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Sunday 10 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C

'Why haven't I known about her up to now?': RTÉ broadcasts landmark series celebrating women in Irish history

It involves a six-part series as well as a podcast series.

OVER THE WEEKEND, buildings in certain towns in Ireland and Northern Ireland were lit up with huge portraits of Irish women. 

The international festival is all about shining a light on women in Irish history – and this year it came on the eve of a connected new landmark series by RTÉ that aims to reclaim women’s space in this country’s history.

Herstory: Ireland’s EPIC Women, is a new six-part TV series that airs from tonight, (Monday 3 February) at 8.30pm on RTÉ One for six weeks.

RTÉ has partnered with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, and Underground Films “to bring the stories of Ireland’s greatest female trailblazers to Irish screens”.

There are six people featured in the TV series, and 18 others featured on the accompanying podcast.

The TV series will explore the lives and achievements of: Lady Mary Heath, an aviator who became the first person to fly solo from Cape Town to Ireland; Kay McNulty, one of the first computer programmers; Dr James Barry, a pioneering surgeon who lived as a man; Mother Jones, activist and union leader; Oonah Keogh, the world’s first female member of a Stock Exchange; and Ninette de Valois, choreographer and founder of the Royal Ballet. 

‘Women’s stories were being neglected’

Three of the episodes are directed by Aoife Kelleher, who explained to “The aim of the entire series is it came from this discussion around second wave feminism and the idea that the study of history was this hugely male-dominated area of study, and this idea that women’s stories were being neglected.

“And there were knock-on issues for women’s role in society and women’s stories, and as a result a dearth of women’s rights.”

This is something that hasn’t been rectified, notes Kelleher, whether it’s leaving women out of the literary canon, or underrepresenting women’s achievements in science. “And it does have these far-reaching effects in every part of life, whether medical, legal, economic… everywhere. So Herstory is about beginning to address that balance.”

“Over the course of a year we set about meeting with historians or excerpts from the various areas,” adds Kelleher, who herself completed an MA in Women’s Studies in Oxford, so looked on this as a “dream project”. 

The six trailblazers in the TV show are known to some degree, but as Kelleher says: “These are women who we would argue should be household names in a lot of cases.”

“Once you’re making a documentary about any of these women, the question almost immediately is ‘why haven’t I known about this woman up to now?’”

She says that within each of the stories you learn about the society the women were living in. “For example with Una Keogh: the early years of the Irish State and the fact that women were initially given equal rights under the first constitution that were then clawed back and clawed back until Bunreacht na hÉireann, which we know today enshrines the role of women in the home.”

Keogh was the first woman stockbroker in the world. “She joined Dublin Stockbrokers in 1925, which would have been more difficult for a woman 10 years later,” points out Kelleher. “The 1920s have women branching out into the public sphere. But thanks to Eamon de Valera and John Charles McQuaid they were pushed back into the home.”

Then there’s Kay McNulty, the Donegal-born computer programmer, “who would never have been able to have the life that she had, had she not left Ireland in the 1920s”, says Kelleher.

Herstory Kay McNulty_Still_001 Kay McNulty (centre)

‘It was unbelievable nobody had made something like this before’

One of the producers of Herstory, Rachel Lysaght, explained that the original idea came from both her and Melanie Lynch, who set up the Herstory movement in Ireland.

“We thought it was unbelievable how nobody had made something like this before,” she says. They knew there were “huge amounts of stories out there and incredible characters”, and that it was “crazy they haven’t been brought to light before”.

“Irish women have had a huge impact on the world across a broad range of expertise so we wanted to show that in the documentary series. We did this through story pillars – arts, business, science, technology, power and revolution. Ultimately went for ones that would translate well to screen,” explains Lysaght.

For some women, their whole life is told across the half-hour programme, where for others a pivotal point in their life or career is explored.

JBarry_landscape Dr James Barry

The programme also offers an opportunity to examine how we see some of the featured people’s experiences through a 2020 lens. Though the series is titled Herstory and speaks of women, it features Dr James Barry, who did not live as a woman. Lysaght says of Barry: “You can look at James Barry as an inspiring feminist story but also as an inspiring trans story.”

Barry was born a woman and lived as a man, becoming a prominent surgeon at a time when women were not allowed to work in the sphere. Barry lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s, so given this context and the fact little survives of Barry’s own written thoughts on their gender identity, Lysaght says it is “not historically accurate to put forward one narrative to the exclusion of the other”, but that Barry’s impact is one that can be celebrated by either or both of those who see it as a feminist or trans story.

What Lysaght particularly wants to see championed is all that Barry achieved – such as his work on caesarean sections and reforms in sanitation. The discussion around James Barry’s gender identity has been frequently discussed in recent years, and no doubt this series will contribute to the questions of how his life is represented as conversations around gender continue to evolve.

Those sorts of discussions are in keeping with Herstory’s focus on learning from the past but looking at Ireland today and in the future. “We really want to celebrate these women in the past,” says Lysaght. “What was also very important was we wanted to draw people’s attention to what is happening now. We picked characters with a strong contemporary relevance.”

With Kay McNulty’s story, for example, they were able to highlight the relevance to the women in STEM and coding movements. “There is a misconception that this is something mathematical and therefore geared for the male brain,” says Lysaght. “That is really not the case – the first computer programmers were women; they were also the first ‘computers’ in the world.”

Each episode features a contemporary person whose own work speaks to their female forebear. The episode on Mother Jones, for example, features Sinead Kane, who runs a soup kitchen at the GPO on Dublin’s O’Connell St. Mother Jones led a huge march in 1903 in support of children seeking a 55-hour work week (something which seems unimaginable now). 

“Sinead Kane talks about how today there are kids coming up looking for food for their dinner – that is happening [in Ireland] 100 years later,” points out Lysaght. 

Herstory Oonah Keogh_Still_002 Oonah Keogh

She adds: “We really wanted to make a programme series that was talking about historical characters and what they achieved then, but not to view it ourselves or as viewers through the nostalgia of rose-tinted glasses. Yes, she was amazing, but what’s happening today? How far have we come and how can we go further? What have we achieved?”

The launch of Herstory in 2020 during the Decade of Centenaries is timing that should serve as an inspiration to people, agrees Kelleher. “As we’re exploring certain periods of Irish history it’s very important we are always asking ‘where were the women?’, ‘what were the women doing?’. We’ve seen this tendency with commemorations to focus on men’s stories and as a result women’s stories getting lost, despite the fact they were there, and they were present and these stories can often get overlooked.”

To find out more about Herstory, visit the RTÉ Herstory site.

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