Seven Irish Women You Should Know

by Marthine Satris

Just in case you’re planning on attending a St Patrick’s Day party where you want to gather a small group in the corner and wow them with your mastery (mistressy?) of Irish trivia and feminist history over whisky, I present you with a completely subjective list of The Greatest Women in Irish History. I suggest interrupting every rendition of “Danny Boy” with a story about one of these ladies, whose lives I have summarized below.

1. Granuaile / Gráinne Uí Mháille / Grace O’Malley / The Pirate Queen of Ireland

There is not a single mention of this bold and wily chieftain in official Irish historical records, probably because she was 1) a woman and 2) very pragmatic, and tended to side with whoever would keep her clan in power. Not exactly inspiring for later Irish rebels. But stories of her feats in the 16th century were preserved in the folk tradition and in official English records: Grainne was the annoying lady with the cunning ability to steal all their gold.

She was the only child of the chief of the O’Malleys, who ran the area of the Irish west coast now known as County Mayo. She captained a fleet of fishing boats that frequently turned into pirate ships, mostly when English ships swung too close to the Irish coast. She hit her peak after she outlived her first husband and married the chief of the Bourke clan at 36; he became her second–in-command, of course.

The coolest thing ever: when Grainne was in her 60s, she negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I — in Latin. The two powerhouses agreed to partner up against some of the more bothersome Irish clans. This was bad for the cause of Irish freedom, but quite good for Grainne herself. Although plenty of balladeers in the following centuries slapped her name onto nationalist poems and songs, the leader of the O’Malleys was a pirate and a tribal leader first, and a very tough broad. Anne Chambers’s biography Granuaile: The Irish Pirate Queen is the only real, thorough history of her life, if you can still find it.

2. Mary Kenny (really, the whole Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, but she was the face of it in the news)

The journalist worked with other rabble-rousing feminists to challenge the ban on contraception in the Republic of Ireland in 1971. The constitution, written in 1937, sanctimoniously told women they were mothers and wives first, so divorce and any kind of contraception were illegal; even advertisements for family planning were censored for immorality. But Mary Kenny and a bunch of other crazy radical womyn thought they should be able to get laid without getting up the duff, so they decided to openly defy the bishops and cranky old men running the country and (gasp!) bought contraception.

On May 22, 1971, Kenny and forty-six other women took what they dubbed The Contraceptive Train to Belfast (one benefit to losing Northern Ireland to the Unionists was that you could buy things there, like the pill and Mars bars, that were unavailable a few miles away. The downside was the 30 years of open civil war). They crowded into a pharmacy, but had been so deprived of sex ed that Mary Kenny didn’t even know what specifically to ask for. The women came back over the border waving packets of Durex in the faces of custom officers, and that night Mary Kenny went on the Irish national TV network RTE, to make the case for access to birth control.

The following years saw Ireland loosen up quite a bit, with the removal of the Catholic Church’s “special position” from the Constitution in 1972. Eight years later, having sex for funsies, not for babies, was finally, begrudgingly allowed, as long as you fessed up to your doctor and got a prescription.

3. Countess Constance Markievicz

Bored by the rituals of the aristocracy she was born into and finding their proclamations of superiority empty, the woman born Constance Gore-Booth took her considerable position and wealth and put it at the disposal of socialism and revolution. As you do. When she was an art student in London and Paris at age thirty, she met a Polish count and married him, which is why one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising sounds so oddly like an outsider.

Between 1911 and 1920, Countess Markievicz was imprisoned by the British government four times for various acts of treason. One of my favorite imprisonments was in 1920, because she had set up an Irish version of the Boy Scouts ten years earlier. Of course, she had been teaching them how to use guns and they were called Na Fianna Eirinn (Soldiers of Ireland), but still–Boy Scouts!

In a great speech of first wave feminism, Countess Markievicz exhorted college women in Dublin to “dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver. … Be prepared to go your own way depending for safety on your own courage, your own truth, and your own common sense, and not on the problematic chivalry of the men you may meet on the way….” She also encouraged women to crush slugs in their gardens to prepare themselves for the grisly realities of revolution. In general she was a practical woman with a fondness for handguns.

Countess Markievicz was the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons, but she was in prison at the time, and couldn’t take her seat. She was jailed for the last time in 1923 at age 55, this time for treason against the Irish government. She saw the Irish majority, who had accepted a partial freedom from the British, as traitors themselves, and told them so. That didn’t go well. Undeterred, she went on hunger strike until she was released, a month later. When she died in 1927, the city of Dublin came to a full stop. The working class, the political class, and everyone in between poured into the streets to watch her casket go by.

4. Maud Gonne

How many women have had eighty poems written about them by a Nobel Prize-winning poet? I am going to guess just one: Maud Gonne (last name sounds like “gun,” which is incredibly appropriate). Muse to Irish national poet William Butler Yeats, she comes through in his poems as a kind of wild, radical Helen of Troy who stomped all over the adoring poet’s heart. When there was a choice to be made between Ireland and anything else, she chose Ireland, every time. Sorry Willie.

Yeats proposed to his muse at least four times over twenty-five years, but she always refused him, while maintaining their “spiritual relationship” built on a shared interest in Irish mysticism and the always present suggestion she might just give in if he stuck around long enough. Yeats kept insisting she should give up her loud, angry politics, but she never would. Instead, she had a daughter, Iseult, out of wedlock with a French journalist, started Irish nationalist journals and feminist activist groups, married and divorced the Irish nationalist John McBride (executed for his part in the Irish rebellion of 1916), wrote and illustrated books, and acted in both Paris and Dublin. At six feet tall, she was a pre-Raphaelite goddess, adored for her intimidating beauty and indomitable spirit. Maud Gonne played the symbolic title role of Cathleen ni Houlihan, a play by Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, on stage at the Abbey in 1902: a contemporary reviewer said of her role as the embodiment of the Irish spirit, “She can scarcely be said to act the part, she lived it.”

