Irish Studies, Uncategorized

Women of the Country House in Ireland – Five minutes with Maeve O’Riordan

Ahead of the launch of Women of the Country House in Ireland, 1860-1914, author Maeve O’Riordan discusses the various experiences of women among the Irish Ascendancy, from financial freedom to their own observations of motherhood.

Women of the Country House in Ireland 1860-1914 reveals the lives of the women among the Irish Ascendancy. How did you go about conducting your research for this project?

The book examines the lives of women from twelve landed families in Ireland, all of whom had a house in Munster. It explores their experiences from girlhood to old age, whether they married or not. I wanted to give space to these women’s own voices, so most of my research time was spent with the letters, diaries, scrapbooks, novels, memoirs, sketchbooks and other items written by women who either were born or married into the Irish landed class. Luckily, their descendants have shared their papers with a library – mostly the National Library of Ireland but also the Boole Library in University College Cork and other places.

With literally thousands of pages of letters written by these women preserved in these libraries, it was possible to become totally immersed in the material. The structure of the book evolved over time as the themes emerged from the surviving letters.

I hope that readers will gain a clear insight into the female experience among the class through the book. By examining women’s own voices it is possible to see how they viewed their own roles within the house. The female role was an important one to the success of the family, even though, legally, women had few rights at the time.

‘a youth and a matron suspiciously placed…with his arm encircling the motherly waist.’‘A Floggy Flirtation, 1889 –Lady Castletown’s scrapbook. Image Credit: NLI


What was the female experience among the privileged landed classes like in the mid-nineteenth century? Did it vary a lot between families?

The women in this study were all members of some of the wealthiest families in Ireland, however, even within this group, there were differences in wealth between families. For example, the estate of the Earl of Bantry stretched over 60,000 acres while the Ryan family in Tipperary only owned around 1,000 acres. Olive, the daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bantry married Lord Ardilaun – one of the richest men in Ireland or Britain – who owned the Guinness brewing empire. She had every possible comfort and a number of properties to call home, including Ashford Castle in County Mayo and Macroom Castle in County Cork.  The wives of the Ryan landlords had no such comparable wealth.

The most pronounced difference in experience, however, was within families between married and unmarried women, and women at different life stages. For example, Ethel, Lady Inchiquin, brought a dowry of £100,000 to her marriage in 1896. Throughout her married life, she acted with financial and personal freedom while remaining close to her husband. Ethel’s niece by marriage, Maud, was not as independent. After quarrelling with her mother, Ellen, in 1905, the unmarried woman was thrown out of the house and had no option to live with another sister on an allowance of £15 per month. To provide some context; in 1886, Ellen had hired a governess for Maud and her siblings on a salary of £80 per annum. Maud was completely reliant on the goodwill of her family for her financial security.

Ethel Foster, and extremely wealthy English heiress married the heir of Dromoland Castle in 1896. Their wedding was a statement of wealth and power. Read more about them in Women of the Country House in Ireland, 1860-1914 Image credit: NLI

When working on this project did you come across anything that you found particularly surprising?

There are a number of findings which surprise others when I talk about the book, particularly the fact that so many of these women were involved mothers who breastfed their babies and only relied on wet nurses in instances where they were too sick to nurse their own babies. For example, Mabel, who is depicted on the cover of the book with her son Brendan joked that he was turning her into a pagan as she could not attend church as he wanted to be constantly fed. When he was three months old she wrote that Brendan was ‘still practically a two-hours baby’ which meant ‘that the time for doing regular everyday things never seems to come’.

However, what has surprised me the most was the amount of movement across the Irish Sea on marriage. It has long been understood that many Irish landlords found English wives, but it was not known the extent to which women who grew up in Ireland ended up marrying into the English gentry and aristocracy. Of the peers’ daughters in this study, twice as many married English rather than Irish husbands. I want to examine this experience further in my future research.

How do you think Women of the Country House in Ireland 1860-1914 paves the way for further research into the history of women?

There has been a huge increase in the level of interest on women in the country house over the past few years. This book examines the female experience in a number of aspects of their lives. However, this book is only a starting point. Each one of the chapters could be expanded into longer studies of marriage, experiences of unmarried women, girlhood, political involvement, travel, social networks etc. I hope to complete some of this work, but many studies are needed before we can build a complete picture of the class at the time.

Maeve O’Riordan is Lecturer in Women’s and Cultural History at the School of History, University College Cork.

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Irish Studies

The Sixties and Youth Culture – A Distinctly Irish Experience

How was Ireland affected by the international youth culture of the Sixties? Author Carole Holohan discusses the pros and cons of life as a young adult in Sixties Ireland and reveals some of the surprising discoveries she made whilst writing her new book, Reframing Irish Youth in the Sixties.

