Dr. Margaret MacCurtain is one of the pioneers of Irish Women's History; many other women I interviewed cite her as their inspiration. She spent most of her career at UCD, where she was known as "Sister Ben." Her books include Women and Irish Society: The Historical Dimension, Missing Pieces, and From Dublin to New Orleans: The Journey of Nora and Alice. After reading Dr. MacCurtain's essays for several years, I finally had the pleasure of seeing her speak at the "Unmanageable Revolutionaries" event at the Irish Writer's Centre. I gathered my courage to ask her for an interview, to which she kindly obliged. On the morning of January 28, in the pouring rain, after a harrowing taxi ride (see journal), I finally made it to Dr. MacCurtain's house. In addition to being a groundbreaking historian, teacher, writer, and activist, she also makes really good soup.
MM: Well my name is Margaret MacCurtain, and I have been a historian stroke Dominican sister, oh, for many years now. And the two synchronized in my life really when I went on for my postgraduate studies and chose Irish history. It was a happy choice, and it brought me unexpectedly into the orbit of university teaching within a short time. And most of my life has really been spent in and out of the University College Dublin history department, which is a good one by international standards. And it has brought me to places like Kansas in the midwest, to Boston college, to Baltimore, to the College of Notre Dame, and to various lecture tours in different parts of the world.
Women's history was not on the agenda and is still not on the agenda of a history department that is renowned for sending politicians, barristers, historians of high politics, and diplomats, into the world of the civil service and public service in Ireland. And it was almost subversive on my part to start introducing women's history as early as the 1970s with the take off of the second wave of the women's movement in Ireland. And that was a very strong wave indeed, in the late 60s and early 70s. It was the women's vote that brought us into the ambience of the European Union. But with that growth of that second wave of the women's movement, there was a curiosity mounting -- almost an obsessional interest -- in what was the first wave of the women's movement in Ireland. So it was easy going to the community women and the political groups that were forming in the 70s as lobbies for the political take off of women into politics in the late 60s and early 70s. But it was very different to make it a very respectable academic subject. That took much much longer and it wasnât until 1987 that it began to appear on university syllabuses and also to find its own place among the postgraduate degrees of women's studies departments. And since 1987 there has been a steady stream of doctorates and master's theses on women's history in history departments but more specifically post grad degrees in women's studies.
And of course another factor in Ireland was women's publishing, which was a strong corollary to the women's history movement. The fact that we had two excellent women's publishing groups coming at a time when desktop printing made it easier for women to work in that area was an important and sometimes forgotten factor in the whole panorama of why women's history is so central to the women's movement in Ireland.
MT: So you said in 1987 there were more theses in the area of women's history. Would you say it has it finally gotten some respect or is it still a struggle?
MM: I chose the year 1987 because an important event happened in 1987. There is a world curriculum organization, the Commission for Historical Studies, which monitors and sets the syllabi in universities. In 1987 an application was made for women's history by a number of women who happened to sit on that council. Probably from mainstream history departs. It was at the Madrid conference. And in 1987, though of course women's history had been taught in the US and Australia, and possibly in the United Kingdom, next door, as part of social history, in Ireland because of the strong emphasis on political and economic history, it was not taught. By receiving approbation and acknowledgement and recognition from the international Commission on Historical Studies, there was no possibility of the history departments in Ireland refusing applications from qualified lecturers and teachers to teach women's history in those departments. The weakness of course was that most of us who taught women's history had not ourselves passed through women's history qualification or training at postgraduate level. So it was a bit like the chicken and egg situation. But we overcame that. I was particularly lucky because way back in the 1950s and the early 60s, my doctorate thesis, which was on early modern Europe and Ireland, did bring in two important sections which amounted to a training in women's history.
MT: Do you remember why you first started getting interested in women's history?
MM: Yes, I do it quite clearly. Part of it was sitting in the Vatican archives and wondering how on earth historians neglected important figures in the 17th century who moved around diplomacy -- my doctoral thesis was on was on European diplomacy. There were so many important women -- either sisters of popes or queens of France or consorts of the hapsburgs in Spain. Real players, not just on the periphery. They were there and were influential people. That was one puzzle for me. It actually became active for me when I had to deal with the negotiation between Catherine of Breganza, who was the daughter of the King of Portugal, and King Charles the 2nd of England in the 1660s as part of my political, diplomatic thesis.
