Have Irish Women been Erased from History?

Putting Women Back Into History
Putting Women Back Into History

As an ode to International Women’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day, there needs to be a celebration of Irish women who inspired us all. For so long, women have been left out of history and the world has been thought to be created by men’s accomplishments alone.

Putting Women Back Into History
Putting Women Back Into History

Try to think of historical Irish women. There are a few names that come up:

Countess Markievicz!

Mary McAleese!

Mary Robinson!

Uhhh…Queen someone…Queen Maeve right? Wait, was she real?

But you could probably list off a lot of men’s names: Pearse, Connolly, de Valera, Collins, Plunkett, Clarke. Or if your memory is good why not just count off all 13 Taoiseachs and 7 male Presidents.

But why is this?

Historian Bettany Hughes spoke about how women are 50% of the population but only take up around 0.5% of mainstream recorded history despite the fact that there are lots of portraits and sculptures of women going back thousands of years. These women were important at the time and yet forgotten by history.

So why aren’t more women remembered?

Bettany Hughes spoke to englishheritage.org in 2016:

“A lot of the women that we think of, like Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, one of the reasons their stories have lasted is that they are portrayed as highly sexualised. They are exciting, but the danger of their influence has also become a warped morality tale; we remember them as creatures who draw men towards their beds and towards their death.

There are brilliantly feisty women from history who have made an impact, and whose stories need to be told. We need to actively look for women’s stories, and put them back into the historical narrative, there are so many women that should be household names but just aren’t.”

We need to actively look for women’s stories, and put them back into the historical narrative

A recent analysis of early cave drawings suggests that women actually made most of the art. Previous research had suggested that it had to have been the male hunter-gatherers who made the art as it was assumed that the women would not be as involved. The new research indicates that these unwarranted assumptions were biased speculations from predominately male archaeologists and their bias led them to assume that the artwork was created by men.

So there is a bias against women and an erasure of women in history. But it is also the confines women have found themselves in because of society which restricted their appearance in mainstream history.

Historian and Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at UCD, Dr. Mary McAuliffe, spoke to The Circular about Cumann na mBan and how they and other women like them were overlooked in history.

“In mainstream history, Cumann na mBan become a footnote. They become the nurses, they become the sweet caring ladies rather than these people who had committed their lives to and seen violence and war and bloodshed.”

Eilis ni Riain - Cumann na mBan - photo credit DFArchives (Flickr)
Eilis ni Riain – Cumann na mBan – photo credit DFArchives (Flickr)

Women were restricted in their choice of jobs and even in jury service. The Juries Act was introduced in 1927 which exempted women from serving on juries as women were felt to have enough to do at home and the details of some cases were too horrible for them to hear. The Conditions of Employment Act in 1936 meant that the number of women that could be employed in an industry was reduced as was the types of industries that women could work in. The marriage bar in 1932 required female civil service workers to retire when they got married.

Dr. McAuliffe considers the State set up at the time to be a major contributing factor in how women are remembered.

“The new state wasn’t a great place for them (Cumann na mBan women) to be. They lost their place in history and because they walked away from the Treaty, you don’t have a lot of women being elected to government. So what happens is that squeezing of women out of work, out of public spaces, out of the civil service, out of government, out of having that public space in which to express their viewpoints.

But if we look around that, they’re in social care, they’re in education. So many of them do other things but it’s outside of the mainstream political history. And you get a survey history of Ireland, that’s not going to include that broad a scope so the women don’t get included in it. But I think now, no historian worth their salt could not broaden out what they’re looking at in term of Ireland’s political, social, cultural histories and not include the women because excluding them means you’re only telling half the story.”

Here are three Irish women you may not have heard about but deserve to be remembered:

Madeleine ffrench-Mullen

Madeleine ffrench-Mullen - photo credit (Geni.com)
Madeleine ffrench-Mullen – photo credit (Geni.com)

A radical feminist and Irish revolutionary who served as a lieutenant in the Irish Citizen Army, she fought in the 1916 Easter Rising under Countess Markiewicz at St. Stephen’s Green and was a member of Cumann na mBan. She was arrested and shared a prison cell with Dr. Kathleen Lynn who became her partner and lover for the next 30 years until ffrench-Mullen’s death in 1944. Together they opened the female-run Saint Ultan’s Children’s Hospital and established a vaccination project, vaccinating thousands of poor children at a time when TB was running rampant in Dublin. Their success led to the foundation of Ireland’s BCG programme, which has vaccinated children since the 1950s.

Mary Elmes

Mary Elmes - Photo Credit AFSC Archives

Mary Elmes – Photo Credit AFSC Archives and Smashing Times


Mary Elmes was born in Cork in 1908 and studied at Trinity College Dublin. Mary went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to work in children’s hospitals. During the Holocaust, she helped save the lives of Jewish children from a holding centre for Jews destined for concentration camps by smuggling them across the border. She was arrested and jailed for six months on suspicion of helping Jews escape and then returned to this role after her release and saved what many believe to be hundreds of lives. Mary was the first Irish person to be honoured by Israel’s official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Rosamund Jacob


Rosamund Jacob – photo credit Waterford in you Pocket


Rosamund was an Irish writer, activist, and suffragist. She was involved in many of the political and cultural campaigns of early twentieth-century Ireland including the Irish language revival. Rosamund was a member of Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan. She was imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail during the Irish Civil War and visited the USSR in 1931 as a delegate of the Friends of the Soviet Union. She was a novelist writing books including ‘Callaghan’ and ‘The Troubled House’ which are her perspective on contemporary political campaigns and debates. She became the lover of controversial Republican Frank Ryan during the 1920s and she played a leading role in the political campaign to secure Ryan’s freedom from Nationalist Spain after he had fought in the Spanish Civil War, and later worked to defend his reputation after news of his death in Nazi Germany became known.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.