How was the reformulation of youth key to social change in the Republic of Ireland during the sixties?

Changes in people’s expectations of young people and in their understanding of youth as a stage in the life cycle are a very significant element of the broader social changes of this period. Whether or not young people in your society work, emigrate or are in education tell you a lot about that society. The extent to which they engage in traditional or commercial leisure activities and the way in which adults in statutory, religious and secular agencies and associations respond to young people also gives us insights into how that society operates. Internationally, the status of youth changed in the post-war period and a new media environment, and greater political and economic connectedness in the West, facilitated a greater level of Irish interaction with new models and ideas. Like in other modern industrial societies, youth became a central focus and this was evident in the rhetoric of official, religious and civic bodies, and in the media.  Young people, long associated with emigration in the Irish context, were more likely to be viewed as an asset, rather than a burden, worthy of investment with a view to a more prosperous future. At the same time an international youth culture propelled the cultural significance of young people and intersected with commercial interests to produce separate physical and cultural spaces for young people. These developments suggested that authoritarian approaches by adults towards young people were inappropriate and ineffective, and the field of youth work adapted accordingly. Adult and parental authority was somewhat undermined, while cultural and market forces fuelled the independence of young people in certain areas of their lives. These shifts in how youth was understood worked in tandem with actual changes in the experiences of Irish young people and they directly contributed to changes in many areas of life, from the further commercialisation of leisure to changes to access to education.

How did the experiences of young people in the Republic of Ireland change in this period?

While at a rhetorical and planning level the position of young people changed significantly, the impact of these shifts in understandings of the position of youth impacted different sections of the youth population in different ways. For the social category of youth, the sixties marked a significant break with the immediate past – youth emigration was no longer chronic as it was in the 1950s and this was reflected in the rise in the number of 14-24 year olds engaged in non-agricultural employment and in education. Some trends such as the falling numbers in agriculture and domestic service were ongoing from the 1940s. Others such as the rising numbers in education and in white collar employment accelerated, while the number of young people in industry had actually fallen in 1950s. Young people were increasingly engaged either in waged employment or in education, the former granting a significant measure of independence, the latter providing for occupational opportunities in the future. However, there were definite winners and losers. Those without education and training would find it increasingly difficult to find employment as unskilled workers, with many continuing to emigrate. Others, particularly those with a secondary school or third level education, benefited from a more diverse employment market, often in Irish cities. The most vulnerable therefore gained least from the economic changes, while those with greater social capital, already destined for white collar work, benefited more.

Has your research on Irish youth revealed anything that you found particularly surprising?

I found that the received wisdom that Ireland is a place that is always lagging behind, imitating or catching up with its near neighbours is not always a useful way to consider the nature of social and cultural change in this society. While this can be true in certain areas, Irish governments, churches and civil society organisations were often engaged with forums where new ideas about the economy and social services were just being developed. International models would face adaptation of different kinds in different societies. The same pertained in the cultural sphere. Irish showbands should not be compared to the Beatles or the Beach Boys but rather the copycat bands of Western Europe who, similar to Irish showbands, adopted and adapted British and American music for a domestic audience. The Irish experience is often a distinct, though not exceptional, one. Using youth as a historical lens made this very clear to me.


Carole Holohan is Assistant Professor in Modern Irish History at Trinity College Dublin.

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Irish Studies

The left, migrants and solidarity – a difficult relationship

Daniel Renshaw on the Labour Party, minority communities and what you can expect from his recent book Socialism and the Diasporic Other.

One of the key narratives examined in my book Socialism and the Diasporic ‘Other’ is the evolution of the attitude of the British left towards ‘difference’ at a key transitional stage for the movement. As I discuss, the role of socialism and particularly the Labour Party as the defender of minority communities, who were the targets for the opprobrium of the radical right and marginalisation by the British State, was not inevitable and was contested throughout the period.

The modern left formed in London during a period of demographic change in the capital. From 1881 onwards, following pogroms and legal discrimination against Russian and Polish Jews, mass migration from Eastern Europe to Britain took place. In London, these Yiddish-speaking migrants were now neighbours with another diasporic ‘other’ that had been living in the East End in significant numbers for a generation – a tightly knit Irish community. As Socialism and the Diasporic ‘Other’ examines, the relationship between the two communities was a complex and at times difficult one, but it was out of the interactions between the Jewish and Irish populations that the modern trade union movement emerged.

