Unmanageable Revolutionaries
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Unmanageable Revolutionaries

Women and Irish Nationalism

Margaret Ward

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Unmanageable Revolutionaries

Women and Irish Nationalism

Margaret Ward

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About This Book

This book describes how Irish women have always played a key role in the struggle for independence. The author depicts the role women have played in the 'Irish struggle' from 1881 to the present day, particularly in the crucial post 1916 period, and in so doing underlines the irony whereby 'fellow' nationalists, despite their common struggle, remained factionalised. The author focuses on three pivotal Irish nationalist women's organisations – the Ladies Land League, Inghinidhe na hEireann and Cumann na mBan - and shows how, despite the inherent differences between the three movements, a salient theme emerges, namely the underwhelming extent to which Irish women have been recognised as a driving force in Irish political history. Since Mary Robinson's election as president, however, a new agenda had been set in Irish politics. Irish women politicians are acquiring the profile they deserve - a trend most clearly marked by the 'feminisation' of Sinn Féin. As the Irish political climate changes almost daily, Margaret Ward's Unmanagable Revolutionaries should, therefore, be read not only as a study of past neglect, but also as a celebration and endorsement of emerging recognition of the role of women in Irish politics.

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Publisher
Pluto Press
Year
1995
ISBN
9781783718740
1. The Ladies’ Land League, 1881-82
On 31 January 1881 a remarkable event took place. On that day Irishwomen were asked by Irishmen to take control of the turbulent mass movement known as the Land League. The Land War was then at its height, with thousands of tenant farmers pledged to fight against rack rents and landlord power, and the League leaders knew it was only a matter of time before they were jailed. The formation of a female organisation, which would be outside the terms of the Coercion Act, was therefore essential. Although the men considered women capable only of providing a ‘semblance’ of organisation, the gesture would symbolise their determination not to submit meekly to coercion. So, for the first time in Irish history, women were given the opportunity to participate in a political movement and, in the absence of men, found themselves free to assert their own principles and to develop their own organisational skills. Although little had been expected of them, they quickly revealed a determination to provide far more than ineffectual defiance. For the next 18 months militant women directed the campaign and organised resistance on the ground. As Michael Davitt testified: ‘Everything in the way of defeating the ordinary law and asserting the unwritten law of the League… was more systematically carried out under the direction of the ladies’ executive than by its predecessor.’1
Yet very little has been written about this unique period and Anna Parnell, the driving force behind the Ladies’ Land League, is known only as the sister of Charles Stewart Parnell, hero of the Land League and, at one time, the ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’. The women’s contribution was carefully expurgated from most contemporary accounts, and with good reason: to have given serious consideration to their work would have involved a more critical appraisal of the Land League itself, and that was something many of the male leaders, busy congratulating themselves upon their success, preferred not to do.
The women’s assessment of the situation reveals an uncomfortably different picture, while their activities demonstrated that women were both fully capable of leading a mass movement and could be more efficient and strategically aware than their male colleagues. The rediscovery of Anna Parnell’s history of the period—the caustically entitled The Land League: Tale of a Great Sham’, written to stem this flood of male self-congratulation—has helped to redress the balance. It is a scrupulously impersonal narrative of events, in which she completely effaces her own contribution.2 One historian has, although disagreeing with her conclusions, praised the ‘crystal clarity and surgical precision’ of her analysis.3 Its long disappearance enabled a single interpretation of events to remain dominant, which has not only distorted historical understanding, but has led to repercussions of which later generations of women have been only partially aware. The uncompromising stance of the women left a bitter taste in the mouths of male politicians and they were determined to ensure that women would never again be given the power that had been handed to the Ladies’ Land League. An awareness of the history of the Ladies’ Land League places into perspective the difficulties encountered by other women who later fought for a full and active role within the nationalist movement.
The Parnell Sisters
