Review of Oona Frawley (ed.) Women and the Decade of Commemorations by Jennifer Redmond

Review of Oona Frawley (ed.) Women and the Decade of Commemorations (Indiana University Press: 2021).

The most welcome aspect of the recent commemoration activities has been the broadening of the narrative that celebrated the bravery of male rebels to include stories that recognised women’s important role in shaping revolutionary Ireland alongside their male counterparts. Oona Frawley’s edited collection Women and the Decade of Commemorations joins books by Lucy McDiarmid, Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis, Margaret Ward, Leeann Lane and Linda Connolly to name just a few, that richly detail the energies, sacrifices and passionate commitment women of this generation had to creating an independent Ireland and their experiences during this tumultuous time. It is now impossible to ignore the many narratives and sources that exist on women’s particular lived experiences and Frawley’s collection contributes important, and different insights to this new imperative in Irish revolutionary history. This book tackles the thorny issues of commemoration and memory which draws out reflections not just on what women did, but how they were (or were not) remembered, their own assessments of the ‘worth’ of their contribution and our contemporary representations of this history in national cultural sites. The collection therefore draws upon traditional documentary sources but also engages with memory theories, the material culture of the period and the curation of these histories in memoir and dramatic performances. There is a continual interplay throughout the collection between past and present, a feature that sets this collection apart from the plethora of new and reissued publications over the last decade. 

Frawley’s introduction sets the scene for the book in analysing the ‘foundational myths’ and ‘contested memory’ that have marked national histories in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. It also lays out clearly the scope of the Decade of Centenaries programme and the policies on what would and would not be included in events on the island, instructive reading for those unaware of the contentious nature of the official commemoration activities. Frawley’s biting comments about the exclusion of female academic experts from high profile commemorative events (and the government’s own committee) show the similarities in how women’s contributions to the past have been overshadowed by attention to men’s histories of the period (without being explicitly named as such). As Frawley observes, ‘Commemorative activity is always a reflection not of the past but of the present’ (p.19).

A review of this length cannot do justice to the sixteen individual chapters the book contains in addition to Frawley’s excellent introduction. The collection contains authors that have become well known for their historical work as well as those outside the discipline of history, reinforcing Frawley’s point that scholars other than historians have valuable perspectives on commemoration. There are also scholars in the collection at various stages of their career, from early to retired, an excellent approach for any book to take and one that will appeal to members of the Women’s History Association of Ireland and its own broad inclusiveness. Current WHAI President Diane Urquhart’s chapter on women in Ulster Unionism and Eli Davies’ chapter on women and the Troubles demonstrates the commitment to inclusivity in the collection and to integrate perspectives and experiences from north and south. The collection also takes us outside of Ireland, with Dianne Hall’s piece on women in Australia and Síobhra Aiken’s piece on the migration of Cumann na mBan women in the post-revolutionary period. This global or transnational approach has produced excellent scholarship elsewhere and these reflections specifically on women’s involvement in the revolutionary diaspora are a welcome addition to the field. Sonja Tiernan’s piece on pacifist, anti-conscription activists adds to our knowledge of this era but also raises questions about what is deemed politically sensitive or appropriate to commemorate, which in many contexts is viewed not as a reflection on all aspects of a particular event or history but as a celebration of that. As Tiernan queries, where is there space to acknowledge the peace activists of one hundred years ago who spoke out against war in the context of present commemorative activities that glorify the sacrifice of soldiers during the First World War? There is a corollary in Fionnuala Walsh’s chapter on Irish women’s experiences of the First World War when attention to Irish involvement in the conflict was, until recent times, minimized in public histories or forgotten altogether. This suggests a ‘double forgetting’ of Irish women who experienced the sacrifice, loss and immense impact of the conflict that persisted until recently in scholarship on the era. Donna Gilligan’s chapter highlights the historical amnesia created about suffrage activism in Ireland in the collections of Irish museums which stands in stark contrast to the material objects such as badges, posters and banners that are part of permanent collections elsewhere. Gilligan’s persistence in cataloguing and commemorating Irish suffrage activities is to be admired and her work compliments the detailed documentary analysis of the political activities of key organisations and activists by dedicated scholar Margaret Ward who also contributes a chapter to this volume. It is of great satisfaction that the cover of Frawley’s volume features a rare Irish Women’s Franchise League badge on the cover, and Gilligan’s chapter is also illustrated with other rare material evidence of the lively campaign conducted by IWFL activists. Ward’s chapter deals with the public memorials and plaques that commemorate women from the past. These often ignored insignia of meaningful contributions of women in the past are sadly lacking overall, but this chapter gives rich details on those that do exist, and interested readers might like to use this for their own women’s history trail around Ireland. 

Eve Morrison’s chapter focuses on Kathy Barry’s experiences of the Civil War giving vivid details of her time in the Hammam Hotel on Sackville Street. The degree to which women were not taken seriously as combatants is amply testified to in this chapter: The Irish Independent alleged that Barry was told that she could go home while surrendering with the men, a fact she denied, but even when she was arrested she was released after just a couple of hours, a clear indication that she was not regarded as a serious threat by the authorities. Interestingly, Morrison highlight’s Barry’s own role in subsuming her own contribution ‘within the commemorations honoring the republican martyrs with which she was closely associated’ (p. 201), reminding us that there are no simple narratives here. The creative responses to commemoration are tackled in different ways in the chapters by Roisín Higgins, Maeve Casserly and Brenda O’Connell. These reflections are excellent pieces in themselves but also point to a very rich array of sources for teaching as I am sure many readers will use this book for. Kennedy’s chapter addresses the perennial issue of the state and reproduction, taking a long view from the 1916 Proclamation to the repeal of the 8th Amendment. Linda Connolly’s closing essay on ‘honest commemoration’ reflects on the recent events, public debates and new scholarship that has emerged over the Decade of Centenaries, drawing distinctions between commemoration in the present and academic history writing in an interesting discussion of historiography and epistemology. Feminist historians have long called into question the claims to objectivity some historians have made in their constructions of historical narratives and Connolly’s interventions in the field are noteworthy. As a participant in the recent ‘Machnamh 100’ President of Ireland Centenary Reflections, Connolly is well placed to critically reflect on contemporary discussions of history and cogently argues that we must engage inclusively with all its facets, including uncomfortable aspects of the past such as our shameful treatment of unmarried mothers. 

Connolly’s thoughts are echoed in the earlier chapter by Laura McAtackney. Her analysis of exactly why women became so prominent in the 2016 commemorations is timely and her discussion of how women might continue to be remembered as the official ‘Decade’ draws to a close highlight how we need to be somewhat vigilant in ensuring that women’s experiences of the past and contemporary women’s perspectives on that should not be forgotten or marginalised in commemorative activities.

The image contained in Mary McAuliffe’s chapter, ‘Her Surrender’ by artist Sinéad Guckian, is emblematic of the whole collection. Depicting the famous photograph of the military surrender of the 1916 Rising, it takes an alternate angle than the infamous image in which Elizabeth O’Farrell’s frame is almost wholly obscured by Patrick Pearse’s body. Instead, we see Elizabeth standing slightly in front of Pearse, her nurse’s uniform showing beneath her coat, her head bowed. This brilliant image, and its inclusion in this collection, demonstrates that by ‘flipping’ the narrative and focusing on women in the foreground instead of the background, new and important insights about our shared past can emerge.

Dr Jennifer Redmond

Department of History, Maynooth University,