A Woman's Place: Sketches from Another Ireland
Recently I climbed into the dark recesses of my attic and retrieved a box given to me by my mother some twenty years ago. It’s a brown and white striped cardboard box from another era, the kind that gloves might once have been sold in, or a lady’s scarf. The box holds a collection of drawings in different coloured inks by the poet Seán Ó Ríordáin. The choice of materials suggests that the drawings were done at City Hall, Cork where Ó Ríordáin worked for the Corporation for 28 years, retiring in 1965. There are drawings on the back of official brown envelopes marked “Motor Tax” and more drawings on the back of official forms. In the case of some of the drawings, the handwritten details of taxpayers are inscribed on the other side. Ó Ríordáin did not need to concern himself with such contemporary issues as GDPR requirements. For the most part, the drawings are unsigned and undated, although in one case the poet has entered his signature in the space provided on the official stationery.
My mother came to know Seán Ó Ríordáin when she was a Clerical Officer at City Hall in the years immediately preceding her marriage. Ó Ríordáin was one of the poets working in a new European tradition of Irish poetry in the years before Ireland joined what was then the EEC. Ireland’s literary landscape was perhaps not quite ready for this European influence, and Ó Ríordáin suffered a certain amount of chastisement for departing from what was seen as the proper tradition of Irish poetry. The average Irish workplace of that time was not ready for European influences either. The marriage bar was still in place, and when my mother married in 1968 she was required to leave her local government job.
The marriage bar isn’t something Ireland can blame on Britain and – to resort to that trusty shorthand – ‘800 years of oppression’. After Independence, Irish politics and Irish society heartily embraced the removal of Irish women from the workplace. As soon as we achieved Independence, Ireland set about making things worse for women’s participation in public life, going as far as to legislate to remove the right of a widow to return to her civil service job after the death of her husband. The language of the 1937 Constitution, in article 41.2, emphasizes the role of women “in the home” and a proposed referendum to amend that article has yet to take place. Despite the recommendations of the Commission for the Status of Women in 1971, the pace of change in relation to Irish women’s rights in the workplace was slow. It was the requirements of EU membership that dragged Ireland, kicking and screaming, closer to achieving such rights.
A flavour of the fears surrounding the possible infiltration of Irish workplaces by women can be found in debates from that time. Here’s Noel Lemass TD in a Dáil debate on the Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Bill 1974:
Speaking with some members of the union representing the barmen I have found that they are of the opinion that the fact that our licensed premises are staffed entirely by males has resulted in our public houses being the most efficient and the most well-run in the world. If this trade union rule is found to be discriminatory when we go to our local lounges we will find long-legged girls in mini-skirts and we will also pay an extra 5p for the drink just to have a look at them.
There’s something almost touching in the inflationary effect the Deputy predicts would result from the participation of women – or their legs – in the workplace. In 1974, one could expect to pay about 20p for a pint. According to the Deputy’s assessment, the opportunity to look at a woman’s legs would likely increase the price of a pint by 25%. The approach says something about the repressed attitudes to sexuality of the Ireland of the time, but says even more about the perceived role of a woman in a workplace: a thing to be gazed at, a muse.
A woman who quite ingeniously managed to beat the marriage bar system was Vera Carey, the first woman to be appointed as County Librarian in Co. Leitrim. Under the requirements of the marriage bar, Vera was obliged to give up her position on marriage. However, she discovered a loophole: the legislation didn’t explicitly state that a woman, having given up her job, was forbidden to reapply. When her former job was advertised, Vera, who in the interim had married, applied for it. Being the most qualified candidate, she was appointed to the role.[i] The loophole was subsequently closed off, but Vera continued in her post as County Librarian until her retirement in 1975. During the years when John McGahern’s The Dark was banned, she was reputed to keep a stash of the book in a drawer in the library for interested parties. She lived to the age of 103.
