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  • From The Uninvited to The VisitorThe Post-Independence Dilemma Faced by Irish Women Writers
  • Abigail L. Palko (bio)

The Irish fight for Independence from Great Britain began with an initially promising bang for the women of the would-be nation. The 1916 Easter Rising Proclamation's assumption of equality was unequivocal:

The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, … oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government.

In resolving to "[cherish] all the children of the nation equally," the Proclamation identifies the aforementioned historical socioeconomic division as the key inequality to be remedied. Embedded in this assertion is anxiety over the divisive effects of unequal treatment. Article 3 of the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State Act promised: "Every person, without distinction of sex, … shall within the limits of the jurisdiction of the Irish Free State enjoy the privileges and be subject to the obligations of such citizenship." The reiteration of equality is here tied to both benefits and responsibilities and furthermore is explicitly conferred upon both men and women. In addition to safeguarding personal liberties for women, these statements also suggested women would have equal access to the public arena. A study of the fate of Irish women's novels from this era rebuts the assumption of increased agency and voice, however. A contemporary reexploration of Dorothy Macardle and Maeve Brennan's writings highlights aspects of Irish women's history and their literary contributions that have been neglected, thereby offering a fuller picture of the Irish fight for independence.

Throughout these years of fighting both a revolution and a civil war, Irish women fought alongside their male counterparts. The twentieth-century fight for independence from Great Britain was a complicated, drawn-out process for the Irish: after the short-lived 1916 Easter Rising, they also fought the War [End Page 1] of Independence (1919–21), and then Civil War broke out (1921–22), prompted by the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. While the treaty ended open hostilities between British and Irish forces and granted a degree of independence to Ireland, it was not accepted unconditionally by Irish nationalists. The Civil War was fought between factions of the nationalists, who now split into the Free State supporters, who supported the creation of the new Free State (with dominion status) under the treaty, and the Republicans, who continued to advocate the establishment of an Irish republic. The 1922 Constitution established the Irish Free State under the terms outlined by the Anglo-Irish Treaty.1 And throughout, as each progressive stage further clarified Ireland's legal status, women asserted their interests, fought for their rights, and endured personal sacrifices for the common good of the Irish ideal as strenuously as did their brothers, fathers, husbands.

The key role played by Elizabeth O'Farrell, for example, in the 1916 Rising is chronicled by Dorothy Macardle in her 1933 retrospective account in the Irish Press, "The Great story of the Rising: Easter week day by day."2 When the leaders of the Rising realize that surrender is inevitable, it is O'Farrell who brings the notice of surrender to the British Army and later to the other commanders: "Then this brave girl, holding the white flag over her, stepped out into bullet-swept Moore Street and walked unfalteringly towards the barricade at the Parnell Street end."3 These women paid a heavy physical price—inflicted by both British and Irish soldiers—for their involvement, as Dorothy Macardle testifies in a report entitled "Irish Prison Conditions (Civil War)": "Miss MacArdle saw Mrs. Gordon dragged downstairs; she saw her head knocked against the iron rails till she fainted. She, Miss MacArdle, had a man's hand pressed over her face, nearly suffocating her till she fell, and was kicked, and then dragged downstairs by the arms."4 While the price was great, though, the reward was to be greater: freedom.

And then came the 1930s. Irish women's purchase on personal liberties proved to be, to use Macardle's term, an "uneasy freehold."5 In addition to the challenge...


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