SR DR MAURA LYNCH / Medical missionary

Image Source: Fistula Care Plus

Image Source: Fistula Care Plus

Sr Dr Maura Lynch, 1938–2017

Medical missionary

In Uganda on 9 December 2017, a celebration was planned for the golden jubilee of the arrival in Africa of Youghal-born Sr Dr Maura Lynch, who devoted her life to improving the lives of African women. Sadly, she died suddenly in Kampala on that very day.

Maura was the fourth of the nine children of a teacher and a post office employee, and the family moved frequently. She joined the Medical Missionaries of Mary in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary at the age of 17. She studied medicine in UCD and came in the top three in her graduating class in 1965, and received a gold medal for surgery. She completed a Diploma in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in London in 1966 and a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Public Health in Lisbon in 1967. She would return to Dublin in 1985 to train as a surgeon.

Having completed her medical training, she left for Chiulo Mission Hospital in Angola, where she had to work across the range of medicine, surgery, obstetrics, gynaecology and paediatrics, and work as a lecturer and examiner in the Nurses Training School. She and only one other medical Sister had the care of 200 patients, many of whom suffered from TB, leprosy, or injuries sustained during the Angolan civil war. She and her colleagues risked their lives travelling the rough terrain of southern Angola by bicycle, sheltering in the undergrowth as aerial bombings pummelled the ground around them.

In 1987, she was assigned to Kitovu Mission Hospital in Uganda as a consultant surgeon, obstetrician and gynaecologist. There, she conducted her pioneering obstetric fistula repair work, performing over 1,000 procedures between 1993 and 2007. In the words of Professor Bill Powderly, former Dean of UCD School of Medicine, it is ‘an astonishing record that one can confidently say will never be bettered’.

Sr Dr Maura found her vocation in obstetrics, and developed a love of Uganda and its people. It must have been hugely gratifying to her, then, to receive a unique Certificate of Residency for Life from the Ugandan government in recognition of her work. She was a founding member of the Association of Surgeons of East Africa, and pioneered innovative training programmes in obstetric fistula repair. She fundraised for a centre of excellence in the treatment of obstetric fistula in St Joseph’s Hospital, Kitovu; it opened in April 2005.

Her accolades were many. In 2009, she was nominated by the United Nations Population Fund (Uganda) as a leader in the fight against fistula; in 2013, she received an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology; and in 2015, she was awarded the prestigious Council of Europe’s North–South Prize. She called for better education of girls and of medical staff to help the estimated 50–100,000 women affected annually by obstetric fistula, which is also linked to obstructed labour, reducing perinatal deaths. The 28-bed unit and dedicated operating theatre she established performs 250 operations per year; women are treated for free and, should they go on to become mothers, are offered free antenatal care and caesarean delivery.

Those who knew her spoke of her sense of fun, and her boundless energy; in 2013, she participated in a six-mile run to raise €5,000 for an overhead lamp for the operating theatre. Her position as a champion of African women’s healthcare is best expressed in the name given to her by her Ugandan patients: ‘Nakimuli’, meaning ‘Beautiful Flower’.

Sources: Joanna Lyall, ‘Maura Lynch: Fistula Fighter and Nun’, British Medical Journal, 360 (23 Mar. 2018); Irish Times, 23 Dec. 2017; ‘Sr. & Dr. Maura Lynch (1938–2017)’,;‘Sr Dr Maura Lynch (1938–2017): Nakimuli–Beautiful Flower’,

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.


Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Amy ‘Amma’ Carmichael,1867–1951


Amy Carmichael was born into a prosperous, middle-class Ulster Presbyterian family, but when her father died in 1885, her education came to an abrupt halt. From an early age she was involved in holding Bible meetings for children, and organised classes for ‘shawlies’, the mill-girls of Belfast. These were so successful that as a result, The Welcome hall, built by donations, opened in January 1889.

Amy and her mother were invited to continue their charitable work in Manchester in 1889, but this was cut short due to Amy’s ill-health. Later,she recalled: ‘I was deep in slums when I was 17. ’Amy was strongly influenced by the Quaker Robert Wilson, who she met in Belfast in 1887. They shared a commitment to religion and missionary work, and had an unusual relationship: she took the place of his deceased daughter, while Amy referred to him as ‘Fatherie’. She lived at his home in Cumberland, helping with his religious work, leading the weekly Scripture Union, and writing her first book, Bright Words.

Amy experienced a ‘call’ to missionary work, and in March 1893, she left with the Evangelistic Band to spend just over a year in Japan, where she struggled greatly to learn the language, but convinced her fellow missionaries to adopt traditional Japanese dress. She left Japan for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) due to illness in July 1894, but quickly returned to England after receiving news that ‘Fatherie’ had had a stroke.

In spring 1895, she applied to the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society. Although not an Anglican, she was accepted, and sailed for India in October, taking leave of ‘Fatherie’ for the last time. She arrived in India suffering from dengue fever, but threw herself into studying Tamil. She formed her own group of mission sisters who spent seven years travelling around southern India before settling at Dohnavur, where Amy would remain for the next six decades.

At Dohnavur, she established a Christian community focused on reforming the Hindu practice of devadasis, the ceremonial marriage of young girls to a temple deity. After forty years, the community had 800 residents, served by nurseries, schools, a hospital, and a house of prayer. It was modelled on a familial structure, and missionaries contributed to teaching, nursing, engineering and farming. She insisted that Dohnavur workers should not expect a salary since the organisation never actively fund-raised.

