Eirebrushed: Erasing Women from Irish History

Eirebrushed: Erasing Women from Irish History

A new play opened in Dublin last week called Eirebrushed. Written by Brian Merriman, the play tells the story of Elizabeth O’Farrell, whose role as combatant has been quite literally airbrushed out of Irish history and the 1916 Easter Rising. The Easter Rising of 1916 was a significant rebellion against British colonization and, while it ultimately failed, it sparked a series of events that eventually led to the independence of Ireland (first as the Irish Free State, a dominion of the British Commonwealth, in 1922, and then as the independent Republic of Ireland in 1948). Elizabeth O’Farrell, a midwife and member of Cumann na mBan (the League of Women), has been described as a “fierce Republican” and played a significant role in the rebellion of 1916. O’Farrell actively fought for the independence of Ireland from British colonization before and during the Easter Rising, delivering bulletins and instructions to the rebel outposts around Dublin. As Eirebrushed brings to our attention, her legacy, and those of other women active in the movement, has been diminished in the commemoration of the Easter Rising and its role in sparking the Irish Civil War.

Following the Irish Civil War and the establishment of the Irish Free State, a process of nation-building began with particular focus on what it meant to be an Irish citizen. The gendered aspects of this can be seen in the 1937 Constitution. The Constitution contains many provisions compounding national ideas of gender identity, including Article 41 which states, “In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved…The State shall, therefore endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”  As a foundational document, the 1937 Constitution reveals a lot about how Ireland defined itself as a nation and what it meant to be an Irish citizen. For women, that place was strictly within the home. This gives us some insight into how an important female combatant in the establishment of the Free State could have been forgotten.

The rebellion, which began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, lasted for one week using the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin as its headquarters. Following the failure of the Home Rule bill in 1893, which would have granted Ireland a form of devolution, it created a move away from political change and a rise in physical force republicanism. The rebellion failed after a week, and O’Farrell was selected to deliver the surrender alongside Republican leader Pádraig Pearse. The moment of surrender was photographed, and it is this photograph which has created the backdrop to the Eirebrushed controversy. In reproduction, O’Farrell was airbrushed out of the photograph, as can be seen below, and with it – much of her contribution to this historical event.

Source: Journal.ie (www.thejournal.ie/eirebrushed-play-1428985-Apr2014/)
Source: www.thejournal.ie (www.thejournal.ie/eirebrushed-play-1428985-Apr2014/)

Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry describe in their book, Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics, how narratives of women in conflict are divided into the three characters of their title. For those like O’Farrell, who blur the lines and don’t fall into any one easily definable category (she is both Monster and Mother/Combatant and Caregiver), the narrative has been rewritten to ensure their involvement is commemorated in a way that is appropriate to the ideals of Irish womanhood. While O’Farrell acted as dispatcher, and remained in the GPO during the week of unrest, she is remembered as Nurse O’Farrell. This caretaker narrative reinforces the notion of female actors in conflict as “generally presumed to have the essential attributes of kindness and care, creating a set of presumptions about who is most likely to be violent.” [1] Elizabeth O’Farrell has been commemorated quietly as a nurse, but her significance as a Republican woman has been erased. Overall, the role of the female combatant has been erased in the memory of Ireland’s fight for independence. To recall O’Farrell’s role as both soldier and nurse creates a tension between what makes a good republican/Irish citizen (i.e. one who does all she can for Independence, including acting as a combatant) and what makes a good Irish woman (the child bearer and caregiver). This tension is therefore remedied in the act of nation-building following Ireland’s independence. While Padraig Pearse and other male figures in the Republican movement are given almost mythical importance, O’Farrell’s combative role is diminished, while her role as Nurse and caregiver is highlighted and praised. She is simultaneously the best kind of Irish woman, and the worst. As the independence of Ireland is still conceptualized and retold in masculinzed, military terms, there remains no place for the militarized woman, and so the experiences and roles of women are not included in the retelling of Ireland’s fight for independence.


Elizabeth O’Farrell

Bronwen Walter has explained that, following the Easter Rising and into the Irish Civil War, “the Catholic Church took on a powerful leadership role in that national struggle and imposed a particular version of gender differentiation.” The image of the Virgin Mary became the role model for all Irish women. “Her assigned qualities…included duty to family, self-sacrifice, submerged sexuality and the elevation of a caring function above all others.” [2] This influence is also recognized in the Irish Constitution. While removed in the Fifth Amendment in 1972, the original Article 44 declared the Catholic church to hold a “special position…as guardian of the Faith.”

The influence of the Catholic Church in the early creation of the state reinforced the men-as-protector ideology that surrounds the Irish history of independence. Nationalism, as described by Cynthia Enloe, is “typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope.” [3] In this way, women are relegated to minor, symbolic roles in the creation of national identity and its commemoration, reinforcing the idea that the real actors in war, and in this case, the real actors behind the Easter Rising and the eventual creation of the Republic of Ireland, are men. As a consequence of this creation of Irish national identity, women’s multi-faceted role in Irish history has been downplayed and in some cases omitted. This has served to reinforce national actions and ideals based in sexism.

University of Limerick (http://www.ul.ie/wic/content/cumann-na-mban-mural-wall)
University of Limerick (http://www.ul.ie/wic/content/cumann-na-mban-mural-wall)

For some, the narrative of what it means to be “Irish” has come to mean an unwavering respect for the teachings of the Catholic Church as well as its position as powerhouse in the creation of the state. While the influence of the Catholic Church has diminished in recent decades, particularly among the younger generations, the idea of “Irishness” is still a deeply gendered notion. This play brings to light the hidden history of O’Farrell and addresses the fact that the expanded space attained by women in wartime did not translate into societal changes in an independent Ireland. In breaking free from British colonialism, Ireland put in place a strict ideal of womanhood, the resonance of which can be seen today. To remember O’Farrell as both combatant and nurse, then, can be read as an attempt to defy the gendered notions of Irishness as set out in the Constitution and to reclaim the multi-faceted identity of an Irish woman.

[1] http://justsecurity.org/2014/01/08/gendering-counter-terrorism-lessons-volgograd/

[2] Bronwen Walter. Outsiders Inside: Whiteness, Place and Irish Women. Routledge, 2002

[3] Cynthia Enloe. Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. University of California Press, 1990.  

Featured image caption: Walter Paget, Birth of the Irish Republic

I am Founder & Director at Hollaback! Belfast. I have a Master’s Degree in History and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wyoming. My academic work focuses on the role of women in post-conflict societies, with a particular focus on grass roots activism. I write for a number of feminist leaning blogs, am active in local feminist groups in Northern Ireland and an active speaker on Women & LGBTQ rights.

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