As it is International Women’s Day we thought how best to mark the occasion than to celebrate the strong Irish women that helped mold our country and culture. We have picked our top 5 Heroines throughout Irish History, These 5 Strong Irish Women that every young Irish Girl should learn about:
Grace O’Malley / The Pirate Queen of Ireland
Although there is little recorded knowledge of this female chieftain in official Irish historical records, Grace O’Malley can be considered one of the most fierce and formidable women ever to walk the blessed Irish soil. Although her legacy cannot be view as nationalist, as she tended to side with whoever would keep her clan in power, her character and ability in the 16th century has become the stuff of proud local legend, preserved in story and song.
Her Father, chief of the O’Malleys, ran the area of the Irish west coast now known as County Mayo. She was an only child, growing up as both son and daughter to her father. She found her sea legs in her early adulthood as she captained a fleet of fishing boats that frequently turned into pirate ships, or maybe pirate ships that masqueraded as fishing boats. These pirate attacks tended to happen when English ships navigated too close to the Irish coast. Throughout the years to follow she commanded respect as a leader, outliving her first husband and then marrying the chief of the Bourke clan at 36; he became her second–in-command, of course.
As self-preservation and reward were at the heart of this feisty woman when in her 60s, (a surprising age for the time) she negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I — in Latin no less. Allying herself with the British with an aim of gaining control over some no growing Irish clans that were proving bothersome for both sides. Obviously Irish freedom was not at the forefront of her mind but her ability to become such a powerhouse in the 16th century is something that must be admired. Although many nationalist poems and songs mention the lady leader of the O’Malleys was a pirate and a tribal leader first, and a very tough cookie. It seems over time we have remembered a strong Irish woman, driven in her aim for dominance and leadership, any other less nationalist characteristics fade with time.
Countess Constance Markievicz
Born in London to a wealthy aristocrat, explorer and philanthropist, Henry Gore-Booth. Constance Gore-Booth was raised on her family estate in County Sligo. Growing up she became unsettled by the lifestyle and position she was born, becoming increasingly interested in Nationalism within Ireland and social revolution. While studying in London and Paris she met a Polish count to which she married, giving her the title Countess Markievicz. Not a common name around the parishes of Sligo.
Returning to Ireland in 1901 she joined she joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) in 1903. And later in 1909 founded Na Fianna Éireann (Soldiers of Ireland), where she trained young men to shoot under the banner of “Boy Scouts”. She assisted the great James Connolly, during the 1913 lockout, and went on to join the Citizen Army. During the 1916 Rising Markievicz was second in command at the St Stephen’s Green stronghold. It is said that upon the order surrendering, she kissed her revolver before handing it over to the British officer. All in all between 1911 and 1920, Countess Markievicz was imprisoned by the British government four times for various acts of treason or heroic acts of nationalism, depending how you look at it.
Seen as one of the first true feminists in Ireland she once addressed a group of educated college women in Dublin “dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver. … Be prepared to go your own way depending for safety on your own courage, your own truth, and your own common sense, and not on the problematic chivalry of the men you may meet on the way….”
Ireland under British rule began electing representatives to British parliament. Countess Markievicz was the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons, but could not take her seat due to her imprisonment at the time. Her final spell in the slammer was in 1923 at age 55, for treason against the Irish government. This was the Civil War and Markievicz believed in a united Ireland, and that those that accepted partial freedom from the British (the Irish parliamentary majority) were traitors themselves, and as you can probably tell, she had no problem in telling them that.
She died in 1927, in custody, while on hungry strike for her beliefs. The city of Dublin came to a standstill. Man, Woman & Child, the working class, the political class, and everyone in between swarmed the streets to watch her casket go by.
To this day, she is considered a Heroine of Ireland, its freedoms and its culture.
Mary Kenny and The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement
The Irish constitution (written in 1937) instructed the women of Ireland that they were mothers and wives first and foremost, divorce and any kind of contraception were strictly illegal; the advertisements for family planning was considered immorality and as such censored.