Amy’s ideal was that ‘Indian and European, men and women, live and work together [...] each contributing what each has for the help of all.’ She expressed some sensitivity to Hindu traditions, but occasionally paternalistically attempted to control the lives of adult residents and workers. She avoided providing sex education to the young people in her care, seemingly in an attempt to prevent ‘arousal’. For Carmichael, no material improvement in living conditions was worth having if not attended by Christianity.

Amy published 38 books, mostly relating to Dohnavur, many of which were translated into other languages. She was unconventional, passionately committed to her work, and wore Indian dress. In 1919, she was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal for Public Service in India. Devadasis was finally outlawed with the passage of a 1947 act by the Madras state parliament. The work at Dohnavur continues, however, to protect vulnerable children. Today, all fellowship members are Indian nationals, and the hospital treats patients of all faiths and classes.

Sources: Elisabeth Elliot, A Chance to Die:The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael (Fleming H. Revell, 1987);Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition; Margaret Wilkinson, I Remember Amy Carmichael ([for the author],1996); Amy Carmichael,The Widow of the Jewels( [1928] SPCK, 1950)

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.


Image Source: Virtual Museum of Canada

Image Source: Virtual Museum of Canada

Hariot Georgina Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Lady Dufferin, 1843–1936

Philanthropist, author, vicereine of India

Scattered around Myanmar, India and Pakistan stood a series of hospitals bearing the name of Lady Dufferin, an Anglo-Irish heiress who married, at the age of just 19, a man who became one of Britain’s most senior diplomats, governor-general in Canada, and viceroy in India. So much more than a diplomatic wife, Lady Dufferin left a particular legacy in India through her National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India, better known as the Dufferin Fund.

The Dufferins arrived in India as viceroy and vicereine in December 1884, having previously lived in Canada and in St Petersburg, where they witnessed the anarchist terror campaign and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Dufferin quickly established a busy routine in India, taking lessons in Hindustani and in photography, and devoting much time to the establishment and running of her Fund. Her letters to her mother reveal her appreciation for the extent of the undertaking, and her trepidation on the occasion of the public launch: ‘I don’t in the least mind the work, but I sometimes shudder over the publicity and wish it were a quieter little affair.’ She gently but persistently pressed for funds at every opportunity, accepting donations from the Maharajas of Kashmir and Jeypore, holding a sports day and a Jubilee collection that elicited 400 pledges. The Fund doubtlessly saved lives and achieved its stated aim of alleviating the suffering of Indian women through childbirth and illness. However, it was not immune from criticism. Contemporary campaigners for equality for female doctors highlighted the Fund’s focus on zenana women to the detriment of non-zenana women, particularly lower-caste and working-class Indian women (who could not observe purdah due to the economic necessity of working outside the home).

Zenana women occupied the greater place in the minds of Victorian philanthropists and medical missionaries, who focused on the seclusion that denied them access to doctors and hospitals; Dufferin hospital boards debated issues like enclosing the buildings so that zenana women could move around freely inside without compromising their seclusion by being visible through a window, for example. Dufferin, during her time in India, remained assured of the necessity of the work by the testimony of Indian leaders who described to her the strict requirements of purdah: ‘in the harems in Scinde not even a man’s picture is admitted, much less a live doctor [...].’

She was disappointed when her husband was recalled to London, and described her tearful leave-taking on the steps of their residence. In 1907, its 23rd year, the Fund had 12 provincial branches, 140 local and district associations, and 260 hospital wards and dispensaries officered by women, who delivered care to over 2 million women and children. Working for the Fund were 48 ‘lady doctors with British qualifications,’ 90 assistant surgeons, and ‘311 hospital assistants with Indian qualifications.’ Subscriptions and donations in that year, to the UK branch alone, totalled over £4000. The Fund was very popular with colonial administrators, fundraised successfully in both India and the UK, and was popular among the Indian conservative elite.

Another important legacy of Dufferin’s initiative was its role in helping British and Irish women enter the medical profession. Zenana hospitals, for all their ethical problems, were in their early years an important source of employment for British women, who had few other opportunities to practice. The first woman to both train and qualify at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dr Mary Josephine Hannan, worked at the Dufferin Hospitals in Ulwar and Shikarpur in the 1890s.

Sources: Marchioness of Dufferin & Ava,Our Viceregal Life in India: Selections from my Journal( 2 vols, John Murray, 1889); ‘India’, British Medical Journal, 2, no. 2494 (29 Aug. 1908), 625; Samiksha Sehrawat, ‘Feminising Empire: the Association of Medical Women in India and the Campaign to Found a Women's Medical Service’,Social Scientist, 41,no. 5/6 (May–June 2013), 65–81 .

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.

ELIZABETH GURLY FLYNN / Activist, president of the American Communist Party

Image Source: ThoughtCo

Image Source: ThoughtCo

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1890–1964

Activist, president of American Communist Party

While Mother Jones started her activist life approaching 60 years of age, Gurley Flynn started hers as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, calling on American workers to rise in front of a red flag on a makeshift stage on a New York street corner. Quickly becoming a ‘jawsmith’ (orator) for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), she was devoted to women, the working class, anti-racism, and anti-capitalism. Gurley Flynn was dedicated to women’s rights but saw feminism as bourgeois. She was a key figure in a generation of activists who saw class-based organization as key to the emancipation of women. She believed that women could never be free under capitalism; that only socialism could eradicate poverty and women’s economic dependence on men. She exemplifies intersectional feminism, recognising that the universal category of woman did not acknowledge the additional struggles faced by African American women, for example.

