Irish Women and Nationalism: An Interview with Margaret Ward

In what way is Irish Women and Nationalism: Soldiers, New Women and Wicked Hags different from or similar to the other books on Irish history that are found on the bookstore shelves these days? 

I think it is totally different in that it is about women first of all – few books on Irish history consider women at all! Also, this book is inter-disciplinary, covering a wide historical framework and including literature, cultural studies, oral history and women’s studies.

How is your new book different from or similar to the other books you’ve written or edited since the 1980s?

It’s similar in that it is on the subject of women and Irish nationalism and my own contribution is very much part of a continuing interest, namely the continuities and differences between the war of independence period and the past decades in the north, in terms of the impact on women and their contribution to events. It is different because it is the first time I have worked with others to produce a book – and that was very enjoyable. Also, the perspective of different disciplines and the contemporary research of many of the contributors I think provide a multi-layered perspective.

How did you and Louise Ryan go about producing your new book?

It began a long time ago! We were at a Women’s History conference in Scotland and a publisher there suggested that we produce an edited book, and that caught our imagination as we wanted to work together. Unfortunately, that particular publisher then moved elsewhere, and it took us a long time to get a publisher. I was then teaching in Bath and thought the book would be a good vehicle to get published the excellent work being produced by students. I taught on an MA in Irish Studies. When I moved back to Belfast the content shifted as some people dropped out and I became aware of the work being done by women in Belfast. When we started, Louise had no children, when the book was published her son was 3! It was a good working partnership, she did the necessary work when I was in the throes of moving, I did the same when she was busy with a new baby.

How did your new book come to be sub-titled "Soldiers, New Women and Wicked Hags"?

I thought originally that it would be the title, with ‘women and Irish nationalism’ as the sub-title. I chose it because it partly sums up the range of material and different perspectives – republican women in the IRA; the ‘new women’ of the 1920 era in the great chapter by Danae; and the ‘wicked hags’ in the challenging chapter by Jayne. Louise and I were in my house thinking about a cover and I have a poster of the Louise Walsh ‘Feile Bridhe’, three faces of women, which we immediately knew would be perfect. I wanted the title to be provocative and make people think.

In your introduction to the book, you write: "we suggest that women’s involvement in nationalism has not been over-studied."  Could you elaborate on that assertion?

Well, in terms of Ireland, there is still so very little. When I teach, and compile new material for students, it seems to be that very little new research is happening. I do think that part of the reason is that students have not been encouraged to do that work, plus there is still a chill factor on this coming from the south. Most of the women who contact me about their research are American. Unfortunately, they never get back to me later to tell me if they have been published.

You also write in the book’s introduction: "The dominant view within the academy…has been that research that was not critical of republicanism was suspect;" and "the editors of this book (as feminist scholars both critical of, and sympathetic to, Irish republicanism) have experienced the discomfort of the academic world."  Could you explain further how this apparent republican feminist-baiting might get expressed in the UK or Irish university world?

I think it gets expressed by being largely ignored. It will be interesting to see if the book is reviewed in the academic world.

In your introduction to the 1995 book which you edited, In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism, you wrote: "As more is published on the history of women in Ireland current explanations and justifications for not teaching students about women will be revealed for what they are–lame excuses."  Are more students being taught about the history of women in Ireland now than they were 10 years ago?

I couldn’t say, not being in the academic world. My impression is that in the south, the modern day women’s movement is probably ok, and the work of sociologist Linda Connolly is important in building on work that has gone before, but she does not deal with the north. The rediscovery of famous women in the past, which is now a feature of history in schools in Ireland, does mention Countess Markievicz and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, but at the level of including pictures of them, not really engaging with their political legacies.

What role do you think alternative newspapers like Women’s News played in Ireland in the 1980s and what role do you think the alternative media websites in Ireland should try to play in the 21st-century?

As a founder-member of the Women’s News collective I believe that it played an important role in documenting the work of women activists from a variety of ideological backgrounds and it also covered basic issues important to women that would not have otherwise been publicized. It helped to give a voice to the community women’s sector and to the work of the grass roots women, which also helped to give a profile and identity to that constituency. One of the problems that Women’s News has is that it lacks writers who have journalistic training, so it doesn’t do enough current affairs work, or write challenging articles that deal with some of the political controversies within feminism in Ireland. I would like it to deal with more of the bigger issues of the day and give a feminist slant on them. Maybe that should come from the readership and the task should be to encourage more to write for the paper and to ensure that it is distributed widely so that people feel there is a point in writing for it. Slugger O’Toole provides a forum for debate now – but I find contributors pretty sexist or misogynistic. Is there a gender divide in who accesses media web sites?

Your new book is being published and distributed by an academic press, not by one of the publishing houses of the global corporate media conglomerates.  What effect do you think the increased corporatization and monopolization of the publishing industry and the media around the globe has had on Irish historians like yourself and on Irish women activists?

The difficulty is being published, in being distributed and in staying in print and on the book shelves. Most of my work is out of print, though I know that there is still a small demand for the books, particularly by students.

2006 will mark the 90th anniversary of Dublin’s Easter Rising, the murder of Irish anti-war activist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the execution of Irish labor organizer James Connolly.  Why do you think both Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and James Connolly are still remembered around the globe?

Not only were they important thinkers, who advanced our understanding of the importance of fighting for human and national freedom and the different ways in which political battles can be fought, they were also highly principled political activists and wonderful human beings, who must have enriched the lives of those with whom they came into contact.

How would you characterize the current extent of political, economic and cultural empowerment of women in 21st-century Ireland, compared to the time when your book Unmanageable Revolutionaries was first published?

One pointer is that when I was researching for Unmanageable Revolutionaries I had never been taught by a female academic; I had never come across gender issues as a student; I was appointed a male supervisor for my research, who then said that it was an impossible topic because there was nothing to research as women had done nothing. Surely life has improved for female students these days! The fact that a woman – Monica McWilliams for the Women’s Coalition – was a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement, that Mo Mowlam was then Secretary of State and Mary Robinson was president of Ireland and that this happened less than 15 years after the book first came out – I would never have believed that would have been possible. So we have come a long way – but we still have a long way to go.

In what way do you think your approach to history has been similar to or different from the approach of British historian Sheila Rowbotham?

I admire the work of Sheila very much and I think she has been a role model for me, though I couldn’t compare myself to her at all. Hidden from History was seminal for me, both as a young postgraduate and as a teacher, as was her work on women and revolutionary movements around the world. I used that as a basis for many classes in women’s studies. Sheila has been part of the socialist-feminist tradition in Britain for a long time and continues to be a left intellectual. Her work showed those of us coming slightly later that it was possible to write such histories – and given the opposition I was finding, that knowledge was of immense importance. Sheila once said to me that she was happiest when she was writing. I was too new to research work at that time to understand what she meant, but I do now.

Do you have any plans to edit or write any more books?

Louise and I have a contract with Irish Academic Press to publish an edited book on women and suffrage in Ireland. It will be the centenary of the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 2008 and I would hope that it would be published before that time. We have 14 chapters, from a wide range of authors, male and female, many of them working in the US and we believe it will be an exciting collection.

To order Irish Women and Nationalism: Soldiers, New Women and Wicked Hags, go here

Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based U.S. anti-war Movement writer-activist.