The Parnells came from a Protestant landed family of moderate wealth. Out of eleven children, three—Anna, Fanny and Charles Stewart—were to devote their lives to the cause of Irish independence. It was an unusual path for members of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, but much of their inspiration came from their American mother, Delia, who was deeply anti-British. Fanny, a well-known writer of nationalist poetry, had attended O’Donovan Rossa’s trial after the Fenian rising of 1867, and she retained a sympathy for Fenianism which was never shared by her brother. Her poems, in particular ‘Hold the Harvest’, described by Davitt as ‘the Marseillaise of the Irish peasant’, gave her a fame which lasted long after her death. Her poetry was published in newspapers in Ireland, England and America, while in Ireland lockets containing her portrait were sold for a shilling.4 While Anna and Fanny did not entirely share the same political views—Anna realised that the physical force tradition completely excluded women from its ranks—they both felt the injustice of women’s sexual oppression.
The period in which they lived offered few socially productive opportunities for women of their class. Ireland was a predominantly rural country with a peasant economy; the basic economic unit was the household, all the members of which worked on the land or in the declining cottage industries, which were adversely affected by the Industrial Revolution taking place in Britain. Only the north provided any large-scale wage labour for women: the Belfast linen industry had a 75 per cent female workforce. But for upper-class women, the role of governess was the only acceptable outlet, and that was a last resort for those without an inheritance.
The Parnell sisters’ position as unmarried daughters from a relatively impoverished Protestant landed family had certain advantages: the family was not part of the conservative Irish Catholic tradition and neither did it hold a particularly important position in the social and economic structures of the country. Delia’s American influence was also important: a contemporary account reveals that Anna was a regular reader of New York and Boston journals, and well acquainted with the views of the early American feminists who were fighting against slavery and for the rights of women.5
As a young girl living at home, she made friends with the Catholic daughters of a local miller, but broke off the friendship because she found them too conservative in their views, especially in their uncritical acceptance of church teaching on the natural inferiority of women. Her independence of mind made close relationships difficult; only Fanny shared her views.
Although Anna studied painting in Paris (where she was accompanied by her mother) and later attended art college in England, she had no hope of ever achieving financial independence. Her income consisted of a small allowance of £100 a year, derived from the Collure estate of another brother, John Howard, and provided by the terms of her father’s will. All the boys inherited property while the girls of the family received identical allowances. Charles, as the inheritor of the family estate of Avondale, was responsible for the support of any member of the family living there. This economic dependence was a humiliation, and Anna wrote with bitterness of the custom of the upper classes of ‘giving all, or nearly all, to the sons and little or nothing to the daughters’.6 The allowances received by such women were usually at the mercy of the family fortunes—if these declined, then one of the first economies was to cut off these stipends. Anna empathised with the ignominy of their position, left to the mercy of charitable funds and ‘little less the victims of the landlords than the tenants themselves’.
As a landlord—albeit a benevolent one—Charles Parnell remained unequivocally a member of his class. Anna, however, became more and more critical of the existing social structures. Her alienation was a consequence of her realisation that, as a dependant of her brother, she was simultaneously of the landlord class and estranged from and exploited by it. Her denunciation of her class was couched in terms which did not exclude her brother: ‘if the Irish landlords had not deserved extinction for anything else, they would have deserved it for the treatment of their own women.’ Few women of similar background saw so clearly the links between their sexual oppression and the class exploitation of labourers and small farmers which underpinned the social and economic structures.
Anna, because of her sex, was deprived of the right to vote or to take political office—a disenfranchisement she acutely resented, as her sardonically entitled Notes From The Ladies’ Cage testifies. This was a series of articles, written for the Celtic Monthly, evaluating the Irish party’s performance in the House of Commons at Westminster; this she witnessed from the secluded gallery where women were allowed to view the proceedings, but not to participate.7 An Irish Suffrage Society had been formed in Dublin, in 1876, by two Quakers, Anna and Thomas Haslam, to campaign for women’s right to vote in local government elections. Its limited aims and moderate views had little appeal for women who wanted a total reform of Irish society and the breaking of the enforced political and economic link with Britain. Anna’s exclusion from political life had a paradoxically positive aspect, enabling her to analyse events unswayed by any considerations of future personal power. While Parnell was courted by the English Liberals, his sister became an uncompromising nationalist, refusing to surrender political principles for short-term personal or political gains.
The formation of the Land League
There had been movements centred around land distribution and high rents before, but none had welded small tenant farmers, large farmers, landless labourers, parliamentarians and politically committed women into a social force which would ultimately change a land system in which 800 landlords owned half the country. Different economic circumstances, combined with a change in political direction, were to create the conditions from which the Land League emerged.
