Review of Jennifer Redmond and Elaine Farrell (eds.), Irish Women in the First World War Era: Irish Women’s Lives, 1914 – 1918 by Leona Armstrong

Jennifer Redmond and Elaine Farrell (eds.), Irish Women in the First World War Era: Irish Women’s Lives, 1914 – 1918 (Routledge, 2020). ISBN13: 978-0-367-32235-9.

Irish Women in the First World War

In Irish Women in the First World War Era: Irish Women’s Lives, 1914 – 1918, editors Jennifer Redmond and Elaine Farrell offer a new and unique collection focusing exclusively on Irish women’s experiences during the First World War across Ireland. This edited collection provides a wealth of historical insights into female experiences during the war. It contextualises the realities for women in a changing political, social and economic landscape. As it states in its opening synopsis, it considers experiences ranging from the ‘everyday realities of poverty and deprivation to the contribution made by the war effort by women through philanthropy and by working directly with refugees’.

This collection begins by situating the context of Ireland, which is essential to understanding the complexities and intricacies of women’s lives. It includes chapters on: the issues of child and mother welfare; Lady Inchiquin and her voluntary work; women and alcohol; Susanne Rouviere Day’s literature on relief work and refugees; the dangers and temptations of the streets for women in Belfast; political women; war work; unionism and Orangeism. Together, this book provides insights into the various groups of women in Ireland, both north and south, with opposing political and religious views as well as various ages and classes. Therefore, by encompassing all Irish women’s experiences, no one is excluded from the narrative.

According to Keith Jeffrey, women’s activities and influences during this time have become ‘historically hidden’ in society (p. 3). However, this collection pushes this aside and provides a thought-provoking read and also establishes areas in which the historiography could be developed and explored further. All the contributors interrogate the contemporary understandings of femininity and the various forms of womanhood during this period. The editors state that it is impossible to generalise women’s experiences of or attitudes of war as there is no one ‘womanly response’ (p. 4).  However, this collection strives to provide some context to women’s experiences during the war while not professing to be entirely comprehensive of all experiences.

A number of the contributors depict how women ought to behave in society and what societal perceptions of the ideal woman or mother were. They convey how, within the context of the war, there was the blurring of lines between the domestic and the public spaces. Buckley discusses this in the context of child and mother welfare and the difference between deserving and undeserving mothers, while Dunbar shows the movement of women into primarily masculine spaces to drink alcohol as a release for recreation after work. Dunbar states that ‘feminine’ spaces often involved the domestic realm of the home and by women entering the masculine spaces they were believed to be neglecting their primary duty of motherhood (p. 51). There was a fear during this period that women were no longer conforming to the societal gender norms of their sex and instead were deviating in an immoral manner. This may have been through the consumption of alcohol, which is explored in Dunbar’s chapter, or the ‘immoral’ behaviours of women and the temptations of the streets of Belfast explored in McCormick’s chapter. These chapters complement each other extremely well and show the multi-faceted perceptions of the ideal female behaviours at the time.

The complexities of philanthropic work in different regions of Ireland are revealed in the chapters by McCormick and O’Riordan. O’Riordan explores the philanthropic work of Lady Inchiquin, in particular how she established and set up housing for Belgian war refugees. Lady Inchiquin had taken over the financial burden for all the refugees in County Clare. This, O’Riordan argues, was for Lady Inchiquin not an opportunity to ‘step outside the confines of restrictive gender roles; it was an occasion to strengthen her role and status as local leader within traditional female parameters’ (p. 45). McCormick shows how philanthropic work is linked to managing female behaviours that were often seen as ‘promiscuous’ or dangerous in Belfast. Philanthropic work was often focused on attempting to rescue and reform young women and concerned about the ‘modern girl’ (p. 86). These anxieties were linked to the perceived growing independence of working-class girls in Belfast where war work for women was more prominent. There was the perception that with growing independence would come moral deterioration and women would be easily led into immoral behaviours.

Thom’s work, on the other hand, depicts what war work looked like for working-class women in society. Even though wartime often brought about an increase in work for women, in the case of Ireland, this was not entirely true due to the fact that conscription was not passed and unemployment was widespread. Thom argues that often war work was created for and filled by men and not women. However, women did assume some war work positions including munition factory work which has often been forgotten in war commemoration. Thom contends that the area of women’s labour history often neglected in favour of the male experience and draws attention to the possibilities of further work in this area.

The writings of Susanne Rouviere Day, an Irish writer and suffragist, which delve into the worlds of relief work and refugee experiences in WWI are the focus of McAvoy’s chapter. Day intended her work to provide a wider understanding of the experiences of French citizens who were involved with the war, as the majority of propaganda had mainly focused on Belgium (p. 69). Day explored valuable details of women’s war experiences, including how they coped with working in predominantly male military environments (p. 80). Therefore, the work of Day stands as a unique and insightful resource into the lives of refugees from an Irish female perspective at the time.

Pašeta argues how the war became an important catalyst for the radicalisation of Irish society in her chapter. She argues that the ‘outbreak of the war brought some existing tensions to the surface’ and forced the suffrage movement to take a public stand on the conflict (p. 106). As in previous chapters, Pašeta explores how an existing network of philanthropic organisations provided a firm foundation for voluntary war work throughout Ireland. She demonstrates how the issue of doing socially good deeds to benefit the lives of women and children remained a pressing issue for the majority of these groups. Even with disparate views on some issues, they came together to improve conditions for women in terms of employment, alcohol, violence against women and children.

The complexities of female identity in Ireland in a period of political upheaval are the focus of Urquhart’s chapter. It delves into the world of unionism and Orangeism, a topic often not explored in the narrative of the First World War in Ireland. Orange membership, like other organisations of the time, was based on the premise of familial relations which sometimes preserved gender divisions and patriarchal hierarchies. Similarly, unionist and nationalist women were often treated with the same regard by men in their various organisations and would continue to be treated this way for decades.

According to McIntosh and Urquhart, ‘conflict is a central motif in twentieth-century Ireland. Adopting a gender analysis adds a crucial dimension to this debate’ (p. 3). I believe that the contributors have displayed this throughout the collection and have broadened the scope of Irish women’s experiences in such a period of turmoil in our history. This collection reveals the multi-faceted nature of Irish women’s experiences through various different spheres in the First World War period. This book significantly adds to our knowledge and understanding of the complex lives and realities of Irish women and contributes greatly to the overall field of Irish women’s history. This collection broadens our understanding of female lives during a complex time and provides an in-depth analysis into previous underdeveloped areas.

Leona Armstrong completed her B.A. in Arts Joint Honours in History and Sociology from University of Limerick and her M.A in History from the National University of Ireland, Galway. Her undergraduate thesis ‘The Forgotten Voices of Killeeneen Cumann na mBan’ was included in the Galway County Council Publication Centenary Reflections on the 1916 Rising: Galway County Perspectives. Her other published work includes her article ‘Donegal Amazon’: The extraordinary role of Eithne Coyle in the Revolutionary Period’ which was published in History Studies. While her MA thesis explored infant and maternal mortality in Ireland from 1900-1920.