Gurley Flynn’s Irish parents were committed socialists and atheists, who imbued their children with a hatred of capitalism and empire. Annie Gurley encouraged her daughters to aspire to meaningful careers; she continued to work as a seamstress after marriage, at times supporting the household. While Gurley Flynn married at nineteen and had a son, this never defined her and she was determined to be financially self-sufficient (except during her ten-year relationship with the physician, Dr Marie Equi, when she rarely left their Portland home).

As a single parent, with the support of her mother and sister, she maintained her political commitments and gruelling schedule of US-wide public talks. When she started her career with the IWW (or ‘Wobblies’), workplace disputes commonly involved violence, long-drawn-out strikes, and lockouts. She was a brilliant strategist who pioneered new tactics, such as getting workers to sit idle at their machines, which eliminated ‘scab’ labour and prevented lockouts.

By 1910, she was the leading woman in the IWW. She also began to publicly advocate for women’s access to birth control, when it was still illegal to advertise such products in the press. In 1936, after a ten-year hiatus in Portland, Gurley Flynn returned to New York and joined the Communist Party, rising rapidly through its ranks. During the Cold War, communists were harassed and imprisoned as ‘un-American’. Gurley Flynn was one of over 100 communists imprisoned for their views in the 1950s, spending 28 months in the maximum-security wing of Alderson Female Penitentiary, West Virginia, in 1955–7. She had been in a similar position in 1917, when she and other members of the IWW were charged with ‘seditious conspiracy’, a charge next to treason.

American anti-communism only made Gurley Flynn more resolute in her commitment to freedom of speech and political association. She supported deportees who, under the 1918 Immigration Act, were summarily expelled as ‘alien anarchists’ without warning, and without their families. World War II gave American communists a brief reprieve, thanks to the alliance between the USA and the USSR. Gurley Flynn used this time to build a national platform and a wide support base, and to pursue feminist goals.

Her aims as director of the Women’s Commission of the Communist Party included the representation of women at all levels within the Party ‘against all concepts of male superiority’, and the full enfranchisement of African Americans and poorer women. Fascism, as she saw it, placed women in a subordinate position, so she framed gender equality as anti-fascist against the backdrop of millions of ‘Rosie the Riveters’ filling vacant jobs in factories. By 1943, 50% of the Party’s membership was female.

In 1961, she became the first woman elected head of the American Communist Party. She died on her second visit to Moscow in 1964. Lauded as a heroine in the USSR, she was given a full state funeral and Nina Khrushcheva was one of her pallbearers. Half of her ashes were buried by the Kremlin walls; the other half were conveyed to Chicago. Perhaps too-willing to believe that the ideals to which she had committed her life had been realised in the USSR, she never questioned Soviet propaganda about the quality of women’s lives under communism.

Sources: Lara Vapnek, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary (Westview Press, 2015); Obituary, New York Times, 6 Sept. 1964.

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.

MABEL ESMONDE CAHILL / US Open tennis champion, writer, actor

Image source: International Tennis Hall of Fame

Image source: International Tennis Hall of Fame

Mabel Esmonde Cahill, 1863–1905

US Open tennis champion, writer, actor

Mabel was twelfth of the thirteen children of landowner and barrister Michael Cahill of Ballyconra House, Ballyragget and his wife, Margaret Mangan. Margaret died in c.1875, and Michael married Elizabeth Netterville a year later. According to Michael’s will, Elizabeth had ‘shamefully deserted’ him by 1877. When Mabel and her siblings were orphaned, she and at least two others were attending Roscrea School; three older brothers had previously emigrated to California.

By 1886, Mabel had moved to Dublin and was actively involved in the genteel sport of lawn tennis. Twenty-six-year-old Mabel arrived in New York City in October 1889. Shortly afterwards, she joined the city tennis club, and quickly gained notice. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle stated, ‘the severity of her play is the terror of opponents of her own sex.’ In 1891, she entered the US Open tennis championship, but lost the final to the defending champion, Ellen Roosevelt. She was vindicated in the following year, when she became the first non-American–and the only Irish person ever–to win a US Open title. She also became the first player ever to win the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in the same year, and was described as‘the foremost racquet wielder in America.’

Tennis fans may have been disappointed that she did not defend her titles in the 1893 US Open and that, by 1896, she had ‘dropped tennis entirely for equestrianism’. It is not clear how Cahill supported herself financially. While she may have had a stipend from her father’s estate, this cannot have been substantial due to the size of the family. Her writing may, therefore, have been a response to financial need. In 1891, she published a romantic novel, Her Playthings, Men, followed a year later by the shorter works Carved in Marble( 1892) and Purple Sparkling (1892). Playthings was light and insubstantial, and its commercial failure may have disappointed her. She had little more success as a journalist, publishing articles on‘The Art of Playing Good Tennis’ and ‘Arranging a Tennis Tournament’ in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1893.

In 1896, she took a lawsuit against a New York police officer who refused to take seriously her complaints about repeated harassment and physical assaults by gangs of small boys. In evidence, the defendant said that ‘the boys called her a new woman [...] and that she wore a striking costume.’ Whether due to poverty or illness, Mabel spent the final years of her life in a manner very different to her genteel upbringing. A woman of the same name and similar age is recorded in various English workhouses in 1897, 1900, and 1905.

