True heroines of 1916 forgotten in attempt to feminise the Rising

Why we are attempting to lionise a woman because she could be as brutal as male soldiers, asks Victoria White
True heroines of 1916 forgotten in attempt to feminise the Rising

I AM sick, sore and tired of hearing about the women of 1916. Women’s role in the 1916 Rising was marginal.

Estimates vary as to the number of women who were directly involved in the Rising, from as few as 100 to as many as 200. Estimates also vary as to how many combatants, in all, were “out” for the Rising, but the current figure seems to be about 2,500.

You don’t need a degree in mathematics to work out how small the role of women was. The determined warping of historical fact is interesting in lots of ways.

It shows that we only tell ourselves the bits of history we want to hear. The brutal, male military story falls hard on our soft modern ears. We had to feminise the Rising if we wanted to celebrate it.

So we have come to a situation where a casual tourist would swear the GPO was taken by women, that seven women signed the Proclamation, and that Countess Markievicz was the brains behind it all.

Of all the women who have got their share of limelight this Easter Week — from Kathleen Lynn, to Margaret Skinnider to Louise Gavan Duffy to Aoife de Burca and Helena Molony — surely the bould countess has basked most.

To me, she is an unattractive woman, emotionally stunted and intellectually unoriginal. She was a simple zealot who happened on the Irish national cause as a focus for her zeal. She started her life as a young woman hunting and shooting around the extensive estate of Lissadell, Co Sligo, and stories abound of her beauty and courage as she galloped around the place on her horses.

A neighbour in Sligo described her as “attracted by danger” and during Easter Week, she exchanged foxes and rabbits for people. It is a matter of historical controversy whether she shot dead Constable Lahiff at the entrance to St Stephen’s Green and so is the story that she shouted, “I got him!”

Her biographer Anne Haverty says that “This was now a war situation and it was the duty of a good soldier to shoot the enemy.”

But surely what we have to ask ourselves is why we are attempting to lionise a woman because she could be as brutal as male soldiers? We are looking at an event which was certainly gendered — with the male gender — and trying to feminise it. In so doing, we are focussing obsessively on the actions of a tiny group of women, some of whom were principled and brave, and some of whom were just bonkers.

The countess surely belongs to the latter category. Haverty’s story of the countess bringing children out for motoring trips and embarrassing them horribly by shouting “imperiously” for them from the door of Woolworth’s “for all the shop to hear” sticks in my mind.

But there are far more serious reasons to steer clear of her as a role model. She more or less dumped her daughter Maeve in Sligo from early childhood and had very little to do with her throughout her life. Apparently she used to mention her “little daughter” to her friend Kathleen Barry who was surprised on meeting Maeve to find her a grown woman — and more surprised when she was asked to point the countess out to her daughter because Maeve did not recognise her.

Why should a woman’s lack of attention to her child be recorded when a man’s would not? But why do we lionise emotionally stunted people, in general? Why is our recorded history about killing, not loving?

Why do we focus on the bombing of O’Connell St and fail to pan out to the kitchens of Dublin where women daily faced struggles as great as those which faced the insurgents: desperately scraping together enough food for desperately loved children as pregnancy followed pregnancy? Sorry, but the true female heroes of 1916 are the poor women who defeated forces much mightier than those of the Crown — hunger, pestilence, poverty — to get their families through Easter Week.

To find their history, we must look to the fiction writers of the time, James Stephens and Sean O’Casey among them. Pity the impoverished family in Stephens’s Hunger and marvel at the strength of O’Casey’s Juno, now playing in Dublin at the Gate Theatre. Ask yourself why these women have no names except made-up ones, despite the fact that they out-numbered the female insurgents of 1916 by hundreds of thousands.

It is in Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, that we read some of the stark reality of women’s experience of war, such as their determination that their men would go out and fight so that they could claim the “Separation Allowance”. It is no wonder that the “Separation Women” who jeered the 1916 insurgents for stopping them getting their week’s “Separation Allowance” because of the hostilities don’t figure among the “Women of 1916”. They reserved the most bile, apparently, for the countess’s breeches.

COUNTESS Markievicz made sterling use of the Polish title she acquired by marriage; her mythology would be far less potent if she was merely a posh lady called Constance Gore-Booth.

She did rescue a green bedspread from her dog, Poppet, just in time to make of it the flag which fluttered the words “Irish Republic” from the GPO this week 100 years ago. She was also the first person to read the Proclamation in public.

But the truth is that the events we are “celebrating” this week were led by men and women had bit parts. Haverty describes Countess Markievicz as being “unique” in being “in the forefront” in the run-up to the Rising.

“Her position was tenuous,” writes Haverty, “but she was determined to keep it.”.

Of course Constance Gore-Booth was highly unusual among women in so many ways, being rich and privileged and seemingly free of much sense of responsibility towards her family.

Most of the women who were involved in the Rising worked in the background as seemingly unsuspicious messengers and as carers.

The Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War were gendered male, just as the Great War amounted to the mass slaughter of men in the prime of life. The wipe-out of the male gender was so successful that one UK headmistress warned in the early 1920s that only one in 10 of her girls would marry and the newspapers blared that there were two million “surplus women”.

Single women, whether by choice or not, then transformed society in the UK. But what troubles me is that we do not stand against the mass massacre of men which occurs in war, but instead attempt to lionise the few women prepared to take part in the massacre.

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