Sunday 25 September 2016

Nostalgia that's blind to reality of the past

Joe Barry

Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30

Women working in a munitions' factory on Dublin's East Wall during World War 1.
Women working in a munitions' factory on Dublin's East Wall during World War 1.

Despite some who would look at the past nostalgically, Joe Barry argues that we are one of the most equal and prosperous nations on earth.

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I remember the corned beef of my Childhood,

And the bread that we cut with a knife,

When the Children helped with the housework,

And the men went to work not the wife.

 The cheese never needed a fridge,

And the bread was so crusty and hot,

The Children were seldom unhappy,

And the Wife was content with her lot.

The above lines were sent to me by a friend who, like many of us of a certain age, tends to view the past through rose tinted spectacles.

These two verses are part of a much longer poem titled Nostalgia and I suppose there is some truth in them but one has to laugh at the picture drawn of domestic bliss and everlasting peace and harmony in the home.

I would imagine, however, that if one asked a housewife living in a low income household in the early 1900s whether she was happy or not, she would look at you as if you were mad.

Regardless of whether she was happy or otherwise, she had little choice in the matter and faced a lifetime of drudgery and endless childbearing with probably the only break in the work being to attend Mass on Sundays.

Even at church she would be told how God loves the poor and if one lives a hard and frugal life, their reward will be in the next life. Just don't ask for any luxuries or peace in the present one as they are simply not obtainable. Irish women didn't even get the right to vote until 1922. In America, the so called land of the free, women gained the right to vote only two years earlier in 1920.

With so many celebrations taking place to celebrate the centenary of 1916, its worth taking a look at the quality of life most women enjoyed or otherwise at that time.

During the First World War, with so many men away fighting, women were recruited to work in factories and on farms and were mobilised in unprecedented numbers on all sides throughout Europe. The vast majority of them were drafted into the civilian work force to replace conscripted men or to work in munitions factories.

Many Irish girls also served in support roles such as nurses. At that time small strides were made towards gender equality but these things were seen by most people as temporary 'aberrations'.

One group were the 'separation' women, so called because they were paid 'separation money' while their husbands served at the front.

These women were often much-maligned and some middle class ladies formed 'patrols' to make sure they were not 'behaving improperly' by drinking too much or 'consorting' with soldiers other than their husbands.

Imagine trying to do that nowadays and the reaction you would get. It would be like telling a group of water charge protesters to go home and behave themselves.

During the Easter Rising of 1916, the Volunteers encountered angry inner city Dublin women who objected to their turning the city centre into a battlefield.

Opposition between separatists and the wives of servicemen was not confined to the Rising either.

There were violent confrontations at a parade in Limerick in 1915 and in Waterford during the election campaign of 1918, when some Volunteers said they were more afraid of the Redmondite women than the men.

Dark ages

So we cannot say that the girls of that time didn't have a voice but it was a heavily suppressed one and things didn't really improve much until almost 50 years later when Ireland dragged itself out of the dark ages and in to a modern world where women finally gained freedom of expression, equal rights and full access to third level education.

I find it laughable in the present day to hear certain politicians rant on about austerity and a supposed lack of gender equality. Clearly they never read Irish history or learnt about what life was like for the majority of the Irish population up until the 1960s.

We currently live in one of the most equal and prosperous nations on earth with a welfare system that supports anyone unfortunate enough to require assistance.

Female executives now head many global corporations and have full access to all trades and professions.

They have gained the right to do and to behave as they wish and if you don't believe me just watch some of the hen parties taking place in Temple bar, Carrick on Shannon or Carlingford at weekends. Be very afraid.

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