Review of Sisters ed. Siobhán Fitzpatrick and Mary O’Dowd

Siobhán Fitzpatrick and Mary O’Dowd, Sisters: Nine families of sisters who made a difference (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2022), 210pp.

Sisters, edited by Siobhán Fitzpatrick and Mary O’Dowd, is a physically beautiful book. The cover illustration is taken from a hand-coloured print published by Cuala Press, the publishing house run by Susan (Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats, while a detail from Elizabeth Yeat’s Brush-work (London, 1896) runs throughout. This bookmarks each chapter and is continuous reminder of the beautiful books they created. The Yeats’ comprise just one of the nine sets of sisters whose personal lives and public works are explored in Sisters. The lives covered run from the early seventeenth century up to the death of the last surviving Sheehy sister, Mary Kettle, in 1967. Such a long time span allows the reader to observe several points of continuity in the nature of the sisterly relationship, as well as in the challenges faced by women as they pursued their political and professional goals. Incidentally, the long scope of the book also maps family relationships onto the changing power structures on the island of Ireland. The plight of the Ní Domhnaill sisters reflected the dispossession of Gaelic Ireland, the Boyle sisters’ marriages reflected the plantations while the marriages and careers of the Sheehy sisters established them in independent Ireland. Each chapter is prefaced by a family tree which grounds the reader in a single generation of each family and, where possible, portraits and other relevant images are provided. 

Sisters sheds light on how we, as historians, have conceptualised family. As the editors observe, with the notable exception of Shannon Devlin, ‘historians have not explored the history of sibling relationships’. And yet, this is the longest relationship in most people’s lives. It is with siblings that people grow into their adult selves, and as was the case for many of the women here, it was to sisters that women often turned in their hour of need. In describing Constance Markievicz’s last days, for example, Tiernan poignantly illustrated just how important a close sister (even a dead one) might be. The sibling relationship can also bookend a life as spouses are outlived and children move away. Gaye Ashford noted how the Conyngham sisters relationships were overshadowed by death as they together mourned ‘sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren’ as well as their brother, parents and finally each other. Such loss and resilience permeate several chapters and continued up to the twentieth century when the extended Sheehy family experienced terrible losses in the years surrounding 1916. The book will therefore be of value to anyone interesting in death, aging and the history of emotions.

Each chapter impresses in what it achieves in spanning the lives of two or more women. In some cases, the authors have published full-scale biographies of certain individuals to which readers will want to turn next.[1] Chapter bibliographies highlight relevant collected writings and letters. Six of the nine chapters explore all the sisters born to a family (two Owenson and Yeats sisters, three Conyngham sisters, and the four Shackleton and Sheehy sisters). Of these, Ann-Maria Walsh has the most intimidating task of sketching a family comprised of the ‘sisterly collective’ of Alice, Sara, Lettice, Joan, Katherine, Dorothy and May Boyle, daughters of the first Earl of Cork (b.1608-1624). Her chapter highlights many of the complexities of family life as she observed that these women ‘exploited the elastic, sustaining and rooting properties of the family link in order to carve out identities of their own … and, at the same time, to signal their loyalty and attachment to the kinship circle’ (p.35). These sisters, seven of their mother’s fifteen children, did not all grow up in the same house – an experience shared by the Quaker Shackleton stepsisters. The practicing of family relationships between siblings who spent time apart owing to fostering, education, marriage or career is a theme explored in several chapters. Many of these relationships were conducted across significant geographical distance, and the importance of the letter, and literacy, in maintaining and developing relationships is highlighted. 

Ó Macháin restricts his chapter to exploring the poetry dedicated to the three daughters of Aodh Ó Domhnaill’s second wife, Fionnghuala Inghean Mhic Dhomhnaill. While Urquhart (Parnell) and Tiernan (Gore-Booth) focus their attention on the lives and relationships of those sisters who were committed to public works. This was a necessary editorial decision, if any justice was to be done to their considerable careers while also exploring their private lives, but it would be fascinating to learn more about the nature of these women’s relationships with their politically-inactive sisters. Connolly and O’Dowd’s chapters place famous literary women in the context of their sisterhoods.

The sisters discussed span the upper and middle classes, but also demonstrate how within one generation, social class, and financial stability, can be transitory. Some women like Máire Ní Domhnaill (d. 1662) and Katherine Connolly (1662-1752) managed, through advantageous marriages, to enjoy financial riches unavailable to their sisters. Máire’s sister Mairghréad was reportedly reduced to scavenging for food. While others, like Sydney Owenson, succeeding in earning a living through creative works to support a dependant younger sibling. 

The families explored here demonstrate the complexity of family life; there are step-siblings, sisters who were best friends and sisters who unnerved each other. Sisters challenges the reader to think about the meaning of family. This closest of blood relations was not always a benefit and Susan Yeats’ health gave way owing to the long decades of sharing a home with an incompatible sister; though perhaps the fault was really with a society which expected two unmarried sisters to live together. Other relationships ebbed and flowed, and Ward chronicles the series of rifts and reunions in the Sheehy clan owing to differing views. One thing this book does convincingly demonstrate is that ‘doing family’ is an ever-changing act in any person’s life. People can, at times, be in and out of their natal as well as marital families. Fanny Parnell’s death, for example, left devasted siblings and yet her sister Anna’s funeral was not attended by any relations at all. Siblings are products of their families and these chapters shed light on vertical and horizontal familial relationships too. The important role natal families have had in encouraging women’s professional lives across the centuries is clearly demonstrated as is the misogyny that women have consistently faced, often from within their own families.

As with so many important publications on women, several chapters highlight previously underutilised archival collection. O’Dowd’s chapter convincingly argues for greater use of the surviving Quaker papers. They are a treasure-trove of family-history material. The surviving letters and diaries explored in that chapter really challenge what many might assume to be the cloistered experience of eighteenth-century womanhood. Ashford, in her chapter on the Conyngham sisters, was able to draw on a rich archive of surviving letters while Connolly made a case for using the sister with the lesser light of fame to understand the work of the entire family. Though Walsh notes that the lack of surviving female-to-female correspondence in the Boyle archive is a ‘salient reminder of the kind of safekeeping policies that prevailed in the past’. 

Sisters demonstrates the centrality of the natal family in women’s lives, the importance of exploring women’s experiences across the lifespan and outside of married life. The authors have made an important contribution to Irish historiography, and the history of the family more generally. The book should inspire many to revisit collections and sources to explore this important aspect of family life. 

Maeve O’Riordan is Lecturer in Women’s and Cultural History in University College Cork. She is the author of Women of the Irish Country House, 1860-1914 (Liverpool,  2018). She was recently co-PI with Dr Leanne Calvert on the RIFNET project which examined the Irish family. 

[1] Ann-Maria Walsh, The daughters of the first earl of Cork: writing family, faith, politics and place (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2020); Sonja Tiernan, Eva Gore Booth: an image of such politics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012); Margaret Ward, Fearless woman: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, feminism and the Irish revolution (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2019).