Banished women: There is another history of Ireland

There is another history of Ireland. Through their work, one group of historians has set a challenge to every parish in the land to honour Ireland’s forgotten women.

I mentioned last week that women account for only 20% of the entries in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB), which has just been made available free online, and I remarked that the work of Cahir history group Daughters of Dún Iascaigh should be at the top of the DIB’s inbox.

When I tweeted that statistic, the DIB replied: “Women comprised only 10% of all subjects in the original DIB! This proportion has more than doubled among the DIB’s post-2009 publications and will continue to rise, thanks to the ongoing growth in scholarship on women’s history.”

To be fair, I had made those exact points myself, and I had praised the DIB as an invaluable resource for anyone with even a passing interest in Irish history. It’s also a bit of a rabbit-hole, and as historian, journalist, and anchor of RTÉ’s Six One News, David McCullagh, says, “In theory it should increase productivity in the History Nerd Community, but I suspect it will decrease it, because once you open it up, you just can’t stop looking at different stories”.

Section from Great Book of Lecan, which mentions Badamair and Cahir. MS. 23 P 2, f.237 v (Courtesy of the Royal Irish Academy)

On foot of my mentioning Daughters of Dún Iascaigh here last week, I was delighted to receive in the post the book Daughters of Dún Iascaigh: A Light on the History of Cahir Women. It’s a beautifully designed hardback, published by the Cahir Women’s History Group, and it’s dedicated to the women of Cahir, past and present. Its cover features a woodcut, Born Seeing, by Cahir native Alice Maher.

The book – Tipperary Book of the Year 2018 – contains some utterly fascinating stories of Cahir women, dating from Badamair, a third century Cahir woman mentioned in the Great Book of Lecan, right up to the 1940s.

One chapter is devoted to the ancient practice of keening – professional mourning – and recalls how, in the early years of the twentieth century, it was Ellen Heffernan’s job to lay out the dead in Cahir and to recite prayers over them. Ellen always dressed in black, and she always carried salt to place on the lips of the deceased. It was believed that the soul left the body through the mouth, and that the salt would prevent evil spirits from finding their way to this world.

Sister Joseph, the Rebel Nun, is remembered for her 1887 to 1889 campaign of letters to Bishop Piers Power condemning the Reverend Mother as a tyrant, writing “no one is bound to obey when the superior is commanding what we never vowed”.

Another chapter recalls Lilias Harding, born in Charleville in 1881. She married Royal Irish Constabulary officer Gilbert Potter in 1913, and they had four children. During the War of Independence, Gilbert was District inspector in Cahir, and on 23 April 1921 he embarked in his motor car on a tour of inspection of RIC stations in Ballyporeen and Clogheen. He never came home.

Five days later, on 28 April, Lily received a letter stating that “having been legally tried and convicted, (he) was sentenced to death, which sentence was caried out on Wed, 27 April”.

During his time in IRA captivity, Gilbert was allowed a diary, and he wrote letters to Lily, documents she would only see a month after his death. He praises his captors – “The IRA treat me well and are kind hearted” and on the day he died, he writes in his diary: “About 11am, I was told I was to die this evening. The young men guarding me have been kind all through”.

Lily had to bear not just the grief of bereavement, but she learned afterward that the British government had rejected the IRA’s offer of a prisoner exchange, something which would surely have saved Gilbert’s life. To add to her pain, in late August, a full four months after his killing, Lily had to act as a hostage for the return of her husband’s body, in remote woods in Rathgormack, Co Waterford.

By way of a sad postscript, Lily Potter died in the Cliffe Combe Nursing Home, Broadstairs, Kent on 21 June 1926. She was 45. Two of her children died soon after.

In the introduction to Daughters of Dún Iascaigh, the book’s editors, Josephine O’Neill, Karol De Falco, Mary Caulfield and Breeda Ryan note:

“This is by no means a complete history of the women of Cahir, and we hope that others will go on to fill in the gaps left by us and uncover more. The book does not delve into post-1940 material and we encourage daughters and sons of Cahir to record their own family stories from their parents and grandparents, elderly neighbours and friends.”

Chapter 34, on page 265, is particularly affecting. Entitled “Banished Women”, it remembers all of the women made to stand in the Square in Cahir before being sent to mother and baby homes. Apart from the chapter title, and the page number, the page is otherwise blank, because, as Josephine O’Neill explained to me in her covering letter, those women’s stories have yet to be told.

For International Women’s Day this year, Monday 8 March, Josephine and her colleagues took to the streets of Cahir under cover of darkness, dressed in Cumann na mBan uniforms and other period costumes, and they erected around the town 24 temporary plaques featuring the works of Alice Maher, and commemorating Cahir women who made a significant mark upon history.

It was a glorious rebalancing of the scales, and anyone who heard Josephine talking with Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio 1 about the installation could hardly have helped but be inspired by her erudite enthusiasm.

But with all of that said, and with all due respect to Cahir, it’s a lovely town, but in the global scheme of things, it’s nothing special. I don’t mean that as an insult, and of course anyone who has read Daughters of Dún Iascaigh will know Cahir absolutely is a very special place, but the point, though, is that Cahir cannot be the only town in Ireland with a history of forgotten, overlooked, and ignored women.

Every parish in Ireland has a shadow story, of the silent women who lived, loved and toiled without ever receiving the recognition which was their due. The Cahir Women’s History Group has set us all a challenge.

There is another history of Ireland.

It’s up to us all to uncover it, and it is past time that history was told.

Daughters of Dún Iascaigh is officially out of print, but I understand a second print is under consideration. If you are interested in purchasing a copy, Josephine O’Neill can be contacted via Twitter.