Women of the Year

Lise Hand: ‘It’s the 21st century now, and surely being a woman rebel in Ireland is easier in these more enlightened and egalitarian times. But is it really?’

As the decades progressed the list of women joining the ranks of the awkward squad continued to grow, and 2023 was no different

“Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest,” Sinead O’Connor wrote in her 2021 autobiography Rememberings. Picture by Michel Linssen/Redferns

“While Ireland is not free I remain a rebel, unconverted and unconvertible. There is no word strong enough for it. I am pledged as a rebel, an unconvertible rebel, to the one thing – a free and independent Republic,” Constance Markievicz

It was a midweek afternoon in late September, and RTÉ’s Liveline was in full swing, in every sense of the phrase. Writer and feminist Rosita Sweetman was entertaining host Katie Hannon and an agog audience with a vivid description of how in the summer of 1974 a feisty cohort of the women’s liberation movement ‘invaded’ the hitherto men-only swimming spot, the Forty Foot in Dún Laoghaire.

“It wasn’t easy-peasy – there was ferocious pushback from the men..these naked auld fellas wagging their genitals at the young feminists who came in, walloping them with wet towels, screaming at them. It was pretty vicious,” Sweetman recalled. “I think there were four separate invasions and then finally they conceded.”

There was general agreement that a statue – or a plaque at the very least – should mark the spot of the epic ding-dong. In the never-ending grind of the equality wars, the Battle of the Forty Foot was that rare thing for rebellious women – a decisive victory.

And, let’s face it, statues of victorious female rebels are thin on Irish ground, largely because successful forays against the status quo have often entailed doing the hard yards, hammering at a glass ceiling, speaking truth to power, and hoisting a defiant middle-digit to the patriarchy – all frequently in the teeth of trenchant opposition.

But still, they persisted, and most people have a favourite female revolutionary, a feisty woman who refused to colour between the lines drawn out for her by polite society.

For instance, in the lovely grounds of Westport House in Co Mayo, a seven-foot bronze statue stands of a striking woman with a resolute stare, clad in a flowing cloak and gown, the outfit accessorised beautifully with a large business-like sword.

Grace O’Malley, or Granuaile, is one of our most storied female rebels – not least so for her dauntless navigation of a man’s world: fierce pirate, courageous clan chieftain, canny diplomat, skilled tactician, a leader who sailed from the west of Ireland to London in 1593 to parlay (successfully) with Queen Elizabeth I for the release of her captured son.

Even as England tightened its grip on the island of Ireland, Grace was a thorn in the side of English officialdom. Lord Justice Drury, the then president of Munster, imprisoned her for several months, declaring her to be “a woman that hath impudently passed the part of womanhood and been a great spoiler and chief commander and director of thieves and murderers at sea”. Yet even he grudgingly acknowledged that she was “famous for her stoutness of courage and person and for sundry exploits at sea.”

Although not related by blood, the spiritual ancestors of the pirate queen were the daughters of Ireland’s 20th-century revolutions who were on the frontline, fighting for women’s suffrage, for the creation of an Irish Republic, for human rights, for cultural identity and for measures to alleviate the misery of the poor.

Portrait of Irish nationalist activist Maud Gonne McBride (1865 - 1953), 1890s

There were battalions of these brave, visionary women, the better known including Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Kathleen Clarke, Elizabeth O’Farrell, Rosie Hackett, Maud Gonne and Kathleen Lynn, to list a few.

So, surely the pavements and plinths of our capital city proliferate with soaring statuary of these inspiring rebels?

Well, not so much. The most starry of them, Countess Constance Markievicz, has two – one being a somewhat underwhelming bust in St Stephen’s Green where she fought during the Easter Rising.

The statue of Molly Malone, on lower Grafton Street in Dublin

It’s a lamentably sedate depiction of a woman who was a tempestuous, compelling force of nature – and meanwhile, down the other end of Grafton Street, tourists queue to take selfies alongside the burnished décolletage of an entirely fictional female, Molly Malone.

There has been one notable victory – in 2014, a bridge across the Liffey was named in honour of trade unionist and revolutionary Rosie Hackett – the first of the river’s bridges to be dedicated to an Irishwoman.

But there is still resistance to recognising the role of rebel women in the story of Ireland. For example, currently, a campaign is under way to name the new National Children’s Hospital after pioneering doctor, activist, feminist, human rights campaigner and politician, Dr Kathleen Lynn.

Early in her medical career, she was refused a position in the Adelaide Hospital because of her gender, yet progressed to found St Ultan’s Children’s Hospital in Dublin, which helped to lower the infant mortality rate in Ireland.

Lynn was a remarkable woman by both word and deed: as chief medical officer of the Irish Citizen Army, she was imprisoned after the Rising, noting in her personal diary on Tuesday, April 25, 1916: “Ship Street Barracks. We objected to lavatory accommodation & heard it was good enough for us, that lice, fleas & typhoid should content us. Another officer had the WC cleaned & was quite civil. Had good dinner, same as soldiers.”

A no-brainer to name the new hospital after Dr Kathleen Lynn, one would think. But the fact that a campaign is necessary serves to underline the slow progress of the battle to make visible the many faces of Ireland’s revolutionary women.

As the decades progressed, the list of women joining the ranks of the awkward squad continued to grow, emboldened in large part by the 1970s Irish Women’s Liberation Movement – who wouldn’t like a monument to the famous Contraception Train, depicting feisty feminists happily flinging fistfuls of condoms and pills around Connolly Station like snuff at a wake?