Attempting to support herself, she continued to publish occasionally in magazines, and acted on the London stage, taking a case against a theatre manager over earnings. A woman of her name, age, and occupation (journalist) died in the workhouse at Ormskirk, Lancashire, of phthisis laryngeal (tuberculosis of the larynx), on 2 February 1905. When, in 1936, the Irish Lawn Tennis Association placed an advertisement in the national press requesting that she, or a representative, claim a gold medallion struck in her honour, it took three months for a family member to come forward. The medal was never struck. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1976. Despite her standard-setting record,her life story was, until recently, shrouded in mystery.

Sources: Early California Wills (The California Society, 1952), I, 78, transcribed at Cal Data Nook, SF Genealogy,; Mark Ryan ‘Mabel Cahill’,; Dictionary of Irish Biography online edition;Wright & Ditson's Lawn Tennis Guide (1892), 173–4;Irish Independent, 1 Aug. 1936;Kilkenny People, 5 June 1937; International Tennis Hallof Fame, ‘Mabel Cahill’,

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.

FANNY ISABEL PARNELL / Poet, Irish nationalist


Fanny Isabel Parnell, 1848–1882

Poet, Irish nationalist

Fanny’s memory–and that of her sister, Anna – has been overshadowed by brother Charles, but she was a trailblazer in her own right. Her poetry was celebrated by Irish nationalists and her activism helped to bring many Irish and Irish-American women into politics. However, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin castigated the Ladies’ Land League for inducing women to ‘forget the modesty of their sex and the high dignity of their woman hood.’ More generally, Irish nationalist men did not concern themselves with women’s rights.

Fanny was born in a country suffering the ravages of famine, disease and emigration – events that would shape her early Fenianism. The eleven Parnell children were educated at home by private governesses and masters until their father’s death in 1859. In 1865, aged 17, Fanny accompanied her American mother, Delia, to Paris, where they lived with her uncle until 1874. His death prompted Fanny, Anna and Delia to move to the Stewart family estate in New Jersey. Their dependence on extended family support is a stark reminder that even elite women were denied independent incomes.

Fanny, Charles and Anna held ardent nationalist views, developed through independent reading and personal experience. In 1864, Fanny’s nationalist poetry first appeared, under the pen-name Aleria, in the Fenian newspaper, the Irish People; within six months, twelve more of her poems were published. While living in Paris, Fanny published scathing descriptions of elite social life in the American Register. She and Delia also volunteered with the American Ambulance during the Franco-Prussian War. This voluntary service probably prepared her for her later work on behalf of the Irish poor.

In America, Fanny gave full vent to her commitment to Irish nationalism and social justice, at first by volunteering 10 hours per day in the New York headquarters of the Irish Famine Relief Fund; 1879 saw the fourth successive failure of the potato crop. The Ladies’ Land League (LLL) was formed as an offshoot of Michael Davitt’s Land League, which was founded in 1879 with the aim of reforming landholding in Ireland, but the League’s male leadership were disabled by imprisonment. It was thought that a Ladies’ Land League would be immune from prosecution. The LLL was established in New York on 15 October 1880, with Fanny, Delia and Anna at the helm. Branches quickly sprang up all over the USA and Canada, and Fanny undertook an exhausting lecture tour, raising thousands of dollars for famine relief.

In January 1881, the Irish LLL was established under Anna’s leadership, giving Irish women their first opportunity to participate in a political movement. It was a massive undertaking, and members endured police harassment. Fanny promoted awareness of the plight of the Irish poor through her writing. Her pamphlet The Hovels of Ireland (1880) went through several editions, with profits going to famine relief. Her poetry, published in newspapers in Ireland, Britain and the USA, harnessed powerful, emotive language and was criticised as ‘unfeminine’. Her best-known poem, ‘Hold the Harvest’ was hailed by Michael Davitt as ‘the Marseillaise of the Irish peasant’, and made her the heroine of the Land League movement.

Despite her early Fenianism, by 1879 Fanny advocated peaceful resistance. ‘Hold the Harvest’ appealed to the Irish poor: ‘Hold your peace and hold your hands–not a finger on them lay, boys! / Let the pike and rifle stand–we have found a better way, boys.’

Fanny died, suddenly and prematurely, in her thirty-third year. Her funeral procession was witnessed by thousands, and her grave in Mount Auburn cemetery, Massachusetts, was a pilgrimage site for many years. Sadly, the devotion she and Anna showed to the cause of social justice was still not enough to make Irish men see women as political equals.

Sources:Jane McL. Côté,Fanny and Anna Parnell(Macmillan, 1991);Oxford Dictionary of National Biographyonlineedition; Margaret Ward,Unmanageable Revolutionaries([1989] Pluto Press, 1995).

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.

LOLA RIDGE / Modernist poet, anarchist, labour activist

lola ridge.jpg

Lola Ridge, 1873–1941

Modernist poet, anarchist, labour activist

Rose Emily Ridge was born in Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin in 1873. Her medical student father died when she was three, so her mother emigrated to Australia, before moving on to New Zealand. Her mother remarried in 1880 to a Scottish miner and the family lived in a three-roomed shack on the Hokitikagold fields, among Maori and European and Chinese immigrants.

