Passion. The word has been hijacked, abused, overused, trampled on and generally depleted to an extent where I can hardly bring myself to use it any more. But it came back to me in force at the launch of Lucy McDiarmid’s latest book At Home in the Revolution: what women said and did in 1916 in the Royal Irish Academy last week. A formidable panel had gathered to talk about the book: Catriona Crowe, Margaret McCurtain, Margaret O’Callaghan and Lucy McDiarmid herself. They were introduced by Mary Daly, who is the current president of the RIA. There was no shortage of impassioned pioneering intellect in the audience either: Margaret Ward, for example. Angela Bourke. And many others – serious contributors to history and cultural studies one and all, known particularly for their work in the retrieval and analysis of the lives and work of women in the past.
It would be more efficient to say that they’ve all made significant contributions to Irish women’s history, but after the most recent Abbey spat (#wakingthefeminists) I find myself wondering whether we’ve been too compliant in attaching the label ‘women’s’ to any activity. Why accept the differentiation, if what we want to assert is equality?
I lost the notebook I was using, so this account will be short. I remember clearly that CC introduced MMcC as the Mammy of Irish women’s history, to affectionate cheers. I can tell you that the speakers were knowledgeable as well as entertaining, that their speeches were terrific, that the atmosphere in the fabulous RIA was warm and engaged throughout. But what stayed with me, despite the loss of the notebook, were Lucy McDiarmid’s own closing remarks.
Her book collects and reflects on the personal accounts of women – of all political affiliations and none – of their experience of the Easter Rising and related events. She gives priority to direct testimony: oral accounts, diaries, letters. The spectrum of her interest is broad; it includes physical, material experience as much as ideas and aspiration; it includes comedy and tragedy. Throughout, it demonstrates how women refused to be excluded from participation in events, jumping in and out of windows, finding and slipping through unguarded back doors.
In closing, she told us that her uncle was the first American to die (aged 20) in the Spanish Civil War. She told us how his death devastated and blighted the lives of those who mourned him. Her family. In writing about the Easter Rising, she’d assumed she was actually writing about the tragic death of young, heroic political idealists, a clear parallel with her uncle. It was only when she finished her book about women refusing to be denied their opportunity to participate, climbing in and out through windows they’d had to break themselves, looking for unorthodox ways in where they weren’t necessarily wanted, that she realised she was actually writing about women’s experience of entering the professions.
She told a very funny story (she tells good stories, and tells them well) about two male colleagues with whom she used to go for lunch. Every day, they’d stand back so she could go through a doorway first. And she felt funny about it. They were colleagues. They worked together. And she used to say no, no, you go, but they insisted.
One day she stood back and said, No. I won’t. You go. And refused to go in front of them. So they went through the doorway – together, side by side. Neither deferring to the other, you see. They made this terrible noise as they collided, their bones striking off each other, a noise like stone. She realised that she’d upset the natural order of things and set off this terrible noise and confusion by her refusal.
Every day, she told us, going about her business – whether at home in New York or here in Dublin – she sees herself in similar situations and has to make a decision: do I upset the natural order here, or not? Sometimes she does and sometimes she doesn’t but she’s always aware of it.
I wanted to post this blog for its own sake, because the launch of At Home in the Revolution was a genuinely stimulating and enjoyable event. But thinking about it now, I wonder: does assigning the label ‘women’s’ to history, or writing, or theatre, or whatever you’re having yourself – does that practice leave the (un)natural order unchallenged? Back in the early days of Women’s Studies it was a way of staking a claim and defining what we were about. It was defiant, clear, proud. I had no problem with it then. But have we outlived its usefulness?
UPDATE: Here’s a link to a podcast of the event – With thanks to Lucy McDiarmid.