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If Catholicism was a thin veneer grafted onto the skin of pagan Ireland post-Famine, then the oppression of women was a similarly late development.
Eamonn McCann, 17 Nov 2005
Ireland has always been a priest-ridden place, where sex was seen as sinful and women were the slaves of slaves. It wasn’t until the 1970s that women broke their chains and made a bid for freedom.
It’s a perspective which imposes a neat pattern on history. But it’s no more true than the notion, say, of Republicanism representing a secular tradition. Brian Merriman’s ‘Midnight Court’, written in Irish in 1780-1781, paints a different picture.
Line by line she bade him linger
With gummy lips and groping finger,
Gripping his thighs in wild embrace
Rubbing her brush from knee to waist
Stripping him bare to the cold night air,
Everything done with love and care.
But she’d nothing to show for all her labour;
There wasn’t a jump in the old deceiver.
The passage is spoken by an old woman lamenting the plight of a younger sister. It expresses not a yearning for liberation in some far distant future, but a demand for pleasure assumed as an entitlement here and now.
Then there’s the folk-tale of St. Brigid meeting a young woman unhappily pregnant. “Brigid prayed, then she blessed the woman, laid hands on her womb, and the foetus miraculously disappeared.”
Brigid reputedly lived at the same time as St. Patrick. It would seem, so, that praying for an abortion was taken to be an ancient tradition.
Nor were Irish women traditionally economically dependent. As late as the first half of the 19th century, around half the non-agricultural workforce was female.
The domestication and subjugation of Irish women was accomplished in the years following the Famine by a priestly caste drawn from the wealthier farmers. It was in the compelling interest of this class to prevent further fragmentation of land ownership. This meant consolidating the Family as the most important and inviolable unit in society. Sexual activity outside the setting of the Family was declared anathema. A regime was established of late marriages and “permanent celibacy,” which persisted into the second half of the 20th century.
In normal circumstances, it would have been impossible in such a short time to change the sexual mores of centuries. But the circumstances weren’t normal. The Famine had seen the population plummet from eight million to four and a half million. In a situation of such trauma, and in the absence of revolutionary upsurge, people tend to search for certainty.
The Church seized the time to provide an ersatz explanation of the calamity which had befallen the people and promise bogus consolation to the survivors. Crucially for the future, it offered women a new role, swapping relative independence in society for authority within the home, acting as conduits for carrying the teaching of the Church into the Family.
In most other Catholic counties in Europe, men have traditionally been the religious heads of household. It was largely so in Ireland before the Famine. But thereafter, and even to the present, it’s been women.
Thus the Catholic Church acquired its social power even as the class from which its clergy was drawn emerged as the dominant economic and political force. Women lost out all along the line in the process.
The key thing is that the process has been relatively recent. One of the reasons Ireland, and Irish women in particular, erupted into revolt against the old order in the 1970s and ‘80s, was that the old order, matter of fact, wasn’t particularly old at all. The muck of ages hadn’t fully congealed.
Economic independence, sexual freedom and the right to choose weren’t dizzy new concepts suddenly discovered, but half-remembered, hallowed traditions.
Staying at home, sexual repression and pro-lifery had been among the repressive impositions of relatively modern maledom.
It might have been expected that the revolutionary upsurge of the early years of the 20th century would have sloughed off the oppressions of post-Famine Ireland. But no.
The 1916 Rising – to an extent which is rarely acknowledged – was a Catholic event, consciously intended by its leaders as a symbolic re-enactment of the legend of Christ’s passion. Hardly surprising that women’s rights didn’t rank high in its priorities.
James Connolly, by far the most advanced thinker among the revolutionists, was at his least radical when it came to religion, sex and women’s rights. Although on occasion, he argued vigorously against priests who attacked socialism, his purpose was not to expose the social role of religion but to prove that “political priests” misrepresented “true” Christianity. Within his Irish Socialist Republican Party, discussion of sexual relationships was strictly forbidden. This approach led to weaknesses from which the Irish Left, to the detriment of Irish women, has never fully recovered. Mary Ellen Murphy and the Magdalen Laundries make the case.
Mary Ellen, a 15-year-old bakery worker, was jailed for a month during the 1913 lockout for “assaulting one of the girls employed by Messrs Jacobs by giving her a box on the face and calling her a ‘scab’.” On account of her age, she was committed not to Mountjoy but to a Catholic Church institution in Drumcondra which had a Magdalen Laundry on the same site.
The Magdalen Laundries were slave camps run by nuns, where women who’d “gotten into trouble” were effectively imprisoned and forced to work.
In demanding Mary Ellen’s release, neither Connolly nor Larkin denounced the vile exploitation of the Magdalen women among whom she now found herself: instead, they expressed outrage that she’d been forced to associate with their ilk. “When that girl was sent into that institution,” Connolly railed at a mass meeting in Beresford Place, “her character was foully besmirched and a damnable outrage committed…The girls of the reformatory were in the same chapel with the fallen women and in view of them, a partition only dividing them…”
He portrayed the Magdalen women not as the most cruelly oppressed of all the working class but as deserved outcasts from the working class. His approach was in contrast to the enthusiastic response of Lenin and Trotsky in Russia four years later to the contingents of Petrograd prostitutes who rallied to the revolution.
In his personal behaviour and attitude to women in the movement, Connolly was miles ahead of any of the Nationalist leaders of the day. In his 1914 essay, Woman, he echoed the Bolsheviks in asserting that “the worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave”. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, a doughty feminist, held Connolly in high regard and credited him with ensuring that the 1916 Proclamation was addressed to both “Irish men and Irish women”. It doesn’t do to judge him by the standards of the 21st century.
Nevertheless, his insistence that socialists should not agitate on matters of religion or sexual rights was a factor in ensuring that the State created according to the prescription of the ’16 Proclamation preserved the power of the Church and the powerlessness of women.
If Connolly and Larkin had roused Dublin, not against the contamination of Mary Ellen by the Magdalen women, but against the contamination of Ireland by the Church which ran the Magdalen Laundries, might decades of misery for many thousands have been avoided?
Isn’t it time there was a statue of Mary Ellen in Beresford Place?