Irish Femininity, the English ‘other’ and Four Nations History

Irish Femininity, the English ‘other’ and Four Nations History

This week, PhD student Holly Dunbar (University of Southampton) analyses projected ideas of femininity in mainstream Irish nationalist press through a four nations lens. 

My research focuses on ‘everyday’ masculinity and femininity in the mainstream Irish nationalist press, between 1912 and 1923. The way that ideals of Irish femininity were prescribed and discussed in the mainstream press warrants a four nations approach as, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, Irish womanliness was formed in opposition and revulsion to perceived ideals of English womanliness. Although the terms ‘British’ and ‘English’ were both used frequently in the nationalist press, they were not entirely interchangeable and in some cases it was Englishness that was objectionable. In ‘Languages of Radicalism, Race, and Religion in Irish Nationalism: The French Affinity, 1848-1871’ Matthew Kelly argues for the existence of a shared Celtic identity within Irish nationalism in the 19th century that linked Ireland and France. This was based on ancient racial divisions of Teutonic and Celtic peoples. Arguably, the concept of shared Celtic identity between Ireland, Scotland and Wales was also prominent in the 1912-1923 period. Radical nationalists voiced the idea of an English Empire. For example, in July 1912 an article in Sinn Fein, written by ‘Eireannach’, claimed: ‘Ireland, Scotland and Wales have a common race-bond; they have common interest which fails to-day because there is no cohesion[…]It is very certain that when England speaks of the Empire England means England’s interest alone. The Empire means to the Englishman, England, mistress of all.’ Within the mainstream nationalist press this Celtic affinity and distaste for Englishness was less overt. To illustrate how this was articulated in the mainstream press I will offer some material from two women’s sections in mainstream nationalist newspapers, focusing on women’s speech.

The mainstream press can be hard to define in this period, but two large daily newspapers were the Freeman’s Journal and the Irish Independent. The Freeman’s Journal was the organ of the Irish Parliamentary Party until its decline from December 1918. The Irish Independent was the Freeman’s Journal’s main competitor at this time. It was a mass-circulation newspaper, owned by businessman, William Martin Murphy, which is broadly accepted as the contemporary market leader in Ireland despite local competition in some regions. Both the Freeman’s Journal and the Irish Independent contained women’s sections prior to the outbreak of WWI. In the Freeman’s Journal this was called, ‘The Irishwoman: Maid, Wife and Mother’ and in the Irish Independent, it was named, ‘In Woman’s Realm’.

A regular column in ‘The Irishwoman: Maid, Wife and Mother’ was ‘Woman’s Sphere’, written by the alias ‘Femina’. It dispensed advice, gossip, fashion tips and social commentary, particularly on what was appropriate feminine behaviour and appearance. In January 1914 ‘Femina’ questioned whether it was a good thing for a woman to be reserved and concluded that whilst it was seen to be beneficial in England, she observed that an ‘Irishwoman doesn’t feel that way of course; but then the English opposite to reserve is a blatant, noisy, detestable style for which we have no real equivalent in our country.’ This illustrates that whilst Irishwomen’s speech were strictly regulated, it was also formed in reaction to the way they perceived English women to speak. ‘In Woman’s Realm’ was smaller than ‘The Irishwoman’ and normally solely written by one alias, ‘Lady Molly’. ‘Lady Molly’ concurred with ‘Femina’ that Irishwomen should not feel a need to be reserved, remarking that: ‘A low voice has always been desirable, but it is the gentleness of tone which comes naturally from culture and refinement of feeling, and is altogether a different thing from a voice which is low merely from fear of being loud.’ The sensory experience women projected onto the world was of high importance. ‘Lady Molly’ believed that ‘if the sense is pleased, you are at an advantage.’ Therefore she cautioned mother’s to ensure that ‘the greatest attention should be paid to the cultivation of charm in the speech.’ Irish femininity was dictated along very rigid lines within the mainstream press, but also formed against perceptions of specifically English womanliness.

Holly Dunbar is a PhD student at the University of Southampton. Her research focuses on masculinity and femininity in the mainstream nationalist press between 1912 and 1923. This is particularly concerned with how gender impacted on the ‘everyday’ in terms of family life, recreation and work.


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