Sisters: Nine Families of Sisters Who Made A Difference, Siobhan Fitzpatrick and Mary O’Dowd (eds), Royal Irish Academy, 210 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1911479833
History, or His Story, has been written so exclusively by men and about men ‑ this war, that war, this economy, that economy, who’s wearing what crown etc, etc that it’s wonderful to witness the trickle of Her Story, of bringing women back into the narrative, turning into a flood. All hail then Sisters: Nine Families of Sisters Who Made a Difference, published by the Royal Irish Academy and edited by Siobhan Fitzpatrick and Mary O’Dowd.
The sisters valorised here date from the long, long ago, the 1600s, and include the daughters of Aodh Ó Domhnaill and An Inghean Dubh, travelling on up to include the Shackleton Sisters, the Owenson sisters, the amazing Parnell sisters, the very amazing “two girls in silk kimonos”, the Cuala Press Yeats sisters and the wonderful Skeffington bunch, not forgetting the Conynghams and the Boyles.
Let’s kick off with Anna and Fanny Parnell, sisters to Charles. Born into Anglo-Irish wealth they had a wonderful American mother, Delia, who very atypically for her class supported “the Irish cause”, though the author here, Diane Urquhart of Queen’s University Belfast, says the nationalism she inspired in her brood “bordered on Anglophobia”, which seems strange. She believed, and taught her children, that Irish people had a right to their own land. Was that Anglophobia? The girls’ mother also believed girls were equal to boys, and Fanny and Anna, “bookish, intelligent and schooled by governesses … enjoyed more freedom than many of their class”.
The death of their father when the girls were still young, forcing their mother to leave the family home of Avondale and travel first to Paris, then back to America, also profoundly affected their lives. When still in her teens, Fanny began writing nationalist poetry while Anna studied art, first in Dublin, then in London, where she visited the House of Commons to hear brother Charles speak. She was not impressed. Too many words and too many mistakes. Anna was more interested in action than words. Charles’s family nickname was “Butt head”. “A wilful, unruly bully”, said his father. The same “wilful, unruly bully” would be Anna’s downfall, as well as that of the Ladies’ Land League, his Home Rule party, and tragically his own.
Michael Davitt had set up the Land League ‑ to help farmers stay on their land ‑ and seeing that Parnell was an astute politician co-opted him to the cause. Fanny, Anna and their mother, all now in America, raised thousands of dollars in support. When the British jailed the male leaders, the women, led by Anna, now back in Ireland, took over. From the beginning, Charles thought putting the women in charge was “a dangerous experiment” but Anna turned out to be better at organising, speaking and politics than Charles. She wanted Ireland free. Charles wanted Home Rule, and one suspects respectability.
While Charles was in prison Anna set up five hundred new branches of the League, spoke to crowds of thousands, urged the women to come to the front – “I came down on purpose to speak to you” ‑ designed and provided wooden huts for those evicted from their cabins, got food to those in prison, published their newspaper, the United Irishman, and when it was banned the women smuggled copies under their hooped skirts, while she and Jenny Wyse Power, her right-hand woman, compiled a list of every landlord in Ireland and every eviction. They called it their “Book of Kells”. She was brilliant, indefatigable, revolutionary. The people loved her. They called her the Joan of Arc of Ireland.
Charles was jealous. And he wanted out of jail. Behind Anna and the Ladies’ Land League’s backs he made a deal with the British government: he would close the League down if the government would release him from prison. The British, alarmed at Anna’s successes, agreed. Anna never spoke to him again. She left Ireland and lived alone and penniless, under a pseudonym in a boarding house England. She drowned some years later.
Fanny, having become the darling poetess of Ireland’s oppression throughout America, had died some months previously of a heart attack. Charles met his karma when Captain O’Shea, who strangely had helped him broker the deal with the British, now cited him as correspondent in his divorce. Charles wasn’t just correspondent, he had three children with Mrs O Shea. Charles’s reputation crashed. As did his party. As did his health. Fighting through Sturm und Drang to get re-elected, he developed pneumonia and died. Two hundred thousand people attended his funeral. He was forty-five. Seven people, none of them relatives, attended Anna’s.
Dubliner Lucy Keaveney, who with her husband found Anna’s grave in England, cleaned it, replanted it, had a ceremony for her there, a plaque erected in her name in Dublin earlier this year has been hugely influential in bringing Anna and Fanny Parnell’s extraordinary stories back to public consciousness. She is not mentioned here. She really should be.
