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  • De Valera's Gains:The Masculine Body in Irish Political Cartoons, 1922–39
  • Timothy Ellis (bio)

Éamon de Valera was unquestionably one of the most significant political actors in twentieth-century Ireland. His political career, spanning almost six decades from the Easter Rising in 1916 to his death in 1975, makes him a fascinating subject for study. Indeed, de Valera's time in high office was arguably one of the longest of any democratically elected leader in history. Perhaps his most significant political achievement was the 1937 Irish Constitution. Controversially, this document proclaimed that "mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home,"1 inviting the following question: What connects gender and political power in de Valera's career? How, for instance, was the representation of de Valera's masculinity used to confer political legitimacy? Conversely, how were representations of his perceived lack of masculinity used to denigrate his legitimacy? This essay analyzes the representation of de Valera in the period 1922–39 through the medium of political cartoons. It argues that cartoons demonstrate how discourses of masculinity were central to the construction of political power in the Irish Free State, using de Valera as a case study.

The years 1922–39 represent a period of postrevolutionary consolidation in Ireland. It was during this time that the Irish state gradually achieved sovereignty from Great Britain, but also introduced a series of legislation that sought to limit the role of women in public life. The analysis of masculinity offers a useful entry point from which to consider the political culture of these years. Indeed, few historians [End Page 61] would disagree that the political culture of the Irish Free State privileged masculinity over femininity.2 Legislation limited women's participation on juries in 1924 and 1927. It also limited their access to contraception in 1929 and 1934. Moreover, while not a result of formal legislation, between 1923 and 1932 only two women took their seats in Dáil Éireann (Margaret Collins O'Driscoll, who served 1923–1933, and Kathleen Clarke, who served briefly in fall 1927).3 This was the result of a pro-Treaty victory in the Irish Civil War. Most politically active women supported the anti-Treaty side, which was ridiculed by its opponents as "the women and Childers party."4

The way in which political life is represented as masculine has long roots in political history. As Wendy Brown argues, "politics has been more exclusively limited to men than any other realm of endeavor and has been more intensely self-consciously masculine than most other social practices."5 As a state that had emerged from a nationalist revolution, the Irish Free State was particularly marked by a masculine political culture. To quote Joan Scott, emergent rulers have often sought to legitimize "domination, strength, central authority, and ruling power as masculine . . . , and [have] made that code literal in laws . . . that put women in their place."6 As Nira Yuval-Davis argues, gender is heavily implicated in constructions of nation.7 Nationalist revolutions are therefore especially imbued with a rhetoric of masculinity. Drawing on the theories of Ashis Nandy, Gerardine Meaney argues that in these circumstances, of which Ireland offers a classic example, "colonized peoples, often long after colonization itself has ended, tend [End Page 62] to observe or impose strictly differentiated gender roles in order to assert the masculinity and right to power of the (male) subjects."8

Moreover, recent scholarship has demonstrated the intellectual potential of the study of masculinity as a lens for analysis of Irish society and politics. Since the 1990s, scholars of Irish studies have increasingly demonstrated an interest in this subject. Caroline Magennis and Raymond Mullen have written on the role of masculinities in Irish literature and culture.9 The discipline of history has also shown encouraging signs of coming to terms with the complex relationship between masculinity and political life. Patrick McDevitt's work on sport and masculinity in the British Empire has recognized the significance of Gaelic sport in constructing an Irish nationalist masculinity.10 Fearghal McGarry's biography of Eoin O'Duffy has demonstrated how masculinity and virility...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 61-93
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-22
Open Access
No
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