Review of Fionnuala Walsh’s Irish Women and the Great War by Martin Walsh

Fionnuala Walsh, Irish Women and the Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2020) 
ISBN: 9781108491204

In England and elsewhere much research has been conducted on the impact of the First World War on society and in particular on the lives of women. The historiography has shown that women were not passive participants in the war rather they played an active role both at home and, in some cases, at the front itself. The construction of a narrative to explain the impact of the First World War on Irish society has taken considerably longer to achieve, with the emphasis in the recent past been focused on the role played by men in this conflict. The contribution made by Irish women to this war has largely been ignored in what David Fitzpatrick succinctly calls a national ‘aphasia’ – the inability to articulate the experiences of the women that participated in the First World War. Part of the reason for this ‘aphasia’ was the need by Irish society in the years immediately after Irish independence from Britain in 1921 to construct a narrative that showed the heroic struggle faced by men to achieve this freedom. It is only in the recent past that women have been rewritten into the narrative of the struggle for Irish independence. It is not surprising therefore that the contribution of Irish women in the First World War has largely been ignored. Thankfully, this imbalance in the Irish historiography is now been redressed. 

In her new book, Irish Women and the Great War, Fionnuala Walsh seeks to understand in an Irish context whether women were active participants in the First World War and how it impacted upon their daily lives. Walsh notes the great strides taken by historians such as Grayzel and Winters in reconstructing the lived experiences and active participation of English women during the Great War. In Ireland this is an emerging field of study, which is only now beginning to yield results. What emerges in Walsh’s monograph is a fascinating account of women’s lives in Ireland during the period 1914 – 1918. The book is divided into six chapters, with each taking a different aspect of the impact of war on the lives of Irish women: mobilising for the war effort; family, welfare and domestic life; social morality; working lives; politicisation; demobilisation. It is an ambitious task to undertake, which Walsh delivers concisely and with great clarity. The sources used are extensive, wide-ranging and judiciously used. Each chapter is rich in detail and thought provoking in its analysis. Walsh however does not ignore the more human side of the conflict. The story of Emily Shirly and the mental anguish over the safety of her son on the front lines particularly sums up the devastation war can bring; Shirly died in July 1918, a few months before her son returned home safely. 

Walsh shows that, contrary to popular belief, women of all classes were engaged at some level in the war effort. Though for some it was not always as much about being patriotic as it was about freedom and the ability to earn extra income. This study also dispels the popular belief that the war was a liberating experience for women. While some women did experience a degree of freedom, it was always in a controlled manner. Though some women did find work in the limited number of munition factories established in Ireland, many of those that found work outside the home or domestic service were given roles that accentuated their femininity: cooks, nurses and other similar positions. Even middle and upper-class women found that the roles they could undertake were often limited to organising war relief work and fundraising. We can also see differences in the levels of work undertaken, with Protestant women showing more of an enthusiasm to participate in the war. There is also a geographical difference at play, with the north of the country been more active, which is linked to the fact that the majority of Protestant women resided there. Walsh demonstrates how women were not just controlled in the public sphere but in the private or domestic sphere as well, which is best illustrated by the rising cost of food from 1915 onwards and the need for housewives to economise as much as possible. The British government set out clear guidelines for how housewives should economise in the home, a move that was unimaginable prior to 1914. 

In the years that followed the Great War, Irish society commemorated – to an extent – the sacrifice of the men who fought and died in the war. No commemoration was held to recognise the contribution of women to the war effort. Again, this goes back to the narrative that emerged after Irish independence in 1921 – women should be confined to the domestic sphere as housewife and mother. This brings us neatly back to David Fitzpatrick’s idea of ‘national aphasia’ and the inability of Irish society to articulate both the sacrifice and participation of Irish women in the Great War. 

If I had a complaint, and it would be a minor one, I would have like to have seen a better balance in the chapter on social morality. For example, with middle and upper-class women was there a furore over them attending war dances to help with fundraising for the war effort. Were social moralists worried about these women’s exposure to a world that they were not familiar with? Additionally, what about young women of all classes attending cinema and other similar events that also attracted young men and the concomitant fear of sexual immorality? I would also have liked to have seen mention of the efforts of social purity groups such as the Girls Friendly Society in Ireland who protected young women travelling to England in search of work. These are just minor points and in no way take away from what is essentially an excellent read. It is a book that I will continue to reference in my own work and I would recommend it for specialist readers, undergraduate and postgraduate students and anyone interested in understanding the complex relationship Ireland had with the Great War and the need to fit this in with the narrative of Irish independence from England in 1921. 

Martin Walsh is an independent Historian whose main research interest lies in the study of the social purity groups in both England and Ireland that sought to protect young women from immoral influences as they migrated/emigrated in search of employment at the end of the nineteenth century and turn of the twentieth century. He is currently working on a monograph based on his PhD which will examine the concerns social purity groups had about working-class women becoming a visible presence in the public sphere in both England and Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His first book, Richard Devane SJ Social Commentator and Advocate, 1876 -1951, was published in 2019.