Tuesday 16 January 2018

Seven Women, RTE One, review: 'handsomely presented, detailed, eye-opening tribute to distaff fighters and supporters of 1916'

Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

This being an era of a relentless, round-the-clock demand for media – that insists on being filled – we’re seeing an almost uncountable amount of programmes about the Easter Rising and this year’s centenary.

Some of this stuff is warranted; some of it is vague, tangential and even pointless. (I recently heard a radio trailer for a bit about statistics concerning the Irish police force in 1916 – I gave that one a pass.)

However, the place of women in the Rising is a very worthy subject, for two reasons: they played a pivotal role, at a time when women were generally not allowed involvement in most things outside the home; and that role has been wiped out of history.

So if nothing else, it’s good that this injustice be redressed. As we saw on Seven Women (RTE) tonight, many of the women who took part in the Rising later gave detailed testimony to historians – but, given the male-dominated virtual theocracy which Ireland became post-independence, that testimony was hidden away for 50 years.

Presented and narrated by the great theatre and film actress Fiona Shaw, Seven Women was a handsomely presented, detailed and often eye-opening tribute to the distaff fighters and supporters of 1916.

The documentary drew on a wealth of archival material – most usefully and powerfully, of course, the titular seven’s first-hand testimony – and thoughtful contributions from a range of historians, interspersed with solidly crafted dramatic re-enactments of pivotal moments.

The most famous of the seven women is doubtless Countess Constance Markievicz, one bad-ass mama whose life sometimes comes across almost less like a real person, and more like a fictional character in some blood-thundering Victorian adventure story.

Her tale wasn’t all sweetness and light – indeed the programme didn’t shy away from the grisly reality of the Rising in general – and that story of Markievicz shooting dead a policeman in Stephen’s Green remains unsettling. But she was a powerful woman too, and more pertinently here, a hugely important symbol, for people of her time and into the future.

The other women explored were a mixture of types, jobs, backgrounds, even nationalities. Helena Moloney was an actress, newspaper editor and Citizen Army member. Margaret Skinnider was a Scottish-born maths teacher, Leslie Price another teacher. Aoife de Burca was a nurse, Louise Gavin Duffy an Irish language advocate and leader of the Gaelic League.

Perhaps most intriguing, because she gave the counter-view and ensured the documentary couldn’t slide into simple hagiography, was Elsie Mahaffy. The daughter of the then-Trinity Provost, she saw much of what happened, chronicled all that she saw – and disapproved strongly of the violence.

The most affecting thing about Seven Women, seen from a century later, is knowing how it all turned out afterwards. These women, we were told, would have seen sexual, class and national freedom as interlinked; they were fighting for Irish independence, economic equality and the right to vote and full citizenship.

And they had to fight for the right to fight: during the Rising, many of the male soldiers didn’t want women there. (This, it should be noticed, was more out of old-fashioned “no place for a lady” chivalry than any particular misogyny.)

They should have known it wouldn’t end well, even then. The Proclamation famously included “Irishmen and Irishwomen” in its opening lines, but Dev and his fellow religio-ideologists got their hands on power and it was back to the kitchen sink, gals.

Indeed, one contributor even declared that Irish women would have been better off had we stayed part of the UK. And that, after all the shooting and fighting and killing and dying, is probably the saddest part of all.

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