Wednesday 28 September 2016

What would the women of 1916 think of us now?

Dearbhail McDonald recalls the female revolutionaries of the Rising, and asks if Irish women have fallen asleep at the revolutionary wheel

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Countess Constance Markievicz, one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection
Countess Constance Markievicz, one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection

My new year doesn't officially start until January 7, the day after Nollaig na mBan, otherwise known as the feast of the Epihany, otherwise known as Women's Little Christmas.

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As a child, January 6 marked the day in our house when the tree, tinsel and seasonal excesses were torn down. It was also the day when my sisters and I pampered our mum with endless cups of tea for her efforts over Christmas whilst observing that it would, of course, have to be the one day in the year that women get to themselves, that the Three Wise Men (the Magi) chose to arrive.

As an adult, Nollaig na mBan has, for me, become a rich day of reflection, of celebration and tapping into the energies of our female ancestors whose remarkable achievements have laid the foundations for our own.

Every Nollaig na mBan, my friends and I gather in The Shelbourne Hotel to attend a fundraising breakfast for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

The event, hosted by Ellen O'Malley Dunlop, the centre's outgoing chief executive, was a tradition commenced 20 years ago by her aunt Betty Rock O'Malley, and one that will be continued by her [Betty's] great-grandniece, Grace O'Malley.

The breakfast attracts a diverse group of women from every class and corner of Irish society.

We celebrate the lives and legacies of Irish women, from mythical goddesses such as Cesair, Medb, Grainne Mhaol and Brigid (the Celtic Triple Goddess) to contemporary Irish figures such as Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and former UN Commissioner for Human Rights - a relentless advocate for gender equality.

This year, we honoured the women of 1916.

They included the ones you've heard about, such as Countess Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to the House of Commons and one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position, who was spared an execution because of her gender, much to her horror.

We also heard about Dr Kathleen Lynn, the daughter of a Church of Ireland rector. Lynn, who was chief medical officer during the Rising and who was jailed for her role, established in 1919 St Ultan's, the first infant hospital in Ireland. The first women-only managed hospital closed its doors in 1984.

In all, there were more than 700 women arrested and jailed during the 1916 Easter Rising.

They ranged from titled ladies and laundry workers, to artists, housewives and schoolgirls. They included female soldiers and military leaders and women who resisted the violence of those times, who weren't prepared to die for Ireland but supported its struggles in a peaceful way.

They were, as Sinead McCoole and Margaret Ward explore in their excellent book containing the biographies of more than 60 of those protagonists, No Ordinary Women.

But we wondered, as we recalled their struggles and successes last Wednesday morning in The Shelbourne, what would the revolutionary women of 1916 think of us now?

What would the mothers, grandmothers, daughters and sisters of the Rising think of the role and status of women in Ireland 100 years later?

I imagine that Markievicz, who, in line with Sinn Fein policy, abstained from taking her seats in both Westminster and the Dail, would turn in her grave to know that female participation rates in Irish politics are not much better than the state the Fianna Eireann founder left them in.

Were she to walk through the corridors of many of our maternity units, I imagine that Dr Kathleen Lynn would be horrified to see women giving birth in such strenuous, overcrowded circumstances.

She might also be awestruck that our maternity hospitals have maintained world-class maternal and infant mortality - as well as infection control - rates, despite horrific staff/patient ratios and attending to women in conditions that no man would tolerate if they had to undergo childbirth.

The women of 1916 might weep to know that the women of 2016, including victims of rape, are still relying on Britain to help them during crisis pregnancies. Or that parents are suffering the trauma of having the remains of their foetuses, diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities, flown home to Ireland by DHL because of a divisive debate about the Eighth Amendment.

They would, I suspect, be horrified by the current homelessness crisis with its eerie reminders of the conditions endured by residents in the tenements of inner-city Dublin during the Lockout period.

Rosie Hackett would have been amused by a bridge that now bears her name, but what would the insurgent trade unionist make of last week's RTE documentary on Clery's?

There is, of course, much for women to celebrate 100 years after the Rising.

Our inaugural gender quotas that comes into effect for the 2016 General Election, which had some of our male brethren reaching for the proverbial smelling salts, should go some way to ensuring that there are more women elected to the Oireachtas.

Women are assuming more participation and leadership roles than ever before in all parts of Irish life, including business, healthcare, media and law, where most, if not all, senior positions - such as that of Chief Justice and the DPP - are now held by women.

Senator and Abbey Theatre director Fiach Mac Conghail, one of the greatest feminists I know, may have provoked the ire of women who criticised the lack of female artists on the Abbey's 'Waking the Nation' 2016 programme. But they have Fiach Mac Conghaill to thank for giving birth to 'Waking the Feminists', a very modern, if inadvertently created, gender-equality movement.

Which begs the question: have Irish women been asleep at the revolutionary wheel?

Do we need an awakening?

What are the issues that we, like the women of 1916, are prepared to struggle for, to live for and, God forbid, even die for?

Thankfully, violence is no longer a currency on this island. But that doesn't mean we can't invoke the courage, wisdom and revolutionary spirit of the women of 1916.

Many of the women of 1916 fought at the barricades: it is our duty, today, to continue to tear down the walls to full equality for all - men, women and children. They refused to have their voices silenced: it is our duty to ensure that our voices are also fully heard.

The women of 2016 enjoy many of the privileges that we do because of the sacrifices and struggles of successive generations of women.

I wonder, 100 years from now, what our own descendants will make of us. Who are the women of 2016 and what, ladies, will our legacy be?

Sunday Independent

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