Review of Margaret Ward’s Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Julie Brosnan

The arrival of the updated seminal work Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward, is an event in itself.  This book is a valuable and thorough assessment of the lives and experiences of women who helped shape Ireland. Indeed by merely comparing its physical size to that of the 1995 edition, it is clear that much new material and information has been added. I also had the benefit of watching Dr Ward’s lecture in December to Trasna na Tíre historical group and she provided an insight into the revision of this book, highlighting in more detail the lives of some notable women who feature in it, among them Jennie Wyse-Power and Máire Comerford. 

This book is clearly laid out over eight chapters with detailed notes at the end of each, directing the reader towards sources and further reading material. This edition begins, as its predecessors did, with the foundation of The Ladies Land League in 1881, moving to Inghinidhe na hÉireann, through four chapters dealing with Cumann na mBan, and a new detailed chapter on events in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 80s. In each chapter the reader is given a clear outline of the origins of the organisation being discussed, its aims and objectives, the women who were prominent within it, and the challenges they faced from within and without. There is a clear sense of the continuity between each movement and organisation and the links which bound them, as well as the ways in which they differed. 

The new introductory chapter is essentially a literature review of what Mary McAuliffe notes in her Foreword as ‘the breath of scholarship on political, suffrage and revolutionary Irish women since 1983’ (p.27). This chapter will be a valuable starting point for students, academics and researchers alike.  Ward notes two major new resources now available, namely the records of the Bureau of Military History and the Military Service Pensions Collection. Their contents provide further insight into the lives of revolutionary women. She notes ongoing academic work on a variety of aspects of Irish history, such as gender-based violence, as well as fresh evidence emerging from newly opened historical records, showing the personal and lifelong costs to many women and their families of their involvement with the republican cause (p.45). 

Ward traces, through all the above mentioned movements from the 1880s onwards, the varying answers to key questions for women revolutionaries, such as what was to have priority, the equality, rights and citizenship of women (including but not confined to the right to vote) or the cause of Irish independence? Which must come first? Can one exist without the other or must they run in tandem? For Inghinidhe na hÉireann, she noted, there is an awareness of women’s ‘oppression’ but the main objective is securing independence from Britain, which will then allow for the position of women to be improved in an independent Ireland (p.162). She describes how the Irish state, when it eventually came about, marginalised women and created barriers to their full participation in the workplace, civil society and the political arena. Such marginalisation was not confined to governments; as late as 1971, she notes, Sinn Féin could still produce Éire Nua, its social and economic programme, without mentioning women and their role in society (p.415).

The chapter on Northern Ireland covers the public role played by women such as Vice-President of Sinn Féin, Máire Drumm, the experiences and activism of female republicans interned in Armagh Jail, and the interaction between nationalism and feminism. Ward highlights tensions within the republican movement itself over the role of women, raising similar questions to those raised in the past, were women to merely support what men were doing or be active in their own right ? (p. 410). 

The pictures throughout this book bring these revolutionary women, and events they were part of, to life. We see them at gatherings and celebrations, in theatrical productions, at protest marches, in their younger lives and many in later years. Their publications and manifestos feature giving the reader a clearer sense of what was being written and how it was published. Much of this visual material was not available for previous editions. It now adds to what Dr McAuliffe terms as ‘the process of breaking the male centric historical power and privilege in Ireland’ (p.21).

In her introductory chapter, Ward notes how as we mark the centenary of notable events on this island, the necessity for the ‘ongoing interrogation of the past’ remains (p. 47). This book is not an endpoint in itself and the work will go on, as new material continues to become available. The recent release of Irish State papers regarding the peace process during the 1990s brought the names of Reynolds, Bruton, Major and Trimble back to public prominence, less so perhaps the names of Mo Mowlan and Monica McWilliams. In this regard, McWilliams’ memoir Stand Up, Speak out, published in November 2021, is to be welcomed, adding further to our understanding of this period. 

This book is ideal as an introductory text for students and researchers of history, politics, gender and feminism and will also appeal to any reader seeking to broaden their understanding of Irish history. It will be a useful resource for those with a specific interest in the female organisations and movements which are covered in detail here. This book provides a fascinating and accessible insight into our past and the many women whose efforts and sacrifice helped secure our present. 

Julie Brosnan is a community development worker with South Kerry Development Partnership. She is a graduate of UCC in Law (1990), Social Science (Youth and Community Work, 2018) and Social Policy (2019). She teaches part-time with Adult and Continuing Education at UCC and is interested in adult education and social history.