At 22, Ridge married a gold-mine manager in Kanieri, Hokitika. Their first son, born in 1896, died of bronchitis in infancy; their second, Keith, was born in 1900. In 1901 and 1902, under the name ‘Lola’, she published her first poems, ‘A Deserted Diggings, Maoriland’ and ‘Driving the Cattle Home’ in Bulletin and Otago Witness. This was a crossroads moment, when she decided to break with social convention to become an artist.

In 1903, she left her husband and took her son to her mother in Sydney, where she studied art at the Académie Julienne and wrote her first book, Verses. In 1907, her mother and stepfather both died, and she left for San Francisco. Her biographer, Daniel Tobin, understands her many migrations–from Ireland to Australia, to New Zealand, to Australia, to San Francisco, to New York City–as the means by which she reinvented herself. Before leaving San Francisco for New York in 1908, she left her son in an orphanage.

The move to New York saw the birth of Lola Ridge, modernist poet, utopian anarchist and labour activist, claiming to be ten years younger than she was. To support herself, she worked as an illustrator, factory worker, poet, and model. Her first book of American poems,The Ghetto and Other Poems, was published in 1918, and in the following year she gave a series of lectures around the Mid-West on‘Women and the Creative Will’. Throughout the 1920s, she published radical poetry in support of communism and the Soviet Union, including the poem ‘Bolshiviki’ in The New York Post Literary Review (1922), and the book Red Flag (1927). She followed her own maxim: ‘Write anything that burns you.’

Her reputation as a poet developed, and she was twice awarded the Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1935, 1936) and was awarded a Guggenheim Poetry Fellowship (1935). In 1927, she was arrested in Boston for protesting the execution of two anarchists. She was devoted to radical politics, and dedicated one of her poems to the Irish labour leader, James Larkin. She published five books of poems that, as a whole, deal with representing the harsh realities of life on the New Zealand goldfields and in the immigrant neighbourhoods of New York’s Lower East Side, while also attempting to reconcile her own radical politics and spirituality. This reflects her own life story, her political radicalism, and the ethereal image she shaped for herself.

A well-recognised feminist poet and modernist in her own lifetime, she has since been largely forgotten, possibly in part due to the inhospitality of mid-twentieth century America towards socialists and communists. Despite this neglect, she remains significant for the courage with which she addressed social issues in her writing and for her pivotal position among the modernist and women writers of twentieth-century America.

Sources:To the Many: Collected Early Works by Lola Ridge,ed.Daniel Tobin (Little Island Press, 2018);Light in Hand:Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge,ed.Daniel Tobin (Quale Press, 2007); Terese Svoboda, Anything that Burns You:The Dialect of Modernism (Scheffer Press, 2016).

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.

CYNTHIA LONGFIELD / Entomologist, world traveller


Cynthia Longfield, 1896–1991

Entomologist and world traveller

Cynthia Longfield, ‘Madam Dragonfly’, was born in London in 1896 to Anglo-Irish parents. The family divided their time between London and the ancestral home in Cloyne, Co. Cork, where she enjoyed roaming the countryside. Her early love of nature and insects 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 Beaglevoyage of 1831–6. She later wrote, ‘I went on the St George expedition to follow Darwin’s footsteps–and I got there!’ She absorbed the importance of fieldwork and travel, both of which played important roles in her life and in her scientific work.

It was in 1921, during her first overseas tour–taking in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Panama,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 Beaglevoyage, taking in Coiba, Cocos Island, the Galapogos, the Marquesas, the Tuamotu Archipelago and Tahiti. During the expedition, 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 30 years, but continued to travel the world in search of specimens.

In 1927, she participated in a six-month-long scientific expedition in the Mato Grosso, Brazil, where she collected 38 species of dragonfly, three of which were new species. She went on to make scientific expeditions to south-east Asia in 1929, where she collected hundreds of moths and butterflies; to Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and South Africa in 1934, where she travelled alone and identified six new species of butterfly and dragonfly; and to Cape Town and Zimbabwe in 1937.

She was forced to return to London when she contracted malaria in 1937, and was prevented from returning to Africa by the outbreak of World War II. During the war, she volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service in London. She had previously worked with the Royal Army Service Corps and in an aeroplane factory during World War I. 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 1956 and returned to Cloyne, but never stopped travelling or studying entomology. Two dragonfly species were named in her honour: Corphaeschnalongfieldae (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.

Sources:Jane Hayter-Hames,Madam Dragonfly: The Life and Times of Cynthia Longfield( Pentland Press, 1991);Dictionary of Irish Biography online edition; Royal Irish Academy Longfield Collection.

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.

PROFESSOR DAME KATHLEEN LONSDALE / X-ray crystallographer, pacifist

kathleen lonsdale.jpg

Professor Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, 1903–1971

X-ray crystallographer, pacifist

Kathleen Yardley was born in Co. Kildare in 1903, the youngest of ten children. Her Scottish mother and Irish father had an unhappy marriage; the family was wretchedly poor, four of the ten children died, and their postmaster father abused alcohol. By 1908, her parents separated, and Kathleen and her surviving siblings were brought to Essex by their mother.

Kathleen excelled through elementary and high school. She entered Bedford College, University of London aged 16, where she chose to read physics because, like Kay McNulty, she was worried that the only career open to women maths graduates was teaching–something she did not wish to do. In 1922, she achieved the highest grades in the BSc exams that had been seen at University of London for ten years and, as a result, was invited to join Nobel physicist Professor William Bragg’s research school. The post brought an income of £180 per year, with which Kathleen helped her family. She was the only woman in a group of international researchers. She collaborated with international scientists to produce theI nternational Tablesor ‘crystallographer’s bible’, comprehensive tables for determining crystalstructure.

