Dr Isabel ‘Ida’ Deane Mitchell / Presbyterian missionary

Dr Isabel ‘Ida’ Deane Mitchell, 1879–1917

Presbyterian missionary

Isabel ‘Ida’ Mitchell typifies the emergence of a new group of Irish women, particularly from Ulster, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century – the female Presbyterian missionary. Often the daughters of churchmen, they were usually middle-class and educated.

Mitchell devoted eleven years of her life to Chinese women, even while back in Belfast on sick leave in 1910–12. When she first arrived, the Irish Presbyterian mission was a small operation, staffed by Sara MacWilliams and Reverend F.W.S. O’Neill. The mission district covered 5,000 square miles and a population of 500,000, including 1,300 Chinese Christians. By the time of Mitchell’s death, the region had a new hospital and dispensary, and six Chinese women had been trained as dispensary assistants.

In 1893, Ida decided to study medicine, having heard that the China missions were badly in need of women doctors. Four years later, she entered Queen Margaret College, Glasgow University, where she was supported by donations from her father’s parish until her graduation in 1903. The Russo-Japanese War postponed her departure until October 1905. In the interim, she worked as House-Surgeon in a Manchester dispensary, taught Sunday School, helped in a Girls’ Club, and corresponded with missionaries in China.

Mitchell was an outstanding student, winning four medals and two prizes while at Glasgow, but her application to her studies was the result of missionary zeal. Her intolerance of non-Christian religions is evident in her remarks on Buddhism: ‘It gives me a terrible hopeless feeling sometimes just to see it all, and to think what a tiny, tiny speck the Christians are in the midst of the millions who are so busy worshipping the idols.’ On arrival in Fakumen in November 1905, she immediately began learning Mandarin, with which she struggled greatly.

Mitchell travelled to China alone, but ended up surrounded by friends and family. Her sister and brother-in-law, Janie and Reverend James McWhirter later joined the mission. She was also comforted in no small way by the presence of Sara MacWilliams, who she referred to as her ‘husband’. In her last months, a college friend, May McKerrow visited her. They travelled in Japan and Korea together, and Mitchell remarked to her mother, ‘It is quite nice to have a wife!’

Despite these close, comforting relationships, she described herself as medically quite alone and bore her responsibilities heavily. Her letters describe various cases, treatments and surgeries, such as the removal of malignant tumours from a 16-year-old who died the night following the surgery, and the amputation of the foot of a girl who had not walked for 8 months.

Her greatest legacy was the opening, in October 1909, of a new women’s hospital supported by generous donations; it reopened several years after her death. After her return from sick leave in 1912, her next big project was to be the establishment of a fund to train Chinese women in western medicine – a dream that she did not live to realise. Her second legacy was the training of six Chinese dispensary assistants.

Her letters to her mother convey her conviction that her work could improve lives. She vowed in 1915, ‘I want to fight tuberculosis. It killed two millions in China last year, and I want the girls to help me to fight it.’ She complained bitterly of the poverty surrounding her, and the cramped, windowless homes in which disease spread so easily.

Her own health had been poor for a number of years, but deteriorated suddenly and she died in March 1917 of diphtheria, one of the infectious diseases that plagued the region. She was buried in the Russian cemetery in Jilin, where her sister lived.

Her letters were published in 1917 by her former colleague, Reverend O’Neill, went through three editions in 18 months, and remain an invaluable record of women’s experiences of missionary work.

Sources: F. W. S. O'Neill (ed.), Dr Isabel Mitchell of Manchuria ([1917] 3rd ed., James Clarke and Co., 1918); Myrtle Hill, ‘Saving the Empire? The Role of Irishwomen in Protestant Female Missions, 1870–1914’ in Religion and Greater Ireland, ed. Colin Barr and Hilary M. Carey (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 229–50; Rosemary Seton, Western Daughters in Eastern Lands: British Missionary Women in China (Praeger, 2013).

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  

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ANNIE BESANT / Secularist, politician, theosophist

Annie Besant, 1847–1933

Secularist, politician, theosophist

Annie Wood was born in London in 1847 to Irish parents. At nineteen, she married, more out of duty than attraction, Reverend Frank Besant. He was seven years her senior, and she later admitted that they were ‘an ill-matched pair’. She took up writing in 1868 and was dismayed to learn that as a married woman, her earnings were not her own. The couple had two children in eighteen months, and the prospect of a third horrified Annie, not least for financial reasons.

Besant’s struggle with her faith began in 1871, when her daughter almost died of whooping cough. Discovering that she had turned to freethought, her husband gave her an ultimatum: take communion regularly in his parish, or leave. ‘Hypocrisy or expulsion,’ she later recalled – ‘I chose the latter.’ She obtained a legal separation and a small allowance, and moved to London with her daughter, becoming at first a women’s rights activist. ‘Red Annie’ was born.

From 1874, she became one of the National Secular Society’s most effective public speakers, filling halls across Britain. She also worked as a journalist for the National Reformer.

In March 1877, the Freethought Publishing Company was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for issuing a treatise on contraception. At the trial, Annie became the first woman to publicly endorse birth control; part of her argument was the alleviation of poverty. However, her estranged husband argued that this made her an unfit guardian, and reclaimed custody of their daughter, much to Annie’s distress.

By the late 1880s, Annie was a leading socialist: a member of the executive of the Fabian Society, editor and contributor for an array of socialist publications, and author of Why I am a Socialist and Modern Socialism. On ‘bloody Sunday’, 13 November 1887, she led a procession on Trafalgar Square by East End workers. In 1888, she was instrumental in the establishment of the Matchmakers’ Union, the first union to exclusively represent women workers. In 1889, she was elected to Tower Hamlets’ school board.

