MARY ANN MCCRACKEN / Philanthropist, social activist & abolitionist

MARY ANN MCCRACKEN

Philanthropist, social activist and radical, abolitionist, proto-feminist & businesswoman

1770 – 1866

Belfast

Born in Belfast on 8th July 1770 to Captain John McCracken and his wife Ann, Mary Ann McCracken was the fifth of six surviving children. The McCracken brood were educated at David Manson’s co-educational school on Donegall Street, where corporal punishment was unheard of, boys and girls were taught as equals and learning was facilitated through play.

From childhood, Mary visited and assisted at the first Public Charitable Institution in Belfast, established by her uncles, Robert and Henry Joy. She later became Secretary of the Ladies Committee within the organisation. Alongside her elder brother, Henry Joy McCracken, she ran a non-denominational Sunday School for Belfast’s poor children (despite being a Presbyterian). It was through Henry that Mary was first introduced to the Society of United Irishmen, in which she became heavily involved. During Henry’s imprisonment in Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail, Mary regularly wrote to him about the developing situation in Belfast and on at least one occasion argued for equality of the sexes.

In R.M. Young’s, “Historical Notices of Old Belfast and its Vicinity,” Mary’s first biographer, Anna McCleery, wrote that “she was long a member of an anti-slavery society. She abstained from sugar for many years, which must have been a great privation, as she was fond of it.” Her name is listed among the committee members on the 1846 ‘Address from the Committee of the Belfast ladies' Anti-Slavery Association to the ladies of Ulster,” and her letters to Dublin-based historian R.R. Madden often voice abolitionist sentiments. Through this correspondence, Mary also assisted Madden in writing the seven volume corpus, ‘The United Irishmen: Their Life and Times’.

Despite speculation about Mary’s relationship with United Irishman Thomas Russell, who was hung in 1803 for his part in Emmet’s failed rebellion, Mary never married. She did however, raise a child. In the aftermath of Henry’s execution, a little girl named Maria was revealed as his illegitimate daughter. Mary was quick to take the girl into the family despite the reservations of her brother John. Mary and Maria were not to be parted until Mary’s death in 1866.

A busy social activist, Mary began a muslin business with her sister Margaret, where the rights of workers were given upmost priority. She was involved in the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick and a member of the Belfast Ladies Clothing Society which provided blankets and clothes during the Famine. She was on a committee to prevent the employment of climbing-boys and she was a member of the Belfast Workhouse committee. The Ladies Industrial School considered Mary a ‘beloved friend’ who never missed a weekly meeting as long as she was able to attend. In the school’s 1866 report, a short obituary fondly described Mary’s “ardent charity, her large and tender sympathy, her sweet humility and self-forgetfulness.”

Our thanks to Cathryn Bronwyn McWilliams for this contribution to our celebration of Irish women through the ages.

MAEVE BRENNAN / Writer

MAEVE BRENNAN

WRITER

DUBLIN / NEW YORK

1917 – 1993

The world has a fascination with the city that never sleeps and few have captured its contradictions but one who did was a character known only as "The Long Winded Lady", a lady who must've seemed to her readers to be the definitive New Yorker but was actually a Dubliner called Maeve Brennan.

Maeve was born in Dublin to Úna and Robert Brennan in 1917. Hers was a Republican household and with both parents being involved in the struggle, the young Maeve witnessed many house raids and arrests that no doubt left an impression. Maeve's family left Dublin in 1934 when her father was offered a post in the US legation in Washington. Maeve completed her studies in the US, graduating with a degree in English and when her parents returned to Ireland in 1944, Maeve and her sisters remained in America.

Maeve started her career working as a copywriter in Harpers Bazaar, holding her own in a largely male workforce. She was known for her wit and her distinctive style. One of Maeve's colleagues at this time was Truman Capote who, some say, based his famous character Holly Golightly on the charming Maeve who too always seemed to live beyond her means.

It was, however, in her role at the literary magazine The New Yorker that Brennan really found fame, albeit under a pseudonym. The New Yorker had a section called "The talk of the town" and Maeve contributed to it under the name of the Long Winded Lady. The Lady's articles were a snapshot of life in the small restaurants, busy streets and cheap hotels across the city of New York. Brennan was fascinated with people and was always completely detached in her writing, she was the observer or the outsider looking in and her writing was a tribute to what she called the most "reckless, most ambitious, most confused, most comical, the saddest, the coldest and most human of cities". Brennan also published short stories within the New Yorker, the majority being set in her beloved Dublin and although these stories were published in book form in the US, they unfortunately were never published in Ireland.

Maeve continued to submit stories and columns to the New Yorker up until the late 1970s but her battle with mental illness meant that she was not as prolific as she had been. For Maeve things that had once been eccentricities became obsessions. Eventually Maeve became destitute and homeless and in 1981 she largely disappeared from New York life. A few years later she was found lodging in a nursing home, and in 1993 she died of a heart attack.

Maeve Brennan was a literary treasure that few of us knew we had. She is a reminder to us all that there is a story behind the face of everyone you see, be they the rich people you see entertaining in restaurants or the poor homeless woman you see wandering the streets.

Thanks to Herstorian Gráinne Kennedy for this herstory.

Photo credit: Karl Bissinger

DAME KATHLEEN LONSDALE / Scientist, Educator & Activist

DAME KATHLEEN LONSDALE, DBE FRS

Scientist, Educator and Activist

Kildare / Essex / London / Leeds

1903 – 1971

Kathleen Lonsdale was an outstanding scientist who made enormous contributions to the field of crystallography, a science which studies the order of atoms and molecules in crystals. The Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin quite rightly said of her: 'There is a sense in which she appeared to own the whole of crystallography in her time'.

Born Kathleen Yardley in Newbridge, County Kildare on 28th January 1903, she moved to Essex in England with her mother and siblings in 1908. Kathleen excelled at the girls school but maths and science weren’t offered so she attended the local boys school for these subjects. After a Bachelor of Science from Bedford College for women in London in 1922, she studied for a Master of Science at University College London (UCL) where she met William H. Bragg. He offered her the chance to learn about the very new science of X-ray crystallography at the famous Royal Institution in London, where she was awarded a Doctor of Science in 1936 from UCL.

She married Thomas Lonsdale in 1927, who stated that he was attracted to Kathleen because of her mathematical ability and he said to Dorothy Hodgkin that 'he had not married to get a free housekeeper.’ The Lonsdales then moved to Leeds for three years and while at the University of Leeds Kathleen made an enormous breakthrough. Chemists had been arguing for over 100 years about the arrangement of atoms in a molecule called benzene, an important part of gasoline. It was first isolated in 1825 by Michael Faraday but the order of the atoms was hotly contested. Fast forward to 1928 and Kathleen Lonsdale uses X-ray crystallography to work out the order of atoms in hexamethylbenzene. Note hexamethylbenzene, not benzene - benzene at room temperature is liquid but Kathleen needed a solid crystal for her crystallography experiment.

Kathleen was a Quaker strongly committed to pacifism, which meant she would not comply with the mandatory war duties during the Second World War. She was fined £2 but refused to pay, so in 1943 she was sent to Holloway prison in London for a month. She subsequently became a lifelong supporter of prison reform and was a regular prison visitor to women's prisons.

