Women and the Royal University of Ireland Part One

Every few years Ireland engages in a seemingly never-ending debate on the whys and wherefores of abortion. In between these debates one might think that Ireland treats women equally, however when this topic arises the reality is revealed: we as a nation still marginalize women. Now, this post isn’t about abortion, there are many commentators and corners of the internet that will tell you more than I can,rather this post is on my thesis. My masters thesis is entitled ‘The first women graduates of the Royal University of Ireland 1886-1900’. There is a connection between my opening and the thesis namely, marginalised women. Even writing about women can get you marginalised as people often say to me ‘you are interested in that women’s stuff’. Well, no I am interested in history and the way in which people change and influence our society. The graduates of the RUI were women that certainly changed the landscape of Ireland, socially, politically, economically and educationally and this being Ireland, and allegedly obsessed with history, these women are celebrated and remembered with equal measure right? Wrong. A group of women, Protestant, Catholic, Unionist and Nationalist are now largely forgotten. The bombs and bullets of the Easter Rising brought about change, that much is true, but it was a change of sovereignty and many would argue that Ireland had a very conservative revolution and as a consequence it wasn’t very radical in a social sense. It is my contention that the women involved in educational reform were radical as it changed life on the ground-first for  middle class women and then for  working class women. If you don’t believe me look at the statistics for the number of women achieving high grades in state exams in Ireland and of course the number of women in third level education. Women outperforming men in school isn’t a new phenomenon either as girls often outperformed boys as far back as the nineteenth century. image

However, the changes that were needed for women to gain equal rights were hard won. Women involved in the campaign for equality in education in the 1800s saw a time were they weren’t allowed to vote or sit for a degree change to a time when they could do both. These women were feminists and pioneers so why has Ireland forgotten them? I would argue that they didn’t fit a dominant discourse and narrative of nation that was largely patriarchal in nature. The narrative is also largely Catholic and nationalist (and before any one chimes in that Ireland had two Protestant presidents it is worth remembering that members of the Dail weren’t ‘allowed’ to enter the Protestant church for the service of Douglas Hyde as the bishops weren’t happy with Catholics entering another denomination’s church and Erskine Childers father was described in the Dail as ‘that damned Englishman’).  In Ireland there is a perception that the history of education runs: Monks, Hedge-Schools, Nano Nagle, Christian Brothers the end.  I can hear certain readers cry ‘revisionist’ , I wear it as a badge of honour if revisionist means looking at the facts. Others will cry ‘secularist’ (the new Irish swear word). I ask them: why don’t we know about these women? If we, as a nation, value history and education then where are these woman in our historiography?  Go to England and you will find statues to the Pankhursts so, what about our own Pankhursts? They are there so why don’t we know them? Did you know that English women came to Ireland to receive their degrees as they couldn’t get theirs in their homeland? I don’t know about you but I find that interesting. Women like Alice Oldham and Margaret Byers to name but two helped shape and change my nation. There is a notion in academia that Ireland never experienced the first wave of Feminism but they are wrong.  When Seneca Falls occurred Irish women were changing my country and these were real women affecting change which, was just as important as Pearse and just as radical as Connolly isn’t it about time they were celebrated?

  1. Great piece! I agree that the nation’s narrative has narrowed tremendously to a culture/system of discrimination based on religious and/or sovereign ideologies. It is a shame that these pioneering, enterprising women’s names are not on the tips of our tongues when we discuss radicalism or revolution in our historiographies. Where are the great halls or institutes of learning bearing their namesake? Are there streets named after them? An apartment block perhaps? Sure maybe there’s a plaque somewhere in an obscure cul-de-sac (pun intended). That’ll do!

  2. There should be a street or two named after them…maybe we should agitate?

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