Suddenly, in 1889, she turned to theosophy, having been convinced by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Russian co-founder of the Theosophical Society. Her beliefs changed completely and she reversed her position on birth control. Like other Victorian converts, she may have been attracted by Theosophy’s female leadership and its rejection of Judaeo-Christian patriarchy.

In 1891, Blavatsky died, leaving Besant head of the Society. She arrived at their Madras headquarters on 16 November 1893. She dedicated herself to Indian education, founding, in 1897, the Central Hindu College in Benares. She adopted Indian dress, attempted to follow Indian social customs, and published her own translation of the Bhagavad Ghita from the original Sanskrit (1895).

From 1907, she was active in the campaign for Indian self-government. In 1913, she joined the Indian National Congress, becoming its first woman president in 1917. She was interned for her Indian nationalism in May–August 1917.

After 1917, her influence in Indian politics diminished, not least due to her opposition to Ghandian passive resistance. Her last official appointment was in 1928, as a member of the Nehru committee to draft an Indian constitution. In the 1920s, her position as president of the Theosophical Society took her all over the world. She died at Adyar on 20 September 1933 and was cremated there. On her death, many tributes were paid by Indian feminists.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition; Annie Wood Besant, Annie Besant: An Autobiography (T. Fisher Unwin, 1893); Nancy Fix Anderson, ‘Bridging Cross-Cultural Feminisms: Annie Besant and Women’s Rights in England and India, 1874–1933’ in Women’s History Review, 3 (1994), 563–80; Louise Raw, Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in Labour History (Continuum, 2009).

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  

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SARAH ‘FANNY’ DURACK / Olympic swimmer and world-record holder

Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack, 1889–1956

Olympic swimmer and world-record holder

In July 1912, four Irish suffragettes went on trial for breaking windows of Dublin’s public buildings. In the same week, the daughter of Irish immigrants to Australia won the first gold medal in women’s Olympic swimming, creating a scandal of her own when she rejected a thick, modest woollen swimsuit with ‘as much drag as a sea-anchor’ in favour of a close-fitting suit in which she won the 100m freestyle.

Votes for women had been won state-by-state in Australia, thanks to the efforts of women like Monaghan-born Mary Lee (also featured in this exhibition). However, the advances in women’s participation in political life did not translate into other areas of Australian life.

Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack won her first State swimming title in 1906, aged 17. At that time, the New South Wales Amateur Swimming Association banned women from competitions where men were present. However, Fanny’s many successes inspired the public, who demanded that she be allowed to compete in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. The Barrier Miner editorialised, ‘if there is any athlete in Australasia who should go to the great contests it is this young Sydney swimmer,’ and, listing her constellation of 56 medals and 100 trophies, noted, ‘If this formidable array is not a record that Australia should be proud of in one of her daughters, then there is no such thing, as national pride.’ The ban was lifted, and a public appeal raised the funds necessary for her to make the journey.

In Stockholm, Durack broke the record for the 100 metres free-style with a time of 19.8 seconds. She also won gold for the 100 metres, the only individual event for women, setting a new record time for the event. She made a triumphant return to Sydney. When she stepped onto the platform at a Ladies’ Swimming Carnival in February 1913, draped in an ‘Australasian cloak of green’, spectators burst into applause; on this occasion she broke the world record for the 100 yard crawl. She now held the world record for all distances in women’s swimming. In March 1914, she broke the record for swimming a crawl in a mile of open water, 52 seconds better than the existing New South Wales’ men’s record.

In 1912–18, Durack broke 12 world records. This success took her on tours of Europe and the USA, accompanied by fellow Irish-Australian swimmer Mina Wylie. However, they were dogged by controversy. Arriving in the USA in 1918 without official sanction, they were then banned by the Amateur Swimming Union of Australia. In 1919, the pair refused to swim until their manager’s expenses were paid – in response, the USA Amateur Athletic Union threatened to suspend their amateur status. Other athletes protested their treatment.

A week before the Australian team were to travel to the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Durack underwent an appendectomy. Her recovery was marred by typhoid fever and pneumonia, forcing her to withdraw from the competition.

In January 1921, Durack retired from competitive swimming due to long-term ill-health. Shortly afterwards, she married Bernard Martin Gately, a horse-trainer, and thereafter dedicated herself to coaching children. She died of cancer at her home in March 1956.

A self-taught swimmer, she pursued the sport despite an enduring nervousness about the dangers of deep water. Nevertheless, together, she and Mina Wylie blazed a trail in the early days of women’s international competitive swimming.

Sources: Irish Times, 13 July 1912; The Times, 15 July 1996; Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition; Barrier Miner, 4 Mar. 1912; The Times, 10 July 1912; Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Feb. 1913; Cairns Post, 10 Mar. 1914; Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July 1919; Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Jan. 1921; Argus, 28 Nov. 1956; Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Mar. 1914.

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

EILEEN GRAY / Modernist Furniture Designer & Architect

Eileen Gray, 1878–1976

Lacquer master, modernist furniture designer, modernist architect

Eileen Gray lived in Paris for most of her life. She moved there in 1907, when the city was a hot-spot for writers and artists, but she was too modest, and perhaps even shy, to break into those bohemian circles. She deservedly gained a reputation as the finest Western exponent of the Japanese lacquer technique and, later, was internationally acclaimed as a pioneering furniture designer and self-taught architect.