Her full list of accolades includes admission as one of the first women fellows of the Royal Society in 1945 (a very prestigious honour indeed), receipt of the first female professorship at UCL in 1949, appointment as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1956 and election as first woman president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1968. The BAAS promoted science education, which she strongly believed in. She once made an important note to herself that clearly highlights this: 'Never refuse an opportunity to speak in schools'. This incredible woman achieved all of this without compromising her beliefs, family relationship or social responsibility.

Thanks to herstorian Claire Murray for this herstory. 

Image: Kathleen Lonsdale, Acc. 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archivess

KATHLEEN DELAP / Irish Countrywomen's Activist

KATHLEEN DELAP

Irish Countrywomen’s Activist

Dublin

1910-2004

Kathleen Delap was born Kathleen Orpen 1910 in Dublin. She had a comfortable upbringing in Carrickmines, where tennis and garden parties were the norm; servants worked in the large family home; and her early education came via governesses. Her father, Charles St George Orpen, was brother of the painter, Sir William Orpen.

She studied architecture at UCD for four years, but did not complete her degree. At 23, she married Hugh Delap, an engineer.

The two of them jointly designed their modernist house, Ards, in Cabinteely, which was built in 1938. They had four children. Ards was to become a focal gathering point for family and friends. At Ards, Delap used a haybox cooker, was sorting rubbish for recycling long before the word was ever in wide circulation. She grew her own vegetables and fruit, kept hens, and cultivated a lovely flower garden.

In the 1930s, Delap, along with her sisters, Cerise, Grace and Beatrice, joined the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA). The ICA was exactly as old as she was, having been formed the year she was born.

Delap went on to become a influential and thoughtful leader within the organisation, whose progressive ideas shaped the physical and psychological welfare of many women living in rural Ireland. Her focus was on how women living in rural Ireland – as so many were in the first half of the twentieth century – could be empowered.

She is quoted as saying that she believed the average countrywoman’s most pressing needs were: “money which she can call her own, horticultural and agricultural advice, better housing and advice on food and nutrition, health and hygiene, child care, home planning and management.”

Delap drew attention to how this could be done through horticulture, poultry, crafts income, and education, editing the ICA news in the then Farmers’ Gazette.

At that time, farmers – overwhelmingly male – tended to spend money on a piped water supply for their cows, but not for their homes. The ICA controversially openly discouraged women from marrying farmers who were not also committed to paying for a piped water supply to their houses.

In time, she became the ICA’s honorary secretary, and became known as the face of the organisation, even though she never wanted to be its president. She was involved in founding An Grianan, the ICA’s residential adult education college in Co Louth.

By 1965, the ICA had over 20,000 members.

Delap was a member of the 1970s Commission for the Status of Women. She was a founder, and later, an honorary member of the National Women’s Council of Ireland. She kept a diary all her life, until the day before she died, in 2004.

Her obituary in The Irish Times described Kathleen Delap as a women who “acted locally, thinking globally.”

It also included the anecdote from her funeral, as told by her son Michael. In 1995, when Bill and Hillary Clinton visited Dublin, she was invited to a lunch with Hillary Clinton. She turned it down, because she had a prior ICA appointment, the organisation to whom she had a loyalty that overrode even a lunch invitation with the woman who could well be the first female president of the United State.

Thanks to Rosita Boland for Kathleen’s herstory.

Image: ICA women

 

JOCELYN BELL BURNELL / Astrophysicist

JOCELYN BELL BURNELL

Astrophysicist

Belfast / Cambridge

born 1943

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is one of Ireland’s most distinguished scientists. She made one of the most sensational discoveries in astrophysics when, in 1967, she discovered the pulsar. She is popularly known for being overlooked for the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded jointly to her PhD supervisor Professor Anthony Hewish and Dr Martin Ryle, but her achievements in a life devoted to astrophysics have been recognised with several honorary doctorates, positions at prestigious international universities and research institutes, and in 2008, election as first woman president of the Institute of Physics.

As a PhD student at the University of Cambridge in November 1967, Bell Burnell discovered a new type of star, the radio pulsar. Cambridge was a leading centre for the new science of radio astronomy, which pushed the detection and observation of galaxies past the capabilities of optical telescopes. The signal that would cause a sensation in astrophysics appeared, in Bell Burnell’s words, as a “half an inch of scruff” on three and a half miles of paper printouts from the radio equipment.

The pulse that launched Bell Burnell’s career was a regular signal from 200 light years away, at approximately one pulse per second, initially named ‘Little Green Man 1’. How could an object with fixed co-ordinates emit a regular pulse, unless it was intelligent life? But Bell Burnell found pulses from other locations, putting to rest the short-lived alien life hypothesis.

The Cambridge team realised that the pulses were gravitational waves from a neutron star, the dense core left behind after a supernova. These compact planet-sized objects possess massive reserves of compressed energy and very strong magnetic fields, with radio waves emanating from the north and south poles rotating like a lighthouse beam. The discovery was published in Nature in 1968, with Bell Burnell’s name listed second of five authors after Hewish.

Controversy arose in 1974, when Hewish and Ryle were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Bell Burnell is stoical about her exclusion from the award: “At the time of the prize, I had a child about 18 months old and was trying to keep working and it was proving very difficult. In those days, mothers didn’t work. So, a bit of me said, yes, men get prizes, and women look after babies.” She was an outlier from the beginning of her career – the only woman on her degree course at Glasgow University, and one of only two women to hold university chairs in physics in the UK at the time of her appointment to the Open University in 1992.

Growing up during the ‘space race’, Bell Burnell’s lifelong fascination with astronomy was fostered through childhood visits to the Armagh Planetarium, and she performs her research in perfect balance with her Quaker faith. For her, the scientific process of theory, experimentation and result analysis perfectly complements Quakers’ lifelong faith formation. She cautions against the belief that science can reveal ultimate truths about life and the universe, ‘If we assume we have arrived, we stop searching. We stop developing.’ Her philosophical approach to science makes her a passionate ambassador for the sciences and one of the leading astrophysicists alive today.

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Angela Byrne for this herstory.

HANNA SHEEHY SKEFFINGTON / Suffragette & Republican

HANNA SHEEHY SKEFFINGTON
Suffragette & Republican

Dublin
1877-1946

 

As a tireless campaigner for female suffrage, this Irish woman endured imprisonment and hunger strikes for her activism. Her fight, and that of many other Irish women, coincided with the Irish struggle for independence – a struggle she saw as inextricably linked to female emancipation. Even great personal tragedy did not diminish her fervour in the fight for women to be equal citizens.

Irish suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (1877-1946) was at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights as equal citizens of Ireland. As a republican, Sheehy Skeffington also fought for an independent Ireland, but always related this struggle to how it would impact on women.

In 1909 she was quoted saying ‘Until the women of Ireland are free, the men will not achieve emancipation.‘ Historian and biographer of Sheehy Skeffington, Margaret Ward, stated that Hanna Sheehy Skeffington ‘challenged both the imperial connection with Britain and the patriarchal domination of women in Ireland with great courage and consistency.‘

Women’s fight for gaining equal rights, which at the beginning of the twentieth century focussed on gaining the vote, was not merely a figurative fight. It often resulted in the public demonisation of suffragettes, loss of employment, imprisonment and sometimes even loss of life. British suffragette Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913. It is believed, this was done in an attempt to draw attention to the fight for women to receive the vote. Davison subsequently died from her injuries.