And I remember being quite nervous that my examiners were male, that they regarded the history of kings and queens with disdain, and yet this was central to the thesis because the negotiator was an Irishman, whose career I was following as an exemplar. So that was one factor that's interest me almost academically I knew I would never be teaching the stuff. But really what I was trying to do was organize the material in such a way that it was acceptable to the male gaze -- a typical female response.
Much more concrete though was when the editor of a good academic journal at UCD, professor Lorna Reynolds, a feminist in the English department, and highly respected, invited me to do an article on women's higher education and the role played by the sister's colleges in higher education. And I've kept an abiding interest in that.
My last teaching assignment before I retired was in one of these womens' colleges, in the US, the Sisters of Notre Dame, in Baltimore. And I was looking at the road ahead for womenâs higher education in the 1890s. They could've gone the road of the US. Instead, in an incredible volteface, the women's colleges set up by the religious orders decided that they would send their women students into the interdenominational, gendered atmosphere of the National University of Ireland, which was set up in 1909. It was coeducational.
I was very fascinated that the nuns of the period, including some of the leading women scholars, like professor Mary Hayden, would take that route, which I believe was the right one for Ireland. So that article that I did for professor Lorna Reynolds at the University Review, I believe that was a seminal article from the point of view of my own formation. Because I realized that women., no matter how engagingly we talked to one other in community groups about writing our history, unless it became a respectable academic subject, unless women were trained to write the history of women, and some men as well that would be willing to come into those classes, there was really no place for it in the academy.
MT: In terms of your own personal story, have there been any particular women who have inspired you? Either in Irish history or in myth or in your life that have inspired you?
MM: Yes, we often discuss that question, like who are the role models that we look at as women historians? And of course we have various ones. At my age, coming into that last gift of time, after 60, certainly one always is very grateful for a family where there is an equality of interest and perhaps a shared idealization of study. And I was lucky that my family was one of those families. There were four girls. My father was a doctor. He was a scholarly man. So we all went to university. My mother was not a university graduate herself, she was the last of a family where they had all gone to university, in Cork. But instead she was one of those pioneer bankers in 1919. And she said she received the full impact of post-war feminism in London. And I'm quite sure that I received my feminist influences with my mother's milk, so to speak. So that was a really big influence: family.
The second influence I think for me was -- not so much my teachers. They were very good professors. And interested in turning out academics who would be meticulous in their research. And I'm grateful for that. But my attention was caught by this professor Mary Hayden who testified in that first article I did. And I've followed her career, gave away the research I had done and the idea that I had about her to somebody who's now writing her up, and I'm very pleased about that. That's part of the academic's life, to say look, there's a good subject here, I've done this work, you will find the sources here.
Mythologically though I am more interested in the Irish scene of mythology because quite early on, particularly in community women's talks I've been invited to again and again about Brigid as a prototype of the Irish woman. So much good research has been done on Brigid of Kildare, who lived in the 6th century, in the last 20 years. It's a joy to be able to introduce Irish women to this remarkable woman, whose own life was written just shortly after her death, at the end of the 6th century. And it is a tremendous feat not just of mythology. Because Brigid is very alive, particular around the first of February, everywhere in Ireland but particularly in Kildare. And as well as understanding Brigid, there was a whole host of local saints in that golden time of Irish learning in the early medieval period, that one can bring to life as part of local studies. There are holy wells, there are place names, there are names that are handed down in families. So these are all a cluster of influences in my life.
[For more info about Brigid, see the religious organizations section of the links page]
Mythologically too I've always had great respect for Minerva. I studied in Rome and Minerva the goddess of wisdom is somehow part of the presence of Rome. You go to visit Minerva, which is a fine church, but Minerva, the owl figure, who is a woman, she's an important figure there in the background of my mythology. And the story of Ariadne's thread in Greek mythology, is also very charming. Where she leads Theseus out of the labyrinth. After slaying the minautaur, I think that's a perfect metaphor for women's history as the thread through mainstream history at the end of the 20th century.
Holy well, Co. Laois
Mythologically too some of the 1916 women have assumed a stature which is beyond the dutiful call of historical research. And particularly Markievicz occupies that central position.
MT: Before we get to Markievicz, could we go back to Brigid for a moment? For people who aren't familiar with Brigid, what was her story? Why was she remarkable?