While Gonne will always be known for the men in her life, she was committed to freedom–for herself, and for her country.

5. Mary Robinson

Born into privilege, Mary Robinson has made it the purpose of her long career to give voice to the oppressed, both in Ireland and internationally. She’s been Senator and President, UN High Commissioner and University Chancellor. And she got to all those positions by constantly challenging the status quo from within the structures of power. She’s basically like a turbo-charged Hillary Clinton, with a strong dash of maverick thrown in.

Mary Robinson was born a Bourke (remember the Bourke that married the Pirate Queen? Same family, five hundred years later), and she got law degrees from the best universities in Ireland, the UK, and the US. Full Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin by the age of 25, Robinson wasn’t yet satisfied, and campaigned for a position in the Seanad (Senate), which she won in 1969 as a totally independent candidate on the basis of her outspoken lefty stances. 1969 was a good year. She kept her job as a lecturer at Trinity and still practiced law. In all of these positions, she campaigned for women’s rights (like the right to birth control), gay rights, and the rights of the poor. Basically, if you were marginalized, she was going to put your voice front and center in the halls of power.

After twenty years sticking to her guns in the Seanad, Mary Robinson decided she wanted to be President. The presidency was usually just a ribbon-cutting position awarded to men who had been around a long time. But with backing from a coalition of the Labour party, the Green party, and the other liberal parties in Ireland, Mary Robinson was elected Ireland’s first female head of state in 1990. As a lawyer and senator, she had shaped a more liberal, secular Ireland, and then as President she led that country forward. After seven years of turning the presidency into an activist position, which included urging international intervention in Rwanda in 1994, Mary Robinson was chosen to be the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. She’s gone on to be a fighter for social justice on behalf of the world’s downtrodden, a view that evolved from her early recognition that Irish women were just not getting a fair shot.

After Mary Robinson held the presidency, another Mary followed her in the role. Two women in a row: not a bad legacy.

6. The dirty protestors in Armagh Women’s Prison

If you picture a women’s prison full of girls in their twenties–and if you watch Netflix–you’re probably seeing Laura Prepon in her sexy glasses. Low security, thrilling hijinks, and homemade hooch might also run through your head. Unfortunately, instead you are in Northern Ireland at the height of the civil war that tore that tiny country apart for decades, and Orange is the New Black won’t come out for thirty years (and here I can barely wait for Season Two).

In Northern Ireland, women had been engaged in fighting for civil liberties for Catholic nationalists since the sixties, both as peaceful protestors and in active roles in the IRA. In 1980, the women imprisoned for terrorist activity against Britain turned abuse by the guards into an act of political protest for thirteen months. As told in a letter written on toilet paper and smuggled out to a London women’s lib newsletter, the male guards had brought all the prisoners into the common area, then trapped them there and raked through their cells in search of any contraband, tearing their personal possessions apart. The women didn’t take this violation lightly, and because they protested, they were brutally punished. Not just by having visitation denied, or by being beaten, or having shitty food served, or being denied medical service (though those happened too, of course): they were banned from access to the toilets for a week and given chamberpots instead. Those chamberpots were not collected, so they filled up and spilled over. When the women tried to dump their waste out the barred windows, boards were nailed over the openings. Instead of their spirits breaking, the women smeared their piss and shit over the walls in an organized act of “dirty protest.” As women, they also had to deal with their period, and they were given only two sanitary napkins a day, which were thrown, unwrapped, into the cells. So up on the walls the blood went, totally disgusting the guards. For thirteen months the dirty protest went on in Armagh, as the initial horrendous situation turned into a stinky power that the women held over their guards.

This exposure of women’s bodies (girls poop! and bleed!) shocked the men of the IRA too, which, like many paramilitary organizations, was actually pretty conservative. There had been similar dirty protests in the men’s prison, Long Kesh, but women weren’t seen as capable of such low tactics. Feminists rose up internationally to support the women and demand reform in the Northern Irish prisons. After the protest ended, the men of Sinn Fein (the political wing of Irish nationalism) and of the IRA recognized the important role of women in their organizations and, for the first time, included them in decision making. The protests in the Long Kesh and Armagh prisons led the nationalist movement away from violence into politics, too.

7. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill/ Eileen O’Connell

The greatest poem from the British Isles in the 18th century was composed by a pregnant thirty-year-old, with two young kids, upon her husband’s death. “The Lament for Art O’Leary” celebrates the swaggering young aristocrat the black-haired Eibhlín loved and married against the wishes of her family. In nearly four hundred lines, she rails against the murderers who killed him when he was only twenty-six because he owned a gorgeous, expensive horse. In 1773, Catholics couldn’t own any property worth more than £5 and 5 shillings, but the defiant O’Leary refused to obey and was shot for his rebellion.

Eibhlín’s poem is the finest example of the pagan tradition of keening that priests had been trying to ban in Ireland for centuries. It is so good that she’s the only named female poet in the history of Irish language (Gaelic) poetry until the 19th century. I mean, check out these lines, which describe the young widow finding the body of her love sprawled out in the dirt: “Your heart’s blood was still flowing; / I did not stay to wipe it / But filled my hands and drank it.” Stephanie Meyer, you’ve got nothing on black-haired Eibhlín.

For over a hundred years, her poem was kept alive in the oral tradition of Irish poetry. “The Lament for Art O’Leary” is both the last known bardic poem in Irish and part of a hidden tradition of women’s voices in pre-literate Ireland.

Mostly recovered after a long bout of grad school, Marthine Satris is an editor and writer in the Bay Area. Her name is not pronounced the way you think it is.