This thinking continued in Ireland until as recent as 1971, when Mary Kenny, a journalist, working alongside other rabble-rousing feminists began to challenge the ban on contraception in the Republic of Ireland. Mary and the group of other crazy radical liberal women thought they should have the right to choose contraception if they so wished, live by their own moral compass and so they decided to collectively and openly defy the high and mighty bishops of the catholic church and cranky old suit and tie men running the country. (Shock, How Dare They?!!)
On May 22, 1971, Kenny and forty-six other strong willed women jump aboard what was dubbed The Contraceptive Train to Belfast. As Belfast is in Northern Ireland, part of the UK, in the 1970’s contraception’s like the pill and condoms were readily available where they were illegal only a few miles away. The group lead by Mary crowded into a pharmacy, and shockingly in what was a stark realisation of the lack of sexual education within the republic, Mary Kenny didn’t even know what specifically to ask for.
The women’s liberation movement returned over the border waving packets of Durex in the faces of custom officers, arriving back into Dublin’s Connolly station to crowds of supporters (both genders). That night Mary Kenny went on the Irish national TV and Radio, fighting the case for access to birth control and ultimately a blow for women’s rights in Ireland.
This movement could be considered the start of Irelands move towards liberalism and free thinking. The following year, 1972, saw the Catholic Church lose their “Special Position” within the Constitution. Eight years later, “The Pill” was legalised on prescription by a doctor and condoms were readily available from pharmacies and Men’s Room vending machines.
God Bless Mary Kenny & The Ladies of the Women’s Liberation Movement!!
Veronica Guerin started out in the public relations industry in the early 1980s, almost 10 years later she had made to move from PR into journalism when she began writing for the Sunday Business Post and Sunday Tribune. Over time she became respected as a journalist who investigated and exposed the activities of Ireland’s drug criminals. Known for her tenacity, pursuing every story as vigorously as possible regardless of the risk involved. Even assisting An Garda Siochana (The Irish Police Force) on occasion. She developed close connections with figures on both sides – the Gardí as well as the criminals.
Getting to close for comfort for the Irish crime bosses she began to receive death threats. In October 1994 two warning shots were fired at her home in Dublin. She continued her work. On another occasion, the now convicted criminal John Gilligan personally attacked and threatened her. She continued Working. An attempted assignation took place when she answered her front door to find a man pointing a gun at her head, although his shot missed and hit her in the leg instead. She continued to work.
Veronica got too close to exposing these criminals in 1996. When she was gunned down by two men (said to be working for Gilligan) on a motorbike, pulling up alongside her car at traffic lights. Her death caused national public outrage and indirectly lead to a huge crackdown on organised crime in the country and the setting up of the Criminal Assets Bureau (Ireland’s fight on crime through financial methods - Al Capone how are ya!)
She will always be considered a shining light for truth and justice in Ireland.
Any Irish woman that has been a Senator and President, UN High Commissioner and University Chancellor and now sits on a group known as The Elders (a group of independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights. They were originally brought together by Nelson Mandela) must make it to the top of our list.
Mary Robinson was born Mary Bourke (remember the Bourke that married the Pirate Queen? Same family, five hundred years later), a wealthy family which coupled with her passion and drive for justice, peace and human rights found her gaining law degrees in Ireland, the UK, and the US and becoming a Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin by the age of 25. Nice start to a career. Not yet satisfied with her ability to crate change she campaigned as an independent for a seat in the Republic of Ireland’s Seanad (Senate). Continuing as a lecturer at Trinity and practising law, she tirelessly campaigned for equality rights, women’s rights (like the right to birth control train of 1971), gay rights, and the rights of the poor.
After twenty years of campaigning, working and fighting for others within the Seanad, Mary Robinson was approached by the coalition of Irish Labour Party and The Green Party and asked to run for President. Mary Robinson was elected Ireland’s first female head of state in 1990 taking her voice international.
After seven years of turning the figure head presidency into an activist position, Mary Robinson was chosen to be the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. She remains a fighter for social justice on behalf of the world’s downtrodden and less fortunate. If I felt persecuted or wronged in any way, she the woman I want in my corner.
Go On Mary Ya Good Thing!