Review of Joyce Padbury’s Mary Hayden: Irish historian and feminist by Anna Devlin

Joyce Padbury, MARY HAYDEN, IRISH HISTORIAN AND FEMINIST 1862-1942. Dublin, Arlen House, 2021. ISBN 978-1-85132-263-3

Mary Hayden, historian and feminist, is worthy of attention as she chose a somewhat different path of engagement to her better known contemporaries, such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Constance Markievicz, Louie Bennett, Dorothy Macardle and Rosamond Jacob, who have been accorded biographies. Joyce Padbury has provided the first comprehensive study of Mary Hayden’s personal and public life, together with an insightful perspective on Irish society at the time. Hayden’s name was well-known to the early generations of independent Ireland as the primary author of the 1921 textbook, A Short History of the Irish People, which was extensively used in Irish schools and colleges for fifty years. Ireland’s first female history professor, she was a prominent suffragist and Gaelic Leaguer, a veteran of the campaign for equality in education and continued to advocate for women’s constitutional status, employment and education rights in independent Ireland. Yet, despite her activism, she resisted the pull of more extreme nationalism. 

Hayden left diaries, written from the ages of sixteen to forty-one (1878 to 1903), which are held in the National Library of Ireland. They form the basis of the first three chapters of the biography and Padbury paints a picture of Hayden’s middle-class Victorian childhood, her striving to progress and be recognised in academia, her emotional entanglements and extensive travels. While ‘as a rule, she was a dispassionate self-contained person, conforming to the contemporary Victorian constraints’ (p.106), the diaries also provide insight into Hayden’s determined personality and the development of her feminist views. By the age of nineteen, both Hayden’s parents had died and her ‘dreamy’ brother had moved to London. Left to make her own way, she had comparative freedom to pursue her personal ambitions without the compromises of family or marriage. Financial  worries provided extra incentive in her battles to seek academic promotion. Her first political activism, an extension of her own experience, was as part of the campaign by women graduates for women’s rights in universities in the early twentieth century, as detailed in chapter four. Following the passing of the Universities Act in 1908, she was the first woman to be appointed to the NUI senate and the governing body of UCD as well as becoming one of the first female professors in Ireland, appointed in 1911.  

As Padbury makes clear throughout, for Hayden ‘feminism was more important than nationalism’ (p. 11). Hayden, disapproved of the 1916 Rising and supported home rule (and then the Treaty), despite a deep friendship with Padraig Pearse. Chapter five describes Hayden’s involvement in the Gaelic League, the awakening of her conservative nationalism and her enthusiastic study of both modern and old Irish. She was central to the establishment of Irish an essential subject for matriculation. It is likely she dropped out of active participation in the League after 1913 due to the organisation’s increasingly political tone. 

Joyce Padbury has had an abiding interest in Mary Hayden and her work as a senior UCD administrator likely gave her particular insight into its early academic politics. This is drawn upon in chapters six and eight which examine Hayden’s near quarter of a century as Professor of Modern Irish History. Padbury studied under R. Dudley Edwards, a student of and successor to Professor Hayden, when she retired in 1938. Having initially studied languages and literature, Hayden did not participate in the development of the new scientific approach to history in Ireland. She published a variety of papers on topics such as women and children in the Middle Ages and had a demonstrable interest in social history, but her focus was on education and teaching rather than original research.

The  book provides much useful background to Hayden’s activities but the lack of personal source material in her later life – when she was most publicly active – necessarily constrains the potential scope of the biography and possibly explains, along with her lack of republican credentials, the comparative lack of academic interest in Hayden (the history of education excepted). Chapter seven examines her very active role in the suffrage movement, in particular the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association and the Irish Women’s Franchise League, as well as founding the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Association in 1915 with Mary Gwynn. She avoided the more militant and republican women’s organisations. A life-long friend of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, she emphasised the particular perspective women could bring to political life and how their education would equip them for their roles as mothers, carers and philanthropists. She disliked the idea of women being confined to roles as helpmates, inspiration and support to men and wanted a ‘viable and visible public role’ for women (p. 278). After independence, as chapter nine outlines, Hayden continued to be one of a minority who protested against the restrictions affecting women’s employment and career prospects and the denial of their equality as citizens. In the penultimate chapter, Hayden, as President of the National Council of Women of Ireland, in her last political campaign, is shown as key to endeavours by a coalition of women’s groups to secure the deletion or amendment of articles 40, 41 and 45 in the 1937 Constitution. 

Padbury ‘aims to reconstruct [Hayden’s] life, in order to discover the Victorian child and follow her rocky path to feminist campaigner and university professor’ (p.17). In an effort to get closer to her subject, Padbury points out some of the dilemmas inherent in Hayden and endeavours to unpick her approach. For example, Hayden’s emphasis on the importance of the role of women in the home, despite it being one she escaped herself and her decision to write A Short History of the Irish People from ‘a frankly nationalist viewpoint’ (p. 231) but with barely a mention of women’s contribution. There is definitely scope to reflect further on the complexities of the choices Hayden, as a privileged professional woman, made in terms of her career, feminism, philanthropy and historical writing as well as her nationalism. This accessible book is of interest to those keen to add to their knowledge of women’s emerging roles and battle for recognition in early twentieth century Irish society and provides a timely alternative perspective on the revolutionary period. This biography is another positive step in revealing the specific details and building a picture of Irish women’s political, social and economic activities during this critical time.


Anna Devlin is a PhD candidate at the Department of History in Trinity College Dublin. Her research ‘Imagining Ireland’s economic future 1893-1923’ is supported by an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship.