Rewriting history as 'her-story'

Kerry writer Clodagh Finn's new Book champions unsung female pioneers of the national story

Concubhar Ó Liatháin

A desire to challenge the male domination of history has prompted a Kerry-born author to compile a book of Ireland's unsung heroines, among them a daughter of Buttevant who became a pioneering journalist in London's Fleet Street at the turn of the last century.

Clodagh Finn's "Through her eyes", published by Gill, brings together 20 extraordinary women from Irish history, stretching back to the Celtic goddess Macha right up to pioneering biotechnologist Jenna Redmond who died in 2016.

One of the most fascinating women to be featured in the book is Clotilde Graves from Buttevant who left her North Cork home to become Fleet Street's first woman journalist, playwright and author of several best selling novels. 

Despite her success as a writer she died impoverished in 1932. 

Such was her international renown, her death was reported as far away as New Zealand and the Cork Examiner described her as not only Irish by her birth in Buttevant but because of "her gift of humour and sense of the tears of things".

Writing about the pioneering journalist a century later, Clodagh Finn couldn't recall where she first saw a brief mention of Clotilde Graves but it was enough to make her search further.

"She was one of the very first female journalists on Fleet Street in London and a gifted writer who could write in any genre. I was very taken by the description of her when she worked on Grub Street as the famous centre of journalism was known in the 1890s. 

"She wore her hair short, dressed liked a man, smoked cigarettes and liked bicycling and fly fishing. 

"She was 'quite one of us', one unnamed editor wrote in a London periodical in April 1890.

"In a career that lasted nearly 50 years, she wrote 15 novels including a bestseller under the male pseudonym Richard Dehan some 20 plays, nine short story compilations and several thousand articles."

Clotilde Graves was born in 1863, the third daughter of Major William Henry Graves and his wife Antoinette Deane. Clotilde would use a form of her mother's maiden surname as her pen name for her best selling novel, The Dop Doctor. 

They lived in the barracks in the North Cork town. She was educated in Lourdes, converted to Catholicism and lost and regained her sight in her youth. Her fascinating life story came to an end in the Our Lady of Lourdes Convent in Middlesex on December 3, 1932 at the age of 69. She was mostly forgotten for several decades though her name featured as a clue in an Irish Press crossword in 1971. 

This drawing of the veil over the role of remarkable women from history is typical of the preoccupation with history as viewed through 'his' eyes, Clodagh feels. 

"Perhaps it's a symptom of the male focus of 'his' story that she has been forgotten," said Clodagh. 

"I wanted to try to bring her back in the spotlight as she achieved so much in her lifetime and overcame many obstacles including constant ill health."

Other women to feature in the book include Kerry's version of Michelangelo, Sr Dahalin, a woman who painted the Oratory at Kerry Head; Aoife Mac Murrough, a remarkable woman in her own right but who was infamously married to Strongbow as part of her father's ill-fated plan to become High King of  Ireland, and Ellen Hutchins, Ireland's first female botanist. 

Clodagh's previous book, A Time To Risk All, told the story of Cork woman Mary Elmes who rescued 427 Jewish children  from the Nazi Holocaust that she was the only Irish person to be afforded the honour 'Righteous among the nations" by the state of Israel. 

Cork city's newest bridge has been named after Mary Elmes in recent weeks. 

Clodagh is currently on the lookout for more untold stories to bring into the light. 

In the meantime she is due to be in Mallow shortly where she will be signing copies of her book in Philip's bookshop in the town on Saturday, November 2.