Gray was born into comfortable circumstances in Co. Wexford and, as a child, adored her artist father. She was raised between Wexford and Kensington. In 1905, she enrolled in London’s fashionable Slade School –where Eva Gore-Booth also studied – and dedicated herself to Japanese lacquer technique. The laborious process of applying 20 layers of lacquer, one-by-one, in a humid room over the course of three days, demands extraordinary patience, and the toxic substance can cause a painful skin rash. In 1972 her lacquer screen ‘le destin’ attracted a record price for 20th-century furniture, catapulting the reticent modernist back into the international limelight after decades in the shadows. Her response to the sale was characteristically self-effacing – ‘c’est absurde.’

While she did not break into Paris’s dazzling Anglophone literary and artistic circles, she did find flamboyant company; her friend Jessie Gavin regularly donned men’s clothing so that the two of them could go ‘to places where you can’t go without a man.’

Her Parisian life was turned upside-down with the outbreak of war in 1914. She packed her Japanese lacquer master, Seizo Sugawara and their unfinished pieces into her car – but wartime London was no place to sell expensive furniture, and her work was not to British taste. She returned to Paris, and in 1923, the Salon des Artistes exhibited an entire room of her work. This was a major turning-point. It was her first full-scale exhibition, and was acclaimed in the press. The publicity led friends to encourage her to take up architecture.

Her love of the Mediterranean coast seems to have developed when she convalesced from typhoid there in the early 1900s, and it was there that she chose to build her celebrated white cubist home, E.1027, in 1926–9.

The house’s name is testament to the help Gray received from young Romanian architect Jean Badovici: E for Eileen; 10 for the letter ‘J’; 2 for the letter ‘B’; 7 for the letter ‘G’. Each room of the house has its own external space because, in Gray’s words, ‘There must be still the impression of being alone, and if desired, entirely alone.’

This concern for solitude is revealing. Gray was extremely private, and before her death burned most of her personal papers. Peter Adam, author of her most reliable and complete biography, states that she had a series of affairs with men and women, and never settled with any one long-term partner. She was unafraid to be considered ‘improper’ or ‘eccentric’ for her desire to live independently.

One of her closest friends was Louise Dany, who worked as her maid from 1927 until Gray’s death. During World War II, resident aliens were forbidden to live on the coast, so Dany accompanied Gray to her new, temporary, inland residence. They returned to E.1027 to find it looted and stripped bare. Gray slowly rebuilt the house, completing it in 1953.

Sources: Stefan Hecker and Christian F. Muller, Eileen Gray: Obras y Projectos / Works and Projects (Editorial Gustavo Gili SA, 1993); Peter Adam, Eileen Gray: Architect / Designer: A Biography ([1987] revised ed., Harry N. Abrahams, 2000).

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  

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MARY HARNEY: Academic and Activist


House Painter, Academic and Activist

Mary, in her own words: "Some may think my life has been hard, but I like to think of it as being full of wonder, beauty and passion. I think a great deal about the times when someone had faith in me: in my abilities, my intelligence and in the promise of my future."

Mary Harney was born in a Mother and Baby Institution in Bessboro, Cork. Born out of wedlock, considered to be an ‘illegitimate’ child by the State, Mary was removed from her mother at age two and a half years. Mary was illegally “fostered” and at age five she was taken under Ward of Court and incarcerated in the Good Shepherd Industrial School. Like many children, Mary suffered beatings and daily labour at this school. Education consisted of religion, reading, writing, and arithmetic. One day, a teacher, Miss O’Donnell – ‘Miss’— noticing bruises on Mary’s arms, advised her to use stories and her imagination during the beatings to lessen the feelings of pain. Miss also told her to keep reading as you can teach yourself anything if you can read.

At 16 ½, Mary was released from the Good Shepherd. She discovered libraries and delved into History, Literature, and Geography. At 17, Mary went to London, to look for her Mother. She wandered for a period, homeless. She eventually traced her Mother and they were reunited in Cardiff Wales, where Mary discovered she had two sisters. Craving adventure, she signed-up to be a soldier, and without formal education, passed the entrance exam. When Mary finished her Army service, she joined the London Fire Brigade as an emergency dispatcher for twenty years.

In her 40s, Mary applied to third-level education only to find she was not eligible. She decided to travel. On her travels in America, she came upon College of the Atlantic in Maine, USA. She applied to study there and despite her lack of education she was accepted. Mary was an activist at college. She helped form peer education groups that went into high schools and taught HIV/AIDS prevention through the medium of art and theatre. The team was also part of the first state-wide ‘Growing up Gay’ conference in Maine. In 1996, Mary graduated with a BA in Human Ecology. The proudest moment was seeing her Mother there cheering for her. 

In 2012, Mary returned to Ireland - the place that had denied both her mother and a formal education - to pursue a Master’s Degree in Irish Studies. Mary graduated in 2013 from the National University of Ireland Galway with first class honours. In 2014, the student body of College Of Atlantic unanimously voted for Mary Harney to be guest speaker at Commencement. At this ceremony, she was surprised with a honourary Masters of Philosophy. Since then Mary has lectured College undergraduates and other groups in Irish history, She is currently taking part in the Collaborative Forum for transitional justice for mothers and children that were institutionalized in Irelands’ notorious mother and baby units. And she “ain’t done yet”— at age 70, Mary is applying to study for an LLM in Human Rights in autumn 2019.

MARY ELMES / ‘The Irish Oskar Schindler’


Scholar, linguist and heroine of two wars

‘The Irish Oskar Schindler’

MARY Elmes, a Corkwoman and Trinity scholar, turned her back on a brilliant academic career to volunteer in two of the 20th century’s worst conflicts. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), she set up and ran children’s hospitals, moving from site to site as Franco’s troops advanced. When it was no longer safe to stay, she followed the Spanish refugees over the border into France and found herself in another war – World War II. She continued to help refugees and later risked her life to save Jewish children from deportation.

