Thursday 29 September 2016

Niamh Gallagher: Making the legacy of the women of 1916 come alive for all - not just the historians

Niamh Gallagher

Published 22/01/2016 | 02:30

Actresses Sarah Greene, Ruth Bradley and Charlie Murphy pictured before a press screening at the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield for the launch of RTE’s 1916 drama ‘Rebellion’. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Actresses Sarah Greene, Ruth Bradley and Charlie Murphy pictured before a press screening at the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield for the launch of RTE’s 1916 drama ‘Rebellion’. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A cynic in my life called me the morning after the first episode of 'Rebellion' was shown. "Well," he said, "that was something else. You'd be forgiven for thinking there were no men involved in the Rising at all. It's PC gone mad."

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I like these people in my life, they keep my feet on the ground when I'm getting carried away on my feminist wings and remind me that, unfortunately, not everyone sees the world through the same lens as I do. My cynical pal had not appreciated the artistic decision to tell the story through these female characters (while still capturing the roles of the leading players), but rather viewed it as yet another veiled attempt by women to take over the world.

I love 'Rebellion' because it has us all talking. Love it or hate it, everyone's watching it and we all have a view. That's exactly how I hoped this year would be: looking back, learning, analysing, arguing and - together - engaging with our past and looking to the future.

'Women in 1916' is one of the themes highlighted in the State Centenary Programme. Last week, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys and Minister for Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordáin brought together a group of women to talk about the elements of the programme that cover this topic. They sought ideas as to how best to bring the role of women to the forefront of celebrations beyond the scheduled set piece events, and, perhaps more importantly, how to build on the legacy that this year will establish in relation to women's history, women's role in the foundation of our State and women's position in our society.

On receiving an invitation to the event, I decided to get studying. I wasn't sure I knew enough about the role of women in 1916 to make a worthwhile contribution in this forum. I'm not a historian. I read history for pleasure, and, like most people, I am participating in discussions about 1916 as an interested amateur. I spent time on websites - including the excellent www.richmondbarracks.ie, whose section on the women of 1916 gives a short background to the women's organisations active in the run-up to the Rising and their roles and lists the 77 women who were detained there in 1916 - and I also looked at the active Twitter account @womenof1916.

I ordered Sinéad McCoole's 'Easter Widows', which tells the story of the seven women behind the leading men in the Rising, and lamented that Dr Mary McAuliffe's book on the 77 women held in Richmond Barracks is not being published until March (fittingly, on the 8th, International Women's Day). All of this work paid off. I arrived to the event feeling ready to make my contribution, backed up by my research.

I needn't have worried. The event was far from a school exam - it was a conversation, bringing together women with diverse perspectives to consider the themes of the centenary as they apply to women: Remember, Reflect, Re-imagine. Much time was spent on Re-imagine, as we talked about the future: what Ireland over the next 100 years should look like for women, and how we can leverage the energy of this year (and of the next few years - in 2018 we will celebrate 100 years since women got the vote in Ireland) to make sure concrete progress is made in women's lives.

Reflecting on women's experience in Ireland since 1916 was also part of our discussion, and a stark reminder of the jagged nature of our history: the active and celebrated participation of women in 1916 and the 1920s marked most publicly by Countess Markievicz's position as the first female minister in Ireland and in Europe, followed by the abrupt halting of progress by the 1937 Constitution and the regime surrounding it, and the then very slow journey to where we are today, with milestones such as the ending of the marriage bar, the introduction of contraception, the acknowledgement in law of equal pay for equal work (though the implementation of this principle is yet to become a universal reality) and the introduction of divorce.

My overwhelming sense from the afternoon, though, was that these conversations could be - and should be - happening everywhere this year. It reminded me of a wonderful event, just two weeks previously, hosted by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre to celebrate Oíche Nollag na mBan.

The event had a 1916 theme, and each table was allocated a character: Countess Markievicz, Kathleen Lynn, Marcella Cosgrave and Winifred Carney among them.

Our task was to read about the character, discuss her over breakfast and present her to the rest of the group in a style worthy of theatre. Over that morning, I learned much about the individual women who had been part of the Rising, their backgrounds, motivations and lives after 1916. No one presenting was an expert, and few of the women (with the exception of Countess Markievicz) were figures of which we had prior knowledge - yet we celebrated their lives and went away the richer for it.

This is what we should be doing in 2016. We cannot all be historians, but we should all be confident accessing and discussing our shared history. Bringing the story of the women who were part of 1916 to kitchen tables, community centres, coffee mornings and work canteens will bring this history alive for all of us. As a legacy, this centenary year must create a platform for progress for women, and at a rate much faster than the one we've seen over the last 100.

Irish Independent

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