The Great Famine of 1845 had left 800,000 dead while hundreds of thousands fled from the scene of such horror. This decimation of the population had many consequences. People were determined to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again, and the only way of doing that (in the absence of a revolutionary transformation of society) was to reduce the numbers of people dependent upon each plot of land. In the east and south of the country, the small farms had been consolidated into larger ranches, bought up by those who had survived, but in the west the peasants still scraped out a living on their tiny plots of land, the potato still their staple diet. Although it was, in some respects, a pre-Famine existence, they too postponed marriage to a later age and no longer subdivided the land for their sons and daughters, so afraid were they of the consequences of rearing large numbers of children on a food that had once been tainted with blight. Those who had emigrated wrote of the better land they had found, and dissatisfaction grew amongst those at home. Unlike before, the poorest sections of the peasantry were now aware of the disparities between their way of life and that of those who did not have to eke out a miserable living on barren soil, with no security of tenure, paying rents to often absent landlords for an amount far beyond their means. Gradually rising expectations, cruelly frustrated by a new series of disastrous harvests, focused their hopes upon the Land League.
The season of 1879 was the worst experienced by Irish farmers since the Famine. The potato crop, valued at £12,000,000 in 1876, plummeted to £3,500,000. The larger cattle farmers were also suffering as American competition in grain, which was now pouring out of the recently cultivated prairies, affected the whole of western Europe and Irish farmers were no longer able to sell their crops to the British market. Seasonal migrants couldn’t find work in Scotland or England, a loss of earnings which in the west of Ireland alone was reckoned at £250,000.8 As there was no work for them at home, their support for the Land League was inevitable. Shopkeepers and businessmen in the towns identified with the plight of the farming community, because if the farmers couldn’t afford to buy, those who depended on their trade would be financially wiped out.
Social discontent was widespread, and it was at this point that an alliance was formed between those who believed in physical force, the Fenians, and a section of the Irish party at Westminster, led by Charles Stewart Parnell. Devoy, the leader of the American Fenians, together with Michael Davitt, a Mayo man recently released from jail, reached an agreement with Parnell in June 1879 by which the campaign on the land question would have as its central aim the demand for peasant proprietorship. The Fenians believed that no British government would concede this demand, so the League would eventually be forced to transform itself into a movement for national independence. Therefore, what appeared on the surface to be a purely economistic movement had the potential to become an instrument of revolutionary nationalism. For his part, Parnell wanted to form an all-class movement to campaign for Home Rule—a limited form of self-government—and he believed that this would only be achieved when the land question had been resolved. As far as he was concerned, the Land League was not a revolutionary challenge to the exploitative landlord system, but a vehicle to reform its most glaring abuses. Once that had been accomplished, landlords would unite with tenants to fight for Irish political independence. He was therefore careful not to offend the larger landed interests while aiming at this all-class alliance, and he avoided discussions on such radical problems as landless labourers or land redistribution. For the same reason, he was against calling for a full-scale rent strike, because the more prosperous farmers would not have agreed to any actions which would leave them liable to eviction—they were in secure possession of their farms and what they wanted was a reduction in rent. On the other hand, Anna Parnell and some of the more radical members of the Land League believed that in the early part of 1880, while the League was in the ascendant and morale was high, the policy of rent strike would have had some chance of success. It was certainly the only time when it could have been reasonably adopted as a tactic.
Davitt had formed the Mayo Land League on 16 August 1879. That summer, blight appeared in the potato fields and excessive rain ruined the harvest. The threat of eviction increased. A central body to direct and co-ordinate resistance was essential so, on 21 October, the Irish National Land League, with Parnell as its president, came into existence. Its objects were declared to be the reduction of rack rents and the ownership of the soil by the occupiers of the soil.9
The first battle against eviction took place at Carraroe, Connemara, on 5 January 1880, when bailiffs, escorted by armed police, attempted to evict impoverished peasants for failure to pay their rent. It was a ‘bloody conflict’, with the police using bayonets and firing volleys over the heads of the crowd. The ‘fierce daring’ women who led the resistance displayed what observers felt to be ‘utter recklessness of life’, and they forced the police and bailiffs to withdraw.10 But although the people won that ...

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