Women have been largely excluded from general history for a long time, and Irish history isn’t an exception. Most major historical figures are men and children aren’t taught a lot about the women who left their mark. This article will tell you about five important women in Irish history and introduce three websites where you can learn more about them.
In the United States and some other countries, March is Women’s History Month, which celebrates these often-hidden figures; women who achieved great things and helped build the world we know today, but who aren’t always recognized. Women’s history, as a university field of research, was born in the United States and in Britain during the second wave of feminism.
And what about Ireland? Around the world, Irish history is not very well-known and people know even less about the Irish women who played an important part in this history. Fortunately, the internet is full of resources and some websites can help us learn more about the great women of Irish history.
Five names to remember
Gráinne Mhaol, also known as Grace O’Malley or Gráinne Ni Mháille, 16th century
Legends are powerful and often closely linked to history and this is well represented by the figure of Gráinne Mhaol. Known as “the Pirate Queen”, she embodies various values according to one’s perspective: as part of Irish folklore, nationalists see her as a hero of the struggle against English rule in Ireland. Meanwhile, feminists see her as a strong and independent woman, but a victim of her times’ misogynistic laws and beliefs.
Grace is famous for leading a pirate fleet and legends tell us that her father didn’t want her to sail the seas at all, claiming her hair would get in her face or get tangled in the ropes. Grace’s response was to shave her head bald. This is not to forget her epic encounter with Queen Elizabeth I of England at Greenwich Palace.
(credit: Suzanne Mischyshyn)
Margaret Bulkley, also known as Dr James Barry, 18th century
Once again, this woman is a proof of the misogyny of her day, especially when it came to female education. In the 18thcentury, women weren’t allowed in medical school and they couldn’t study medicine or become a doctor, still less a surgeon. Margaret Ann Bulkley, born in Cork, enrolled at Edinburgh University disguised as a man named “James Barry”. Her plan worked and she became a military surgeon in the British Army. Her secret was discovered only after her death.
Margaret Skinnider, 20th century
Born in Scotland of a Scottish mother and an Irish father, Margaret Skinnider left her native country to join the Easter Rising in Dublin of 1916, bringing bomb detonators and wires famously hidden under her hat and clothes. Associate Professor Lisa Weihman of West Virginia University argues that she used her gender to appear less threatening and avoid being suspected. She fought alongside Irish men and she was shot, which makes her, according to the Irish Times, the only woman wounded in action during the Rising. After that, she continued fighting for Irish independence and the rights of women.
Countess Constance Markievicz, 20th century
Constance Markievicz and Margaret Skinnider met during the Easter Rising. Markievicz was one of the women who took part in the struggle to free Ireland and was a leader of the rebellion. Sentenced to death but spared because she was a woman, she was imprisoned but later released.
She was the first woman of any nationality to be elected to the British Parliament (where she never sat because of Sinn Fein’s abstention policy) and went on to become the first female cabinet minister, when she became Minister for Labour in the revolutionary Irish government of 1919 to 1922. She also became a member of Fianna Fáil at its foundation in 1926. Founded in 2011, The Countess Markievicz School is a forum on women in Ireland established in her honour.
(© O’Dea at Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Mary Robinson, 20th/ 21st centuries
Robinson is mostly known as the first woman president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, having received cross-party support from her own Labour Party, the Green Party, and the Workers’ Party. According to an article on Britannica by Associate Professor Michael Marsh of Trinity College, Dublin, “as president, Robinson adopted a much more prominent role than her predecessors, and she did much to communicate a more modern image of Ireland.”
She’s also a constitutional lawyer with broad experience and a supporter of human rights. After her presidency, she went on to become UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, where she continued to fight for human rights around the world. Robinson arguably paved the way for a second woman president: Mary McAleese succeeded her as president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011.
(credit: The Labour Party)
3 websites to know more about women in Irish history
Created in 2016, Herstory is a movement which shines a light on women forgotten by Irish history books. With different categories on the website such as “Modern”, “Historic” or “Mythic”, it looks like a perfect place to find what you’re looking for and learn about women on a larger scale, no matter what period of history you’re interested in.
The movement also organises various projects like light shows to present Irish women and they encourage people to do the same themselves. They also campaign to make St Brigid’s Day a national holiday to honour Saint Brigid of Ireland (or Saint Brigid of Kildare), the only female patron saint of Ireland (“matron Saint”, as it is written on the website).
It’s a very interesting website if you like history and would like to learn more about important female figures. Between feminist movements and historical organisations, you’ll certainly find what you’re looking for on Herstory.ie.
- The feminine hygiene industry and what it says about society’s treatment of women
- The story of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK and Ireland: how has feminism evolved?
It’s unfortunately not the website of a physical museum but a project to “promote the formal recognition of the role of women in Irish history”, the “about the museum” section tells us. Their goal is to educate the public about the contribution of various women in history through research and discussion, especially for the current generation of young women.
The blog is full of very interesting articles on various topics and you can find online exhibits to various figures, including Grace O’Malley and Constance Markievicz, as mentioned above. Each page tells you everything you need to know about women who changed various aspects of Irish life, from politics to science to the arts.
This is not a blog but an association’s website, so you can become a member and take parts in various events:
“The purpose of the association is to encourage and promote studies and research in women’s history, during all periods and from all aspects, and to hold, if possible, an annual conference.”
The association usually hosts events, and also articles and reviews. Their annual conference took place online this year (5-26 March) and you can still find links for their previous conferences.
Women in Irish history marked their times and participated in events that changed the nation forever, but it’s not always easy to find information about them. Fortunately, the internet offers you a good place to start your research. Did you know about these Irish women? Have you ever visited one of these websites? Let us know in the comment section!