In a sense, Marie Elisabeth Jean Elmes experienced the turbulence of war from a very young age. She was born on 5 May 1908 into a prosperous – and progressive – home in Ballintemple, Cork city. Her father Edward Elmes was a pharmacist and her mother Elisabeth Elmes campaigned for the vote for women as treasurer of the Munster Women’s Franchise League.

Mary (as she was later called) and her younger brother John both attended La Rochelle, a modern and well-equipped school in Blackrock, Cork. The school imposed a “rigid curtain of censorship” in an attempt to keep the political upheaval of the early 20th century out, but without success.

A very young Mary was aware of World War I and, aged seven, knitted socks for soldiers fighting on the front line. The war came much closer to home in May 1915 when the Cunard ocean liner the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Cork. She and her family joined the thousands who flocked to Cobh to help the survivors. She would tell her children that the heartrending scenes she saw on the quayside that day stayed with her for life.

She also had reason to remember the Irish War of Independence. In 1920, the family business on Winthrop Street was burned out by British forces. Despite the turmoil, Mary Elmes was encouraged to travel and to study. When she finished school, she spent a year in France and came home with near-perfect French. She went on to study Modern Languages (French and Spanish) at Trinity College Dublin where she excelled. In 1931, she won a Gold Medal for academic excellence and, after graduating, a scholarship to the London School of Economics (LSE).

A former professor at Trinity, T.B. Rudmose-Brown, enthused about her “unusual intelligence” and her “exceptionally brilliant academic career”. In London, the accolades continued to come. In 1936, she won another scholarship, this time to study international relations in Geneva.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in the same year, Mary would have been keenly aware of the political background but nothing could have prepared her for the suffering she witnessed when she volunteered to join Sir George Young’s University Ambulance Unit. She arrived in Spain in February 1937 and was assigned to a feeding station in Almeria.

She soon gained a reputation as a shrewd and able administrator who was clear-headed and unsentimental in the chaos of war. As the fascist army advanced, Mary moved eastwards, from Murcia to Alicante and then into the mountains at Polop, setting up and running children’s hospitals as she went. When her father died unexpectedly in Cork at the end of 1937, she missed the funeral because she refused to abandon her post when a replacement couldn’t be found.

She left Spain only when it became impossible for aid workers to stay and then she followed her beloved Spanish refugees over the border into France. Using the skills she had acquired, Mary set up workshops, canteens, schools and hospitals in the hastily erected camp-villages in southwest France.

I liked to make people do things,’ she explained many years later during a rare interview. ‘But I didn’t just give orders. I did things myself. I got things done. I had a fixed point of view and I went on with it. I was not emotional but rather clinical, like a doctor, or a soldier, I suppose.  Luckily, I became hardened. It allowed me to work constantly.’

She was single-minded in her work as head of the Quaker delegation in Perpignan. Hundreds of her surviving letters reveal a determined and resourceful woman, but also a very diplomatic one.

Those traits would prove vital when Jews in southwest France were rounded up to be deported from Rivesaltes camp where Mary Elmes spent most of her time.

Surviving documents describe how she ‘spirited away’ nine Jewish children from the first convoy bound for Auschwitz on 11 August 1942. She bundled them into the boot of her car and drove them to the children’s homes she had set up in the foothills of the Pyrenees and along the coast earlier in the war.

Between August and October 1942, Mary Elmes and her colleagues saved an estimated 427 children from Rivesaltes camp.

Her efforts brought her to the attention of the Gestapo and in early 1943 she was arrested and jailed for six months. When asked about it afterwards, she simply said: “Well, we all experienced inconveniences in those days, didn't we?”

When the war was over, she married Frenchman Roger Danjou in Perpignan and they had two children, Caroline and Patrick. She spoke little of the war or what she had done, refusing all accolades in her lifetime.

In 2011, nine years after her death at the age 93, one of the children she saved, Professor Ronald Friend, nominated her for Israel’s highest award; two years later she was named Righteous Among the Nations. She is the only Irish person to hold the honour, which is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.


Picture courtesy of Caroline and Patrick Danjou, Mary Elmes’s children.

Herstory from Clodagh Finn, author of Mary Elmes’s biography, 'A Time to Risk All' published by Gill Books, €16.99.



SHEELAGH MURNAGHAN / Politician / Lawyer / Sportswoman / Civil Rights Activist


 Politician / Lawyer / Sportswoman / Civil Rights Activist



 "In Northern Ireland politics, I don't know which is the greatest obstacle, to be a woman, a Catholic, or a Liberal. I am all three."

                   - Sheelagh Murnaghan

Sheelagh Murnaghan was born in Omagh, Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland on May 26th 1924. She was the eldest of eight children and came from a family immersed in politics and the law. Sheelagh was educated at Loreto schools in Omagh and Dublin before attending Queen's University Belfast where she read Law and served as the first female President of the university's Literary and Scientific Society (The Literific). Called to the Northern Ireland Bar in 1948, she was the first practising female barrister in Northern Ireland. She was a member of the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for Northern Ireland and in1953, compiled a table of all cases and a consolidated index of every court case heard in Northern Ireland since 1925.

A keen sportswoman, Sheelagh played hockey for Instonians, Ulster and Ireland. She captained the Ireland Team in 1955-56 and 1957-58, and toured South Africa and the United States with the team. Reporters described her as "A diminutive but ferocious fullback." On one occasion she played at Wembley Stadium before nearly 50,000 cheering schoolgirls and television cameras. She continued to referee matches into the 1970s.