Like many other suffragettes, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was imprisoned many times for her activism. Today it is difficult to believe, what forceful opposition women encountered who demanded to enjoy the same rights as men.

Sheehy Skeffington came from a privileged household and belonged to a new generation of Irish women who were able to graduate from university. After studying French and German, she worked as a teacher. Thanks to her father David Sheehy, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who had been imprisoned several times in his life for revolutionary activities, Hanna was introduced to political activism from a young age. In 1902 she helped to found the Women Graduates’ and Candidate Graduates’ Association, which aimed to promote the advancement of women in university education.

In 1903 she married Francis Skeffington, a fellow suffragist, pacifist and writer. In a move that was very unusual for the time, they took each other’s surnames to highlight the equality of their relationship. The couple had one son, Owen, born in 1909. Joining forces in the fight for women to receive the vote, the Sheehy Skeffingtons, together with Margaret and James Cousins, founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. In addition, Hanna was a founding member of the Irish Women’s Workers Union (1911). She also contributed to Ireland’s first feminist newspaper, The Irish Citizen, the official organ of the Irish Women’s Franchise League.

The first militant activity by Irish suffragettes occurred in June 1912, when the Irish parliamentary party failed to support women’s suffrage. In protest against the exclusion of women from the franchise of the Third Home Rule Bill, Sheehy Skeffington and other women gathered outside Dublin Castle throwing rocks at its windows. The women, including Hanna, involved in the militant protest were arrested and imprisoned for a month.

Sheehy Skeffington was imprisoned again in 1913 for protesting against Edward Carson. During her trial, she was accused of assaulting a police officer during the protest. The sergeant claimed that he was still able to feel the pain hours after the alleged assault. A claim that caused laughter in the court room, since the policeman was of much bigger statue than Sheehy Skeffington.

While in prison, the women would use hunger strikes as a means to protest against the treatment of suffragettes by the Irish authorities. In turn, the authorities responded with force-feeding the hunger strikers, a procedure that was described by the women who had to endure it as a degrading violation of their bodies. In addition to the hardship of imprisonment, Hanna also lost her teaching post due to her political activism.

In 1916 Sheehy Skeffington had to endure a great personal tragedy when her husband Francis was executed without trial on 26 April for his involvement in the Easter Rising. Although a supporter of Home Rule, Francis was a pacifist and concerned by the growing militarism of the movement. During the Rising he attempted to organise anti-looting bands to limit the destruction of local businesses in Dublin. With no clear reason given for his arrest and without receiving a trial, Francis, wearing his Votes for Women badge, was murdered by firing squad.

After Francis’ death, Hanna worked on making public the facts surrounding the arrest and killing of her husband. She went on a speaking tour in the United States from October 1916 to August 1918. One of her speeches from that tour, British militarism as I have known it, was published as a pamphlet in 1917. Since Sheehy Skeffington was forbidden by the British authorities to return to Ireland, she was arrested again after her US speaking tour came to an end. Her release was granted after she went on hunger strike.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Sheehy Skeffington continued to be politically active as an organising secretary of Sinn Féin and member of numerous committees and organisations, such as the Irish White Cross, the Women Prisoners’ Defence League and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She supported herself and her son by working as a journalist, as well as giving public talks and lectures.

In the 1943 general election Sheehy Skeffington stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate in support of the Women’s Social and Progressive League, which she had hoped would emerge as a women’s party. She died on 20 April 1946 and was buried beside Francis in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin.

Thanks to the tireless and brave campaigning of women like Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Irish women were granted the vote in 1922.

Thanks to Anne Rosenbusch for her biography.

FANNY JENNINGS / The duchess nun

FANNY JENNINGS, Duchess of Tyrconnell

St Albans / Dublin / St Germain

1647 – 1730

Fanny Jennings, was an intriguing woman whose sobriquets included ‘the duchess nun’ and ‘the white milliner.’ Born near St Albans in England in 1647, at sixteen she was appointed maid of honour to Anne Hyde, Duchess of York. Miss Jennings quickly earned a reputation as one of the fairest and most beautiful ladies ‘who robbed men of their hearts, women of their lovers, and never lost herself as she moved through the glittering court of Charles II, in unblenched majesty.’ Noted for rebuking the advances of James Duke of York and his brother the king, Fanny Jennings married twice.  Her first husband was George Hamilton whom she married when she was seventeen and with whom she had at least three daughters. After George was killed in battle in 1676, Fanny was left a young widow of little means.

As one of the most ‘conspicuous ornaments’ at the Duchess of York’s court, it was not long before the widowed Mrs Hamilton remarried.  From the multitude of eager suitors who fawned over her, Fanny married Richard Talbot in 1679. In 1685, Richard was sent to Ireland to take command of King’ James II’s forces and to support the Roman Catholic influence. Fanny and her three daughters from her first marriage, went with him.  While in Ireland, the king created Richard Talbot, Duke of Tyrconnell.  As Duchess, Fanny held ‘her state as vice – queen with much state and magnificence’.

At Dublin Castle, she entertained the king with ‘French urbanity and Irish hospitality’ in 1689. Following his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne the following year, King James returned to the castle where it is alleged, the Duchess in ‘all the splendour of court etiquette’ greeted him at the top of the staircase in her full robes and ‘with all her attendants’ knelt on one knee and ‘congratulated the king on his safe return to Dublin, and respectfully inquired what refreshment he would be pleased to take at that moment’.

After James’s defeat, the Tyrconnells followed the exiled court to St Germain, where Fanny remained for several years.  Following the death of the duke, Fanny once more found herself impoverished. Records of the English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre in Liege, note the demise of the widowed duchess’s finances. She was also among recipients of a pension which James II received from the Pope, her share amounted to no more than 3,000 crowns or £400. 

By 1705, Fanny resorted to desperate measures and hired a stall under the Royal London Exchange, a fashionable haunt of wealthy ladies, from which she sold hats and some small items of general ‘haberdashery.’ However, keen to hide her identity, Fanny wore a full length white dress and a white lace mask to conceal her face. Her experience was dramatized in the 1840s as a successful play, ‘The White Milliner’ and performed at Covent Garden.

The following year, Fanny returned to Dublin and eventually obtained some of her deceased husband’s property.  Her days of entertaining the king at Dublin Castle were long gone, and Fanny, a widow, poor, penniless and proscribed, withdrew from the world she once knew, and took up residence in her husband’s former house on North King Street where she established a nunnery for the Poor Clare sisters.

As a devout Catholic she travelled with her many books of devotion, and endowed the Scots College in Paris for the saying of masses for ever, for the souls of her dead husbands and herself. 

In Ireland, she was among a coterie of women whose names became associated with the ‘gallant efforts that were made by religious orders of women to offset the worst effects of the penal laws in the field of education for the children of the Irish Catholic aristocracy’. Some years before her death, Fanny became a nun with the Poor Clares, some of her granddaughters subsequently joined the same order.  In the late 1680s, Fanny had incurred a debt with a ruthless creditor from whom she borrowed for the ‘purpose of helping out the newly founded Royal Benedictine Community of Benedictines’ at Ship Street in Dublin. 

