Irish Nationalist Women 1900-1918, by Senia Pašeta, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 292pp.,£60.00 (hardback), ISBN:9781107677876
‘Arm your minds with the histories and memories of your country and her martyrs,’ Countess Markievicz implored a group of female students in Dublin in 1909. However, in her galvanising address she noted how Irish history was male dominated as ‘for the most part our women, though sincere, steadfast Nationalists at heart, have been content to remain quietly at home, and leave all the fighting and the striving to the men.’
Female participation within the Irish nationalist movement became increasingly proactive at the turn of the twentieth century. Through active participation in key events, events which eventually helped lead to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland, women such as Markievicz have become almost iconic in Irish history. Undoubtedly Markievicz is deserving of her place of high esteem but what of the broader issue of female participation and place within the nationalist struggle? The histories of Irish nationalist women and of female nationalist organisations have received increased scholarly attention of late, especially as Ireland has entered a decade of commemorations. The expansive range of focus on women during a key period in Irish nationalist history is perhaps most evident in Sinéad McCoole’s recent book, Easter Widows (2014). However, the complexities of nationalism in relation to suffrage debates and feminism more broadly have often been overlooked or indeed misunderstood by contemporary commentators.
In her comprehensive volume, Irish Nationalist Women 1900–1918, Senia Pašeta places women as the central focus of her research utilising an array of primary source materials. The depth of research incorporating archival papers of individuals, organisations, journals, newspapers and previously published memoirs is an impressive element of this book. Pašeta notes that these politically active women were consciously aware of the importance of leaving behind records of their activities. In this way Irish nationalist women displayed ‘a sensitivity for and an appreciation of the longer history of women’s political activism in Ireland’ (p. 1). As well as utilising the wealth of personal papers housed in the National Library of Ireland, this book showcases the remarkable archive of the Bureau of Military History (1913-1921) in Dublin. While the recorded witness statements have been previously utilised to great effect, especially by Fearghal McGarry in his noteworthy book The Rising: Ireland Easter 1916 (2010), Pašeta’s work displays the importance of these oral history accounts in the writing of nationalist women’s history.
In recording this history, Pašeta avoids merely extolling the virtues of key female characters or describing nationalist campaigns organised by women, rather this book engages in an absorbing discussion of the complexities of female activism in the early twentieth century. After all as Pašeta notes, ‘Irish nationalism and Irish feminism were diverse and complex creeds, both of which boasted a number of political and social agendas and shifting networks of supporters’ (p. 15). Indeed, the evolving role of women at the start of the twentieth century, with advances in access to education and increased roles in local government, meant that even the perception of female participation within the nationalist movement swiftly evolved. While Irish Nationalist Women examines the activities of the main female nationalist and suffrage organisations including Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Irish Women’s Franchise League and Cumann na mBan, even more interestingly the book chronicles this shifting position of women within what could be described as the mainstream nationalist organisations such as Cumann na nGaedheal, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Sinn Féin and the Irish Citizen Army.
One interesting assessment charters how Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the female nationalist organisation founded by Maud Gonne in 1900, affiliated themselves with Arthur Griffith’s Cumann na nGaedheal shortly after its establishment. This alliance marked a significant advancement for women within the nationalist movement as Cumann na nGaedheal accepted female members on an equal basis with that of men, the first nationalist organisation to do so. Cumann na nGaedheal was founded with the original intention of bringing nationalist groups across Ireland together under a virtual umbrella organisation. The fact that Maud Gonne drew up the organisation’s programme, along with Griffith, highlights that encouraging women to become equal members of a central nationalist group was not just tokenism. While in contrast, female membership of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was significant in numbers but in reality, according to Pašeta, ‘the role of female Hibernians was strictly traditional in the sense that they appeared rarely to speak for themselves, were subservient to the male branches and were expected to devote themselves to their families first and to Christian philanthropic activity second’ (p. 64). Such thoughtful analysis is sprinkled generously throughout this publication by Pašeta ensuring that this book is not only an engaging read but one which adds greatly to our understanding of the proactive and intricate roles played by women during this key time period in Irish history.
Another interesting and engaging aspect of this book is the characters that emerge. Key female players appear throughout Irish Nationalist Women that are well-known in Irish history such as Markievicz, Gonne, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Jennie Wyse Power and Helena Molony. However, a host of women, previously overlooked by historians or who appear merely as footnotes in the biographies of the men they knew, surface as invaluable and captivating characters of the nationalist struggle. Women including Maeve Cavanagh who founded a second Derry branch of the ICA who would welcome factory girls or Cathleen Byrne who broke into the GPO in order to join the fighting during Easter week and Aine Heron who, although five months pregnant, joined the hostilities against the British army on Easter Monday. Irish Nationalist Women is a captivating read that will surely inspire others to research further into aspects uncovered by Pašeta.
 Constance Markievicz, ‘Women, Ideals and the Nation,’ a speech delivered to the Students’ National Literary Society, Dublin, later published in Inghinidhe na hÉireann, 1909. See Angela Bourke et al (eds.), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Irish women’s writing and traditions, Vols. 4-5 (New York, 2002), pp. 99-100.