In 1959 she joined the Ulster Liberal Party-a cross-community organization with links to the UK Liberal Party. In November 1961 she was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons to represent Queen's University. She was one of just eleven women to serve in the Northern Ireland Parliament during its 51-year existence. Throughout her parliamentary career she was a voice of moderation and reason in a deeply divided society and a passionate defender of all those denied equality. She brought forward a bill seeking the abolition of the death penalty in Northern Ireland and she campaigned for the rights of Travellers. In 1967, she helped set up a school for Traveller children in Belfast. On one occasion she gave a tramp a room in her attic.

     In June 1964, Sheelagh put forward the first Human Rights Bill ever presented in a British or Irish parliament. Modeled on the United States Civil Rights Act and on Canadian Human Rights legislation, the Bill proposed the outlawing of discrimination on grounds of creed, colour or political belief. The Bill was rejected by the Northern Ireland Government. Sheelagh brought forward new versions of the Bill in 1966,1967 and 1968. She sought to end the discrimination in housing allocation, employment and voting rights, which existed in Northern Ireland then. She told the Commons: "There are degrees of citizenship in this country. In my opinion discrimination is not something, which should be lamented and forgotten about. It is something to be angry about. While there is one case of discrimination people should be concerned."

In her Human Rights Bills, Sheelagh also sought to end pay discrimination against women in the workplace. "This is something which cannot possibly be justified. I cannot conceive of any just argument in the case of a job, which is clearly the same job with exactly the same conditions and everything else, for paying someone less merely by reason of the accident of sex."

   Four times the Human Rights Bills presented by Sheelagh were rejected by the Northern Irish government. Many people from across the political spectrum have voiced the belief that if Sheelagh's proposals had been accepted the whole history of late 20th century Northern Ireland could have been very different. Sheelagh's parliamentary career ended at the 1969 Northern Ireland General Election when the Queen's seat was abolished. She served as a member of the Community Relations Commission from 1969 to 1972. Following the introduction of Direct Rule from London in 1972, she was appointed by Northern Ireland Secretary, William Whitelaw to serve on his Advisory Committee. From 1970, she chaired Industrial Tribunals. She was outspoken in her condemnation of the violence, which erupted in Northern Ireland from 1969. In February 1970, her Belfast house was bomber by Loyalist paramilitaries. She refused to be intimidated. She told reporters that she was not afraid, cleaned up the wreckage and carried on with her work.

     In 1983, Sheelagh chaired a Tribunal which heard the very first case of sexual harassment brought before a court in the UK or Ireland. The case involved a female apprentice mechanic who had been subjected to harassment by male colleagues. In her ruling, Sheelagh found that "the main reason for the harassment was the fact that she was a female in a man's world, and that it amounted to Sex Discrimination." The barrister who appeared for the plaintiff, Noelle McGrena QC, has stated that:

   "In making such a finding, Sheelagh Murnaghan paved the way for others in sexual harassment cases within these islands, earning herself a place among the pioneers who have properly influenced society's attitude to women in the workplace generally."

   Sheelagh's ruling helped pave the way for sexual harassment to be made a criminal offence in the UK and influenced employment law in the Republic of Ireland as well. The American feminist historian, Constance Rynder credits Sheelagh with demonstrating "the potential for utilizing existing mechanisms to incorporate sexual harassment into the general ban on sex discrimination."

    Sheelagh was seen as a slightly eccentric figure, who smoked cigars and drank brandy. She loved dogs and would arrive for Tribunal hearings with a pile of papers under one arm and a dog under the other. The dog would sit under the table while Sheelagh fed him treats. The Traveller women affectionately called her "the cigar lady. "She never married and was sometimes lonely, but she was "the linchpin" of her large family of siblings, nieces and nephews.

   Sheelagh Murnaghan did not live to see the Peace Process or the Good Friday /Belfast Agreement. She died on September 14th 1993 from cancer at the age of just 69. She once told a colleague that"Nobody could have a greater sense of failure than I have." She was too harsh on herself. While she could nor persuade the government of the day to accept her Human Rights Bills much of what she campaigned for did become law within a few years. Brilliantly described by the Queen's University scholar, Dr Charinda Weerahardhana as: "the wise doctor of Ulster's ills", Sheelagh Murnaghan deserves to be remembered and honoured.

Thanks to herstorian Ruth Illingworth for this week’s herstory.

Rerferences for further reading:

RYNDER CONSTANCE: "Sheelagh Murnaghan and the Struggle for Human Rights in Northern Ireland."   (IRISH STUDIES REVIEW  VOL 14.2006 ISSUE 4.)

RYNDER CONSTANCE :  "Sheelagh Murnaghan and the Ulster Liberal Party". (JOURNAL OF LIBERAL HISTORY: ISSUE 71,SUMMER 2011.)


WOODS C.J    "Sheelagh Murnaghan" (DICTIONARY OF IRISH BIOGRAPHY: VOL 6) (Royal Irish Academy 2009).

Winifred Letts / Playwright, poet, novelist

Winifred M. Letts

Playwright/ Poet/ Novelist/ Nurse/ Wartime Masseuse

Manchester & Dublin

1882 - 1972

“There are two things you did as Miss Letts which are no longer appropriate, now that you are Mrs Verschoyle – attend the Arts Club on Fitzwilliam Street and swim at Seapoint Tower” the words of 67 year old William H. Foster Verschoyle,  to his new wife, Winifred Letts. At the time, Winifred (Win) was 44 years of age - a published poet, novelist, playwright and a qualified masseuse who had seen, and been through, the horrors of WWI.  And Win was a lady who knew her own mind.

