Thursday, September 8, 2016

Women in Ireland

Ireland, the beautiful Emerald Isle, off the coast of mainland Europe is the wonderful place I happily call home. Though small in both size and population, this fine nation has provided the world with some of the greats; Oscar Wilde, U2, and Conor McGregor, to name but a few. We are a nation that prides ourselves on our patriotism as we know how hard those who came before us had to work for independence. And we are a nation that have the incredible ability to grow and reform with the times.  

In the past century Ireland has practically never failed to evolve and accept change. While I can appreciate that, at times, such evolution is difficult and requires a great deal of effort and sacrifice, it is rare that a minority feels unaccepted or undervalued in our society. We have, in a relatively short amount of time, become independent from British Rule, legalised homosexual marriage, and has made major improvements with respect to feminism and women’s rights.

As was the case in most countries, and perhaps still is in some, Ireland was not always a place in which women were regarded as first-class citizens. Women had to fight to receive recognition of their status as humans deserving of basic human rights, such as the right to vote and the right to work. During the 1916 Easter Rising, a time during which the citizens of Ireland rebelled against British Rule to gain independence, Constance Markievics was a woman who was heavily involved in the organisation and carrying out of the rebellion. Due to the rebels’ immediate failure the most prominent figures involved were sentenced to death. Constance Markievics, however, who, due to her sex, was not. Even though she participated almost equally to the sixteen other men who were executed, she was instead sentenced to life in prison. The blatant sexism outraged her, of course. 

In my opinion, the strong presence of the Catholic faith in Ireland contributed to a significant portion of the oppression of women. According to the 1946 Census of Ireland 94% of the country identified as Roman Catholic. Due to this society placed a burden on women to behave a certain way. It was largely uncommon for children to be had outside of wedlock, and often those young women who did fall pregnant were placed into labour-intensive facilities referred to as the Magdalene Laundries. There they would work during their pregnancy and, upon the birth of their baby, it would be adopted by strangers. Married women were viewed as being inferior to their husbands. Their place was in the home raising children. It was common for families to have many kids and, being granddaughter to a woman who came from a family of thirteen children, I speak from experience. The Marriage Bar prevented married women from working outside the home.

Change in Ireland came about slowly at first. The right to vote was granted to women in 1918 which was a massive step in the development of women’s rights. First-wave feminists such as Maude Gonne and Constance Markievics relinquished their titles to new and determined second-wave feminists including the likes of Nell McCafferty and Nuala O’Faolain, women working hard for equality of the sexes. The 1970s brought with them times of monumental change for Irish women with massive statutory reform in favour of equal treatment of women and men. These changes came about in many areas such as employment and property rights with the legalisation of contraception occurring in the 1980s in spite of the ever-present Roman Catholic faith.

As I am Irish, my knowledge of the development of American feminism and the movements towards women’s rights was significantly lacking. I had barely ever before heard the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony prior to my first Feminist Legal Theory Class. Therefore, the ability to watch their progress and the progress of so many others that followed their lead, such as Hillary Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro, was truly enlightening. Knowing the history and improvements that had occurred in my own country made it decidedly fascinating to observe those of America. Comparing, contrasting and evaluating the various similarities and distinctions was an interesting process. It allowed me to further understand the turmoil and effort that those who came before us put into achieving basic human rights.

The history of feminism, regardless of the country in which it took place, is always impressive and always inspiring. Being a more passive person than I would like to be, I have a tendency to allow things to take their own course without my own interference. However, when it comes to the topic of feminism I look at all the good that has been done. I am pleased with the progress that has been made for us but it also strikes me just how far we have yet to go. 


Flamingo said...

I had never heard of the Magdalene Laundries so I researched a little about it and was astounded to find that the Catholic League calls it "popular mythology" ( It seems like the catholic church does not recognize the "fallen women" and institution of the laundries, even though a formal state apology was made. I find it utterly interesting, thank you for mentioning them!

Also, I learned that abortion is illegal in Ireland unless the woman's life is at risk. Even pregnancies caused by rape or incest are still illegal it seems. Do you think that is about to change soon? Is it common for Irish women to travel to another country to get an abortion?

Joan Maya said...

Thank you for such an informative post on the obstacles women have had to face in Ireland in the past and presently. With regards to the role Catholicism plays as being a barrier for women’s rights, have you found it is culturally acceptable for women in Ireland to take birth control? To talk about abortion? And is the push to have more female representation in the Church leadership seen as a feminist issue by Irish women?

Julie Maguire said...

The abortion debate has been a very talked about subject in Ireland in recent years. In 2012 a woman named Savita Halappanavar died following complications during pregnancy. Due to the Irish law on abortion the hospital protected the life of the unborn fetus over that of the mother and she contracted septicemia and unfortunately passed away as a result.

Following this the subject of legalising abortion became very topical in Ireland. It lead to the legislation, 'Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, 2013' which legalised abortion in the event that the life of the mother was at risk.

The debate is still ongoing at present and the petition to "Repeal the Eighth" strives for pro-choice.

Louise Trainor said...


What an accurate, educational commentary on the struggles of women in Irish history. Although we learned what occurred throughout these events in high school, it is still equally as shocking reading the timeline of oppression as an older college student.

The religious undertone of the Irish Constitution is the thrust of the argument for those on the pro-life side of the abortion debate. As there is far greater religious diversity among American society, I am lead to believe that the Roman Catholic Church does not have the same influential effect here on its citizens.

Having grown up with Grandparents who both shared an extremely strong Catholic faith, I learned of their stringent right-wing beliefs towards topics such as gay-marriage and abortion. While these extreme religious values have significantly diminished in Irish society, it was the status quo of beliefs for our Grandparents' era.

Having spent over a month studying in California, do you feel that Americans' attitudes towards Catholicism and the Church's perception of women's roles has as great an impact on society? Is our country unique in having a Constitution that pledges its devotion to one set religion?

Flamingo said...

Thank you very much for the answers Julie! The ongoing debates in Ireland sound fascinating and maybe you guys will witness huge changes in the near future of your country. How exciting!