First published in Cinders Volume Two, Issue Two
Women of Irish history don’t usually get a large amount of pages in school history books. Rocking the System is a book that wants to change that. Written by Siobhán Parkinson, Rocking the System from Little Island Books, opens a window into the histories of 20 Irish trailblazers. Méabh McDonnell spoke to Siobhán about the empowering figures that made up the book.
When we look back on 2017 and 2018, I don’t know everything we’ll remember about the year, but I know that it will stick out in my mind as a year of revolution. Of women making noise, standing up for one another and calling for an end to unjust systems. One hundred years after some -but not all- of us were granted the right to vote, it seems right that the revolution should carry on in a new way, in a different way. We have shouted, screamed and made new noise.
And we are not done. Part of that revolutionary spirit has boiled over into many different areas including publishing, both for children and young adults. We’ve seen this through the upsurge of stories about rebellious women throughout history. We are telling women’s stories of the past and they are affecting us today, inspiring us to reach higher and keep on telling our own stories to the world.
Siobhán Parkinson and Grainne Clear of Little Island Books were inspired by this idea and wanted to create a book, highlighting some of the trailblazing women of Irish history. “We went to the book fair in Bologna and we saw that lots of different countries were doing this and we thought, ‘wounldn’t it be great to do this for Ireland?’ because we have some amazing women in Ireland and many of them wouldn’t be known outside of Ireland’. We also were thinking about the centenary of votes for women coming up and we wanted to do something for that,” said Siobhán.
Putting together a who’s who of significant Irish women was always going to be a challenge, how to narrow down what is a long list of remarkable people. This was something that Siobhán and the team who were researching the women had to face early on, “Some of them were activists, some of them were actively involved in the votes for women campaign, particularly Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and then of course, Countess Markievicz who actually stood for election in that first election where women were allowed to vote, won a seat in Westminster, (which she didn’t take) and then went on to be Minister for Labour in the Dáil.
“So you couldn’t leave those people out, first because they were important to the suffrage movement along with being very big names.”
There is no doubt that female activists have changed the political landscape in Ireland in the last 100 years, but the wonderful thing about Rocking the System, is that it’s a book that reflects all the wonderful roles women have contributed to Ireland. This is something Siobhan is particularly proud of.
I think these women had to fight to become their own woman, to overcome all of the pressures and prohibitions that were on women.
“But we didn’t want it to be just political activists, so we also wanted to feature people who had made a difference, made history, people who had changed the landscape. They could be people like Eileen Gray, who was a wonderful designer. After her, design changed. She was inventing wonderful things, she was a woman who changed the way things were done. We wanted people who had done things that had mattered whether it was in the political sphere, the social sphere or in the artistic sphere,”she said.
“Every single one of these women, whether they would think of themselves as feminists or not, they were all their own woman. That’s the message that I want to give. When young girls read this book, I want them to think, ‘They’re their own woman, I want to be my own woman.’
“It doesn’t matter what your area is, you can be your own person, and make your mark. Now, today it’s true girls do have many more opportunities to become their own women, there are much more subtle and hidden pressures on women now than there were. I think these women had to fight to become their own woman, to overcome all of the pressures and prohibitions that were on women, in spite of these obstacles they were able to become their own person. They couldn’t vote, they couldn’t go to university. If you go back as far as Anna Parnell, she came from a very privileged, upperclass background, but she was out fighting for tenant farmers rights like her brother Charles, but she had much more constraints on her than he had. It was much more difficult for her to do what she did. Yet she achieved so much and afterwards she was sidelined. Most people haven’t even heard of Anna Parnell,” Siobhán pointed out.
Women of history have had incredible lives in order to overcome this terrible misogyny. In researching their lives new details come to light that make these ideas even more incredible. That’s the great joy of historical research. Siobhán learned this with Anne Devlin.
“The one that surprised me the most was Anne Devlin. This woman was always associated with Robert Emmet and the Rising. She was ‘his housekeeper’. That was all we knew about her. But when you read the story of Anne Devlin, she was a poor woman who came from a humble background. She was tortured because of her association with Emmet, she was half-hanged, and she was sent to jail along with her whole family. Her youngest brother who was only seven was arrested and sent to jail. He died as a result of his stay in jail. So that, to me was an absolute revelation. She was known because of a recent film made about her but she passed me by. But when the research was done and I looked into her she was a complete revelation to me.”
She might seem unusual feminist, a woman who wrote a love poem, but when you read into who she was and what she did you see that she was unconventional, but by god was she her own woman!
“Dervla Murphy who is a travel writer was another unusual inclusion. You don’t usually think of a travel writer as being an amazing feminist achievement but actually, she was such a brave, fearless, woman. In fact I think it may have been from Dervla that we got the word fearless for the title! I mean, going off to India on her bicycle at the age of thirty five, was just amazing. She, to me, is a woman who is her own woman.”
“She just went off and did her own thing, and that’s so admirable. I remember my mother reading her books and it stuck in my head. So when it came time to choose some of the women to include, I said, why not pick Dervla Murphy? Someone who flew in the face of convention.”
Rocking the System shines a light on women from a multitude of different backgrounds, with an incredible breath of stories that inspire them. Some of these are less well known, such as Dervla Murphy, and others are downright dramatic, such as Eibhlin Dubh Ní Chonnaill, who wrote Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, a famous love poem. After being widowed, she fell in love with Art Ó Laoghaire and married him for love.
This wasn’t something her family approved of, but she did it anyway. A few years later Art Ó Laoghaire was killed and she rode off to find his dead body. “Apparently, she was so grief stricken that she knelt down and sucked his blood!” said Siobhán. “It would have been as a kind of ritual to give her strength maybe. But she then wrote this wonderful love poem about him. It’s just so brilliant and moving and romantic, I feel like she was an important figure in the book.”
A happy fact is that young women in Ireland are themselves trailblazing new exciting opportunities and building their own unique paths to success. One of the challenges involved in putting together Rocking the System was deciding whether to include younger Irish women or not.
“A lot of the women that we have been focusing on are from the 20th century, we have about five women before the 20th century, which touches on different points in Irish history. We made the decision to stop at the 20th century. There are some younger women who we would love to have put in as well, from Saoirse Ronan to Joanne O’Riordan, who are incredible young women. But we made the decision that we wanted to be able to include someone’s whole career, from childhood to adulthood through to retirement. That’s a story in itself. The youngest person in it is Sonia O’Sullivan, who is not old by any means! But she has finished her running career. It was a hard decision to take.”
The democratic process is hard won, and that’s important to remember, it’s only when you realise how hard won it is, you realise how precious it is.
In recognising these women who fearlessly changed history, we can take stock of just how far we’ve come as women in Ireland. 100 years on from the first Irish women to get the vote, I asked Siobhán what that landmark date and legacy meant to her, “Well, it was really only the beginning because it wasn’t universal suffrage by any means but what it means is women got the vote as a result of enormous pressure from women and women who sacrificed themselves, women like Hanna Sheehy Skeffington who was in and out of jail and on hunger strikes and Countess Markievicz as well. They really did put their lives on the line and they put their health on the line and they really had to agitate the system. It shows the vote for women was won at a cost, it was really fought for and we have to remember that, how hard won it was. The democratic process is hard won, and that’s important to remember it’s only when you realise how hard won it is, you realise how precious it is,” said Siobhán. She continued, “Women and girls should regard their vote as a precious thing. Every time I vote I feel like I’m exercising an important right. For me it is a very precious thing, the vote.”
We’re sure the women of Rocking the System would agree.
Illustration by Bren Luke