ (135).  Where politics are concerned, all elite women, whether single or married, Wilson argues from her sample, were more than just interested spectators; they acted as informants and assistants to the male politicians of their families, with wives lobbying for political patronage on behalf of their husbands or other family members.  Wealthy and politically well-connected women, such as Katherine Conolly, wife of the Speaker in the House of Commons, actively canvassed in support of her niece’s husband in the election of 1727.

Here Katherine Conolly was promoting the interests of her wider family.  In this she was no different from any in her class, male or female.  Whether through their household management, socialising or philanthropy, all these elite women were largely motivated by the ever present need to advance the status, wealth and influential networks of their families.  This puts Wilson’s study squarely within the framework of findings in British women’s history from Barbara Harris on Tudor women right through to Elaine Chalus and others working in the eighteenth century.  So far so good, but Wilson has also set herself the task of seeing to what extent the female elite in Ireland diverged from their British counterparts – imitation or innovation, to use the terms of her subtitle.  The answer – which has to be picked up in bits and pieces scattered throughout the book rather than being foregrounded as the introduction promises – is that there was little in the way of innovation.  In spite of a largely endogamous marriage pattern, in which all but the grandest families chose marriage partners from within the Irish elite alone, Wilson’s findings support the argument that in general the Ascendancy lived their lives in much the same way as the elite of the neighbouring island, and were subject to the same social and cultural influences.  This is notwithstanding such divergences as Irish marriage laws that permitted a much greater level of ‘familial and legal control over unions’ (page 17), explicable in terms of fears that Catholics would scheme to restore their forfeited lands through clandestine marriages with members of the elite.  The impression of broad similarity is hardly dented even by such interesting discrepancies as the active facilitation of female attendance at sessions of the Irish parliament, where the galleries of the new building were a magnet for the female elite – in marked contrast to the equivalent allocated space in Westminster, a cramped and stuffy ventilator room located above the ceiling of the House of Commons.

Rachel Wilson has uncovered a rich vein of estate records and correspondence to allow the day-to-day lives of these women to be charted for the first time.  That the vein is rather narrow, in terms of the evidential base on which she has to rely for some parts of this study, is a reflection of the patchy survival of such sources for Irish estates.  The Bibliography makes clear that the book began life as a PhD thesis, and has been brought to publication in an impressive two years or less.  There are still tell-tale signs of its origins – subsections (often of a page or two at most) that break up the flow, repetitive conclusions to each chapter, and some syntactical and footnoting errors – that should have been picked up at the editing stage.  It seems, alas, that the editing process in Boydell is as ‘light touch’ as in all publishers these days, to the detriment of the work produced.

These are mere quibbles, however. We are in Rachel Wilson’s debt for providing, as she says, ‘a window into their world’, and a spur to further research on elite Irish women.