A new book by Siobhán Parkinson celebrates women in Irish history who changed things by their actions, women who rocked the system.

siobhan parkinson rocking the system

We have recently commemorated the beginning of World War I, and we’ll soon be marking the end of it. We’ve remembered the 1916 Rising, and it won’t be long before we in Ireland will also be commemorating a hundred years since the War of Independence and then since the Civil War. At the centre of these transformative events are violence, loss, grief. What a relief, then, to have this year, in the middle of all this contemplation of war and its destructive power, a centenary that we can not only commemorate but fully celebrate: the first time the vote was extended to women in these islands.

The struggle for women’s suffrage was also a tale of violence and suffering. Suffragettes participated in protests that could occasionally brim over into destructiveness, but most of the violence was perpetrated on the Suffragettes by the authorities. Women who were imprisoned for Suffragette activities went on hunger strike and endured appalling treatment at the hands of their gaolers. But in the end, they won. The inclusion of women in the electorate was a first step on the road to universal suffrage and a victory not only for women but for democracy itself. Certainly, something to celebrate.

“The women feted in this book go all the way back into pre-historic times.”

My recently published book about ‘fearless and amazing Irish women who made history’ is not a history of the Suffragette movement. However, it does include some of the women who were active at that time – notably the leading Irish Suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and the first woman to be elected to Westminster, Constance Markievicz, who went on also to be the first woman to be elected to the Dáil and the first woman to be appointed to the cabinet – and it was published in celebration of the centenary of votes for women.

The title, Rocking the System, reveals a more recent impetus in the book, being, of course, an allusion to Mary Robinson’s rousing remarks on her election as the first female president of Ireland. In fact, the women feted in this book go all the way back into pre-historic times, since the first system-rocker to be celebrated is that fearless and amazing woman, Queen Maeve of Connacht, who is credited with setting in motion the battle known as the Táin Bó Cuailgne (the Cattle Raid of Cooley).

“Though it is a book that can be enjoyed by adults, it is intended mainly for young readers.”

The book was compiled with the enthusiastic support of a most helpful band of ‘fellow-rockers’ who took on most of the research. Though it is a book that can be enjoyed by adults, it is intended mainly for young readers, for whom Countess Markievicz, and possibly even Mary Robinson, may seem almost as remote as Queen Maeve. It is the speed with which events slip into history and out of current consciousness that this book seeks to redress. Today’s young people cannot readily appreciate how different a place Ireland was for women even in very recent times – when Mary Robinson was elected, for example. It is essential that they do know how radically Ireland has changed so that they can understand that they in their turn can change things for themselves and, in due course, for their daughters and grand-daughters.

“I did want every woman in the book to have been, in one way or another, her own woman.”

The inclusion in Rocking the System of towering women like Grace O’Malley, Constance Markievicz and Mary Robinson was a given. But I also wanted to include women who had made history in other ways, and women that young readers might never have heard of. So, along with activists like Anna Parnell (wholly overshadowed by her more famous brother, Charles Stewart Parnell, even though her Ladies’ Land League was more efficiently run than its male counterpart). And rebels like Anne Devlin (whose importance to Robert Emmett’s rebellion of 1803 is overlooked, along with her terrible suffering as a result of her role in it), I included artists, writers and poets, a sportswoman and a social activist. It’s not so much a matter of providing role models for today’s girls – a rather pious rubric in my view, and one that might exclude, for example, the belligerent Queen Maeve herself – but I did want every woman in the book to have been, in one way or another, her own woman.

“Her story is flamboyant, romantic, energetic and verging on the gothic.”

I am always asked to name my personal favourite among the women included in the book, and it’s a question that I resist. I was fortunate, though, to meet and interview some of the women – the wonderful poet Paula Meehan; my old friend the homelessness activist Sr Stanislaus Kennedy; and, a woman whose acquaintance I am so happy to have made, that warm-hearted powerhouse of a film-maker Lelia Doolan. Being able to talk to these women directly was a privilege and a joy, and naturally, I have a sneaking preference for the essays that are based on personal interviews.

I will also make a particular case for one of the lesser-known of the subjects, the genuinely fearless and amazing Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Her story is flamboyant, romantic, energetic and verging on the gothic. But her great poem, ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, on which her reputation and her place in history rest, has always moved me, especially the opening sequence. The poem is a lament for her murdered husband and was written in Irish. It is remarkable that a woman writing in a minority language on the fringe of Europe about an intensely female experience should have written a poem that is widely regarded by critics and historians as one of the finest of its century, not just in Ireland but Europe. The book includes brief excerpts from two modern translations into English.

When we – myself and my ‘fellow-rockers’ – were in the process of developing the book, we tended, naturally enough, to focus on the individual women we would include – and, of course, those whom we had to regretfully exclude for practical publishing reasons. It was only when the book was well along in the production process that it struck me that it can, in a small way, be read as a corrective to the dominant narratives of Irish history. There is plenty of room for other volumes to focus on the achievements of Irish women in history, for younger children, older children, young people and adults. The more you look for fearless an fantastic Irish women, the more you find.

Rocking the System: Fearless and Amazing Irish Women who Made History by Siobhán Parkinson is published in hardback, with black-and-white illustrations, by Little Island Books at €15.

A free book guide, with points for discussion and suggested activities, is downloadable from the same website.

Main image from the RTÉ archives.

“Because I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage who stepped out from the faded flag of the civil war and voted for a new Ireland, and above all by the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle rocked the system.” President Mary Robinson.