The celebrated beauty and remarkable lady that was Fanny Jennings, ended her days as a nun with the Poor Clares on North King Street, where she died aged eighty-two on 6 March 1730. Her body was laid to rest across the city in St Patrick’s Cathedral three days later on 9 March.

Thanks to herstorian Damien Duffy for this herstory.

 

CONSTANCE WILDE (HOLLAND) / Campaigner for suffrage & rational dress

CONSTANCE WILDE (HOLLAND)

Campaigner for suffrage and rational dress, and wife of Oscar Wilde

London

1859 – 1898

In Oscar Wilde: a Summing Up, Lord Alfred Douglas, the love of Wilde’s later life, wrote about Wilde’s marriage to Constance Lloyd. He characterised it as ‘a marriage of deep love and affection on both sides’. Oscar described Constance as ‘quite young, very grave, and mystical, with wonderful eyes, and dark brown coils of hair’. His mother thought her: ‘A very nice pretty sensible girl-well-connected and well brought up’. Yet Constance, who had a troubled adolescence, could appear shy and lacking in confidence.

A recent upsurge in interest – exemplified by Franny Moyle’s excellent biography Constance: the Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde and my own Wilde’s Women - reveals a bright, progressive and politically active woman who was as loyal and true to her errant husband as her name suggests. Newspaper accounts of the time pay tribute to her beauty but also cover her campaigns for the greater participation of women in public life, and praise her aptitude as a public speaker.

Constance spoke excellent French and Italian. She was also a remarkable accomplished pianist. Her strong views on dress reform led her to join the committee of the Rational Dress Society in order to campaign for an end to the ridiculous, restrictive fashions that prevented women from leading fulfilling lives. In ‘Clothed in Our Right Minds’, a lecture she addressed to the Rational Dress Society in 1888, she advocated the wearing of divided skirts, insisting that, as God had given women two legs, they should have the freedom to use them. She broadened her argument to suggest that women deserved a wider role in all aspects of life. 

A member of the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association, Constance campaigned to have Lady Margaret Sandhurst elected to the London County Council. Addressing a conference sponsored by the Women’s Committee of the International Arbitration and Peace Association on the theme ‘By what methods can Women Best Promote the Cause of International Concorde’; she stressed the importance of encouraging pacifist ideals at an early age and insisted: ‘Children should be taught in their nursery to be against war’. Her speech ‘Home Rule for Ireland’, delivered at the Women’s Liberal Federation annual conference of 1889 was praised in the Pall Mall Gazette.

Yet, Constance’s world fell apart when her husband was arrested and imprisoned for gross indecency. Obliged to flee abroad with her young children and to change her family name to Holland, she did everything she could to help Oscar. Tentative attempts to effect reconciliation were brought to an end when she died as a result of a botched operation performed in an Italian clinic in April 1898. She was thirty-nine years old. Regrettably, Constance is often portrayed as a figure of pity. In reality, she was strong and courageous, warm and true, and she met the many challenges she faced, including debilitating health problems, with steely determination.

Thanks to herstorian Eleanor Fitzsimons for this herstory.

CESAIRE / Mythical First Woman in Ireland

CESAIRE

The Mythical First Woman in Ireland

As part of our celebration of the women who shaped Ireland, we felt it important to celebrate the mythical women whose stories have inspired our culture and heritage. For our first mythical woman, we’re going right back to the beginning.

Irish mythology has no story of the origins of mankind. Instead, our earliest stories tell of this land and the people that came to it. These magical races that were there long before the Celts, these peoples that retreated underground to become gods and fairies. But there were older peoples still; the proud Nemedians, the doomed Partholonians and the very first, the followers of Cesaire.

Cesaire was born somewhere in Northern Africa. She was said by some to be the granddaughter of an Egyptian priest, and by others to be the granddaughter of Noah (yes, that Noah!). Either way, her grandfather knew that a great flood was on the way. To avoid drowning, Cesaire built three arks and set course for an island far west, untouched by any sin and, as such, spared (she hoped) from the flood.

She gathered together one hundred and fifty women of art and skill. Warriors and weavers, healers and poets, bringing with them all the skills they would need to survive in a strange place. Her father and brother, not allowed on Noah’s Ark for their sins, begged her to let them come with her. She took them, and her husband Fintan, on one condition: that they forsake the god of Noah and submit to her.

Cesaire’s voyage lasted seven years, and she traversed the known world, losing two of her ships to storms along the way. When she arrived at last, and set foot on Ireland, three lakes are said to have burst forth in welcome.

Cesaire divided her followers into three groups, and put one man with each group, to keep the women satisfied. Under ancient Irish law, a woman could divorce her husband if he didn’t keep her sexually satisfied. Interestingly, this didn’t apply the other way around!. Her poor father wasn’t up to the task, and soon died. They re-divided into two groups, but Cesaire’s brother, wounded on the long journey, also did not last long. When her husband Fintan discovered that he was the only man among one hundred and fifty women, he fled, and lived wild in the caves and mountains, learning to shape-shift in order to survive.

What became of Cesaire is not clear. In some versions, the flood found her and wiped out her fledgling colony. In others, plague or sickness took them. Many credit her and her followers with being the first occupants of Ireland!

Our thanks to Sorcha Hegarty for this fantastic herstory!

CHARLOTTE WHEELER CUFFE / Botanist & Botanical Illustrator

CHARLOTTE WHEELER CUFFE

Botanist and botanical illustrator

Surrey / Burma / Kilkenny

1867 – 1967

The botanical art collection at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin is home to the work of a number of women botanical illustrators, among them the remarkable Lady Charlotte Wheeler Cuffe. During a long residence in Burma from 1897–1922, Cuffe became a celebrated plant hunter, botanist and botanical illustrator, and founded the garden that is now the National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens at Pyin U Lwin, Burma.

Cuffe was born in Surrey but married an Anglo-Irish civil engineer, Sir Otway Wheeler-Cuffe of Kilkenny. He was employed in imperial service and shortly after their marriage in 1897, the pair moved to Burma, where they would remain for 24 years.

Cuffe was a talented artist who produced hundreds of botanical illustrations during her residence in Burma, mainly of orchids and rhododendrons. These were made from life, on the spot, and showed the entire plant in the context of its habitat. In this respect her botanical illustrations differ from those produced purely for the purpose of scientific study, that emphasise stamens and pistils.

But Cuffe was not just an observer. By accompanying Otway on official road inspection tours, she had access to remote parts of the country rarely visited by other Europeans. It was during one of their tours of the country that Cuffe discovered two new species of rhododendron on Mount Victoria (Nat Ma Taung) – the white-flowered Rhododendron cuffeanum and the yellow Rhododendron burmanicum – and the anemone ‘Shadow’s blue buttercup’, so called from her childhood pet name.

In the early twentieth century, British ‘orchid-hunters’ travelled to the tropics to profit from interest in this exotic, varied species with its showy floral displays. This fashion drew more attention to Cuffe’s botanical illustrations and landscape paintings. Two of her landscapes were reproduced in colour in Scott O’Connor’s The Silken East: a Record of Life and Travel in Burma (1904) and some of her botanical illustrations were sold to private collectors. Cuffe indulged in her own passion for orchids through her art, and by developing a 150-acre botanic garden in Burma from 1916. A century later, that garden still exists as the Burmese national botanic gardens.

