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Opinion: Telling the stories of Irish women - a tribute to Margaret MacCurtain

Academic Mary McAuliffe pays tribute to Dr MacCurtain and the groundbreaking work she did.

Mary McAuliffe

AS SHE IS laid to rest this week, we remember the great feminist historian, educator, women’s rights activist, human rights activist, mentor and friend to many, Dr Margaret MacCurtain.

As said by President Michael D Higgins, we owe her “a profound debt of gratitude, for her advocacy for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools and for the rights of children with special educational needs”.

Most especially it is her own groundbreaking academic work, her many decades of teaching in UCD and her unflagging promotion of research in and publication of all aspects of Irish women’s history which will form part of the immense legacies she leaves behind.

Margaret MacCurtain was born in Cork in 1929, and received a BA at UCC in 1950, subsequently joining the Dominican Order, taking the name in religion, Sr Benvenuta (for many years she was known simply as Sr Ben).

She received her PhD in 1960 and took up a position as a lecturer in history at UCD in 1964. She remained in UCD until 1994 when she retired: there are many, many stories of her abilities to inspire students, her kindnesses and mentorship of students, and her battles with the academic and religious institutions to which she belonged.

One of the most (in)famous is of how, early on in her academic career, she clashed with the Archbishop of Dublin, the formidable John Charles McQuaid. As she retold in an interview, “during the years of the Vatican council in the 1960s, Dr McQuaid heard that I was expounding lectures on the Catholic counter-reformation of the 16th century”.

This being a subject where Dr McQuaid would like control over content, he wrote to her Superior in the Order, demanding that her lecture notes be send to him for comment.

She refused to oblige, indeed offering to resign from teaching rather than have this sort of censorship imposed on her teaching. Her Superior explained this to the Archbishop and no more was heard on the matter.

Her reaction to this demand from McQuaid shows the fierce intellectual independence, the presence of mind and courage in the face of hierarchical power, be it from within the Church, the University or indeed, society, that Margaret MacCurtain would demonstrate all of her life.

She was a participant in and supporter of what was called the ‘gentle revolution’ by UCD students in the mid-1960s.

She was insistent on promoting the teaching and research into Irish women’s history in a History Department that, she later acknowledged, did not have women’s history high on the agenda. But she persevered, and as she said of this work, it was “almost subversive on my part to start introducing women’s history as early as the 1970s with the take-off of the second wave of the women’s movement in Ireland”.

The historian of women and the feminist campaigner were two hats which Margaret MacCurtain wore very comfortably. As well as her pioneering work in UCD History, she was one of the women instrumental in the setting up of the UCD Women’s Studies Forum in the 1980s, which was critical to the setting up of Women’s Studies (now Gender Studies) in UCD.

Outside of the university, she campaigned for the broader rights of women. During the 1995 divorce referendum she was one of the few members of the Catholic Church who bravely and publicly campaigned for a Yes vote.

In order to grow interest in and professionalise women’s history in Ireland she co-founded the Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI). She was a wonderful public lecturer and speaker, supportive of all emerging scholars in the field of women’s history, really good company, and a keen supporter of the WHAI, rarely failing to turn up to its public events.

Women’s history

In 1978, with co-editor, Donncha Ó Corráin, she edited a pioneering collection of essays,  ‘Women in Irish Society: The Historical Dimension’, which brought together scholars who were undertaking rigorous, scholarly, and exciting research in the emerging field of Irish Women’s history, in all periods from the Early Christian through to the modern. It sold over 10,000 copies, a huge sales number for an academic book and one which reflected well both on the scholarship within, and the thirst for, these ‘new’ histories.

In 1992, she along with historians, Mary O’Dowd and Maria Luddy, published ‘An Agenda For Women’s History in Ireland, 1500-1900’ in the Irish Historical Studies journal. This is seen as the Irish Women’s History foundational text and has set the agenda for the next three decades of women’s and feminist histories.

As well as promoting, encouraging and mentoring other historians and researchers, she continued to research, to write and publish; and she remained steadfastly loyal to the feminist publishing house, Arlen House. In 2008 Arlen House published a collection of her essays, Ariadne’s Thread: Writing Women Into Irish History, which showed the breath and range of her interests, the rigour of her research and the clarity of her writing.

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She was absolutely thrilled, when in 2017, Arlen House published Ambassador Extraordinaire: Life of Daniel O’Daly 1595-1662; O’Daly had been the subject of her doctorate in 1960.

Just last year, in 2019, many of her old and new friends, former students, fellow historians, her family and her Dominican sisters, gathered in the Poetry Ireland headquarters on Parnell Square to celebrate the publication of her book Metaphors for Change: Essays on State and Society (Arlen House), a collection of her essays from the 1960s to 2010s which engage with “feminism, culture, Irish history and politics, mathematics, activism, spirituality and theology, education and women’s history”.

It was a wonderful day and an apt way to celebrate a great Irish woman, a historian, scholar and educator par excellence, a mentor to many, an inspirational feminist, an activist and leader and, above all, a kind and caring friend.

As her friend and publisher in Arlen House, Alan Hayes, tweeted, “her wish [had] being to affect change in Irish society”, something she certainly did achieve, and in doing so, she leaves behind a rich legacy.

For Dr Margaret MacCurtain (Sr Ben), Dominican, pioneering historian, inspirational teacher and scholar, wonderful writer, courageous and outspoken feminist, and truly wise woman, we can sincerely say: Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.

Mary McAuliffe is a historian and lecturer in Gender Studies at UCD.

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