Where are all the statues, plaques, and street names commemorating the work of the women who shaped Ireland, asks Clodagh Finn
LET me start small. In the centre of Tralee, Co Kerry, there is a discreet monument to a woman called Judith Brow. She was a street trader who lived to see the grand old age of 110 and spent more than 70 of those years selling her wares in the town square.
The spot where she once stood, barefoot, more than 200 years ago is now marked with a bronze imprint that outlines the hem of her skirt and her footprints.
If you come from the town, you’ve probably walked by artist Kate Palmer’s work several times without noticing this moving tribute to a woman who was brought imaginatively back into the light by Tralee Town Council and Kerry Archaeological Society in 2005.
She is there, though, stitched into the fabric of a square that is still a place of bustle and trade. We don’t know a lot about her life, which spanned from 1725 to 1835, but we can picture her standing here selling potatoes or perhaps turf, fruit, or eggs.
It can’t have been a comfortable life as, in the 18th century, the square was waterlogged and muddy but during her lifetime Judith probably witnessed the introduction of a pump and stepping-stones.
She comes to mind today, ahead of International Women’s Day, and it makes me sad, and angry, to see that the streets and lanes of our towns and cities have so few reminders of the women who passed this way before us.
Look around you. How many of the statues, plaques, street names, and monuments bear the name of Irish women from history? Women, with some notable exceptions, have not only been erased from the pages of our history books but also from our built environment.
In Dublin, just seven of the 200-plus public artworks are dedicated to historical Irish women. That point was made brilliantly last month when Epic, the Irish Emigration Museum, wheeled an empty plinth into the middle of O’Connell St in Dublin to highlight the absence of statues of women.
When writer and comedian Tara Flynn asked passersby who they would like to see inaugurated on the plinth, many of them had to think long and hard before coming up with a few names.
However, as we know, there are no shortage of women to recall in Irish history. We saw that very clearly in the competition to name Cork’s pedestrian bridge last year. Four of the final five candidates were women. They were Irish nationalist and Irish Red Cross advocate Leslie Price de Barra, ballet dancer and teacher Joan Denise Moriarty, Cork-born US labour activist Mother Jones, and Mary Elmes.
The bridge was named after Elmes,a humanitarian whose work in the Spanish Civil War and Second World War saved countless lives.
A decade ago, her work saving Jewish people from deportation to Nazi extermination camps was hardly known but now she is celebrated in her native city at a time when the far right is on the rise all over Europe. It goes to show what can happen when you start to retrieve the stories of women from the past. They can re-emerge with valuable lessons for the present.
It is not enough just to commemorate women though; we must also ask questions about who they really were.
In Waterford, for instance, Aoife MacMurrough is very visible, yet we still tend to think of the 12th-century princess of Leinster as the shy girl-woman whose hand was given to Strongbow (Richard Fitz Gilbert) in exchange for military help.
Sculptors Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery have rendered the couple beautifully in bronze at Bishop’s Palace Garden near the spot where they were said to have married in 1170. This August, as we mark the 850th anniversary of that marriage, it might be worth asking what we actually know about Aoife MacMurrough.
How interesting that we really only begin to get a sense of the woman when we consider her not as Strongbow’s bride, but as his widow. It is only then that she emerges in the surviving records. And in sharp contrast to the image of the timid bride that lingers in the public imagination, the widowed Aoife was a countess with power and influence who exploited her late husband’s considerable estates in England and Wales.
When you start to look back in earnest, our female ancestors begin to reappear as strong, independent, complex people who can no longer be relegated to the footnotes of history.
Thankfully, we are starting to do just that. The compelling Herstory documentary series which has just finished on RTÉ told some of the multi-layered stories of our past through a female lens.
If we are starting to move away from a past animated by tanks, guns, and testosterone, it is also time to get away from the search for one-dimensional heroes and heroines. As Helen Lewis argues in her book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, we also need flawed pioneers; women (and of course men) brought to life with warts and all.
We need to hear the stories of ordinary people, too. Ciarán McCabe’s fascinating history of begging, charity, and religion in pre-Famine Ireland opens an unrivalled window into begging, a daily reality for so many of our forebears.
YET again, here is the problem of visibility. While the majority of beggars in pre-Famine Ireland were women and children, almost all surviving images are of male beggars.
McCabe has also studied charwomen, a group of women who were often at the head of the household yet earned much less than men, even boys. A 16-year-old male apprentice box-maker earned more per week than a charwoman. Their story is important, not least because their experiences of the difficulties of working outside the home later influenced the development of creches in Dublin from the late-19th century.
There is so much more to discover so, this International Women’s Day, let’s begin the slow work of reclaiming all the women who shaped Ireland and making them visible in the world around us.