Cuffe wrote weekly letters detailing Burmese life to her mother and to her husband’s cousin in Kilkenny, Baroness Pauline Prochazka. She also corresponded with the keeper of the National Botanic Gardens, Sir Frederick Moore, sending him live specimens. The letters are in the archive of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, along with her botanical illustrations, which she donated in 1927.

On Otway’s retirement in 1921, he and Cuffe left Burma for his family seat at Lyrath, Co. Kilkenny. Cuffe kept a noted garden on the Lyrath estate, which is still maintained. Cuffe’s enduring links to private and public gardens in Ireland and in Burma are a fitting memorial to her life of adventure and learning.

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Angela Byrne for this herstory.

Image: Charlotte Wheeler Cuffe and husband (The Irish Times, 26.11.2015).

CHRISTINE LONGFORD / Playwright & Novelist

CHRISTINE LONGFORD

PLAYWRIGHT/ NOVELIST

Longford & Dublin
1900 - 1980

Christine Pakenham, Countess of Longford, was a playwright and novelist who, along with her husband Edward, helped to found and finance the Gate Theatre in Dublin. She wrote several novels and plays.

Born in Somerset, England on September 6th 1900, Christine grew up in Wells and Oxford and attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Classics and Philosophy. In 1925 she married fellow student, Edward Pakenham, 6th Earl of Longford. The couple moved to Ireland, where they settled at the Pakenham family home, Pakenham Hall (now Tullynally Castle), in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath.

Christine published her first book, a historical study of life in Ancient Rome, in 1928 and she also wrote a non-fiction work, "A Biography of Dublin." Her novels have been praised by critics for their "deftly drawn characterisation" and "witty observation of human foibles."

It is for her work in Irish Theatre that Christine is best remembered. In 1928 her husband became Chairman of the Board of the Gate Theatre, Dublin and its main financial backer. Indeed, the theatre might not have survived without the support of the Longfords. Christine worked with her husband on all aspects of the management of the Gate. She began to write plays for the theatre, including "Queens and Emperors" and, in collaboration with Edward, an adaptation of Aeschylus's Oresteian Trilogy.

Christine's own plays included a number focusing on Irish history. She adopted novels by Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Sheridan Le Fanu for the stage and also had a success with a stage version of her novel "Mr Jiggins of Jigginstown." In all she wrote some 20 plays. After enjoying one of her comedies, a critic called Christine "a great benefit to humanity."

In 1936, Christine and Edward formed the Longford Players. The Players spent the summer months at the Gate Theatre and the winter months touring the country. While on tour, Edward would sell the programmes while Christine looked after the box office. They were enthusiastic supporters of Irish language and culture and frequent visitors to Gaelic cultural events. They learned to speak Irish and were on friendly terms with politicians such as Eamon De Valera.

Edward Pakenham died in 1961, and Christine left Westmeath and wound up the Longford Players. She remained in Dublin, serving as Managing Director of the Gate Theatre until ill-health forced her retirement in 1964. However, she remained on the board of the Gate until her death. She worked as a book reviewer for The Irish Times and also appeared on Radio Eireann Arts programmes. For her services to theatre she was given honorary life membership of Irish Equity in 1967. She received an Honorary Doctorate from the National University of Ireland.

Christine Longford, the reserved, chain-smoking Englishwoman who did so much for Irish theatre, died in Dublin on May 14th 1980, aged 79. A bust of Christine was unveiled in the Gate Theatre in 2015.

Thanks to Herstorian Ruth Illingworth for this herstory. 

Image: Christine Longford by Henry Lamb.

LUCY, MARCHIONESS OF WHARTON / Society hostess and vicereine of Ireland

LUCY, MARCHIONESS OF WHARTON, MALMESBURY AND CATHERLOUGH

Society hostess and vicereine of Ireland

Rathfarnham/Dublin/Winchendon

c. 1670–1717

To some, Lucy Wharton was ‘the witty fair one’, irresistible to anyone who had ‘the honour of tasting her easy and agreeable conversation’. To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, she was ‘a woman equally unfeeling and unprincipled: flattering, fawning, canting, affecting prudery and even sanctity, yet in reality as abandoned and unscrupulous as her husband’. The truth probably lay somewhere in between.

Born in around 1670, Lucy was the sole surviving child of Adam Loftus, 1st Viscount Lisburne and Lucy Bridges. Though not a great beauty, her looks were described as ‘so agreeable, that one cannot defend one’s heart against her’. Her father’s death in September 1691 also left her appealingly wealthy, with £5000 per year and lands including the Rathfarnham estate outside Dublin. Unsurprisingly, she had no trouble finding a husband. By January 1692, she was being referred to as the ‘new mistress’ of the widowed Whig politician, Thomas Wharton. By July, she was his wife.

The Whartons’ marriage would be unconventional even today. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries their behaviour was nothing short of scandalous. Thomas was notorious for his debauchery and Lucy too was known for what were politely called ‘her little excursions of love and gallantry’. Thomas did not react to her extra-marital liaisons as one might expect however, for far from being outraged at her affairs he instead encouraged them. His reasoning, according to Jonathan Swift, was that he felt himself ‘well recompensed by a return of children to support his family, without the fatigues of being a father’. Ultimately, Lucy bore three children; Philip in 1698, Jane in 1706 and Lucy in 1710. Whether they were Thomas’s remains to be seen.

Thomas (who was created Baron Wharton in 1696 and Earl of Wharton in 1706) was appointed Lord Lieutenant, or viceroy, of Ireland in 1708 and he and Lucy travelled to Dublin from their English seat, Winchendon, the following April. From their base at Dublin Castle they ran an establishment at which ‘dancing and dice’ were the order of the day and Lucy received their guests with what the eighteenth-century historian and distant relative, John Oldmixon, referred to as ‘that humanity and easiness, which adorn all the actions of her life’. Pregnancy prevented her from accompanying Thomas on his second and final trip in 1710, but from London she had petitions for friends fast-tracked by her husband’s secretary and took meetings with Irishmen visiting England who hoped she could secure them an Irish preferment from the Earl. Her tenure as vicereine may have been brief, but it demonstrated the social and political possibilities of the role and would be built upon by her successors.

Thomas died in 1715, soon after being raised to the rank of Marquess. Lucy followed just two years later and was buried with him at Winchendon. Her will is noticeably devoid of many of the religious sentiments common to the day, a final example of her lifelong disregard for the rules of polite society.

Thanks to Dr. Rachel Wilson (University of Leeds) for this week's herstory

RHODA COGHILL / Pianist, composer and poet

RHODA COGHILL

Pianist, composer, and poet

Dublin

1903 – 2000

From youthful beginnings as a piano prodigy to a career featuring a string of solo concerto appearances and a thirty-year residency as official Radio Éireann/RTÉ accompanist, Rhoda Coghill was one of the finest Irish musicians of the twentieth century. Not only an outstanding performer, she also demonstrated a precocious gift for composition. Nor were her talents confined to music either: in middle age, she surprised Dublin’s literary scene by revealing herself as a poet in the well-received collections The Bright Hillside (1948) and Time is a Squirrel (1956). Coghill managed to carve out an independent livelihood in the arts—never an easy task—during an era when Irish society was hostile towards professional women. The story of Coghill’s success lies in how she subtly made herself indispensable to the nation’s musical infrastructure in the post-Free State decades.

