Political Voices: the Participation of Women in Irish Public Life, 1918 – 2018


Go raibh maith agaibh go léir as teacht anseo inniu chuig Dánlann Náisiúnta na hÉireann – chuig an áras álainn seo.

It is such an honour for me to be with you this morning, as we recall and celebrate the women that participated in Irish political life from 1918 – 2018.

May I express my gratitude to Dr Maurice Manning, Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, and of course a partner in this symposium along with the National University of Ireland Maynooth. I’d like to express my thanks also to all the distinguished speakers who will be participating in today’s commemorative event.

Since its inception in 2012, the Government’s Decades of Centenaries Programme has sought to be measured and reflective, in commemorating the significant events that have shared the history of our island over the last 100 years – not only those that marked Ireland’s path to independence, but those which enhance our understanding of the wider international landscape during this period.

Last March, my Department in conjunction with the National University of Ireland, the Royal Irish Academy and the School of History UCD, organised a symposium which reassessed John Redmond and the achievements of the Irish Parliamentary Party under his leadership. Associated programmes also took place in Waterford and Wexford. Official commemorations were also held to mark the centenary of the sinking of RMS Leinster last October and Armistice Day on November 11th.

2018 marks the centenary of the start of a new era for women, with the passage of the Representation of People Act 1918. This Act introduced the first steps towards full suffrage, with women over 30, who were university graduates or met minimum property qualifications, being granted the vote.

A second significant piece of legislation also passed in 1918 by the Westminster Parliament – The Qualification of Women Act, allowed women to stand for the House of Commons on an equal footing with men.

These significant legislative changes stemmed from years of agitation by the suffrage movement in both Britain and Ireland. Here women had been campaigning for suffrage from the mid 19thcentury with Anna Haslam along with her husband Thomas, Isabella Tod, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins amongst others playing prominent leadership roles.

Significant social changes across Britain and Ireland, which arose during World War 1, also contributed to women’s enhanced participation in Irish public life. Before the War, a woman’s role was considered to be within the home. Public life, including politics, was widely seen as for men only. However, a number of legislative changes prior to the War and greater female participation in education paved the way for women to play a much greater role in public life. Involvement in the war effort also enhanced women’s position in society throughout Britain and Ireland. Thousands of women worked on trams and buses, in “white collar” jobs, on farms, in munitions factories and in more traditional roles such as nursing wounded soldiers and sailors.

While the War was a major turning point in the role of women in public life, its  ending resulted in many women losing their jobs – with soldiers returning to their pre-war jobs and the closure of many munitions factories. These changes resulted in many women returning to domestic service.

In the 1918 General Election, just seventeen women across Britain and Ireland stood for election.  These included Countess Markievicz, who as it happens I have much in common with.  She was Ireland’s first female Minister – I am the 19th and the last, so far at least! My seat at cabinet is under her portrait, the only female portrait in the room I might add,  – and while she was initially elected to Dublin St. Patrick’s, she later represented Dublin South, my own constituency, now renamed Dublin Rathdown. And as it happens I was only here in the National Gallery two weeks ago launching the new Markievicz Bursary programme for female artists.

In accordance with the abstentionist policy of the time, Countess Markievicz did not take her seat in the House of Commons. She was actually in Holloway Prison in London, when her colleagues assembled in Dublin’s Mansion House for the inaugural meeting of the First Dáil.

It is notable that the full extension of the franchise for women by the new Free State happened a full 5 years before the equivalent extension in Britain.  However, the excitement of those heady days did not usher in a new era of women participating in political life. I find it difficult to comprehend that it would be another 60 years before a second woman – Máire Geoghegan Quinn, would take her place at the cabinet table.

Only 113 women have been elected to the Dáil since the Countess achieved that landmark result and just 19 of their number have been appointed to cabinet – including myself most recently, just one year ago. These statistics serve as a reminder that we have a way to travel on the road to full equality in Irish political life.

Throughout 2018, my Department has delivered a programme of events commemorating the role played by women in the significant events of 1918. The programme has captured the revolutionary nature of the period and the subsequent scale of change in Irish society. The programme was delivered by many partners including our National Cultural Institutions, History Ireland, An Post, local authorities, trade unions and third level institutions.

One of the Programme highlights is a specially commissioned Pop-up Museum, 100 years of Women in Politics & Public Life: 1918 -2018. Historian Sinead McCoole has curated the museum which will be officially opened in Dublin Castle’s Coach House on the centenary of the 1918 General Election. It will be open to the public from December 15th until February 3rd next year and I am delighted that it will then travel to a number of venues across the country throughout 2019.

A century after women were given the right to vote, I think it’s important to remember the words of Countess Markievicz, who in a Dail debate in March 1922 said:

“One of the crying wrongs of the world, is that women, because of their sex, should be debarred from any position or any right that their brains entitle them a right to hold.”

Today we remember the efforts of all those who have striven to achieve gender equality in Irish political life. Their campaigning, activism, passion and commitment have changed history.

In marking the distance that we have travelled in more recent years, I believe it is incumbent on us to remember them well, to cherish their contribution and to build upon it into the future.

Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, 23 Kildare Street, Dublin , D02 TD30. Tel: 01 631 3800 / LoCall: 1890 383 000

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