At 16, she persuaded her parents to allow her to move from boarding school in the English midlands to Alexandra College, Dublin, because she had loved so much the holidays she had spent in Ireland, at her mother’s home in Knockmaroon, on the edge of the Phoenix Park. At 25, she challenged what she described as her ‘Unionist, Protestant’ upbringing by attending the Abbey Theatre and, after experiencing a performance of Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’, she felt inspired to start writing.

What followed were two plays that were both accepted by The Abbey, Ireland’s National Theatre.  She was only the second woman – the theatre’s co-founder, Lady Gregory having been the first - to have her work staged at the Abbey.  She went on to publish nine novels and a book of poetry throughout the following nine years. And then the first world war started.

‘The Spires of Oxford and Other Poems’, published in 1917, dealt not with the glory of war, but with the gore – Win wrote about the individuals affected by wartime horrors; the boy who gave his precious wits, the young man lying helpless in a hospital bed, the deserter shot at dawn. Win saw this reality through her work as a VAD (voluntary aid detachment nurse) and later, through her work as a masseuse, treating military personnel who had lost limbs. Her poetry predates the protest poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.   

After her marriage to William in 1926, Win moved into one of his Dublin properties, 19 Fitzwilliam Square. Win survived the gloom of town life by befriending children who lived on the lane at the back of the houses, and by spending weekends in Kildare, on William’s country estate, immersed in the beauty of nature. She was active with the Fresh Air Fund, Wild Flower Society, Irish Women Writers’ Club and many charitable organisations.

In a 1957 interview in The Irish Times, Win described herself as “a period piece, a has-been, totally unknown to this generation.” In 1969, she told Maeve Binchy that the only reason she was interesting was because she knew so many of the people Ireland then cared about. For seventy years, Win’s life and works slowly disappeared from view. Until now.

Our thanks to Bairbre O'Hogan for researching and writing up this fantastic piece.

MARY PEARSE / Musician, teacher, actress, author


Musician, teacher, actress, author



Mary Bridget (later changed to Mary Brigid) was born in Dublin on 26th April, 1884 and was the youngest of four children born to James and Margaret Pearse; her siblings were Margaret, Patrick and Willie. She was a musician, teacher, actress and author of short stories, children’s stories, and plays.

From an early age, she showed considerable aptitude for music, particularly the piano. Through her membership of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge), she met Owen Lloyd who became her harp teacher. Under Lloyd’s guidance, Mary Brigid progressed quickly on the Irish and concert harps and performed at concerts of An t-Oireachtas with Lloyd's band of harps. She also won several prizes at harp competitions organised by An t-Oireachtas and performed regularly at branch meetings of the Gaelic League in Dublin. In 1910, Mary Brigid succeeded Owen Lloyd as harp teacher at St Enda’s (Scoil Éanna) in Rathfarnham, the bilingual school founded by her brother Patrick.  She also provided piano and voice lessons as part of the extra-curricular activities offered at the school.

Between 1910 and 1912, her literary works, which comprised largely of one-act plays or adaptations of novellas by Charles Dickens, were performed by the Leinster Stage Society at the Abbey Theatre. After the execution of her brothers Patrick and Willie in 1916, Mary Brigid chose to remain out of public and political life. As her mother and sister were increasingly burdened with the legacy of Patrick and Willie, she focused on teaching music and writing at her home in Dublin. Her first novel, The Murphys of Ballystack, was published in 1917.  Although the book was well received, this literary success was short-lived and she struggled to have her work published in the following decades.

During the 1920s and early 1930s Mary Brigid spent much of her time writing short stories, plays, children’s stories and articles. She wrote over twenty short stories and commenced two other novels, Curly and the Persian and The Romance of Castle Bawn. Her best-known literary work is The Home-Life of Pádraig Pearse, published in 1934. The book is essentially a collation of a series of articles which she contributed to the Christian Brothers’ magazine, Our Boys, in 1926 to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The publication of the book should have been a personal and professional triumph for Mary Brigid, but it coincided with a particularly turbulent period in her life which was marked by the death of her mother in 1932 and a bitter dispute with her sister Margaret over the terms of their mother’s will and Margaret’s appointment as executrix. 

Mary Brigid continued to write and teach harp, piano, cello and mandolin throughout the 1930s and 1940s and participated in several broadcasts about her brother Patrick. She suffered from high blood pressure and neurosis and died, aged sixty-three, on 12 November 1947. The Home-Life was later republished in 1979 to mark the centenary of Patrick Pearse’s birth, but to date her other literary works have not been published.

Many thanks to Teresa and Mary Louise O’Donnell for this herstory. Their book Sisters of the Revolutionaries: The Story of Margaret and Mary Brigid Pearse is available at Irish Academic Press.

MARGARET PEARSE / Educator, politician, Irish language activist

Margaret Mary Pearse

Educator, politician, Irish language activist



Margaret Pearse was the older sister of Irish patriots Patrick and Willie. She was an educator, politician and Irish language activist.

Margaret was born on 4 August 1878 at 27 Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street), Dublin. She and Patrick were enrolled at a private school at 28 Wentworth Place, Dublin in 1886/7 and in 1891, she attended the Sisters of the Holy Faith School, Clarendon Street. She excelled at school, receiving first place in all subjects and, like all her siblings, she loved reading and recitation. After completing her studies, Margaret studied Domestic Economy at the Rathmines Technical Institute (College of Commerce) and received a certificate of competency from the Leinster College of Irish.