MM: Brigid of Kildare she's grown into the affections of Irish people with this new scholarship, which began about 20 years ago with the founding of a medieval journal of some importance, Peritos. And there the scholars of the brigidine tradition really took Brigid to pieces and put her together and said yes she is genuine. The document of her life written by Cogitisus is a genuine document. The story is that she was the daughter of the 5th concubine of the chief of Kildare. There is validity in this. That she was not in the direct line of the Kildare prince. But that he favored her as a sunny child and at the same time she was tutored and brought up by her mother, who remained very shadowy. Brigid was one of the first Christians received in the Christian church at the time of Patrick and Columcille. She represents that great triad of founders of Christianity in Ireland. She was given as her particular curragh or care the broadlands of Kildare which her father had bestowed on her as part of gift of becoming a consecrated virgin. And that's very interesting because it links up very much with what has happened in Africa in that last 30 years where you may have the chieftain who remains outside Christianity but actually bestows money and gifts upon a son or a daughter who converts to Christianity and possibly becomes a consecrated member of the catholic church. So that kind of brought it home to me years ago when I visited Africa, the kind of connections anthropologically between a linead society in east Africa and Kenya and the Celtic society that was there at the time of Brigid. The legends about Brigid are very charming and a huge folklore about Brigid have accumulated over the centuries.
But the actual truth of Brigid lies somewhere between the claims that she was consecrated a bishop by St Mel of Longford, a bishop himself, and that she exercised the office of the jurisdiction of a bishop and appointed all the priests in the diocese.
And also the very nature of Brigid's work appeals to Irish people. Her double monastery in Kildare was a place of asylum for sick people, for lepers, for pilgrims. It seems to have been a very busy sitting monastery with a big hospital attached to it and the monks and the nuns involved with the lay people in ministering to the blind, the lame, you name it. There was that aspect to it as well. Then there was the sense of Brigid herself, serene, very capable, drove a chariot with great style, was obviously a very strong character, a wonderful model really for women. And sometimes I preach, if her feast day falls on a Sunday, sometimes a parish priest invites me to talk about her at mass. It's quite obvious that people are absolutely enchanted with this remarkable women. Can identify. For example, because of social conditions in Ireland, what a joy she must have been to her mother who was in many ways an outcast and the prototype of a single parent. What a joy this little girl must have been to her as she grew up to be this distinguished church woman and that people should think about that when they find the going hard as a single parent. Lots of parents, male and female, relate to that kind of insight.
So Brigid is very central to the retrieval of Irish women's history these years.
MT: It's interesting that you mentioned Markievicz because I think she was very interested in Brigid. I read that she gave talks to Cumann na mBan about Brigid.
MM: Yes Markievicz was remarkable in many ways. Because she belonged to the gentry, really to the aristocracy, the Gore-Booths in County Sligo. And yet at the same time she rejected her past in many ways. She definitely distanced herself from the whole situation of being a landlordâs daughter. She identified particularly with the socialist movement, James Connolly and the workers. And finally in 1917 when she was in prison she accepted conversion into roman Catholicism which really was in your face against the Protestant upbringing that she had been part of as the general culture of her background. It was in that context, I think -- she always embraced things wholeheartedly, sometimes a little over the top -- it was in that in context of fully embracing Catholicism that she encountered Brigid. And of course -- she was an intelligent journalist -- she saw the potential of Brigid as a model, not just for contemporary Irish women, Catholics, but also for herself in some ways. That this remarkable woman probably rode, certainly drove a chariot, probably was quite a good shot as Markievicz was. And was a vigorous strong healthy beautiful woman. And then I imagine Markievicz probably fantasized that she was 6 foot tall as Markievicz was as well.
MT: Running kitchens--
MM: Running kitchens. Exactly. The interesting thing about Markievicz is that Irish women seem to be all shy of her. She seems to be larger than life and they don't want to take her on. There have been 8 biographies of Markievicz. All of them very well written. But most of them written by historians or trained political scientists or writers of one kind or another outside of Ireland who immediately see the kinds of remarkable qualities of this woman and the kind of metaphor that she stands for among the women of Ireland. There are so many interfaces that meet in the personality of Markievicz. In what her contribution her was.
But women just see her as being in charge of a battalion, in officerâs clothes, in the college of surgeons in the 1916 rebellion. But in fact her years as Minister for Labour in the first Dáil are remarkable in the kind of agenda that she set. And then the last 7 or 8 years of her life were very skilled as a politician. Where she withdrew gradually from the extreme violence of those who broke away from the treaty and went into the civil war and then refused to recognize in 1924 the constitutional appeal of having Dáil Eireann or a parliament in Dublin.
Markievicz, in her later years, showed remarkable prudence for a woman who'd never been prudent. She gradually pointed to DeValera and even supported him when he was moving to the Dáil, a few months before she died, in his move into the Dáil. As pointing the way to her former comrades, "This is the constitutional path we must now accept and follow." And I like that period of her life. And it was really endearing the way that she died among the poor or Dublin a public hospital. And she had the largest funeral of any patriot in the 1920s, thousands came out to her funeral in 1927.
Irish women don't seem to know these facts about her. They just seem to rivet on one particularly uncomfortable fact for them: that she was a remarkably good markswomen from the roof of the college of surgeons, and that she was put in prison for her beliefs, that she was to be executed. And then came out and was our first minister. These are the facts that they stay with. They don't realize tat she was a woman of remarkable exuberance and also had many strands coming from the cultural revolution of W.B. Yeats and the whole cultural contribution that that generation made to the making of the mind of 1916.
[For more info about Constance Markievicz, see the history section of the links page]
MT: Marie Mulholland told me that you an excellent talk on the "anonymous woman of history." And as my project is about names, I'm interested in women whose names are only recently being discovered. And I'm interested in this woman Rosie Hackett who you mentioned at the Irish Writer's Center. What has been learned about Rosie Hackett? In a way she's a perfect metaphor -- you said she was a skilled printer and yet no one wrote her story.
MM: I suppose one of the strengths of the women's history movement -- and I call it a women's history movement in Ireland because it's happening out in the community in morning and evening classes where women come together as well as in the University or in the academy -- is that women, after hearing oneâs talk, will introduce women from their own background or experience. And one such woman that I came across unexpectedly and spent quite a time trying to research was Rosie Hackett. People still don't know. There's no plaque up to Rosie Hackett. But Rosie Hackett was the young trade unionist, deeply influenced by Delia Larkin, by James Larkin and by James Connolly, who organized the women in Jacob's factory during the great lockout strike of 1913. She was only 18. And now Jacobâs biscuit factory was a big wage earner for the women of Dublin. Their men were out on strike as dockers and as other workers in Dublin and so their wages were important in Jacob's biscuit factory.
She actually brought them out on strike, this 18 year old. Of course she didn't receive her position back. She was a marked dangerous woman as such and, undaunted, she retrained as printer. And it was so exciting to discover from a paper that was read by a historian of printing about the declaration of 1916, the famous proclamation of the signatories of 1916. There in the middle of them I discovered Rosie Hackett. The proclamation was written on very poor paper with a broken down printing press over the Easter weekend, that's why they couldn't get to a good printing press. Only that you had very skilled printers patiently jerking this old printing machine into place there wouldn't have been a proclamation. Rosie Hackett was there not just 48 hours but I think about 60 hours non stop coaxing that machine, urging the 2 or 3 other printers to keep at it, so that they would get the proclamation printed. And she triumphantly brought the first copy of the proclamation to James Connolly herself.
Rendering of Rosie Hackett,
As if that wasn't enough, in 1917, she regrouped the very important trade union movement for women, started by Delia Larkin in 1910, the Women Workers' Union. That was an important union until 1982 because it looked after among others the interests of the women laundry workers. Laundry work in a place like Dublin, as London and New York and other big cities, was really important until the technology took over in the 1940s. And also I discovered it looked after the interest of secondary women teachers, teachers at post primary level, it looked after their trade union interests. Its history has been written, and even there Rosie's place is not really acknowledged. She was one of three who reorganized the Women Workers Union in 1917 and started it going again, a bit like the old printing machine. It ran until it was amalgamated into the larger trade union congress in 1982 with the whole gender factor coming in then after our entry into the European Union.
I nearly discovered Rosie Hackett's handwriting and her letters because a niece of hers lived in Leeds and wrote regularly to Rosie Hackett -- who lived to a fine old age and ran a newspaper shop near the Liberty Hall which dominates the river Liffey now. Her little newspaper shop -- I'm sure it was as you can imagine a club for all sorts of lefties and trade unionists and other incendiaries. People recollected with great fondness Rosie Hackett's newspaper shop.
There she flourished and queened it. I have no doubt that she was at the center of everything that went on until shortly before her death in 1967. But this niece in Leeds wrote regularly to Rosie Hackett. And I discovered sadly, through one of these awful accidents of history, that somebody suddenly realized from a talk I was giving on Rosie Hackett, that this niece's letters had been in her possession and that she had thrown them out. She was a cousin of Rosie Hackett. Hardly remembered Rosie Hackett herself but through one of these strange accidents had received this box of letters and had destroyed them. So these are the kinds of near misses. And that's what I suppose what makes women anonymous --hence my real interest that women write, about their relatives and write about their parents and grandparents.
In Belfast last year it was a great privilege to speak about Mary Ann McCracken in her part of the city which is the northern part of the city. Lip service is given to Mary Ann McCracken, but when you actually talk about a woman who was a 1798 protagonist during the great years of the republican movement, after the American and French revolutions, you see how important Mary Ann McCracken was, not just as a prototype of a thinking, political woman, but also as a great business woman. When the battle was lost the union took place between the two parliaments and we settled down to a rather dreary period in the early 19th century. Mary Ann became a powerful business woman and employed the women in her textile factories.
MT: Why arenât people like Rosie Hackett and Mary Ann McCracken in the history books?
MM: It's a question that every woman historian at the present time is saying about a number of important women. Why aren't they appearing in the history books? Why are history books so sexist? That woman taking history still can come to the end of a period at school or at university and not and encounter any significant woman in history outside of kings and queens -- and queens in part in relation to kings and in relation to diplomacy. So the anonymity of someone as important as Rosie Hackett or the powerful contribution that someone like Mary Ann McCracken made to the 1798 movement of the United Irishmen is something that we really will have to address from the point of view of text books.
It's difficult because I think it's a universal problem -- just how do you change a syllabus in such a way that automatically women are put in there? And not just as token figures -- albeit the token figures might be Constance Markievicz or at the present time Mary Robinson. But how do you get the ordinary women, whose lives were full of vitality who were makers and doers, how do they appear in the history of the past? And I think it has to be by some concerted policy on the part of women historians around the writing of textbooks. That it's important not just to write books that are set apart as women's history in bookshops but they actually are able to cross over and get these women appearing as exemplars in history texts, in videos, in CDs, as part of a gender component.
MT: We better get started. We've got a lot of work to do! You've mentioned names a lot. And I'm so fascinated by names. I'm asking all the women I interview about their names
MM: My name is Margaret, and, my father assures me, it's from his side of the family, it goes back for several generations. But I am pleased, when I work in the early modern period to come across the name -- I like it very much in Irish, Maighread. And the Maighreads of the 16th century were strong women. And were generous patrons of learning and of monasteries, particularly a Maighread of the medieval period. And I look to her not exactly as the saint in my life but she's there too as one of my prototypes, this Maighread or this Margaret.
MT: When you entered the convent, did you have to take a different name?
MM: Yes we were expected to forget our own names. And we were expected to take these very childish names or these very masculine names which never really meshed with oneâs own self identity. Particularly since I entered the convent after doing my degrees, it seemed to me that I never really took kindly to a very charming but very silly Italian name I was given -- which most people got very attached to because it was so difficult to say -- Benvenuta. And I rapidly among students became Sister Ben. But nevertheless as soon as the canon law directed that we could revert to our civil names, I very quickly reverted to my Margaret stroke Maighread as the name that was closest to my sense of self identity. And that happened in the early 70s.
MT: I didn't realize that you entered after you'd taken your degrees
MM: I entered religious life at the age of 21. It was still very young but I had done my primary degree and my diploma in teaching. That is a good strong tradition in religious life of course. Certainly up to the 1940s, most women who wanted to teach did their diplomas in teaching or science or whatever it was and then entered religious life. It was part of canon law not to break enclosure and go out for studies -- that came certainly in the 1940s. But for me also it was part of family tradition. We didn't make any life decisions until we reached the age of 21. And I was much younger. And there was also a sense that I really wanted to test this religious vocation and get it over with. If convent life didnât suit me then I would leave it and resume my studies. But I did like Dominican life and in due time I took up my postgraduate studies.
MT: And what did your family think?
MM: They were horrified. They couldn't believe that someone who had been such a student activist in my day at University College Cork could think of not only entering but entering an order which had a medieval cloister element to it. But then as I often remind my siblings at this time, 40 years later, this was the great decade when Thomas Merton influenced lots of people just after WW2.
So it has been interesting to me to actually do some work on the history of religious women, both here and in the States, and the connection between Ireland and the States, how many Irish women went to the States and entered religious life or went to the States as aspirants. And the numbers are stunning. Itâs remarkable chapter in American history, the number of Irish women that have gone into American religious orders or been part of that whole American backdrop for well over a hundred years.
MT: Going into religious life, especially in the 1940s, might have been a very wise and attractive thing -- to be able to do different things.
