Why, 100 years after the Easter Rising, are Irish women still fighting?

Drawn by the ideals of 1916, many women signed up to the republican cause. Photograph: Delia McDevitt
Drawn by the ideals of 1916, many women signed up to the republican cause. Photograph: Delia McDevitt

This continued right up into the 70s, and a male-dominated establishment – including the trade union movement – went along with it. I remember arguing about women’s right to equal pay with a prominent Irish union leader. “When men with families get a decent wage,” he said, “I’ll start to worry about equal pay for women.”

Women always had to wait. Even when the then EEC insisted on equal pay in 1975, a government that included the Irish Labour party put off implementing it. It was only when the civil rights lawyer Mary Robinson, who would much later be elected Ireland’s president, told us all to write to the European commission – and we did – that the government was shamed into implementing equal pay.

So as long as Ireland was isolated and inward-looking, women did badly. As soon as membership of the European Union opened Ireland up to a wider world, the lot of women improved. But what if Ireland had never achieved independence, had remained part of the British empire, had not become the confessional state it became after independence – would life have been better for Irish women?

All I know is that Pagan England certainly spelled freedom for my two O’Leary aunts. They were nurses who joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service during the second world war. One served in field hospitals in France after the D-day landings; the other survived when the boat taking her to serve in India was torpedoed.

They both went on to settle in England and lead lives that might well have been forbidden to them as Catholics in Ireland. One married an Anglican and converted to Anglicanism; the other married a divorcee. Their families in Ireland may have been shocked, but the aunts were able to lead the lives they wanted to.

England was where pregnant unmarried Irish girls could go and have their babies and not be judged; where women who had been enslaved in the Magdalene Laundries could start new lives and not be judged; where Irish women can have abortions today and not be judged. Pagan England has often offered Irish women a more Christian welcome than they would ever have got at home.

So did living in an independent Ireland make me as a woman less free? No. What it did mean was that we had a lot of battles to fight in order to feel like full citizens of the Irish republic. And I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, at a special event in Dublin to commemorate – for perhaps the first time – the Irish women who took part in the Easter Rising, and to honour the involvement of Irish women in the life of the state ever since.

This weekend marks the high point of the 1916 centenary commemorations in Dublin, but I’m deeply ambivalent about the Easter Rising. I admire the bravery of people like my own grandfather who was involved in both that rebellion and the war of independence. I also have to ask if 1916 created a precedent for armed republican violence in Northern Ireland during the troubles.

So looking down at that audience of brilliant Irish women, I preferred to be inspired by the living, rather than the dead. We have a female chief justice, a female attorney general, a female director of public prosecutions, a female head of the Garda Síochána (police), a female minister for justice, a female deputy prime minister, and a whole new crop of members of parliament to swell women’s numbers in the Dail. They all represent battles hard won. But there are more to be tackled, including a woman’s right to abortion.

The fight for Irish freedom goes on.

Olivia O'Leary is an Irish journalist, writer and current affairs presenter. She is co-author of the book Mary Robinson: The Authorised Biography.

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