The chapter, the first in the book, devoted to Nualaidgh, Maire and Mairghread, the daughters of Aodh Ó Domhnaill and An Inghean Dubh, was a little more problematic for me. Displaying their history via poetry in Irish, followed by English, is probably necessary, but it seems clunky, distracting from heartbreaking accounts of the “Flight of the Earls’, their desperate displacement followed by death and loss. Pádraig Ó Machain is professor of Modern Irish at UCC and clearly an extremely able chronicler of these terrible times but making one’s way through the intricacies was hard going for this non-scholar. These are tales of the most profound woe ‑ a more accessible read in would have been lovely.
For ease I jumped to the chapter on Constance and Eva Gore Booth” Sonja Tiernan of the University of Otago is the author and takes us through their story from the horrific, and up to now not often mentioned, legacy of their grandfather, who it is said ‘cleared” his estates, putting hundreds of his tenants on ships that sank as soon as they reached deep water. In Anne Haverty’s life of Constance she writes that Gore’s wife couldn’t stand the smell of turf smoke coming from the cabins and so the “peasants” had to go. An ancestor before him had been “given” lands in reward for bringing in Irish rebels, then made a baronet for slaughtering all of the soldiers of Cahir O’Doherty on Tory Island.
Constance and Eva led an extraordinarily privileged childhood. The usual governesses, ponies, parties, frocks, picnics and petting. But they also witnessed both of their parents doing “charitable works” for the poor, starving once again as a new famine loomed. Their father distributed Indian meal from the family barns and their mother gave stitching classes enabling local women earn a few valuable pence. Of course while they did this, laudable and all as it was, the Gore Booths continued to enjoy an incredibly lavish lifestyle in a seventy-two-roomed mansion, on 32,000 acres ‑ the father travelling in the Arctic, their mother giving huge parties, the two girls presented at the court of Queen Victoria. All of this luxury while hundreds of thousands of native Irish, dispossessed of their land, struggled to keep body and soul together.
Between 1850 and 1870 the Irish landlord class extracted £340 million in rent, far more than was gathered in tax. Less than 5 per cent of it was re-invested. (William Vaughan, Landlords and Tenants in Mid Victorian Ireland). Politician Isaac Butt said Catholic Irish tenants suffered more than “the heaviest yoke of feudal servitude”. Handing out Indian meal, and setting up sewing classes, were not going to touch the enormity of inequality between landlord and peasant farmer.
It is said that Constance woke up to “the Irish question” when staying in a cottage belonging to Padraic Colum. Eva found her life’s work, and her life’s companion, in the holiday home in Italy of Scottish writer George MacDonald. Here she met, and fell in love with, suffragist and activist Esther Roper. “For months,”, Roper wrote afterwards, “illness kept us in the south, and we spent the days walking and talking on the hillside by the sea. Each was attracted to the work and thoughts of the other, and we soon became friends and companions for life.” She said Eva was “haunted by the suffering of the world”. Back in England she became an advocate for gay rights and working women’s rights and wrote poetry and plays.
While Constance got stuck into Irish socialist politics, Esther and Eva campaigned in the UK. One joint venture was highly successful ‑ Constance and Eva managing to give Winston Churchill a good pounding at the polls. Churchill wanted all bar girls sent home. Bars were no places for women. Eva argued that a woman working in a bar was often the only wage earner in the household. Outlawing this employment would plunge thousands of families into poverty. Constance came over from Ireland with a coach and four to help raise awareness. Churchill was beaten and the bar girls kept their jobs. “We had a great show,” Eva wrote to their brother Joslynn, “and everyone became very enthusiastic about barmaids.”
Constance went on to become a central figure in the Easter Rising here, a trusted confidante of James Connolly and second-in-command at the College of Surgeons. She hated surrendering and hated the British for not court-martialling her like the male leaders. In prison, in solitary confinement, she was treated brutally. She became the first ever woman to be a minister in the first Dáil, and the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. Sadly her health was ruined after years in prison. She died in a public ward from complications after an appendectomy, her estranged daughter Maeve and husband, Count Casimir Markievicz, at her side. Her beloved Eva had died the year before. The Irish government refused a state funeral but the poor people of Dublin, for whom she’d hauled bags of turf and coal up tenement stairs, for whom she’d sold everything, made their own decision, lining the streets ten deep for miles along the route as her cortege passed.
Of course the extraordinary Skeffington sisters demand inclusion here. The photograph of four of them “arriving for the court martial at Richmond Barracks” would tear the heart out of a stone. Hanna’s face, riven with grief as she faces the terrible details of her gentle husband’s death at the hands of an apparently insane British officer, Captain Bowen Colthurst, who’d arrested pacifist husband Frank on his way home to Rathmines two days after the Rising trying to stop looting, taking him hostage to witness to extra-judicial killings, then back to Richmond Barracks with two other journalists, and shooting them, was barbaric. Their bodies were buried in the Barracks yard.