      The youngest of nine children, Coghill was born in 1903 to a middle-class family living at 100 Marlborough Road, Donnybrook, Dublin. Her Scottish father worked as a printer for Eason, while her Dublin mother gave Rhoda her first piano lessons. Subsequently enrolled in the Patricia Read Leinster School of Music, the ‘child pianist’ was billed as a star attraction at the capital’s Theatre Royal at the age of 15. By her early twenties she had a MusB degree from Trinity College Dublin (a rare feat for a woman in the 1920s), bagged every piano trophy in the annual Feis Ceoil competitions, and glimpsed international success with a London debut. Following a stint studying in Berlin, Coghill returned to Ireland for good.

      At home, she became a force in nation-building cultural initiatives. Returning to the Feis Ceoil, she worked, variously, as accompanist, adjudicator, and arranger. While Ireland lacked a professional orchestra Coghill was active in efforts to remedy this situation. With the formation of the Dublin Philharmonic Society Orchestra in 1927, she multitasked as piano soloist, occasional double-bass player, and behind the scenes on the managing committee.  Around the same time, she began broadcasting on 2RN, the state’s first radio station.

      Coghill was appointed Radio Éireann accompanist in 1939, remaining with RTÉ until retirement in 1968. Collaborating with visiting international artists and local musicians, she further used her connections to promote her compositional activities. As a student in 1923 Coghill had penned what is now regarded as one of the the most progressive Irish scores of its era (Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, for orchestra, choir, and tenor soloist). In 1939 she exploited RÉ’s resources to organise Cradle’s first, reduced, performance and later enlisted RÉ/RTÉ singers in recitals of her vocal pieces.

      A devout Quaker and a modest, unassuming woman, Coghill lived until the age of 96, spending her last years in a retirement home. She never married, perhaps never intended to— but marriage would have forced her resignation from RÉ/RTÉ as per Civil Service rules, effectively curtailing her public career. Virtuoso performer, composer, and poet: Coghill’s portfolio of artistic achievement was remarkable. Equally impressive was her commitment to the collective project of promoting art music in this country. Her near century-long presence in Irish musical life is unique. In 1990 at the age of 87 she finally heard the full premiere of Cradle. This work is set for a revival in the National Concert Hall’s 2016 Composing the Island Festival.

Special thanks to Dr Laura Watson (Maynooth University) for this week's herstory

CELIA HARRISON / Painter, feminist, nationalist and social reformer

CELIA HARRISON

Painter, feminist, nationalist and social reformer.

1863 – 1941

Sarah Cecilia Harrison was born into a well-known and well-off nationalist family in Holywood, County Down in 1863. She moved in 1873 with her family to London and it was there that she began to paint and to study art seriously. She won several awards while she studied at the Slade School of Art, she exhibited her paintings and travelled on the continent to further her studies. In 1889 she moved to Dublin where she established a reputation as one of the country’s leading portrait painters. She began a longstanding and productive relationship with the Royal Hibernian Academy to which she submitted more than sixty works over her career. She also submitted many works to the Royal Academy in London and became a member of several societies including the Ulster Academy of Arts. She remained a highly accomplished and respected artist who was frequently asked to exhibit and to teach.

Known to her friends and family as ‘Celia’, Harrison was exceptionally well-known in feminist and social reform circles. She was an active member of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association, serving on its committee and attending ‘monster’ suffrage meetings in London as a representative of the organisation. Her portrait of Anna and Thomas Haslam, founders of the IWSLGA, is one of her best known works and is kept in the Hugh Lane Gallery. Harrison was a friend of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and co-operated closely with her Irish Women’s Franchise League on a number of feminist campaigns. She objected publicly to the force-feeding of suffragettes, but she remained implacably opposed to suffrage militancy. In this she was at odds with Sheehy Skeffington and some of her circle, but feminists of all persuasions came together to support Harrison’s candidature for election to the Dublin Corporation. They lobbied, fund-raised and campaigned for Harrison who in 1912 became the first female councillor to be elected to the Corporation. She was an active member, championing the rights of the poor, of women and of the unemployed, and becoming a tireless critic of corruption with Irish local government. She described the local government register as ‘disgraceful’ as the number of bogus voters on it allowed unionists and nationalists ‘to get their opponents off and their friends on’. This would not have made her popular.

Harrison’s nationalist credentials were impeccable: her brother was the nationalist MP Henry Harrison, and her great uncle was the United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken. Her implacable support for the Irish Party at a time when many Irish radicals were beginning to flirt with more radical alternatives brought her into conflict with some republicans and feminists, especially in 1912 when she refused to condemn the Irish Party for putting Home Rule before women’s suffrage. So sincere was her support that she campaigned for the Irish Party candidate who stood against Constance Markievicz in the 1918 general election. Yet, her relations with most feminists remained friendly, despite disagreements over nationalist tactics and loyalties. She worked with them on a number of campaigns including the promotion of free school dinners for poor children and maternal health care. In her work with Trade Boards, women’s trade unions and in her pioneering promotion of allotments, she also worked with many prominent trade unionists and socialists.

As an array of feminists, including republicans, unionists, socialists and militants, prepared to campaign for her re-election 1915, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington warned that ‘the women of Dublin will regard it is as an insult, and a fresh indication of the low status in which they are held by men in relation to public affairs, if Miss Harrison should be removed from the corporation in January’. But, she was not re-elected, partly because she had proved unpopular with some vested interest groups. Despite her unwavering loyalty to the Irish Party, Harrison was also a victim of its stubborn and ultimately ruinous refusal to take women politicians seriously. Never taken on as a formal local government candidate, she did not enjoy the protection and resources of the Party machine and she was never given the opportunity to strengthen the Party’s support among Irish women. Her short formal political career and her support for what turned out to be the ‘wrong side’ in early twentieth century Ireland, help to explain why so little is known about her energetic and pioneering political career.

It is unfortunate, though perhaps not surprising, that Harrison is best known for her complex relationship with Hugh Lane. The two were close friends and she was a strong supporter of his gallery. She did a good deal of voluntary labour for Lane and was devastated by his death in 1915. She eventually fell out with his family over her claim that the couple had planned to marry, and she disputed the validity of Lane’s will. She may have been unpopular with some of Lane’s supporters (some apparently called her ‘Saint Cecilia’ behind her back) but she remained central to continuing attempts to find a permanent resolution to dispute over the Hugh Lane bequest.

Harrison remained deeply interested and involved in various aspects of Irish political and cultural life into her old age. When she died in 1941 she was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, under the modest inscription ‘Artist and Friend of the Poor’. This is an accurate tribute and would probably have met with her approval. But it belies her remarkable career as a politician and social reformer and as one of the most energetic of all that generation of Irish women whose tireless efforts led to granting of women’s suffrage in 1918.

Thanks to herstorian Professor Senia Paseta for this week’s herstory.

