Source: Warner Bros.
TO CELEBRATE INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day, we have curated a selection of Irish women who have forged their own path in life.
However, their true stories have been hidden by history as their behaviours were ‘unladylike’ by the standards of the times they lived in.
Source: Rev. Karen Dempsey
Did you know she was a lesbian and performed abortions?
Yes, our very own St. Brigid would be excommunicated today instead of revered as a Saint. But the Catholic Church wasn’t always an ‘empire of misogyny’ as former President Mary McAleese said today.
St. Brigid’s feast day – 1st February – was initially one of four special fire festivals in the pre-Christian Celtic calender. It was known as Imbolg (‘i mBolg’) which translates to ‘in the stomach’, referring to the birth of Springtime when Winter is pregnant with summer.
The festival also symbolised the birth of new life for married couples. They could renew their vows to each other or it was the one day of the year when they could go their separate ways.
St.Brigid was associated with healing, fertility and midwifery. Thus, her knowledge as a midwife and wise woman of women’s healthcare also extended to the compassionate ability to end pregnancies.
Brigid was amongst four Irish saints, and the only female, to perform abortions (Ciarán of Saigir, Áed mac Bricc, Cainneach of Aghaboe being the other ones).
Source: Rev. Karen Dempsey
St.Brigid also had a ‘Anam Cara‘ or soul friend, called Darlughdach, who she shared her life with and they slept in the same bed together. Brigid died on 1 Feb 525 and the bond between the two was so close that Darlughdach died on her soulmate’s anniversary exactly one year later on 1 Feb 526.
No, I’m not crying, you’re crying.
So if anyone says to you that between the marriage referendum and abortion that Ireland is losing its values, perhaps tell them that we’re actually going back to our Celtic Christianity roots.
2 & 3.Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755 – 1831)
Source: National Museum of Wales
Better known as the Ladies of Llangollen, these two Irish ladies, born in the middle of the 18th century, caused a serious scandal in Ireland and Britain when they eloped together from Kilkenny to live in Wales.
They must have been the talk of the parish for weeks with that carry on!
Eleanor was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Ormonde of Kilkenny Castle but frustrated her family as she refused to marry. Twelve miles away, lived Sarah Ponsonby, an orphan being raised by her middle-aged guardian and his wife.
The two struck up a special friendship, bonded by their shared love of reading and writing, which at the time was frowned upon for being ‘unladylike‘.
In 1778, when Eleanor was 39 and Sarah was 23, they decided to run away together.
Both felt trapped by the lack of autonomy and choice in their life: Eleanor’s mother had threatened to send her to a convent (what else did you do with an infertile and unmarried daughter back then?) and Sarah’s creepy guardian was impatiently anticipating the death of his frail wife so he could marry Sarah.
So the pair boldly dressed up as men, carried a pistol and taking Sarah’s dog Frisk they rode off to Waterford, where they hoped to take a ferry to England.
However, the boat didn’t sail and they were caught.
Back home, Eleanor facing imminent removal to a French convent, ran away to Sarah’s house, where she hid in Sarah’s bedroom. When this was discovered the two families disowned the pair who were free at last to set up a life together.
They lived for 50 years together in a small cottage they called Plas Newydd, outside the village of Llangollen in isolated North Wales.
They hoped to live in peace to write, do art, and study literature and languages.
Basically, they just wanted to do the 18th Century version of netlix and chill until they died.
But, their isolation did not lead to a quiet life for long. The shocking news of the eccentric ladies who lived without male supervision (God forbid!), had cut their hair short, and were sleeping in the same bed soon spread across Europe. They were called ‘the most celebrated virgins in Europe’.
How’s that for a tagline on Instagram?
Many celebrities and hipsters of the time came to stay with them. The English romantic poets William Wordsworth (who was smoking a lot of opium) and Percy Shelley (the husband of Mary Shelley* who wrote the first horror story in history, Frankenstein) were visitors, along with noble peers like the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Wellington (born in Dublin, he’s the admiral who defeated Napolean at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815).
Their penpals included royalty, Queen Charlotte of England and Louis XVI’s aunt, and the famed poet and politician Lord Byron. Queen Charlotte even persuaded her husband King George III to grant them a pension.
Pretty sweet to convince the King of England to pay for your lifestyle
Source: Dreamworks Pictures
The pension allowed them to improve Plas Newydd into a distinctive Gothic Tudor style house with Welsh oak panelling, pointed arches, stained glass windows, and an extensive library. The building still stands today and is now a museum run by Denbighshire Council.
Between the two ladies, the poets and the Duke of Wellington, for whom Wellington boots are named, their tent banter and gossip at Electric Picnic would have been stellar!