MM: Religious life certainly in the mid century was very attractive to a lot of women all over the world. Iâm finding that out more and more. The sharp decline of religious vocations in the 1970s is really a sociological factor. The simple truth is that the options here in Ireland for women in the 1940s were very very narrow indeed. And entering religious life, going abroad, or even more excitingly going to India or Africa or the Samoans. This was high adventure. I remember finding two diaries of young Irish girls, ages 18 and 19, who wrote an account of their voyage to New Orleans in 1888. There were two copy books lying in the archives of the Dominican nuns. So an American historian and myself thought these were very delightful and charming and exposed all sorts of attitudes, including unconscious racism. And just caught, just like a camera catches an unexpected shot of someone at a certain age, the pulsating excitement of those two young women. Marriage was not attractive to them. They were going to go for a life of adventure. And they got it -- in the New Orleans of the late 19th century and the 20th century. And the same was true, I think that lasted right up to 1960. Irish women couldnât work after marriage. There was a state marriage bar. And of course the whole expectation of catholic moral teaching, there was no such thing as contraception for Catholic mothers. So I suspect that a lot of young women, probably unconsciously, went for consecrated religious life as a life of adventure.
MT: How have your academic life and your religious life worked together? Have they been in conflict or in harmony? Have you had any difficulties reconciling the work you do around womenâs rights with the way women are seen by the catholic church? I guess for me as someone who's not catholic, I would see the Catholic church as not allowing women priests, not allowing women to use birth control, being very anti woman in some ways. So I'm interested in how you are able to this tremendous work, strengthening women, within the context of the Catholic church?
MM: I had been a student activist in my undergraduate years, which were exciting years because they were the years that coincided with the big big controversy of the mid-century, what was called the Mother and Child Scheme. This was a scheme where the Minister for Health, Noel Brown, who was a socialist, had very mildly suggested that pre and post natal care of mothers in Ireland should be brought within the ambience of the hospitals. It seems absurd now looking back on it. But it became very rapidly a power struggle between the church, who controlled many of the hospitals, and the Irish medical association, where the doctors were resisting having this extra burden as they called it put upon them of clinics for mothers on public health schemes. And the third party of course were the politicians who were always looking to their own backs. But it was interesting to be a student leader and to have to speak on a subject like that long before I would've had experience of what was going on for young mothers in rural area around pre and post natal care. So I had a taste of that as a student leader and in the rallies that we had around the mother and child scheme in different universities in the late 1940s and early 50s. I didn't expect in some way to be part of that student activity when I entered religious life. I thought there was going to be a total closing of the enclosure door. Instead of that I did find myself always in the stream of controversy, in interesting ways. It seems to me it's very difficult to be interested in womenâs issues and not be an activist -- theyâre two sides of the same coin.
Quite early on I collided with the archbishop of Dublin, Dr McQuaid, who was one of the last renaissance princes of the church. He obviously got wind of the word of something I had probably said -- it wasn't funny when it happened but I can laugh at it now. I think sometimes people are born to controversy and the sparks fly upward. Anyway I seem to have some attraction -- either in myself as a magnet or by unwittingly setting myself in the way of controversy. But quite early on in my teaching career at University College Dublin, where I was both a dinosaur and a novelty, in that I was teaching in my Dominican habit and teaching very radical stuff which came out of my studies in Rome of all places, during the years of the Vatican council in the 1960s, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. McQuaid heard that I was expounding lectures on the counterreformation. The Catholic counterreformation of the 16th century. With which I'm quite sure -- because the research was very new and so was the study -- he probably wouldnât have been familiar with. But he sent a message, not to me, to my major superior, that he wanted to see copies of all the notes I gave as lectures. And thoughtlessly she sent me on -- he always wrote these kinds of letters in very fine small handwriting -- she sent me on his letter. Unfortunately I didn't keep it. I sent it back to her and itâs lost. But my immediate reaction -- and you can only have this reaction I believe if you've been involved in student activities as a free human being -- my immediate reaction was to phone her and say, ãI tender you my resignation. I believe in freedom of expression. I will never submit to giving my lecture notes to any superior. They are mine, I am part of the university system that goes back 800 years and I just cannot accept this. I would much prefer to teach infants if that's appropriate.ä So she was a fine woman herself -- she had been a science lecturer in University College Galway. And she came round -- it was late at night -- she came round to apologize. She said, ãYou put me in my place. There was no need for me to send that note to you.ä She said, ãI am your major superior. I will deal with the archbishop myself.ä And I never heard another word.