In 1927, Kathleen married Thomas Lonsdale. Contrary to her expectation that he might wish her to assume a traditional domestic role, he encouraged her to continue her scientific research. In 1929, she made her first major discovery, solving an important question that scientists had been arguing over for sixty years: she demonstrated conclusively that the benzene ring was flat. Her later contributions to science included important investigations into natural and synthetic diamonds.

By 1931, Kathleen and Thomas had two children. She worked on calculations at home for a time, until Sir William Bragg intervened to secure her return to professional research by creating a position for her at the Royal Institution, including provision for childcare. She worked there for 15 years. In the 1940s, she gained the recognition she so richly reserved. In May 1945, she became one of the first two women elected Fellow of the Royal Society, 300 years after the Society’s foundation. A year later, she was appointed reader in crystallography at University College London, and in 1949, she became the first woman professor at the university. She was also the first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography.

During this time, she developed interests outside of the sciences. A Quaker by convincement, she conscientiously objected to registering for civil defence service during World War II and, refusing on principle to pay a fine of £2, she spent a month in Holloway Prison. Her husband later reflected that prison was the single most formative experience of her life, fostering a lifelong interest in penal reform. She became president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and published many articles on pacifism. Her 1957 book, Is Peace Possible? cites Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights movement, and–as co-founder of the Pugwash Movement and the Atomic Scientists’ Association–warns of the danger of nuclear weapons and the problems presented by the disposal of nuclear waste. She was a witty person. When, in 1966, a rare form of hexagonal diamond was named lonsdaleite in her honour, she wrote: ‘It makes me feel both proud and rather humble [...]the name seems appropriate since the mineral only occurs in very small quantities... and it is generally rather mixed up!’

Lonsdale made important scientific contributions, published prolifically, and worked tirelessly for humanitarian goals. She advocated for women in science, publishing instructions on the topic in 1970–her first piece of advice was to choose a supportive husband, as she had.

Sources:Dorothy M.C. Hodgkin, ‘Kathleen Lonsdale, 28 January 1903–1 April 1971,Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 21 (Nov. 1975), 447–84; Peter Childs and Anne Mac Lellan, ‘The Stuff of Diamonds in Lab Coats and Lace,ed.Mary Mulvilhill (WITS, 2009), 145–155; Kathleen Lonsdale, ‘Is Peace Possible?’, in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing,ed.Angela Bourke (Cork University Press, 2002), IV, 648–52.

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.

ALEEN ISABEL CUST / First woman veterinary surgeon in Britain & Ireland


Aleen Isabel Cust, 1868–1937

First woman veterinary surgeon in Britain and Ireland

Aleen Cust was the daughter of a baronet, but a life of ease was not for her. When her father died in 1878, her new guardians–also aristocrats–encouraged her independent streak, and supported her decision to become a veterinary surgeon, despite her mother’s disapproval.

In 1894, enabled by a modest private income, she enrolled in the New Veterinary College, Edinburgh aged 26. She was an excellent student, coming top of her class in her first year. She completed her training in 1900, but was barred by gender from using the title ‘veterinary surgeon’. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) maintained that in their regulations, the word ‘student’ implied male student. She had excellent references, however, and was offered a position as assistant to William Byrne’s veterinary practice in Athleague, Co. Roscommon.

As Byrne’s assistant, Cust gained the respect of the people of Roscommon and east Galway. In 1905,when a vacancy arose for the position of veterinary inspector for Mountbellew District, she was elected by 14 council votes to 10, against two male candidates. Her appointment was contested by the Department of Agriculture on the basis that a woman could not be a member of the RCVS and therefore, she did not meet the requirements of the position. Galway County Council argued that no other trained and experienced veterinarian lived in the region, and in June 1906, her appointment was finally sanctioned by the Department.

Cust was hardworking and determined, but still needed the support of male allies who fought on her behalf. On the evening of her selection, Councillor J.C. McDonnell said, in response to the question of her qualifications, that the RCVS ‘would have to change their opinion and adopt later day ideas (hear hear).’ Despite these noble sentiments on the injustice of Cust’s disbarment from the RCVS, the irony went unremarked that they were 24 men voting on the professional fate of a woman. Not everyone agreed on ‘later day ideas’. The Western News editorialised: ‘The county council have made an appointment in the horse and brute kingdom which appears to us at least disgusting, if not absolutely indecent ... We can understand women educating themselves to tend women–but horses! Heavens!’

William Byrne died in 1910, and Cust took over his practice. In 1915, she took a leave of absence from her Galway County Council and drove her own car to Abbeville, France, to volunteer as veterinary to the tens of thousands of horses on the Western Front. The passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919 forbade the exclusion of women from professions, and meant that the RCVS were now obliged to consider Cust’s membership. She was finally awarded her diploma in December 1922. From the 1920s, Cust found the Irish Free State no longer congenial, stating: ‘things became so unsettled that I had to leave. When one has the house raided and half a dozen revolvers are pointed at one’s head, it seems time to come home. But they were rather polite.’ She retired to the New Forest, England, where she devoted herself to breeding spaniels, but continued to attend Veterinary Medical Society meetings.

