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Clodagh Finn: Let's look at what women did in history, not what they weren't allowed to do

Author Clodagh Finn on the women who are too often relegated to the footnotes of history.

Clodagh Finn Journalist and author

SIX YEARS AGO, I first saw a reference to Mary Elmes, the Cork woman who helped save hundreds of children from deportation to Nazi concentration camps during World War ll. I remember wondering why she wasn’t a household name.

At the time, an internet search might have yielded one or two mentions, all leading back to the first significant reference to her in the English language in the late writer Rosemary Bailey’s excellent book, Love and War in the Pyrenees. Now there is a bridge that carries her name in her native city of Cork, a children’s book, two biographies – of which I wrote one, I’m glad to say – and a documentary. 

Her story, or rather her vanishing act, got me interested in how women and their contributions to shaping the world are omitted from the pages of history. Too often, women were simply the mothers, sisters and daughters of men or relegated to the footnotes, if they appeared at all.

Mary Elmes in the 1940s A portrait of Mary Elmes taken in the 1940s. Source: The Danjou family.

Mary at a feeding station in Spain_second from the right Mary Elmes at a feeding station in Spain (second from the right). Source: The Danjou family.

One of the very few women I remember from school history is Aoife MacMurrough, the girl-woman given by her father as a prize to Strongbow/Richard de Clare, in exchange for his military help. She didn’t even have a speaking role.

We think of her as the compliant bride, in part due to her depiction in Daniel Maclise’s famous painting The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. The character of the real woman starts to become clearer only when you look at what happened when she was widowed six years after her marriage in August 1170.

The picture that emerges from surviving royal records could not be more different from the shrinking violet of Maclise’s painting. Countess of Strigoil or Countess Eva, as Aoife called herself, had power and influence, and she exploited her late husband’s considerable estates in England and Wales.

maclise-daniel-the-marriage-of-strongbow-and-aoife-british-school-19th-century Daniel Maclise's painting The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife Source: Alamy Stock Photo

There’s an understandable tendency to look back in anger and list all that women historically could not do – vote, sit on juries, join the military, own property as married women, in some cases, work, smoke in public. It’s a long and very dispiriting list.

However, after researching the life of Mary Elmes, who volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and World War ll, I wondered what might happen if you looked back and asked what women did, rather than what they were not permitted to do?

It was a fascinating, revelatory journey that turned up the stories of soldiers, sailors, thinkers and tailors, to hijack the old rhyme.

I had long been interested in Roesia de Verdun, or Rose of the Rock, because of the 13th- century noblewoman’s fearsome reputation. She reportedly pushed her master mason out of the window of her impressive castle at Castle Roche in Co Louth, so that he could not replicate the design for anyone else. 

I wondered about the real person behind the legend and found references to a woman who kept her own name after marrying Theobald Butler in 1225, and one who gained widespread respect for doing something that no other woman had done in 13th-century Ireland – build a castle. It was even noted at the time that she had done something “which none of her ancestors was able to do”.

She is far from being the only strong, powerful woman in Irish history. If you time-travel through the centuries, you’ll find so many stories, albeit sometimes partial ones, of independent-minded, savvy, active women making a difference.

Grace O’Malley and Countess Markievicz don’t have to be the poster women for Irish history anymore thanks to the availability of new sources and the sterling work done by so many historians.

But these accounts should go beyond the history book and academic journals to reach a general audience. That was my aim with the book I wrote telling the story of 21 Irish women -  I finished writing the book in 2019, but the stories just kept coming.

I started tweeting snippets of those other stories in late 2020. It was a lockdown distraction and an attempt to celebrate the unsung and undercelebrated women in our past. And what stories. Here are just three examples:

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Mabel Cahill (1863-1905) from Kilkenny won five US Open tennis titles in the early 1890s. In 1897, she moved to the UK and fell on hard times. She died in a workhouse and is buried in an unmarked grave.

mabel-e-cahill-from-an-1892-publication Mabel Cahill, from an 1892 publication. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

the-ladies-of-llangollen-eleanor-charlotte-butler-may-11-1739-june-2-1829-and-sarah-ponsonby-1755-december-9-1831-were-two-upper-class-irish-women-whose-relationship-scandalized-and-f Portrait of Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby 'The Ladies of Llangollen' Source: Alamy Stock Photo

In 1780, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two aristocratic ladies from Kilkenny, eloped to Llangollen, Wales, so they could be together. They were celebrated and visited by the likes of Shelley, Byron and Wordsworth, who wrote a sonnet about them.

Rachel Hamilton (1829-1899) was a 6ft 4in, Irish pipe-smoking shipyard worker hired as a special constable to quell the riots – or bash heads together, as one account put it – that broke out in Glasgow during the centenary celebrations of Daniel O’Connell’s birth. She’s not well-known here, but ‘Big Rachel’, the towering navvy, labourer and peacekeeper, is celebrated with affection in her adopted Glasgow.

There is still work to be done, but there is a growing acceptance that a history without women is only half a history. Adding ‘herstory’ helps us to get much nearer to the full story.

Clodagh Finn is an Irish Examiner columnist and author of a biography on Mary Elmes called A Time to Risk All, as well as Through Her Eyes: A New History of Ireland in 21 Women (Gill Books). She tweets about women from history daily @FinnClodagh

  • This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Clodagh Finn  / Journalist and author

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