But of course that wasn't the end of controversy for me. I played an active part in the student revolution which was an interesting one in Dublin in 1969-1970. I made interventions on behalf of the students. I got my Dominican habit plastered all over the Sunday paper to my mortification and the mortification of my order. But I thought it was necessary. I did not want students to be going out on the streets of Dublin breaking windows when there was a more conciliatory path which was that they would sit down and dialogue with their teachers and say what was wrong with the structure of University teaching.
Again later I got used to being part of the women's movement and taking part in all sorts of demonstrations. Women against the Night. Anti-apartheid in South Africa. And I suppose the last of those and I hope it will be my final one -- and in some ways I feel it was a good ending to a life which was one of dissent against certain aspects of Irish social life -- my last contribution was that I agreed to be a patron of the right to remarry campaign in the debate for the second divorce bill. The first one had failed years ago. The second one was important -- it was state divorce in a situation in 1997 where it was needed it seemed to me. But it also was a appropriate that I would agree to be a patron of the right to remarry campaign because that brought in the dilemma of Catholic annulments. Catholic annulments could agree that there was no marriage where patently there might have been 4 or 5 children and they were left in a kind of limbo with no alternative for their parents being allowed to remarry. Strange kind of canonical conundrum. So I had my church on the hip for that -- that they had never resolved, in a country where divorce was not recognized, that Catholic annulments de facto left parents and children in a situation where they had no sense of their own worth either from the point of view of a marriage that had produced children or children who could look to parents with affection and say, ãThese are my parents.ä And that was a very interesting campaign, the right to remarry, because a number of journalists, in this case I think the both sides, subjected me to interviews, to discussions, to situations where I had to explain why I chose to be a patron of that particular campaign and why I supported state divorce in Ireland in a time where there had never been divorce since the early 16th century. Marriage in Ireland is actually a very complex historical theme -- lots of people are unaware of how marriage has changed from century to century. But I was aware of that so it didn't phase me that marriage was not that kind of absolute indissoluble situation that it seemed to be in the 20th century.
MT: I'm sure you must have heard something from the Archbishop about that.
MM: No, no, interestingly enough. Just before the campaign started I went to Maynooth where there was a gathering of bishops of Ireland. They were in session for something. And I think the cardinal was there as well, Cardinal Daly. I think there was some function where I could appear at supper in the same room as they were. Now it already was known that I was a patron of the campaign -- it had come out in one of the national papers. They were very pleasant to me. I didn't engage in conversation with any of them. But many of them made sure to salute me. "Good to see you, Margaret. How are you?" I had put myself before them. I was ready to argue with them. The archbishop of Dublin was there. He made sure he didn't see me -- which I thought was very kind as well -- he's a gentleman, he's an academic, a colleague of mine. But what he was saying was, "Don't cross my line of vision." I didn't study diplomacy for nothing.
MT: I also noticed in an article that you are doing work on hurt and reconciliation -- I wanted to hear briefly about that.
MM: I spoke in Belfast twice recently. I had been a member of a group which is one of those bridging associations for dialogue between the north and south. Particularly for different groupings within north and south, Sinn Fein and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, men and women, politicians from both sides of the divide. But I'm keenly aware in the last year that the release of prisoners back into communities stirs up great hurt that somehow must be addressed by the communities. That there is a further step than reconciliation that really has not been addressed in the dialogue in Northern Ireland. That still isnât being addressed.
I was at a conference in October of 1998 that was founded and magnificently supported by American women, including politicians and congresswomen from washington DC and to which Hillary Clinton gave a magnificent closing address about the plight of children in the aftermath of the good Friday agreement, a very moving address I must say. But at that conference we broke up into workshops. And I put up for tabling a workshop on hurt and reconciliation and only seven of us turned up for that. Clearly northern women do not want to face something that's very close to the bone in the release of prisoners. So that's what I mean about hurt in the context of Northern Ireland, that while the society has found it easy to fasten on an issue like decommissioning, the release of prisoners, the reconciliation that must accompany that, the therapy that must be available to families that are still in anguish, such as the families in Omagh, all these things have to be part of the Good Friday Agreement. I believe myself that only women's conferences will be dogged enough to stick with that painful agenda.
MT: Part of my project is looking at change. You've been witness to so many changes around women's issues over the course of your lifetime. What changes would you still like to see? I've been doing these street interviews where I say, "Do you think Irish women have a lot of rights?" And they say, "Yeah everything's fine now. They used to have the marriage bar but now everything's equal." And I'm curious whether you feel that women's issues, women's rights -- have the goals been achieved or is there still a long way to go?