4. Dr James Miranda Barry
Source: Jeremy Dronfield
Dr. James Barry, born in Cork around 1789, was a British military surgeon who rose to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals, the second highest medical office in the British Army.
Nothing perhaps out of the ordinary, except that when Dr. Barry died, it was discovered that Barry was a WOMAN!
Barry, born Margaret Ann Bulkley, had a middle-class background until her father lost his business, throwing the family into poverty.
Margaret and her mother went to London get get help from an uncle, a well-known painter named James Barry. After James died, Margaret was inspired by her uncle’s friend, General Francisco de Miranda, to join the war. Margaret decided that she would become a Venezuelan army surgeon as their progressive laws allowed female doctors.
Using her inheritance, Margaret enrolled in Edinburgh University as a man, strapped down her breasts (literally), and took her Uncle and friend’s name to become James Miranda Barry.
By the time Margaret graduated, General de Miranda was in prison. So Margaret, if she wanted to remain a surgeon, would have to keep up her identity as Dr. James Barry.
The absolute stress of that. This woman is the original Clark Kent
Margaret joined the British Army as a surgeon and soon became celebrated for her pioneering techniques and methods. She was one of the first doctors to enforce strict hygiene rules in the hospitals she worked in and insisted on treating her patients equally, regardless of colour or class.
Margaret also became the first surgeon to perform a successful Cesarean delivery, after making the snap decision to perform the surgery despite NEVER having seen or done one before, in order to save the life of a woman who was dying in childbirth.
Cool as a cucumber was our Margaret! Look at her there, doing the casual arm-rest AND hand-on-hip pose.
She would have made Instagram her bitch!
Many thought the smooth skinned and five foot doctor was very ‘effeminate’. But due to Margaret’s supreme skill as a surgeon, they never doubted her gender because at the time it was said that a woman could never be talented enough, or have the physical and mental strength, to be a doctor.
Wow! What a time to be alive!
Source: 20th Century Television
Margaret left strict instructions that upon her death that she should be buried in the clothes she died in. Her wishes were not fulfilled and it was discovered that Dr. James Barry was a woman.
This threw a couple spanners in the works as you can imagine.
The great British Empire, founded upon the notion that British men were the greatest and literally everyone else was inferior, had been tricked by an Irish woman to be promoted to the highest ranks within the British Army and had been celebrated across the globe as one of the greatest medical minds.
The state funeral which had been planned for Dr. James Barry was withdrawn, the press were gagged and the British Army sealed her records for 100 years so as to save the face of the British Empire.
So when is the movie coming out?
5. Hilda Tweedy (1911 – 2005)
As a housewife in Dublin, Hilda Tweedy was shocked by the level of starvation amongst the poor, due to food shortages during the ‘emergency’ a.k.a. World War Two.
Tweedy wrote to numerous friends and asked them “What is your dream of Ireland? Are you satisfied that you are doing all in your power to build the kind of world you wish your children to live in?”
Way to guilt trip someone Hilda! You couldn’t leave that message on read and not reply
Tweedy along with 4 others successfully organised the ‘Housewife petition’, calling for the government to ration essential foods to control prices and to prevent black markets.
To exploit the media attention they were receiving as ‘housewives’ they set up the Irish Housewives Association.
Tweedy started an intense campaign, bombarding the government with letters, and encouraged IHA members to report any shopkeepers who were operating using unfair prices. Shopkeepers were infuriated at her and the IHA, leading one to complain to the Evening Mail on 20 January 1943 that ‘Mrs Tweedy should mind her own business’.
However, the pressures of the IHA worked and rationing was brought in, along with progressive food and hygiene regulations.
Hilda, you go girl!
Source: Warner Bros
Amongst other things, Tweedy as the leader of the IHA advocated for women’s rights on a broad range of issues. This included equal pay, girls’ education and the right of women to serve on juries.
It also included a campaign to put an end to the ridiculous marriage ban – an Irish law which stopped married women from getting a job in the Civil Service and forced women who were newly married to give up their job.
Finally, the law was removed in 1973.
The IHA was also vital in establishing the Consumers’ Assocation of Ireland and in the formation of The Commission of the Status of Women. The Commisison’s report in 1972 made clear that women in Ireland were restricted from fully participating in Irish society and suggested changes to be put into action in employment, social welfare, taxation, politics and education.
The IHA is alive and well today, and is known as The National Women’s Council of Ireland. Hilda and the IHA’s inspirational work paved the way for women of Ireland today and on International Women’s Day, we thank you!
You go, Hilda, you Queen!