In 1905 Margaret accompanied Patrick on a trip to Belgium to observe methods of teaching languages and approaches to bilingualism. This encouraged Margaret to establish a small preparatory school for girls and boys at their home in Leeson Park, Donnybrook in 1907. Her school was a success and it became the preparatory school of what would later become one of the most radical educational projects in Irish history, namely, Scoil Éanna/St. Enda’s, Ranelagh and later Rathfarnham. She was assistant mistress, taught French and religion, and ran the school until its closure in 1935.

Although Margaret took no part in the 1916 Rising, she was aware of ammunitions made and stored at St. Enda’s School in the lead up to Easter 1916. She described the Rising as 'tragic but glorious' and opined that despite the great loss experienced by her and her family, they took comfort in the fact that Patrick and Willie would spend eternity together.

From 1916 until her death, Margaret attended State and public ceremonies in honour of her brothers. From 1933 to 1937, she served as a Fianna Fáil TD for County Dublin and, in 1938 was elected to Seanad Éireann where she served for three decades. Margaret rarely spoke in the Dáil or Seanad. In contrast, she was more outspoken on contemporary political, social and cultural issues in her public addresses. Her politics were simple and transparent; she believed in a 32 county republic with Irish as its first language. She regarded partition as “the greatest evil at present in this country”. Outside politics and cultural activism, Margaret spent much of her time responding to queries relating to Patrick’s literary works, requests to visit St. Enda's and posting photographs, books and other memorabilia of her brothers. She was elected honorary life President of the Holy Faith Past Pupils’ Union and was a devout Catholic.

From the 1960s onwards, Margaret spent extended periods at the Linden Convalescent Home, Blackrock and was regularly visited by political and public figures. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend the official Fiftieth Anniversary Commemoration of the Rising, but was brought on a stretcher to Dublin Castle to receive her honorary Doctorate of Laws. Margaret died on 7 November, 1968 and received a State funeral.

Many thanks to Teresa and Mary Louise O’Donnell for this herstory. Their book Sisters of the Revolutionaries: The Story of Margaret and Mary Brigid Pearse is available at Irish Academic Press.

COUNTESS MARKIEVICZ / Politician, revolutionary & suffragette


Politician, revolutionary, suffragette

1868 - 1927

Sligo / Dublin

In her native Sligo and in Dublin, government office blocks, playing fields, housing estates and even a swimming centre are named after Countess Markievicz, born Constance Gore Booth – probably the most celebrated Irishwoman after Queen Meabh.

Markievicz is known first and foremost for her role in the 1916 Rising. During Easter Week, she joined the Irish Citizen Army group that took over St Stephen’s Green and subsequently retreated into the Royal College of Surgeons. Her tall figure in full uniform topped with her favourite hat caused much comment, and a rumour later spread that she had shot dead a policeman at St Stephen’s Green on the opening morning of the Rising. Since she hadn’t yet arrived at the Green at the time, the story - which has taken a firm hold in 1916 folklore - should be treated with deep scepticism.  

When Markievicz surrendered at the RCSI, she famously kissed her gun before handing it over to Captain Charles de Courcy Wheeler, who was a distant relative.

Markievicz was a member of the tight-knit Anglo Irish ruling class, so it was little wonder that she was related to Wheeler. Born in 1868, she was the first of five children born to Sir Henry Gore Booth and his wife Georgina. An outgoing and happy child, she became well known locally for her skill as a horsewoman.

As a young adult, she studied art in London and later Paris, where she met her husband Casimir Markievicz. With their only child Maeve and Casimir's son Stanislaus, the couple decided to settle in Dublin in 1903, earning a living first as artists and later in the theatre.

Although a lively city, Dublin at the time had the worst slums in Europe and the highest rate of infant deaths. By 1908, Markievicz, with her social conscience awoken, had joined both Maud Gonne's Inghinidhe na hÉireann, a republican women's group, and Sinn Fein. A year later, with the help of Bulmer Hobson, she founded Na Fianna Éireann – a paramilitary version of the boy scouts. Without the Fianna, Padraig Pearse would say, 1916 would not have happened.

By the time of the great Lock-Out of 1913, Markievicz was a committed follower of James Connolly. Always a woman of action, she organised a soup kitchen at Liberty Hall for the thousands of families who were struggling to survive during this blackest of periods in Irish history. The ordinary people of Dublin would never forget her kindness.

After the shattering failure of the Easter Rebellion, Markievicz's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She would spend several months in Aylesbury women's prison in England where she was treated as a common criminal, no better or worse than the thieves, murderers and prostitutes making up most of the prison population. It was the first of five terms of imprisonment.

In 1918, while back in jail at Holloway, Markievicz was elected to the House of Commons, creating history as the first woman to be elected a British MP. Like the other Sinn Féin members, she did not take up her seat, and in 1919 helped establish the illegal Dáil Éireann in Dublin. With her background in labour relations, she was the obvious choice for Minister for Labour. That made her only the second woman in the world after the Bolshevik revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai to hold a cabinet position in government.

After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1922, Markievicz left government along with de Valera and others who opposed it. The "hardliners", as they were called, would spend the next few years on the run when a brutal civil war erupted between those who supported the Treaty and those who saw it as a tainted compromise. Sinn Féin had refused to sit in the new Dáil but, as time went by, it was clear that a compromise was needed if the "hardliners" were to have any influence on Irish politics.

In May 1926, the inaugural meeting of Fianna Fáil at the La Scala theatre in Dublin was chaired by Markievicz, with de Valera as party leader. She was duly elected as a Fianna Fáil TD at the elections of June 1927, but already ill, was never to take her seat.