MM: There is the sense I think as we're reaching the end of the 20th century, because we're hasting to a round figure like the year 2000 AD, that somehow, like a garden being neatened for replanting, that somehow all is fine in the garden. And you will get many women saying with a certain amount of anxiety that yes, we have achieved what say a Markievicz generation or the women who brought the vote into Ireland in 1918, that all those achievements have been accomplished. But there is one -- it's like the giant's garden -- there is still winter in one part of that garden -- and it won't become spring or summer until it's acknowledged. And that is the role that domestic violence plays in the lives of the Irish women. It simply is very hidden, very secretive, very shamefaced for some sad reason. And it's around the whole system of Irish women being strong enough to nurture their Irish men but the Irish men get away with too much in the way of demands and in the way of dominating in the home. And there is a very long history that Irish men have of political violence. Monica McWilliams, that great northern assembly women at this point in time, she was in her previous life, three years ago, she was an academic, who wrote I think her doctoral thesis, which was subsequently published, on the link between domestic violence and political violence in Northern Ireland. A clarion call. Showing very clearly that you don't all of a sudden transform yourself when you cross the threshold into your home. You're bringing a lot of that political violence into your home.
The rest of Ireland isnât any different. So I think that many Irish women will not admit to the extent and the depth of violence that they encounter -- that is only beginning to emerge. But it's a healthy blood letting in the revelations around child violence, child abuse, the tremendously stern harsh, unbelievably bleak experience that occurred in industrial schools and orphanages, and places where children were placed in foster, sometimes run by religious communities, male and female, of the Catholic church, sometimes run under the auspices of one of the other religious denominations. But showing that this was a cultural aspect of violence that we haven't really looked at with an open countenance.
MT: One more thing and then I swear I'll leave you. You were talking earlier about Brigid and what a wonderful sort of role model she offers. What about Mary? As someone who's not Catholic I've always been fascinated by her. Do you think that she's a good role model? Surely most women are still getting religious education and she would I imagine be held up as a role model.
MM: The cult of Mary in Ireland. She's called in some places the Blessed Virgin, in other places the Blessed Mother, in other places the immaculate conception, which is a 19th century concept of Mary. But the cult of Mary goes back to medieval times where she took her place, having to compete a bit with the other saints of the time -- remarkable among them was of course St. Brigid of Kildare but also for some reason St Brigid of Sweden was big in medieval Ireland. And Mary was there too, and she was central. But not the huge cult that Mary became in the 19th century. And I must say I lay not the blame but I lay the responsibility very strongly for the cult of Mary on the Jesuits for the introduction of the sodality of the Blessed Virgin which was part of the discipline of schools for boys and girls at the end of the 19th century. And you may recall that Joyce in his Portrait of the Artist speaks about his rejection of being a sodalist in his school which was one of those words at the time. And he must have been one of the very few reprobates at the time who drew back from this enormous cult of the Blessed Virgin. It grew stronger during the 20th century mainly I think because of papal fascination with Mary, particularly in Pious the 12th. I think it reached its height in the 1950s with the proclaimed dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It is to some extent relegated now to the kind of role that Mary played in the late medieval period. That she's there but she doesn't occupy the center of the stage. We no longer have mothers reprimanding their daughters to be like the Virgin Mary, whatever that meant, when they went out to dances. Because obviously she belonged to a culture where you couldnât compare these two situations. You find again it all comes together in that period sometime after the civil war, sometime from the mid 1920s to about 1960, you have one of thsee deep passages of time for Irish men and specifically for Irish women where there were very few breaks for liberation in a life that was constrained very much by church attitudes, where there was an unrealistic expectation of behavior modelled on that of the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- not the Blessed Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Marys, Church of the Seven Temples, Inismór
There has been a healthy scaling down of devotion to Mary. It will always be part of Irish Christianity but not in any inordinate way that you find in some parts of Europe. Even Knock itself, which is our place of national pilgrimage, is a very healthy place. We're not even sure that Mary appeared there. But no matter. It will do as a national shrine for people who are drawn to pilgrimage. It's very pleasant to spend the morning in Knock in County Mayo. There's something very dignified and charming to mingle with people who are taking a day off, going to confession, receiving mass and communion, maybe paying back some little dues that they feel -- a successful birth or successful marriage. But you feel that it's part of country life. That's the way I would like to see Mary in Irish life.