Historian Catherine Corless (R) who has compiled information concerning the deaths of children in Tuam addresses the gathered survivors, friends and family as a vigil is held at the Tuam Mother and Baby home mass burial site on August 25, 2019 in Tuam, Ireland

The Dunnes Stores strikers. Northern Ireland peace activists and Nobel Prize winners Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire. Truth-tellers such as Christine Buckley, Veronica Guerin, Catherine Corless, Vicky Phelan.

It’s the 21st century now, and surely being a woman rebel in Ireland is easier in these more enlightened and egalitarian times. But is it really? In 2012, it took the death of Savita Halappanavar from sepsis after her request for an abortion was denied on legal grounds to spark a grassroots rebellion among the wider community of women against the repressive, regressive Eighth Amendment. After six years of hard-fought campaigning, it was repealed in 2018.

And just weeks before that historic referendum, another woman had made headlines. In April 2018, Vicky Phelan was finalising a settlement with the HSE and the US lab that had processed her cervical smear test seven years earlier.

That test had shown no abnormalities, but on audit in 2014 this result was found to be incorrect. She was faced with a choice: lawyers for the lab were prepared to settle with her without admission of liability, but they wanted her to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Writing in a newspaper in July 2020 following the death of Ruth Morrissey, fellow CervicalCheck campaigner, Vicky Phelan stated, “I don’t want your tributes. I don’t want your aide-de-camp at my funeral. I don’t want your accolades or your broken promises. I want action. I want change.”

Vicky chose truth over secrecy, rejecting the non-disclosure agreement and revealing the existence of over 200 other cases. Although terminally ill, she became a tireless, fearless advocate for justice for the other affected women and for better healthcare for women.

Writing in a newspaper in July 2020 following the death of Ruth Morrissey, fellow CervicalCheck campaigner, she stated, “I am here to tell you now, while I still can, that I don’t want your apologies. I don’t want your tributes. I don’t want your aide-de-camp at my funeral. I don’t want your accolades or your broken promises. I want action. I want change.

“I want accountability. And I want to see it happen while I am still alive, not after I am dead.”

Vicky Phelan succumbed to the disease on November 14, 2022, aged 48.

And what of Sinéad O’Connor, who died this year? There was a rebel who lived life on her own terms and hung the consequences, who refused to simply shut up and sing, and who changed the trajectory of her singing career with four spoken words.

“Fight the real enemy,” she declared onstage on Saturday Night Live, ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II while staring defiantly into the TV camera. Cue chaos, uproar, outrage.

She was proved right, but the main thing out of kilter that electrifying night in 1992 was Sinéad’s timing – it would be another decade before the vicious sex abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church was laid bare.

Sinead O'Connor attends the 31st Annual Grammy Awards, held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, 22nd February 1989

“Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest,” she wrote in her autobiography Rememberings. “A lot of people say or think that tearing up the Pope’s photo derailed my career. That’s not how I feel about it..It wasn’t derailed. It was re-railed.”

The world lost Sinéad O’Connor in 2023, and in truth, it hasn’t been a great year for women who have had the temerity to poke their heads over the parapet – and the political parapet in particular.

The year was only weeks old when New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation, stating she “no longer had enough in the tank” to do the job.

And doubtless, it had been a torrid six years since she had become the world’s youngest female head of government, leading the country through the Covid-19 pandemic and a series of other disasters – including the terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, and the White Island volcanic eruption.

Yet it was a statement made during the early days of her time in office which proved that often an act of rebellion by a woman is simply the radical act of being true to herself.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during Rātana Celebrations on January 24, 2023 in Whanganui, New Zealand. The 2023 Rātana Celebrations mark the last day as Prime Minister for Jacinda Ardern following her resignation on January 19

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak,” she said in 2018. “I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

But sometimes the winds of change can only be summoned by creating a storm. This indifferent Irish summer was brightened immeasurably by cheering on the Girls in Green in the team’s first foray into the Fifa Women’s World Cup finals in Australia and New Zealand.

It had been a huge achievement to qualify – a feat all the more laudable, given the rebellion by the squad less than six years ago.

On April 4, 2017, the women’s soccer team held a press conference in Dublin’s Liberty Hall threatening strike action just days before a crunch game against Slovakia. The players threw down the gauntlet.

Enough, they said, was enough. And the revelations from the players were startling and stark – from being forced to change in airport toilets to having to return tracksuits, to getting no support, financial or otherwise.

“We are fighting for the future of women’s international football, this isn’t just about us,” said captain Emma Byrne. “There have been some issues, not just in the last few years but for a very long time now.”

The showdown, which happened during the reign of FAI capo John Delaney, showed that the women’s national players were treated like serfs. The FAI initially tried to defend themselves before rapidly changing tack when they were rounded on by press and public. Within a couple of days an embarrassed organisation caved, agreeing to the women’s requests, and the proposed strike was called off.

One of the players at the press conference that day was Stephanie Zambra, then Roche, and as the Irish squad headed to Australia this summer she recalled how scared they all had been to stand up to the powerful FAI brass.

“On the day of the strike, people were shocked. They were saying: ‘You weren’t getting that all along? What the hell?’ From that moment on, it made people relate to us as a squad and as a team,” said Zambra. “The next week against Slovakia, you could see signs held by kids saying, ‘You’ve paved the way for us to have opportunities.’”

Perhaps there should be a monument to the squad of 2017 in the vicinity of Liberty Hall. And there should be statues everywhere to Ireland’s rebel women, doing the things they did and wearing what they wore: cleaning guns, tending the sick, singing their hearts out, surviving, and of course dodging naked auld fellas and laughing at their best.

And perhaps it was best put by Markievicz herself: “Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.”