Next Balitore. I was aware of it, its original conception as a Quaker village, still the only one of its kind in Europe, but knew nothing of the Shackleton sisters. Related to the famous explorer, sister Mary Shackleton Leadbetter (1756-1826), eldest of the children of her father’s second marriage, is the stand-out interesting sister here though I’m bamboozled by Mary O’Dowd’s thin presentation ‑ it’s certain she knows her subjects well. Too well perhaps?
Daughter of her Quaker schoolmaster father, Mary could read at four and wrote a journal from eleven, chronicling Ireland through Quaker eyes, compassionate ones at that. A writer in genres ranging from “classical translation, poetry, diary and journal, narrative sketch and tale, improvement literature, children’s literature, historical chronicle and annals, letters, biography and autobiography” her most famous being Cottage Dialogues or talks between domestic servants with moral and practical advice on “household management and family organisation”. Another in similar format was written for landlords. The Landlord’s Friend attempted to puncture the vicious, unthinking racism of most of that class towards the Irish peasantry. She was a marvel.
One racist landlord in her chronicles says he wouldn’t keep his hogs in the condition the filthy Irish lived in while the good hearted landlord attempted to explain the niceties of poverty and illness: “Who can wonder (…) who sees the poor heap of rubbish called a bed, on the damp ground, from whence the heat of the body exhales that unwholesome humidity which tortures the frame with rheumatism, and, united with the effects of poor living and whiskey, so often excites that dreadful disorder, a putrid fever?”
Mary shared a London publisher with the great foremother of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, and corresponded with Edmund Burke (an alumnus of her father’s boarding school), and Maria Edgeworth. She witnessed first-hand the brutality of the 1798 rebellion, starving United Irishmen asking her children where their father kept his money (“In his breeches pocket”), was horrified at a “fat chemist” who’d journeyed with the Yeomen and watched a rebel burned alive in a barrel, writing: “I never in my life felt disgust so strongly; it even overpowered the horror due to the deed which had been actually committed. The stupid cruelty of a man in civil life, which urged him voluntarily and without necessity to leave his home and bear a part in such scenes, was far more revolting than the fiery wrath of a soldier.”
The lives of the seven Boyle sisters of the sixteenth century, daughters of the Earl of Cork, then “the richest man in Ireland”, and the two more self-made Owenson sisters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “who made their way from backstage life and rented lodgings to dining rooms and salons”, becoming Lady Morgan and Lady Clarke, are interesting ‑ but I kept looking for references to Irish Ireland. Yes it’s fascinating to learn of the contingencies under which Anglo-Irish women had to live when the Patriarchy was in full control, and to see Aungier Street, Dominick Street et al, the centres of culture, but these are women who lived privileged lives. Mostly at the expense of the indigenous community. In the Earl of Cork’s case as a result of getting land from the British crown for services rendered ‑ in one instance scooping up all of Walter Raleigh 42,000-acre estate in Fermoy, land which the ordinary Irish had been driven off at musket and bayonet point and forced to live on tiny holdings of marginal land.
By the time I get to the Conyngham sisters of Castletown and Speaker Connolly fame I was thoroughly fed up with these madams and their letter-writing even if it is harrowingly Handmaid’s Tale ‑ opportuning a husband, a brother, a father, for money, housing, privilege, “gildinges” (horses), which they have no other way of obtaining. As well as which the doyenne of Castletown comes across as vicious and unpleasant, sending her youngest sister old aprons from which to make baby clothes, saying her daughter, who has had the brutal misfortune to lose fifteen children in childbirth, is “a great and foull (sic) breeder”, her dead children “miserable and rotten”.
It’s a relief to come to the Yeats sisters and the Cuala Press, its clean typography and beautiful illustrations foreshadowing a very modern aesthetic. “Lily” and “Lolly”, the middle Yeats siblings, had studied under William Morris in London and leapt at the chance to “find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things”. They had their own troubles with the Patriarchy in the form of their big brother, William, who bulled his way in, seeking privilege for his own works and that of his friends.
Cuala was part of the Irish Revival and central to the tiny Arts and Crafts movement here. They were always in debt. Always having to move, change directors, attempt new enterprises to try and bring in revenue, but the little press persisted. Signed first editions now sell for six figures. At a time when most publishers in Ireland were ferociously conservative ‑ focusing on producing Bibles and prayer books ‑ and were all run by men ‑ Cuala was entirely female, artist-based, and artist-centred. They published over seventy-four original titles. Their brother Jack provided illustrations, as well as Beatrice Elvery, Victor Brown, Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, Eileen C Peet, Dorothy Blackham. Titles included work by Padraic Colum, Robin Flower, Elizabeth Bowen, JM Synge, Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde, Rabindranath Tagore, and Paddy Kavanagh.
What a list!