She died on 29 January 1937 while visiting friends in Jamaica, and was buried there. She left a fortune of almost £30,000, from which £5,000 was endowed for a scholarship in veterinary research (with a preference for female candidates), and £100 for a kennel at the RCVS in memory of her spaniels. An obituary published in The Times stated that Cust was ‘as much a pioneer in her particular sphere as, for example, Mrs Pankhurst, of women’s suffrage fame, was in hers, and the opposition encountered was as great in the one as it was in the other.’

Sources:Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition; Belfast News-Letter, 3 Feb. 1937;Western People, 23 June 1906;Western News, 4 Nov. 1905;Irish Times, 5 Feb. 2018;Skibbereen Eagle, 27 Feb. 1915;Freeman’s Journal, 22 Dec. 1922;The Times, 8 Feb. 1937;will of Aleen Cust, quoted in Irish Examiner, 19 Apr. 1937.

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.

MARY AGNES LEE / Women's suffrage campaigner

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Mary Agnes Lee, 1821–1909

Women’s suffrage campaigner

Born in Co. Monaghan in February 1821, she is now remembered as one of the most prominent Australian suffragists, but she also advocated on behalf of women workers and asylum residents.Following the death of her church-organist husband, Lee and one of her daughters emigrated to Australia in 1879 to care for her terminally-ill son.After his death,Lee remained in Australia,because she could not afford to return to Ireland and had grown fond of ‘dear Adelaide’.

Freshly liberated from domestic obligations at almost 60 years of age, Lee threw herself into politics.She first became secretary to the Social Purity Society, lobbying for the Criminal Law Consolidation Amendment Act (1885) that raised the legal age of consent to sixteen.Historian Audrey Oldfield described how a‘large and enthusiastic’ public meeting convened to institute the South Australian Women’s Suffrage League on 21 July 1888, rejecting any limitation of age or property on women’s suffrage. Lee was elected co-secretary to the committee of 13 women and 15 men, quickly proving herself a fiery orator and becoming the best-known champion of South Australian women’s suffrage. Lee herself stated, ‘If I die before it is achieved, “Women’s enfranchisement” shall be found engraved upon my heart.’

Lee was a suffragist, meaning she preferred constitutional means to secure equality of franchise. She seems to have been less concerned about enabling women to run for elected office;she declined an invitation to run for election in 1895. Nevertheless, her emphasis on social justice and her concerns for working women posed a threat to the establishment. She supported the foundation of women’s trade unions, and was secretary to the newly-formed Working Women's Trades Union in 1891–3. She visited the clothing factories in which women workers ‘sweated’, convincing employers (with varying degrees of success) to set union wages. She also distributed food and clothing to the impoverished.Lee corresponded with New Zealand suffragists, who had achieved their aims in 1892. She organised a petition of 11,600 signatures from across the colony of South Australia in 1894. The 122-metre-long document was presented to the House of Assembly in August 1894, while women swamped MPs with telegrams, and filled the galleries of the House.In December 1894, South Australian women became the first in Australia to gain a parliamentary vote on the same terms as men. This was a landmark moment in international suffrage and was achieved with both middle-and working-class support. It is important to remember, however, that neither male nor female Indigenous Australians would have equality of franchise until the 1960s. In 1896, she became the first woman appointed as an official visitor to asylums, a role she conducted for twelve years with great compassion for the patients.

Lee’s activism was recognised in her lifetime. On her 75th birthday, Adelaide town hall presented her with 50 sovereigns from public donations; a public address praised her leading role in the suffrage campaign. However, her later years were marked by financial difficulties, and her pleas for further public aid fell on deaf ears, despite the great personal sacrifices she had made during decades of activism. One biographer suggests that her ‘sharp tongue and uncompromising attitude’ left her with few friends–evidence that, while women had secured voting rights, they were still expected to conform to certain behavioural norms.She died at her home in Adelaide in September 1909 and her tombstone bears the words: ‘Secretary of the Women's Suffrage League’. Its understatement forms a sharp contrast with the passionate campaigning that consumed the last 20 years of her life.

Sources:Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition; Audrey Oldfield,Woman Suffrage in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 1992);Dictionary of Irish Biography online edition; James Keating, ‘Piecing Together Suffrage Internationalism: Place, Space, and Connected Histories of Australasian Women’s Activism’,History Compass, 16, no. 8(2018).

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.

EVA GORE-BOOTH / Suffragist, Trade Unionist, Poet, Mystic

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Eva Gore-Booth, 1870–1926

Suffragist, trade unionist, poet, mystic

Eva Gore-Booth led a rich and active life beyond what might have been expected of her–not because of her gender,or her aristocratic background, but because of her physical frailty and susceptibility to illness. She collected 30,000 signatures for a suffrage petition in 1901, campaigned for the rights of women to work as barmaids and acrobats, was a member of the executive committee of the North of England Society for Women's Suffrage, and was a vegetarian and animal rights advocate. She has long been overshadowed by her more famous sister, Constance Markievicz; even in childhood,her governess recalled, Eva was ‘always so delicate ... rather in the background’.

Eva met her lifelong partner, Esther Roper in 1896 in an Italian olive grove; wordlessly, a lifelong connection was made. Roper was a Manchester suffragist and trade unionist; inspired, Gore-Booth established the Sligo branch of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association. In 1897,Gore-Booth left Lissadell to join Roper in Manchester, where Constance Gore-Booth got her ‘first taste of political campaigning’ when she went to help Eva and Roper in Manchester in the 1908 by-election. She also helped with Eva’s campaign in support of barmaids. In the same year, Gore-Booth published her first book of poems. Gore-Booth and Roper were a team, both believing in the need to marry trade unionism and suffrage, not least because in Lancashire, cotton factory work–and therefore union membership–was dominated by women. They were joint secretaries of the Women’s Textile and Other Workers’Representation Committee, and jointly ran the The Women’s Labour News. Together, they campaigned for pit-brow workers, florists, and barmaids, bringing large numbers of working-class women into the suffrage movement–a radical, unprecedented move.