MADAME DRAGONFLY / Entomologist and explorer

CYNTHIA LONGFIELD

Entomologist and explorer

London / Cloyne, Co. Cork / South America

1896 – 1991

Cynthia Longfield, ‘Madam Dragonfly’, was born in London in 1896. Her home schooling there was interrupted by regular visits to her maternal grandparents’ farm in Cloyne, Co. Cork, where she enjoyed roaming the countryside. Her early love of science and nature grew into a lifelong passion, and she became a leading authority on dragonflies and damselflies.

Longfield’s interest in the sciences was fostered in childhood, with her mother’s encouragement. She was inspired at an early age by reading about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and his Beagle voyage of 1831–6. She absorbed the importance of fieldwork and travel, which played an important role in her life and in her scientific work.

It was in 1921, during her first overseas tour – taking in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, the Panama Canal, Jamaica and Cuba – that her passion for entomology blossomed. In 1924, she participated in the St George Scientific Expedition, an 18-month-long re-enactment of Darwin’s Beagle voyage to the Galapogos Islands, where Longfield collected moths, beetles and butterflies for the Natural History Museum in London.

 Following this, she worked, unpaid, as a cataloguer at the museum, where she had responsibility for the dragonfly collection. Her personal circumstances freed her from the need for paid employment. She would remain in this post for thirty years, and continued to travel in search of specimens. In 1927, she participated in a six-month scientific expedition in the Mato Grosso, Brazil, where she collected 38 species of dragonfly, 3 of which were new species. She went on to make scientific expeditions to Southeast Asia in 1929, where she collected hundreds of moths and butterflies; to Kenya, Uganda, Rhodesia and South Africa in 1934, where she identified six new species of butterfly and dragonfly; and to Cape Town and Zimbabwe in 1937. She contracted malaria in 1937 and was forced to return to London, and was prevented from returning to Africa by the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, she volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service – she had also joined the Royal Army Service Corps and worked in an aeroplane factory during the First World War.

Longfield did not limit herself to quietly cataloguing species in the museum. She regularly published her findings, sat on museum committees, and was a member of the Entomological Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the London Natural History Society. In 1937, she published the sell-out The Dragonflies of the British Isles, which became the standard handbook on the topic.

She retired from London’s Natural History Museum in 1957 and returned to Cloyne, Co. Cork, but never stopped travelling or studying entomology. Two dragonfly species were named in her honour: Corphaeschna longfieldae (Brazil) and Agrionopter insignis cynthiae (Tanimbar Islands). She donated her personal archive and library, some 500 volumes, to the Royal Irish Academy in 1979, and her Irish specimen collection to the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Angela Byrne for this week’s herstory.

SHEILA TINNEY / Mathematical physicist

SHEILA TINNEY

Mathematical physicist

Galway / Dublin

1918 – 2010

Sheila Tinney (née Power) is believed to have been the first Irish woman to receive a PhD in mathematics. She went on to become a respected lecturer and academic.

Tinney was the daughter of Michael Power, professor of mathematics at University College Galway. She was educated in Galway and later in Dublin, where in 1935 she was one of only eight girls in the state to sit the Leaving Certificate higher mathematics paper. She went on to achieve a first-class degree in mathematical science in 1938 and an MA in 1939, both from UCD. Assisted by a National University of Ireland Travelling Studentship, she proceeded to the University of Edinburgh to study crystals under the Nobel laureate Max Born.

1941 was a memorable year for Power. Aged just 23, she graduated from Edinburgh with a PhD, was made an assistant lecturer in UCD, and held a fellowship at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. DIAS had been founded in the previous year and was headed by the renowned physicist, Edwin Schrödinger. He described Power as one of the ‘best equipped and most successful of the younger generation of theoretical physicists’ in Ireland.

By 1945 she had been promoted to lecturer at UCD and in 1948 – 1949 she held a fellowship at the world-leading Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, to study nuclear physics in the company of Albert Einstein. She published on a wide range of topics and her professional network, cultivated in Dublin and in Princeton, led her to co-author papers with Nobel laureates like Schrödinger and Hideki Yukawa.

In 1949, Power returned to Dublin from Princeton and was among the first four women to be elected as full members of the Royal Irish Academy. The Academy was founded in 1785, but until 1949, had elected women as honorary members only.

In summer 1953, Power married the engineer Sean Tinney and was thereafter known as Sheila Tinney. In 1966, she was appointed as associate professor in mathematical physics in UCD. It was only in that year that the ban was lifted on married women holding tenured positions at the university, following a hard struggle for parity of conditions. Tinney thereby joined the small number of women professors at Irish universities. Of the more than forty professors and associate professors appointed by the NUI and its constituent colleges in 1966, only two were women – Sheila Tinney and Lorna Reynolds, Professor of English at UCG.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography notes that Tinney taught large classes in both engineering and science at UCD, leaving her little time or energy for developing her research interests. She is remembered as well dressed and composed, and as a dedicated teacher. Among her students was the noted particle physicist Lochlainn Ó Raifeartaigh, and the mathematician and philosopher Philip McShane, who remembers Tinney in his biography as his ‘best graduate teacher’.

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Angela Byrne for this week’s herstory.

MARIA EDGEWORTH / Playwright & novelist

MARIA EDGEWORTH

Playwright, novelist and women’s advocate

1767 - 1849

Longford

Born on New Year’s day 1767 in Oxfordshire England, Maria Edgeworth moved to Ireland in 1782, and went on to be one of the greatest intellectuals in Ireland and beyond for more than half a century.

Maria’s childhood was spent in Edgeworthstown, County Longford where she worked alongside her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth in the running of his large estate as his secretary and assistant. Her mother, Anna Maria Elers died when Maria was just six years old and Maria’s father remarried three times.

While working with her father, Maria acquired the knowledge and insight into the lives of Irish landlords and tenants, a knowledge which formed the background for her many Irish novels including Castlerackrent published in 1800. It was an immediate literary success and became the most famous of her Irish works.

Apart from her publications on Irish life, Maria was a committed advocate of reform of women’s education and in 1795, aged 28, she published ‘Letters for Literary Ladies,’ it was her first publication. She was consistent in her work and ‘focused her talent on the moral improvement of her contemporaries, young and old’.

Maria Edgeworth was a woman who influenced a host of young writers of her day including Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Turgenev. Walter Scott and Maria had a sincere friendship with both ‘united in their love of nature’ and Maria has been credited with influencing many of his novels. While she never married, Maria had many friendships including a lasting friendship with the chief justice of Ireland, Judge Lefroy whom - it was alleged - was the only lover of Jane Austen.   

Maria’s extensive and strenuous work as a public benefactor during the Irish famine when she was in her eighties, and shortly before her own death in 1849, is evident in her many letters which still survive. 

Remembered as a ‘moralist who has elevated the heart and understanding of countless readers’ Maria Edgeworth’s obituary elucidated the life of a woman who sadly today is too often forgotten. Her obituary noted that she was a ‘venerable lady who died peacefully in the calm of her domestic retirement’ in Edgeworthstown on 22 May 1849. She was remembered for encouraging younger people to embrace literature and as a respected author on the topics of gender, class, and identity. The closing lines of her obituary read ‘A storied urn, or animated bust would be inadequate to perpetuate her merits. Genius, true genius, requires no such memorial’. 

