Speech of Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil Opening of Exhibition “The Voices of Women: 100 Years of Achievement” Lissadell House, County Sligo
Published on: 11 April 2018
I would like to thank Constance and Edward Cassidy and their family for the privilege of being asked to visit Lissadell today and to open this exhibition.
The extraordinary beauty of this area remains as powerful as ever. However we should never forget that Lissadell is a magical name in Irish history because of the spirit of the people associated with this house.
It reminds us not just of great personalities, but also the timeless ideals which they served.
The cause of the rights of women to be heard and to lead is one of the most important of these ideals and this is why this exhibition is so welcome.
If you look back at the writing of most history – and not just Irish history – there is a tendency to present strong women as somehow eccentric and out of place. This confuses the exceptional for the eccentric.
It takes a truly exceptional personality to look at something like the systematic exclusion of women from social, economic and political rights and to decide to fight for the principle of equality.
In the years when Lissadell was being constructed the debate was as basic as whether women had the right to be educated beyond basic literacy or should express opinions about anything of substance.
In 1834, a year before the House was completed; Maria Edgeworth addressed this in her best-selling novel.
In Helen she has one of the strong female characters who populate her work give out to a young woman when she is reluctant to express herself, using the words: “You cannot…. satisfy yourself with the common namby-pamby little missy phrase, ‘ladies have nothing to do with politics.”
This is a point which was never at issue with the wonderful generation of Gore-Booth women who lived here at the end of the nineteenth century.
The story of Eva and Constance trying to spark women’s suffrage agitation in the local community is a wonderful demonstration of their spirit.
Equally the dismissive attitude of the establishment is exposed in the words of Vanity Fair “if it amuses them and others I doubt if the tyrant has much to fear from their little arrows.”
These little arrows, combined with the arrows of hundreds of thousands of other women throughout these islands ensured that twenty years later the right of many women to vote was finally enacted.
We should not forget that the radicalism of our successful Irish Revolution was very much driven forward by women.
The founding document of our modern republicanism, the Proclamation of 1916, is very unusual in terms of statements by nationalist revolutionaries of those times.
Throughout Europe people were asserting their demand to live in a state which reflected their history and culture. Many of the movements involved prided themselves in an exclusive identity with the focus being on a return to the past rather than embracing modern and progressive ideals.
In contrast, together with other clearly progressive ideas our revolution began with a statement that rights within the new state were to be enjoyed equally by both men and women.
This did not happen by accident – it happened because of the constant advocacy and militancy of the women of Ireland, with Constance Markievicz one of the most important figures.
Women were a vital part of the coalition which delivered the overwhelming victory for independence in the 1918 general election. Equally it was the first time that woman’s voices were heard throughout the country.
A regressive turning point came only a short time afterwards.
The assertive republicanism of all of the women in the Second Dáil led others, and especially the establishment press, to dismiss them in classically misogynistic ways.
It is a deep shame for our country that the strong and positive start which was made in 1918 and 1921 was followed by a lengthy period of regression.
It was in fact 58 years until another woman was appointed to cabinet and much of that time was one where women’s voices were pushed to the margins.
This is not to say in any way that women did not express themselves or help to shape an evolving Irish identity.
The very dramatic advances in terms of rising standards of living and population which we have seen since the radical and reforming governments of Seán Lemass often focus on economic policies.
What is missed in this is the wider point that the Lemass idea, which in many ways still provides the framework for progress in modern Ireland, was the need for us to open up as a country.
To open up to the world, through participation in major international bodies and the now European Union – but also to open up to the potential of all of our own people.
The massive expansion in access to education at all levels had enormous class dimensions – but it had many gender dimensions as well. The number of highly articulate, able and intelligent women emerging from our schools, colleges and universities rose dramatically – and with this the absolute refusal to accept the status quo showed a louder and louder voice.
One aspect of this which has not received enough attention has been the role of women in holding communities together and leading demands for peace during the dark days of violence initiated by a small minority but with a huge impact.
In 1976 the mass demonstrations against violence seen on the streets in every part of the country were led by women determined to stop a threatened spiral of violence – and they certainly played an important role in giving the democratic republican majority in this state the confidence to assert itself.
And as we remember 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and while attention this week has primarily been on the talks, we should also remember the importance of women’s voices at community level in creating the circumstances to break the cycle of conflict.
The Alliance of Women was highly influential in promoting the need for peace and they were cleverly above party politics as they wanted the needs of the citizens of Northern Ireland prioritised.
If we look at many of the failures of our society and our politics to recognise and respect the rights and interests of women there is a constant thread which shows itself.
This is the difficulty which we have had to consider issues from the perspective of others – or indeed to even respect their good intentions.
The debate on the Constitution’s flawed representation of women is a good example. Documents published in recent years show again how those who drafted the document believed that they we in fact protecting the rights of women and were being progressive.
In the face of this women who spoke against its language and likely impact were unable to secure changes.
Over the years there have been many debates where the condescending voice of Vanity Fair towards the Gore Booth sisters could easily fit in to the attitude of the system towards women’s voices.
No bad ever came from showing a spirit of respect and working hard to see the perspective of others.
At this very difficult moment in modern history, where there are many places which look to narrow debate and the voices which can be heard, we should use this 100th anniversary of female suffrage to remind ourselves and important point.
To be a real republic, to be true to the spirit which overcame great odds to win independence, we must be willing to give a voice to all parts of our society and to listen to those whose interests and experiences differ from ours.