MacCurtain, Margaret, Ariadne’s thread, writing women into Irish history, Arlen house publications, PO Box 222, Galway, Ireland, 2008. € 55.00, ISBN 978-1-903631-22-1 (Hardback), £25.00, ISBN 978-1-903631-42-3 (Paperback) pp. 400.
Reviewed by Dr. Louise O’Reilly, NUI Maynooth, Co. Kildare, October 2010.
This collection of sixteen essays displays Margaret Mac Curtain’s outstanding approach to research and writing Irish women’s history. Maureen Murphy gives a detailed account of Mac Curtain’s most interesting career as ‘teacher, religious sister, editor, human rights activist, educational reformer and media commentator’ in the foreword and provides the reader with an insight into what to expect in the collection. (p. 13) Not surprisingly the essays reflect a wide range of themes including education, politics and religion, which have influenced women’s lives in Ireland.
The author offers an informative account of the role of Irish women throughout the centuries, beginning with an early essay first published in 1963, on the question of higher education for women; the first theme of the collection. Focusing on the role played by women, Mac Curtain points out the controversy was sparked by ‘a Dublin-born nun’. (p.67) Women and politics in the twentieth century, the second essay (1978) points to the need for more research into women born in the late nineteenth century. These women were to experience firsthand the major changes in early twentieth-century Ireland, namely revolution and the making of the Free State. Both these essays describe how the position of Irish women in education and politics were closely linked to religion. In the latter case, the Irish Parliamentary party leader, John Redmond declared ‘that he was against votes for women as it would increase the power of the clergy.’(p. 87).
Religious themes can be found throughout the collection, the 1987 essay ‘Moving statues and Irish women’ refers to a modern day phenomena, while Mac Curtain’s 2002 essay discusses the religious reformation and its impact on Irish women. However, her examination of women religious in the twentieth century is most interesting, focusing on the religious archive and its importance to the history of women religious but also the importance of the ‘need to hear the voices of women religious, the self which is no longer annalist but the subject of the testimony.’ (p. 275)
Throughout the collection Mac Curtain introduces the reader to Irish women in every context as religious, politicians, wives and saints; all are an integral part of Ireland’s history. The methods used by Mac Curtain in her research into these Irish women stand out in the essays. Mac Curtain refers to her ‘opportunity to interview survivors of the Easter Rising’ which was to give her an ‘enduring interest in oral history’. (p. 82) In addition, poetry, memoirs and art are sources which Mac Curtain used in various essays. In ‘Reflections on Walter Osborn’s Study of nature’ Mac Curtain highlights her interest in using every source to record the history of women. In her introduction, Mac Curtain’s study of the painting on the cover page is also intense and she concludes that the artist Leo Whelan’s work ‘conveys the solitary existence of the woman in the kitchen in the years when the new Free State and a partitioned Ireland faced an uncertain future.’ (p. 41). Mac Curtain displays how interdisciplinary analysis can be used to understand the history of Irish women throughout the centuries.
In conclusion, Ariadne’s thread, writing women into Irish history is an outstanding collection of essays, spanning Mac Curtain’s career but more importantly highlighting her expertise in women’s history in Ireland. In the course of this career, she took on the challenge of searching and creating new methods to open up research into Irish women’s history. The results of this challenge is fully displayed within this volume, which is an important work for all those interested in researching and writing women into history.