Review of Louise Ryan & Margaret Ward, Irish Women & Nationalism: Soldiers, New Women and Wicked Hags by Pamela McKane

Louise Ryan & Margaret Ward (eds.), Irish Women and Nationalism: Soldiers, New Women and Wicked Hags (Irish Academic Press, 2019). ISBN 9781788550970

9781788550970Irish Women & Nationalism is an updated edition of a collection originally published in 2004. This book would be of interest to scholars of Irish history, women’s and gender history, and nationalist movements, as well as wider audiences. As the editors note, women’s roles in nationalist movements in Ireland have long been overlooked and/or under-valued and understood to be supplemental to the primary roles played by male leaders of those movements. The essays in this collection highlight the vital roles women and gender have played in Irish nationalist movements and organizations, and the ways in which women reinforced and challenged proscribed gendered roles of Irish womanhood and femininity. The book focuses on women and nationalist politics during the uprisings of 1641, 1798 and 1848; the Easter Rising (1916); the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921); Civil War (1922-23), and the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1968-1998).

The collection includes contributions from a variety of scholars, both institutional based and independent as well as others involved in community-based organizations and work. Contributors draw on approaches from literary studies, gender studies and history. They utilize archival material, oral histories, newspaper reports, biography and literature as sources through which to explore women’s long-term relationship with nationalism and the relationship between nationalism and feminism. As such this book makes a far-reaching and extensive contribution to an understanding of the role of women within Irish nationalist movements and how women have been represented in Irish nationalist histories, as well as gender history, Irish history and discourses of nation and nationalism. Contributors illustrate the myriad and complex ways in which women have engaged with nationalism at different times in Irish history.

The book is organized thematically and chronologically. The first section provides historical perspectives on women’s involvement in Irish anti-colonial conflicts between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The essays in this section reveal the complex and varied involvement of women in those conflicts. Andrea Knox examines the ways in which women of all social strata were involved in the 1641 Rising against England. She argues that during this period a loyalty towards Ireland, as opposed to a region or locality, began to develop. Drawing on the writings of women involved in the 1798 and 1848 Risings, as well as contemporary male accounts, Jan Cannavan investigates the involvement of women in those movements. Cannavan asserts that women’s active participation in these movements contributed to the evolution of Irish feminism.

The second section focuses on cultural representations of nationalist women. Contributors draw on historical and contemporary sources of autobiography, newspaper reports, plays, novels and films to analyze the ways in which women were portrayed by others and portrayed themselves. Louise Ryan looks at the representation of women and war during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and Civil War (1922-23). She delves into popular accounts of those wars in order to gain insights into the constitutions of masculinity and femininity in “militarized arenas”. She reveals underlying tensions about women’s participation in those conflicts and the unease felt by many when dominant gender norms were challenged. Karen Steele assesses Constance Markievicz’s plays and her writings in the nationalist newspapers Éire and An Phoblact. Steele argues that through her writing Markievicz seeks to reclaim the memory of the 1916 Rising and highlight feminist and socialist contributions to Irish nationalism. Steele asserts that in this way Markievicz enhances her own standing as a republican and socialist; she also makes visible the achievements of other Irish nationalist activists marginalized within the Free State. Danae O’Regan examines connections between women’s activism and women’s writing through a comparative analysis of the work of Annie Smithson and Rosamond Jacobs—both members of Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan. Their work reveals insights into the attitudes in Ireland post-1916. Jayne Steel compares the gendered images of Ireland as woman in English, British and Irish iconography. Further, she probes the ways in which such images were appropriated by British and Irish male authors and film-makers to create a narrative of the Troubles and reinforce dominant gender norms of Irish womanhood.

The third section focuses on the contemporary debates and examines the experiences of women in Northern Ireland as republican prisoners, community activists and politicians. Contributors highlight the varied ways in which women have participated in and been affected by the Troubles. Mary Corcoran uses interviews with prisoners to understand the contemporary history of political women’s imprisonment and the ways in which women prisoners made sense of their intersecting identities as women, Irish nationalists and/or feminists. Rhiannon Talbot looks at women’s involvement in republican movements since the 1970s. She assesses ways in which women’s involvement changed over time, as well as the ways in which women combatants and prisoners contributed to the development of a feminist understanding within the republican movement as a whole. Clare Hackett examines the experience of eight activists in West Belfast. Drawing on the Falls Community Council’s oral history archive, Hackett focuses on the range of ways in which nationalist women in West Belfast were politically active during the Troubles as relatives of prisoners, feminists, human rights campaigners, community activists and politicians. Callie Persic uses a case study of Greater Ballymurphy Women’s Support Group to scrutinize women’s community activism during the Troubles and to consider the extent to which such activism led women to renegotiate gendered power relations. Persic suggests that through community participation a feminist consciousness emerged among women, and that the peace process provided an opportunity for women to integrate a feminist perspective into such community work. Margaret Ward provides a comparative analysis of women’s political activism in Ireland during the early twentieth century and the peace process in Northern Ireland in the early 2000s. According to Ward, gender is an important factor in both these historical moments. Feminist activists and republican women organized to ensure representation of their specific interests, but Ward notes that issues of gender were not integrated into the political institutions that emerged form these moments of transition.

This is an important contribution to the historiography of Ireland and Irish women. Much new material has been released since the publication of these essays including the digitization and release of the Bureau of Military History and the Military Service Pensions collections. Analysis of material from these collections will doubtless provide further insights into the participation of women in Irish nationalist movements. Additionally, a comparative analysis with loyalist, unionist and Protestant women’s participation within unionist and loyalist movements and organizations would further broaden understandings of the constitution of Irish identities and the constitution of the Irish ‘nation’ in contrast to British, unionist, loyalist and Protestant identities and the constitution of Ulster as distinct from the rest of Ireland.

Pamela McKane, PhD (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) Pamela holds a PhD in Political Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her research interests include the relationship between gender, nation, and nationalist movements.