I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

University Pioneer

Judith Harford

Mary Hayden: Irish Historian and Feminist 1862-1942, Arlen House, 362 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1851322633

Joyce Padbury’s important and long overdue biography of Mary Hayden is a welcome addition to the education, social and gender history of modern Ireland. Hayden was one of the most prominent figures in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish society, particularly in the spheres of education and suffrage. At first glance, the biography of one woman historian and feminist may seem unduly specialised, but there is much there to engage the attention of anyone with a general interest in the history of education, women’s history, and/or the modernisation of Ireland.

Hayden’s life extended from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, a period in which higher education for women was expanded, political suffrage was won, and there was a changing climate of opinion towards women in public and professional roles. It was also a period when Irish society was at its most conservative, one in which the state promoted a deeply gendered ideology that placed women firmly within the home sphere through a formidable alliance between the state and the Catholic church.

As expected, Padbury uses Hayden’s diaries to anchor her narrative. Fifty-nine volumes in total, spanning the period 1878-1903 and housed in the National Library of Ireland, they are replete with reflections on Hayden’s struggle to frame her identity and negotiate her agency both as a woman and as a public intellectual. Peppered elegantly throughout the biography, Hayden’s diaries testify to her labour with social mores and expectations, her frustration at her marginalisation as an academic as well as her own inner struggle with her private and public self.

Padbury’s clever use of the diaries, reflecting a deep knowledge of her subject, brings an energy and authenticity to the narrative, which enables Hayden to come alive for the reader. Interwoven with diary extracts are additional sources such as letters and articles, many of them excavated for the first time. Analysed and interpreted in a cogent, convincing manner, this creates a “red thread” which renders the biography a veritable page-turner.

Importantly, the study dedicates several chapters to Hayden’s remarkable legacy of educational leadership. Having been hugely instrumental in the campaign to admit women to Irish universities, her achievements were recognised in the final “solution” to the university question when she was nominated as the first woman to serve on the senate of the National University of Ireland, alongside thirty-nine men. She was also nominated, along with Agnes O’Farrelly, to the first governing body of University College Dublin, alongside twenty-eight men.

Hayden joined the staff at University College Dublin as lecturer in Irish history and subsequently became professor of Irish history. However, despite her record in education, the book charts the resistance she encountered as a single woman, a “bluestocking” situated on the periphery of a patriarchal, conservative academy. The addition of the phrase “Words importing the masculine gender includes females” (University College Dublin Academic Calendar 1910-11) reflected deep, culturally entrenched attitudes towards the admission and integration of women students and academics.

While Joyce Padbury’s book predictably and properly focuses on Hayden’s quest for education and her leadership roles in both education and suffrage, it also examines hidden, complex aspects of her personal life, including her own sense of self, her relationships with both her father and brother and her sense of loss and emptiness following the loss of her mother at a young age. Importantly, the book also charts her struggles as a young, single woman, not least those of a financial nature, as she endeavoured to piece together occasional work in order to make ends meet.

The biography also deals in some detail with Hayden’s complex relationships with men as she wrestles with the idea of a relationship and with the institution of marriage. The volume includes a comprehensive bibliography, which details an impressive array of primary and secondary sources as well as a chronological list of Hayden’s published writings. Extremely well-written and researched, this book tells a compelling story whose relevance reverberates today. Full of fascinating detail, it deserves a wide readership.


Judith Harford is professor of education and deputy head of the School of Education, UCD. She has published internationally in the areas of the history of women’s education, gender and educational leadership and education policy. She is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, London and a Fulbright Scholar in the social sciences. She has been a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge, the University of Toronto and Boston College.



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