In 1914, Gore-Booth threw herself into pacifism and the Committee for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. Despite her enduring ill-health, she travelled all over Britain with the Women’s Peace Crusade and attended the courts-martial of conscientious objectors.Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington recalled how, in the aftermath of Easter 1916, Gore-Booth travelled to Dublin to plead for leniency for the Rising’s leaders.

The historian Sonja Tiernan has done much to restore the commitment of Roper and Gore-Booth’s partnership, in every respect, to the historical record. Roper and Gore-Booth’s loving written tributes to one another bear every mark of devotion and tenderness. Roper wrote that ‘Even simple everyday pleasures when shared with her became touched with magic’. Eva, for her part, dedicated her poem ‘The Travellers’ to Roper :‘You whose Love’s melody makes glad the gloom’. In addition to their tireless work for women’s suffrage and trade unionism, Gore-Booth and Roper publicised gay and trans issues. In 1916, together with trans woman Irene Clyde, they founded the periodical Urania, publishing articles on transvestitism and advocating for a genderless society. Gore-Booth died of cancer in January 1926, in the home that she and Roper shared. In a final testament to their partnership, they are buried in the same grave.

Sources:Poems of Eva Gore Booth, ed. Esther Roper (Longmans, Green and Co., 1929);Sonja Tiernan, ed.,The Political Writings of Eva Gore-Booth(Manchester University Press, 2015);Anne Marreco,The Rebel Countess([1967] Phoenix Press, 2000);Sonja Tiernan, ‘Challenging Presumptions of Heterosexuality: Eva Gore-Booth, A Biographical Case Study’,Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, 37, issue 2 (2011); ‘LGBT History Month’,

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.

NELLIE MC CLUNG / Suffragist, writer


Nellie McClung, 1873–1951

Suffragist, writer

A girl raised in the wheat belt of frontier Manitoba became Canada’s leading suffragist, the first woman to sit in the Alberta legislature, and author of sixteen volumes of fiction and non-fiction. She remains controversial, but her role in the achievement of women’s suffrage in Canada is unquestionable.

She was born in Ontario in 1873, the youngest of seven children of Irish Methodist farmer John Mooney and Scottish Presbyterian Letitia McCurdy. From an early age, she was passionate about women’s rights, objecting to male privilege, domestic abuse, and alcohol. As a teacher, she became a leader in local affairs and a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the leading women’s organization of the day.

In 1896, she was obliged to retire from teaching when she married pharmacist and fellow WCTU member, Robert Wesley McClung. Robert shared Nellie’s views, but it was only thanks to hired domestic servants that she managed to juggle a busy activist life with domestic responsibilities and the care of four children; that help is acknowledged in her autobiography, The Stream Runs Fast (1945).

When the family moved to Winnipeg in 1911, Nellie found herself at the forefront of Manitoba’s suffrage and temperance movements. She founded the Political Equality League, ‘barnstormed’ Canada and the USA as one of the most popular suffrage speakers, and hosted British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst at her home in 1911.

In January 1914, McClung and other Winnipeg suffragists attracted much publicity by holding a ‘Women’s Parliament’ in a city theatre. Women held the seats, and men had to petition for the vote.

McClung played an important role in the achievement, in 1916, of provincial suffrage in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is important to note that when Ottawa completed the process of federal franchise in 1919, First Nations, Inuit and other ethnic minorities were excluded.

In 1921, McClung became the first woman MLA in Alberta, campaigning for a minimum wage for women, mothers’ pensions, and equality in divorce. However, she also supported the Alberta Sexual Sterilisation Act, that permitted the forced sterilisation of some 2,800 so-called ‘mental defectives’ up to 1972. First Nations and métis people, who made up a large proportion of the province’s population, suffered the greatest degree of harm under this law.

When McClung moved to Calgary in 1926, she lost her seat in the Alberta legislature. She remained active, however, and was part of a successful ten-year campaign for women to be recognised as ‘persons’ for the purpose of eligibility for the Canadian Senate. In 1936, she was appointed to the board of governors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and in 1938, joined the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations.

McClung left a complex legacy. She did not tolerate fascism, National Socialism or xenophobia. This, and her lifelong support for women’s rights – including day-care, contraception, and equal wages – sits in sharp contrast to her willingness to overlook the rights of First Nations, Inuit, and métis women, and women with disabilities.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition; Nellie L. McClung, In Times Like These, ed. Veronica Strong-Boag (University of Toronto Press, 1992); Nellie L. McClung, The Next of Kin (Thomas Allen, 1917); Joan Sangster, ‘Mobilising Women for War’, in Canada and the First World War, ed. David MacKenzie (University of Toronto Press, 2005), 157–93; Yvonne Boyer, ‘First Nations Women’s Contributions to Culture and Community through Canadian Law’ in Restoring the Balance, ed. Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, Madeleine Dion Stout and Eric Guimond (University of Manitoba Press), 69–96.

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.  

Dr Isabel ‘Ida’ Deane Mitchell / Presbyterian missionary


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).