Thursday, March 15, 2001

Women in Local History

The contribution of women in Irish society was in times past rarely viewed as being equal to that of their male counterparts. I was prompted to reflect on this when I was asked to give a talk to members of the local ICA guild. The audience was exclusively female and so I felt it appropriate to speak of those female achievers or pioneers of previous generations in our local society who in some way or other helped to change society’s attitude towards women in general.

One of the most important professions today is that of nursing but it was not always so. Up to the middle of the 19th century our own local hospital which was then a workhouse was staffed during the day by a Workhouse Master and a number of helpers, none of whom had any medical qualifications. At night time the workhouse inmates were locked in and elderly women inmates were delegated the task of looking after the sick until day break arrived. The Crimean War of 1854 was the catalyst for change which resulted in nursing becoming a reputable reputation and Florence Nightingale was the instigator of this change. She applied to the English War Office for permission to travel to the Crimea to nurse the soldiers who were dying in their thousands because of lack of adequate medical care. She was assisted in this work by several young women including Sisters of Mercy from Irish Convents including Carlow and Kinsale. As a result of their work the very first training school for nurses was set up in England at the conclusion of the Crimean War. It was soon afterwards that the Sisters of Mercy in Athy Convent began to visit the patients in the local workhouse and before long they were invited to take over responsibility for all nursing care in the workhouse hospital. In this the Sisters of Mercy, who had been trained as teachers, were pioneers and innovators of their generation.

Another female pioneer or achiever was the Ballitore based Quaker writer and post mistress Mary Leadbetter who is today remembered for her published works. The most memorable of those, “The Leadbetter Papers” incorporating “The Annals of Ballitore” were published long after she died. During her own lifetime she published several books ranging from poems to letters of her parents Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton. Her “Cottage Dialogues” and “Cottage Biographies” are perhaps her best known works, apart from the “Ballitore Annals”. Mary Leadbetter was a pioneer in terms of her literary achievements, whose published works added enormously to the importance and relevance of female writers of our time and her time.

Several generations after Mary Leadbetter came Ann O’Neill-Barna, pen-name of Ann Raleigh, the American-born wife of an Irishman who lived for a number of years in the 1950’s at Kilberry, just a few miles outside Athy. Her contribution to the literary wealth of the area is to be found in her book “Himself and I” published in 1958. She gave an amusing account of life in Kilberry and Athy of the 1950’s dealing with different aspects of country and town life in a delightful and at all times comical way. Do you remember her account of Mary from Dublin, a well-known character from our past who each week manned a fish and fruit stall in Emily Square.

“The one elaborate stall which had place of honour in front of the Square was run by Mary from Dublin …. She was a scrawny dark little thing with snapping black eyes, lank black hair and a toothy but engaging smile. She wore a shapeless overcoat and an ancient cloche hat … She controlled everything with a loud sharp voice …. Chanting ‘cahbages and tomahtoes, ahpricocks, ripe bahnanhnas ….. ‘Never mind the green dearie it is only the outside. I’ll peel one for you.’ She took up a banana and held it high and with dramatic gestures peeled four strips until it was half done. The banana was unripe and hard as a rock. ‘I’m sorry it is not ripe enough’ I said feeling very embarrassed at the wretched banana which looked so exposed and at the silent crowd watching all this with bated breath. Mary snorted ‘not ripe sez she’ to the crowd in a voice that carried for miles, ‘not ripe! after me stripping me bahnahna for her”.

Ann Raleigh was an achiever and a pioneer as indeed was the stallholder Mary herself whom the Kilberry-based writer so vividly captured in her book “Himself and I”.

A different kind of pioneering spirit is attributable to another local woman Brigid Darby, the first woman elected as a public representative to Athy’s Town Council. She was so elected in 1928 and served as an Urban Councillor until 1942 when she stood down. In the meantime she served her local community as a member of Kildare County Council, the Vocational Education Committee and the County Committee of Agriculture. A teacher in Churchtown National School and later its Principal she first came to prominence when during the influenza epidemic of 1918/19 she helped to organise a committee of local women to provide food and assistance for the poor families of the area. Brigid was also secretary of the Gaelic League in Athy and throughout her time as a public representative played an enormously important part in improving the stock of Council houses in the town. Her close relationship with the various members of the Fianna Fail government first elected in 1932 and especially the Minister for Local Government Sean T. O’Callaigh was to Athy’s advantage when funding for Slum Clearance Programmes and new house programmes were being allocated in the 1930’s. She was an achiever and a pioneer in terms of her public representative role and as a community activist.

Another group of pioneers in the very real sense of the word were the young girls who between 1849/51 left Athy Workhouse to travel to Plymouth from where they journeyed to Australia as part of an Orphan Emigration Scheme. They were all local girls whose parents had died or had abandoned them in the Workhouse. As such they were regarded as a financial burden on the landowners who paid rates to fund the operation of Athy Workhouse. The Orphan Emigration Scheme was seen as an opportunity to off load from Irish Workhouses young unfortunate females while at the same time providing a much needed counterbalance to the largely male convict population of Australia. Those young girls who left Athy Workhouse as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme to travel to Australia were truly of pioneering stock.

The ladies of the local ICA Guild whom I addressed on the changing attitudes to women in our society themselves played no small part in pioneering the breakthrough for Irish women. But theirs is a story for another day.

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