It was never just England. It was always Pagan England. When I was a small child at school in Ireland, that was the difference between us. England was pagan, and Ireland was holy. And Holy Ireland had no place for liberated women.
So what happened to the promise of equality in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read out on Easter Monday 1916 by the poet and rebel leader Patrick Pearse, and addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”? The proclamation declared an end to British rule but it also guaranteed religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens. It made a commitment to universal suffrage, extraordinary for the time, and two years before women in Britain won the vote.
So how did the document’s message become stifled by a conservative culture obsessed with female chastity and purity, and so terrified of glimpsing the outlines of a woman’s body that in the 1950s we were still condemned to conceal ourselves in voluminous cardigans? How did that dream of a radical, free Ireland give way in the succeeding years to Holy Ireland, where generations of women felt they had to hide themselves away?
Historians now tell us that there was a tussle to have women included so pointedly in the proclamation. It was a struggle won by James Connolly – socialist, trade union leader and head of the Irish Citizen Army – and by Constance Markievicz, the prominent feminist and socialist. But even two years later in the general election of 1918, when Sinn Féin swept the boards, it was clear that socialists and feminists had been pushed aside. Most of the dreamers and visionaries had been shot in 1916, and a more pragmatic and conservative leadership concentrated totally on the nationalist goal of separation from the UK. The Irish Labour movement decided to stand aside in 1918 so as not to split the nationalist vote, and the only woman elected was Markievicz.
However, the real change that occurred between 1916 and 1918 was that the Roman Catholic church had finally come on board to back the rebel cause. The church didn’t like radical movements, and individual senior church men actually condemned the 1916 Easter Rising. But anger at the execution of the rising’s leaders swung public opinion firmly behind the rebels, and the Catholic church, ever pragmatic, quietly changed its stance.
The church was by far the largest and most powerful institution in the new Irish state that would emerge six years after the rebellion, and was determined to shape it. The first Free State government tried in its first constitution to reflect a pluralist state, but in Eamon de Valera’s 1937 constitution the church was given a special position, and its social teachings were enshrined. Contraception and divorce were expressly banned – and women were told to stay at home.
Article 41 of the constitution declared that the state shall “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. This was used not to give state support to women who stayed at home, but to discriminate against women who went out to work. Women public servants – doctors, nurses, teachers, television producers – had to resign because of their positions on marriage. They might be re-employed in a temporary capacity but at a reduced salary. There were always lower rates of pay for women in the public and the private sector.
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.