Maria Edgeworth is interred in her family vault at St. John's Church, Edgeworthstown, County Longford.

Thanks to herstorian Damien Duffy for this week’s Herstory.

KAY MILLS / Record-making Camogie Player

KAY MILLS

Camogie Player

1923 – 1996

Dublin

Kay Mills holds the record for winning an incredible 15 All Ireland Senior Medals - a feat that no other player in camogie, hurling or football has ever equaled.

Kay is a true camogie legend and merits a special place in the history of the game. Born in 1923 of a Dublin mother and a Cork father, she was a natural athlete. Tall, slight, and fair-haired, Kay possessed a devastating turn of speed that never seemed to diminish as years went by. She had a competitive spirit that was roused to its greatest when defeat threatened.

Raised in South Square, Inchicore, Kay was educated at Goldenbridge Convent. She played her club camogie with GSR (Great South Western – later renamed CIE). Her father was employed at the company’s Inchicore Works and, in his free time, helped out at the company’s sports club which was set up for the workers and their families. Kay made her debut for Dublin in 1941 and owned the left-wing midfield position until her retirement in 1961.

She had a particularly neat style of play. Frequently, she sprinted forward, rose and struck the ball in one movement sending it marginally under the opposing crossbar. A left-handed player, she scored more long-range goals than any other player in camogie.

Always pleasing to watch, Kay struck up a great partnership with her GSR and Dublin colleague, Kathleen Coady. Excellent at distributing the ball, Kay instructed Una O’ Connor, when she joined the Dublin team, to “sprint towards the goal when you see me getting the ball.” Invariably, the ball was waiting at Una’s feet as she arrived on the edge of the square.

Kay played in the golden era of Dublin camogie. She was surrounded by a galaxy of stars including Ide O’ Kiely, Peg Griffin, Doreen Rogers, Kathleen Cody, Sophie Brack, Eileen Duffy and Una O’ Connor. Moulded and guided by Nell McCarthy, the greatest coach in the history of the game, Dublin reigned supreme.

Kay was an automatic choice for Team of the Century and was inducted into the Cuchulainn Hall of Fame. On her retirement in 1961, she was presented with a replica of the O’ Duffy Cup by Dublin County Board. Kay married George Hill but, in camogie circles, was always known as Kay Mills and in all match reports she retains the title ‘Miss Mills’. Kay died in 1996. In 2014 she was short-listed to have Dublin’s newest bridge named in her honour but she lost out to Rosie Hackett by sixteen votes. Kay remains the most decorated player in the history of Gaelic Games and her memory lives on through the Kay Mills Cup, trophy of the All-Ireland Premier Junior Championship.

Thanks to Mary Moran, camogie herstorian and former President of the Camogie Association for this week’s Herstory. 

Dr. James Barry (Margaret Bulkley) / Pioneering surgeon

Dr. James Barry – Margaret Bulkley

 The female-born surgeon who lived life as a man.

Cork / England / South Africa / India / Corfu

1789 - 1865

It’s fair to say that in 2016 we have arrived at a time where the complex issues of “gender fluidity” and “transgender” have become both words and real situations we are now far more familiar with. Go back to 1789, and it’s possible that the person who began their life as Margaret Ann Bulkley was Ireland’s first-known example of someone born female, but who lived much of their life as a man. 

 James Miranda Stuart Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Cork in or around 1789. Although details about her early life are unclear, her father, Jeremiah, is known to have some kind of ship’s chandlery on Merchant’s Quay in Cork.

When Bulkley was 18 or 20, it appears some kind of audacious plan was made to enter her into medical school in Scotland. Women were not permitted to do study medicine, but it was not as a young woman that Bulkley arrived into Edinburgh University; it was under the disguise of a man, named James Barry. If you are not looking for something, you won’t necessarily see it, and it appears nobody realised Barry was actually a woman.

In an era when amputation was done with saws without anaesthetic, during which time patients had to be physically restrained, Barry successfully qualified as a doctor. Women, it was evident, could do those things as well as men, but alas, if this had been revealed at the time, Bulkley, now living as Barry, would not have been allowed to continue in the profession. After graduation, Barry then went to London and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Then followed a long and extraordinary career in the British Army as a military surgeon. Barry served in India and then South Africa, arriving in Cape Town around 1816. It was here that Barry performed one of the first-known successful Caesarean sections. He was apparently progressive in his lifestyle choices for the time, being vegetarian, emphasising the importance of fresh air, and physical exercise. He travelled with a goat, whose sole purpose was to provide the doctor with fresh milk. He was known for a temper than rarely needed much provoking.

 He campaigned against slavery, and ran a hospital for the wounded in Corfu during the Crimean War – a war which made the name of Florence Nightingale famous. By the end of his career, he had been appointed Inspector General in charge of British military hospitals.

In the summer of 1865, an epidemic of dysentery went through London. Barry caught it, and died. When a maid called Sophia Bishop, arrived to prepare the body for burial, she discovered that her surgeon employer had the body of a woman. It was the scandal and talk of the Empire for a long time. 

James Barry, gender-defying surgeon, is buried in Kensal Rise cemetery in London.

Thanks to Rosita Boland for this week’s herstory.

Kay McNulty / First female computer programmer

Kay McNulty

First female computer programmer

1921 – 2006

Donegal & Pennsylvania

We have Kathleen ‘Kay’ McNulty and six other people to thank for our modern day computers. Kay was one of the six original programmers of the ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer. She was also employed as human ‘computer’ during World War II along with asmall team of other women.

Born on February 12th 1921 in County Donegal, Kay’s father, a former officer with the Irish Republican Army, moved with his family to the United States in 1924 and set up a masonry business in Pennsylvania.

Kay could only speak Irish at the time so had to quickly learn English. At school, Kay excelled in mathematics and she earned a degree in the subject from Chestnut Hill College for Women in 1942. Only three women in her class of 92 graduated in mathematics. In the same year she and 75 other women were employed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering as human ‘computers’ to help with the American war effort.

In their role as ‘computers’, Kay and the other women calculated tables of numbers and calculated trajectories for shells and bullets, crucial information for soldiers using artillery guns. McNulty was soon promoted to shift leader. At this time it was becoming apparent that the analogue machines in use could not improve much more and that an electronic calculating machine of sorts would be required.

J Presper Eckert, an engineer at the school and another engineer, John Mauchly, came up with the basic idea for the world’s first general purpose digital computer, called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). The enormous machine they created lacked any memory for instructions which meant it quickly forgot the steps required for various calculations. The goal of the ENIAC was to calculate trajectories so Mcnulty and five other ‘human computers’ were brought in to work on improving the new system.

The women programmed ENIAC to perform the required calculations and their work led ENIAC in eventually performing the required calculations in 15 seconds. McNulty worked on ENIAC for two more years before she married John Mauchly in 1948 and had five children with him. A few years after his death in 1980, she married photographer Severo Antonelli.

In 1986, the Letterkenny Institute of Technology, near where Kay was born, honoured her with the introduction of a medal in her name given to a computer science student each year. In 1997, she was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. She was interviewed in 1998, and is part of a documentary about the ENlAC programmers titled The Computers’. Kay died in Wyndmoor, Pennnsylvania, on 20 April 2006 at the age of 85.