Seeing as March is Women’s Month, there is no better time to highlight seven of the most badass Irish women throughout history. From heroines of centuries ago to contemporary pacemakers, these are individuals who have shaped the cultural landscape in Ireland one way or another and whose contributions pave the way for other women to succeed in turn.
1. Constance Markievicz
I would be remiss not to start this list with the one and only Countess Constance Markievicz, the revolutionary politician, rebel, activist, and supreme badass. She devoted her life to the pursuit of Irish freedom and women’s rights while championing the interests of the poor and working class people of Ireland.
Arrested several times for her political activism, Markievicz demonstrated an unflinching commitment to the causes she believed in. She joined the revolutionary women’s group Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) in 1908, and was arrested in 1911 for protesting King George V’s visit to Ireland. During the labour lockout of 1913, the most significant industrial dispute between workers and employers in Irish history, Markievicz sold her jewellery and took out loans in order to provide food for the protestors and their families.
She was the first woman elected to British parliament in 1918 but refused her seat, and from 1919 to 1922 became the only woman to serve in the first Dáil Éireann as the minister of labour.
She took an active part in the 1916 Easter Rising, offering the following advice to other women who wanted to participate: “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots. Leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”
2. Katie Taylor
Professional boxer and badass Katie Taylor is unparalleled in her field. The 35-year old fighter from Bray is a two-weight world champion, and the current undisputed lightweight champion.
Taylor is one of just eight boxers in history – male or female – to hold all four major boxing titles at once: World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC), International Boxing Federation (IBF), and World Boxing Organisation (WBO).
Especially given the nascence of the female boxing genre, Taylor’s rise to the status of boxing legend has set a precedent for women’s fighting in Ireland and beyond. She has said that, growing up, she never saw women fighters on professional cards, so to be able to set an example for other women to follow is “a great legacy”.
Aspiring to achieve something you have never seen done before is pretty much the definition of badass.
Taylor told BBC Sport in 2020: “I want girls to do even better than I have done in my career. That is what true legacy looks like.”
3. Grace O’Malley
This legendary Irish figure is often referred to as the ‘Pirate Queen’ for her seafaring life and rejection of 16th century feminine ideals. O’Malley ruled the seas off the western coast of Ireland, commanding respect and loyalty among ships full of men. As her father was a seafarer, she learned the business of international trade from his example and even, as a young woman, cut off all her hair when her father denied her from joining an expedition on the basis that her long hair would get stuck in the ropes. She was not a woman who took ‘no’ for an answer.
When the English Council complained of O’Malley’s ships behaving like pirates, she feigned a compromise while continuing to pillage English ships all along the southern coast of Ireland. In 1593 during a meeting with Queen Elizabeth, O’Malley refused to bow on the basis that she herself was a queen, and not a subject of England.
Throughout her expeditions, O’Malley also managed to mother four children, one of whom she is said to have birthed on the high seas. Hours later, she is purported to have picked up her gun to join a fight on deck with raiding Algerian pirates. What. A. Badass.
4. Sinead O’Connor
We all know her best by her hauntingly beautiful voice and inimitable stage presence, and maybe also by a certain clip in which she tears up a photo of Pope John Paul II on live television.
Sinead O’Connor is many things, but you can never say she isn’t brave.
In addition to being a striking vocalist and lyricist, O’Connor is a champion of women’s rights and an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church for its human rights abuses. Though she has received criticism for her brash displays of protest, O’Connor has never diluted her passion for telling the truth, no matter the cost. She has repeatedly stood by her often controversial performances, reminding audiences everywhere that you should not sacrifice your morals for popularity or fame.
In a 2021 interview with CBC Radio, O’Connor said “I’m an Irish artist, and we have a history of causing riots in the streets with songs and plays. You know, back in the old days, you couldn’t put an Irish play on without there being a riot in the street after, or, you know, mounted police on horses outside the gigs in London. Our job as Irish artists [is] to cause riots in the streets.”
O’Connor has also been one of the most honest voices on mental illness, speaking publicly about her struggles and encouraging others to be open about their own. In a country that has been resistant to come to terms with such issues, her candour on the subjects of mental illness, abuse, and faith has been an act of revolution unto itself.
5. Mary McAleese
Mary McAleese served as Ireland’s eighth president, but she is also something of a multi-hyphenate. She taught as a professor of Criminal Law and Criminology at Trinity College Dublin, became the first female pro-vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, and has worked as a barrister, a journalist, and a presenter. The woman is seriously productive.
In 2018, McAleese famously called out the Catholic Church for being an “empire of misogyny”. She went on to say: “This regrettable situation arises because the Catholic Church has long since been a primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny…Its leadership has never sought a cure for that virus although the cure is freely available. Its name is equality.”
In 1975, she chaired a meeting to discuss a woman’s right to choose and was quoted as having said, “I would see the failure to provide abortion as a human rights issue”. She has also spent a great deal of her career campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights, from founding the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform with noted civil rights activist David Norris in 1975, to speaking publicly at innumerous LGBTQ+ conferences and events in support of gay rights and an end to homophobia in Ireland.
McAleese is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, which consists of 83 current and former female presidents and prime ministers. I would argue she is also a member of the Professional Society of Women Badasses.
6. Catherine Corless
Historian Catherine Corless is responsible for uncovering one of the most harrowing human rights scandals in modern Irish history: the hundreds of deaths and disappearances of children at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam.
Corless is a resident of Tuam and a local historian. In the RTE documentary ‘The Missing Children’ she explains that, upon bringing up her own children, she grew interested in learning what became of the children reared in the local mother and baby home in Tuam during the mid twentieth century. Through tireless research into the 796 children declared dead by the nuns at Bon Secours, she soon unearthed the horrific truth about what went on not just in the mother and baby home in Tuam, but in similar institutions around the country.
Her brave efforts opened a window for victims and their families to at last earn some understanding and closure regarding the tragedies at mother and baby homes in Ireland. And, in doing so, she started an honest discourse about the deeply misogynistic culture that has existed in Catholic Ireland for so many years.
Since her major discovery in 2014, Corless has been awarded numerous prizes for her groundbreaking work. Most notably, she received the lifetime achievement award from the Irish Red Cross for her investigations into the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home.
7. Bernadette Devlin
A civil rights leader, activist, and politician from Northern Ireland, Bernadette Devlin is perfect for ending this list with a bang. At age 21, Devlin was the youngest woman ever elected to British Parliament in 1969, and perhaps the most self-assertive, too. She helped to form the student civil rights campaigning movement, People’s Democracy, as well as the Irish Republican Socialist Party. She has been an unstoppable voice of advocacy for women and minorities across Ireland.
Devlin was essential in organising the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, in which a working class community in Derry stood up against prejudice.
She was also present during the Bloody Sunday massacre in which thirteen Catholics were murdered by the British Army, and was denied the right to speak about it in the British House of Commons. So, when the British Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maulding claimed the violence committed by the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday was done in “self defence”, Devlin got up and slapped the man across the face.
It was an assault which later became the subject of the title song on a 1990 album called Slap! by the band Chumbawamba.
In 1981, there was an assassination attempt launched on Devlin and her husband which resulted in her being shot over nine times in front of her children. Miraculously, both survived, and Devlin has not been silenced.
She has played a crucial role in the Republican involvement in the peace process in Northern Ireland. In a testament to her tenacity, Devlin said: “We were born into an unjust system; we are not prepared to grow old in it.”