The women who won

Women in Irish Politics and Public Life, from 1918 to 2018

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

As part of the Government of Ireland Decade of Centenaries programme, a ‘pop-up museum’, featuring the key women (some well known and some less well known) who have contributed over the past century to shaping the Irish state, is currently touring the country. It is an initiative of the Commemorations Unit of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Curated by historian Sinéad McCoole, the installation celebrates the participation of Irish women in politics and public life, beginning with the election of Countess de Markievicz in the general election of 14 December 1918, and offers an insight into political and social issues that have affected women over the past one hundred years.

The exhibition focuses on the 114 female elected TDs. With the assistance of their families it takes an in-depth look at the first twenty-one, showcasing some previously unseen and unpublished material from private collections. It then goes on to look at women in politics from the period of women’s liberation in the 1970s to the present day. Female senators and MEPS also feature, while interviews with children and grandchildren recounting their memories of these political figures and the challenges they faced is a centrepiece.

Here we showcase a selection of material from the exhibition.

Powder Compact Private collection

This is a one-off ladies’ compact with face powder, a powder puff and a mirror. It is most likely a prototype for a commemorative souvenir to mark Constitution Day, proposed for 1938. It is made in the shape of a letter, with a seal on the back and an actual stamp that was issued to commemorate the 1937 Constitution. The Constitution was passed at the end of 1937, but there were many protests against it, especially by those who objected to the clauses that referred to the status of women. There is no evidence that other compacts were made. As the owner’s father worked in advertising, and worked on election campaigns and for The Irish Press newspaper, it is presumed to be a sample.

Kate O’Callaghan’s Celtic Revival Dress and Mantle Kilmurry Independence Museum

Kate O’Callaghan’s gúna agus brat (dress and mantle), from the Kilmurry Independence Museum in County Cork, was a designer gown of its day. The embroidery was produced by the Dún Emer Guild in Dublin. A political outfit, these dresses were worn by women who were involved in the Gaelic Revival, initially a movement for those interested in the revival of the Irish language, games and music. When Sinéad de Valera, Muriel MacSwiney and Linda Kearns MacWhinney wore this style of dress on American tours in the 1920s, it became associated with the Irish independence movement, while Dr Kathleen Lynn wore her version when she was painted for a portrait that is now in the Labour History Society.

Frances Condell Hat Limerick Museum

When American President John Kennedy visited Ireland in June 1963, Greenpark Racecourse, on the outskirts of Limerick, was his last stop before leaving Ireland at Shannon. Although Limerick had not originally been on the itinerary, Lord Mayor Frances Condell had campaigned to have it included. Her speech was praised by Kennedy as ‘the best I have heard since I came to Europe.’ She had this hat made especially for the event. Frances Condell was the first woman to be elected Mayor of Limerick and the only female mayor to date to serve two terms.

De Markievicz Despatch Bag Kilmainham Gaol Museum

A leather satchel belonging to Countess de Markievicz, dating to the period of the Campaign of Independence, was given to Kilmainham Gaol Museum in memory of Mary Coyle (later Mrs Mary Andrews) who had also been active during the revolutionary years. The initials ‘C de M’ (Countess de Markievicz) are on the band of the bag. When the Countess was elected as an MP for Sinn Féin in the general election in December 1918, she began to use the name Madame Markievicz. She was Secretary for Labour in the First Dáil Éireann which at the time was a proscribed organisation. She was on the run or in prison for the period 1919–1921.

Chain of the President of the Court of Conscience Dublin City Council

In 1939, Mrs Tom Clarke (Kathleen Clarke) was elected as Lord Mayor of Dublin. She had been a Fianna Fáil member of Dublin Corporation and was the first woman to hold the title. She refused to be invested with the Lord Mayor’s Great Chain, which was given to the city by British King William of Orange in 1698. Instead, she opted to wear the Chain of the President of the Court of Conscience, an ancient office of the Lord Mayor. She wore this over her own clothes rather than the red robes of office. She later wrote, ‘no one in Ireland was more surprised than I was when I found myself elected.’ In her acceptance speech she said, ‘From a woman’s point of view, my election is a great step. I am terribly keen on the fact that women, if given the opportunity, could do as well in positions in public life as the men. I have great faith in my own sex.’

European of the Year Award Mary Banotti

Mary Banotti MEP was elected European of the Year in 1997, an award from the European Movement sponsored by Aer Rianta. She had been nominated several times previously. When she won she said, ‘I’ve been the bridesmaid here so many times. It’s great now to be the bride.’ Mary Banotti, a grand-niece of Michael Collins, was an MEP from 1984 until she retired in 2004. She worked as a nurse in North America, Europe and Africa before returning to Ireland where she became an Industrial Welfare Officer and broadcaster. She presented a weekly television programme on social welfare from 1980 to 1984.

Mary Robinson Sweatshirt Alan Kinsella Collection

The campaigners for the Mary Robinson Presidential Election Campaign wore sweatshirts with a stylised terracotta red rose, a modification of the Labour Party rose. The media campaign was created by Eoghan Harris using black-and-white images and slogans such as ‘A President with a Purpose.’

Royal Air Force Woman’s Jacket, World War II National Museums Northern Ireland

This is an airwoman’s jacket worn during World War II. Forty per cent of Royal Air Force officers and airwomen were women from Northern Ireland or Éire.

Sinéad McCoole, curator of Women in Politics and Public Life, from 1918 to 2018, has written extensively in the area of modern Irish history. Her books include Hazel, A Life of Lady Lavery (1996, 2014), Guns and Chiffon (1997, 2000), No Ordinary Women (2003, 2008, 2015) and Easter Widows (2014). Her work has spanned domains of academic research and she is a practitioner in the area of Irish culture, arts and history. She was Curatorial and Historical Advisor to the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme. Projects she has worked on include the curation of Mná 1916 – Women 1916 (2016), the national centenary exhibition. She is
an ex-officio member of Vótáil 100.

Women in Politics and Public Life, from 1918 to 2018 is showing in Istabraq Hall, Limerick City Hall, Limerick, until the end of March 2019 and will then travel to venues in Ulster and Connaught (details to be announced), before returning to Dublin.

  • ‘The women who won’ is published in Anthology Volume 10. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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