But back to Seán Ó Ríordáin's drawings from my mother’s cardboard box. What are they of? What were the things that competed with Ó Ríordáin’s administrative duties for his creative energies and interest? The drawings are, with one exception, of men, mostly their faces. O Riordáin had a remarkable ability to capture the nuances of an expression. Some of the men featured I can recognize. There are popes and cardinals, for example. There is Éamon de Valera, and there is de Valera wearing a cardinal’s hat. There is a drawing that I am reasonably sure is of Frank O’Connor. Many of the other faces are produced in such remarkable detail that I think they must be of particular people, but less famous ones. Perhaps they were friends, other writers, work colleagues. It’s clear from the style of some of the drawings that Ó Ríordáin was not particularly well disposed toward his subjects at the time he did the sketch, rendering them in grumpy caricature. Others are presented with remarkable humanity, intelligence, empathy.
There is one sketch of a woman. I like to think that it could possibly be of my mother, but the reality is that it could be anybody. It is generic, little more than an outline. It has not been fleshed out. This under-representation of women in the drawings isn’t exactly surprising. Ó Ríordáin was unlikely ever to receive a nomination for Feminist of the Year. He did, after all, give us the line: “Ni file ach filíocht an bhean” (“A woman is not a poet, but poetry”). It’s possible that he believed it to be a compliment. But the fact that his drawings don’t feature women also reflects the world as Ó Ríordáin would have experienced it, particularly after the death of his mother. Tuberculosis, and the stigma it then carried, contributed to the isolation he experienced in his personal life. And in the world of literature, and in the more senior levels of business and the civil service, the reality was that, with a few exceptions, it was a very male world. The cumulative effect of policy decisions over the years had limited the spheres within which women were allowed to operate. The drawings reflect what Ó Ríordáin saw in the Ireland of his time, an Ireland shaped by societal structures and legislation.
After I did my Leaving Certificate in 1986, I got a job in City Hall, like my mother before me. A number of women who’d worked with her in the 1960s, and who had not married, were there still. They remembered her, and were kind and welcoming to me. I expect that as I passed them in the corridors I must have served as walking proof of how quickly the years go by.
Ireland had relinquished the marriage bar only the decade before, and anti-discrimination legislation was a relatively recent arrival on the legislative landscape. I remember overhearing a casual conversation between two more senior colleagues, a man and a woman, about a newspaper report of a successful anti-discrimination case. “Yes,” said the man, speaking of the woman who had brought the case, “but who will employ her again?” The legislation had made it onto the statute books, but women who sought to have it enforced did so at their peril. The benefits that EU membership conferred on women did not receive as unequivocal a welcome as other fruits of membership, leading Minister for Labour Michael O’Leary to remark in 1974: “The price of cattle was not to be the sole reason for joining Europe.”[ii]
Europe was a distant concept for me growing up. I thought of it as something quite separate to Ireland. Europe, like the past, was another country. I associated it with “the Continent” a place where posh people went on holidays. In contrast, for my kids’ generation, Europe is a real place that they understand themselves to be very much a part of. By a nice piece of synchronicity, while I was writing this essay my 15-year-old daughter was taking part in the European Youth Parliament. The EYP network is active in more than 40 countries across Europe and more than 30,000 young people take part in events every year. This year, with Covid restrictions, the EYP session took place in digital formats over a long weekend. My daughter was invited to rank her committee preferences in advance, with topics ranging from the advancement of telemedicine, to youth mental health services, to the EU’s approach to tackling homelessness. Her first choice, and the committee she was ultimately assigned to was FEMM 1, a topic centred around the protection of sexual and reproductive health rights in EU member states. Her close second choice was a sister committee, FEMM 2, created to discuss gender equality in the workplace. My teenage self would have been astounded!
The 1916 Proclamation declares that Ireland “summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” The Proclamation envisaged a Republic which, among other things, “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” This embracing of equality is in stark contrast to the policies adopted by government in the years following Independence. With the continuance of the marriage bar until the 1970s, the possibility of forging the kind of connections and networks that a workplace allows was removed from generations of Irish women. When it comes to women’s participation in the workplace – and their rights once there – I’m inclined to think that most of the heavy lifting was done under the EU flag. In these troubling days of Brexit and the rise of right-wing movements, it’s a flag I’m happy to summon my children to, though it’s just as likely that it will be their generation summoning mine.
[i] I am indebted to Dr Laura Bambrick of ICTU for her article on the Marriage Bar published on the ICTU website, 14 October 2019.
[ii] Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Bill, 1974: Second Stage. Houses of the Oireachtas, Seanad Éireann (13th Seanad), Wednesday, 29 May 1974.