Last year I did some ADR on a little film called ‘Brooklyn’. The book, by Colm Toibín, is one I’ve had a sort of tenuous relationship with – a couple of years ago, I narrated it for the RNIB, and was delighted to be involved, even in a small way, with the movie. The book itself is wonderful, delicate and as one would expect of a master like Toibín, extremely well-told. Even from the brief recording session, it was clearly a beautifully crafted film, telling a story that has been familiar to many Irish people, myself included, of the homesickness of being an Irish immigrant in spite of always having dreamt of leaving the motherland. There is a romance attached to this sense of Irishness and being Irish abroad which neatly fits into universal sensibilities and the perception by others about what it means to be Irish. And this is a notion that is somewhat based in a truth, and which we have fostered and encouraged, to a certain extent.
But there is another narrative that is no less true, though less often told. This week was the week that it became blatantly apparent that Irish women’s voices were being silenced at our national theatre, which is a microcosm example of what has happened to Irish women over the last 100 years. It brought me back to something that happened to me a few years back. I was in hospital visiting an elderly female relative. She was in a frail and very vulnerable state and began crying as she recounted that she perhaps could have done more to help Magdalen girls she had come across. The sheer sense of terror however at the thoughts of going up against the powers-that-be (the Church, the State) was palpable, and it made me think about what it meant to be a young girl or young woman in 1950s/60s Ireland: the knowledge that if you gave into natural sexual desires, were raped or were too pretty, that you ran the risk of being incarcerated. Given what was known to happen, it’s hard to blame those who did not stand up and be counted.
Ireland’s treatment of its women is something that has not been scrutinised, because by and large in society in and out of Ireland, women’s stories are not seen as important enough. Out of the activists involved in fighting for a free state, the names of Maud Gonne (through association with Yeats) and Countess Markievicz may be known – but who knows the names of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Mary Galway, Margaret Cousins, Louie Bennett, Kathleen Lynn, Rosamund Jacob and Helena Molony beyond a few interested scholars? They certainly don’t rank in recognition in the same way that Pearse, De Valera, Collins, Connolly, Clarke, MacDermott, Plunkett and MacDonagh do. I don’t even have to use their first names for them to be instantly recognisable to anyone who went through the Irish school system. Sure, most of these lost their lives and that forms part of their remembrance; but the women aforementioned are important figures of their time, and yet sidelined historically.
Toibín’s Eliís, or the late Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher is how Ireland prefers to view its women: feisty, quirky, sanitised for Hollywood consumption. In a way, it is an aspect of Irish womanhood, but not the sum totality. There are also the women who effectively were state-sponsored slaves in the Magdalen laundries; the 12 women a day who travel to the UK to get abortions because somehow their reproductive organs are a matter of national danger and concern. Miss X. Miss Y. Salvia Halapannavar. The clinically dead pregnant woman kept alive last year for over 17 weeks, despite her parents’ wishes. Not to mention the women and children directly abused by the Church, protected by the State. It’s not necessarily been the best 100 years for the women of Ireland and this is not something we can blame on our oppressors as a nation, because these crimes and the attempts at silencing these voices are something that the ‘free’ state of Ireland has done to itself.
The job of any national theatre is to tell the stories of the whole nation, not just those of an overprivileged male cosmopolitan elite. Having read through the official line from the Abbey via its artistic director, I don’t buy that none of the works by female writers were up to par – that comes across as sexist prevaricating. However, if it is the case (and of course that will be hard to judge until the season planned is upon us, and the audience and critics judge the relative merits of that position) then serious questions must be asked of the management of the Abbey Theatre as to why this was allowed to happen. It is not as if they did not know the significance of the centenary in 2016, and that it crept up on them unawares, and could not plan accordingly, surely to be representative of the nation as a whole? And the Abbey is funded largely by public funding, so any under-representation, especially of half the population, should be grounds for public enquiry and concern.
Having been in Ireland the weekend of the Yes Equality vote, I felt it was a turning point in our history, and one that could prove of huge benefit in the campaign to repeal the 8th. What has transpired with the Abbey under Fiach Mac Conghail indicates there is much work to be done before Irish women are seen as equal citizens in our own country. As well as the celebrations that will occur to mark 1916, we also need to be brave enough to face the mistakes of the last 100 years and that dark history. Because until that happens, we will remain in a colonised state. Irishwomen were instrumental in the formation of the Free State – the 1916 proclamation directly acknowledges that. The best way of eulogising those who fought for our freedom would be to honour that. In that sense, it is not just the feminists who need to wake up. To be a nation once again, with the responsibility, the accountability and maturity that involves, every Irish citizen needs to.