On 15 July 1927, Constance Markievicz died, aged 59. The funeral that followed was one of the largest ever seen in Dublin, with ordinary citizens turning out in their thousands to pay tribute to their "Madame" – a woman who had always fought their corner and whom they had taken to their hearts. A true patriot.

Thanks to author Lindie Naughton for this herstory. Lindie's book Markievicz: A most outrageous rebel is available through Irish Academic Press.

KATHERINE JONES / Viscountess Ranelagh


Intellectual / Patroness of science & education

1615 - 1691

Youghal / London

Katherine Jones (née Boyle), Viscountess Ranelagh was born in Youghal on 22 March 1615. She was the fifth daughter and seventh child of Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork (1566-1643) and his second wife Catherine Fenton (c.1588 - c.1630). Not much is known about Ranelagh’s educational background, as her father didn’t provide formal education for any of his daughters. In September 1624, when she was 9½ years old, Katherine left her family as she was contracted to marry Sapcott Beaumont, and thus moved to live with his family in Leicestershire. The marriage alliance broke down after Thomas Beaumont’s death when the family asked for an extra £2000 on top of the £4000 dowry already agreed. Thus, Katherine returned home for two years until at age 15 she married Arthur Jones, heir to the first Viscount Ranelagh.

Over the first ten years of their marriage, Katherine and Arthur had four children, Catherine (b. December 1633), Elizabeth (b. 1635), Frances (b. 17 August 1639), and only son Richard (b. 8 February 1641). However, the pair’s marriage was not a happy one, with there even being suggestions of infidelity on Arthur’s part. In 1641, Ranelagh and her four children were besieged in Athlone Castle for many months after the outbreak of the Irish uprising. In a letter to her father, Katherine recounts her experiences of this time, and states that the rebel leader James Dillon, not only offered, but also ensured her safe passage from Athlone to Dublin. After escaping the siege, Katherine moved to London and lived apart from her husband, forging a space for herself to become involved in many intellectual, religious and political activities.

Katherine made the most of her location and connections in London and very quickly became integrated into parliamentarian politics. In 1644, she urged Sir Edward Hyde to try to reconcile the king and parliament. In 1647, she was paid an allowance of 6s. by the House of Lords, and was later granted a pension of £4 by the House of Commons. However, by this time she was disappointed in Charles I’s actions, and expressed this disappointment in a letter to his sister (Queen of Bohemia) dated 7 August 1646. By 1648 she had no faith left in the king and now believed that he should be stripped of most of his powers and that the governance should lie with the parliament.

From 1643, Katherine was closely acquainted with the international correspondence network known as the Hartlib circle. It is believed that it was her aunt Dorothy Moore who persuaded Katherine to support Samuel Hartlib’s endeavours. Ranelagh shared his interest in education and new scientific investigations and was regarded by his circle as a patroness and was often described as the ‘incomparable’ Lady Ranelagh. Between the 1640s and 50s she was involved in Hartlib’s projects for educational reform, chemical and medical investigation and political reform in Ireland. In September 1656, Katherine left England to spend two and a half years in Ireland in order to help in the reclaiming of Boyle family estates in Ireland while also trying to pursue a settlement from her husband. Throughout this time Katherine continued to discourse with Hartlib and his associates, and struck up friendships with Irish based members of the network including William Petty, Miles Symner, and Robert Wood. Katherine returned to England on 15 February 1659 with two of her daughters and upon her arrival in London she continued to pursue her complaints against her husband, and was almost successful until parliament was brought to a premature end.

After the Restoration, Katherine moved to the Pall Mall where she was assigned two houses on the south side by her brother-in-law Charles Rich. In 1668, her youngest brother Robert Boyle (the famous physicist) moved into Katherine’s Pall Mall home, where the pair would live together for the last 23 years of their lives. During Robert’s formative years as a scholar, his sister is said to have guided him in many ways. Arguably her most important intervention was her convincing him not to join Charles I’s Royalist army, but she also guided his academic career by reading drafts of his manuscripts and offering constructive criticism. Thus, it is no surprise that after his move to London, they continued to collaborate on various projects, and her importance to her brother is evidenced by the fact the he appointed her one of the executors of his will, bequeathing her a ring for her to wear in memory of him.  He also intended to give to her his collection of medical recipes in order to ensure that they did not enter the hands of those whom he would not want to have them. However, she predeceased him by one week on 23 December 1691, and both are buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

Throughout her life, various people celebrated Ranelagh’s actions, but none more than Gilbert Burnet, who was the Bishop of Salisbury from 1689 until his death in 1715, was able to encapsulate the impact she had on those she was connected to. While giving the sermon at Robert’s funeral, Burnet took the time to also lament Lady Ranelagh’s recent passing. While Burnet celebrated the pair’s connection by stating that, ‘such a sister became such a brother,’ he also elaborated on Ranelagh’s reputation separate to her brother. He stated that Ranelagh had ‘lived the longest on the publickest Scene, she made the greatest Figure in all the Revolutions of these Kingdoms for above fifty Years, of any Woman of our Age’.  He celebrated her charitable nature and asserted that she went about her endeavours ‘with the greatest Zeal and most Success that [he had] ever known.’ It is clear from his oration that he agreed with those who had described Ranelagh as ‘incomparable.’

Many thanks to Evan Bourke for this herstory.

Image credit: Michelle DiMeo

MARY ANN MCCRACKEN / Philanthropist, social activist & abolitionist


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

1770 – 1866


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.





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


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


Irish Countrywomen’s Activist



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





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

Suffragette & Republican



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


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


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.