It was this Irish community, to be exact the young women of the Irish community, who took the first difficult step on the road to mass unionisation of unskilled workers in London. These were the matchwomen of Bryant and May, who in the summer of 1888 forced their employer to come to terms after a period of strike action. This was followed in the summer of 1889 by strike action in the docks and gasworks, both employing large numbers of male Irish workers, and then in the autumn of that year by male and female Jewish workers in the tailoring trade. The strikers were successful, and the events of 1888-89 marked the arrival of a ‘new unionism’ which organised not just small numbers of skilled workers but also unskilled labourers in the casual trades. In 1889 Irish and Jewish workers campaigned together, picketed together, and supported each other’s strike funds financially.

After the hopes of 1889, the 1890s was a period of retreat for trade unionism in the capital. The employers in the casual trades of the East End fought back, and many of the gains of 1889 were lost. It was also a decade in which the difficulties that the mainstream trade union movement had with ethnic and diasporic ‘difference’ were made explicit. At the TUC conferences of the mid-1890s delegates repeatedly voted for entry restrictions on migration into the UK, and Jewish workers in the clothing trade were pilloried in the socialist press as ‘natural’ ‘blacklegs’.

This designation by the labour movement of East End Jews as strike-breakers was finally jettisoned with the successful strikes of 1911-12, by which point a new form of socialism, syndicalism, was in the ascent. Just as in 1889, Jewish workers in the tailoring industry and Irish labourers on the docks found themselves involved in a conflict with the employers at the same time, and the strikes were again marked by inter-ethnic comradeship, including Jewish families in Whitechapel feeding the children of striking dockers.

The relationship between the British left and ‘difference’ continued (and continues) to be a difficult one after the period examined in my book. The First World War precipitated a split in British socialism, between those elements that supported the war effort and those committed either to pacifism or what would become the Leninist position, to transform the national conflict into a civil war between classes. Certain leading figures in British socialism including H.M Hyndman and Robert Blatchford outdid the most vitriolic right-wing ‘jingos’ in their bloodthirsty anti-German rhetoric.

The left’s role as the defender and champion of ‘subaltern’ groups under attack became explicit in the anti-fascist resistance of the 1930s. By this point the factional and divided East End left examined in my book had coalesced into the CPGB and a Labour Party which was not a party of government. Both of these groups, working alongside Jewish ex-servicemen’s organisations, took part in combating Mosley. This campaign culminated in the Battle of Cable Street on 04 October 1936, during which once again Irish and Jewish workers came together on the streets of East London, coordinated by socialist organisations. This was not the whole of the story, however. Mosley enjoyed a certain level of support amongst Irish Catholic communities in the East End, exploiting sentiments of both anti-communism and antisemitism in the community. Just as in the 1890s and 1900s, solidarity and discord existed side by side in the inter-war East End.

I wrote the conclusion to Socialism and the Diasporic ‘Other’ in the early months of 2016. I ended on a cautiously optimistic note, stressing that although both in my period and subsequently groups had emerged outside of the socialist and labour movements which attempted to exploit sentiments of resentment and suspicion of minority groups amongst Labour voters, the left had responded successfully to these challenges. However, I added the caveat that at certain points, following Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 for example, support for a racist platform was apparent in elements of the movement (including, in that case, East London dockers). Now I am somewhat less optimistic. In the book, I write about tensions in my period apparent within the left between a wish to champion marginalised groups and to represent the wider working class. Post the Brexit vote, a referendum on attitudes towards migration as much as membership of the EU, this tension is arguably even more apparent than it was in the 1890s. The difficulties that the left has interacting with ‘difference’ have not lessened since the conclusion of the period I look at, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, they are more apparent than ever.


Daniel Renshaw is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Reading.


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Irish Studies

Strangling Angel: Diphtheria and Childhood Immunization in Ireland

Michael Dwyer, author of Strangling Angel, discusses Diphtheria, cover-ups and the childhood immunization programme in Ireland.

Strangling Angel was inspired by the work of Dr Jack Saunders, Chief Medical Officer to Cork City, Ireland, from 1929 to 1956. Saunders’ annual reports give a unique insight into the challenges faced by a new cohort of public health doctors on the frontline of health service provision in early to mid-twentieth century Ireland. These records reveal the extraordinary origins of the childhood immunization programme in Ireland and they locate Cork city as the unlikely European frontline of the bacteriological revolution. Saunders’ alliance with the British pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome gave him access to cutting-edge, yet highly experimental, anti-diphtheria serums which were field trialled among institutional children, and among the wider child population in Cork.

Even close engagement with the statistical record relating to infectious disease in Ireland could not justify Saunders’ radical intervention, nor would it offer any rationale as to why the first home-grown Irish government opted to introduce and actively promote a national anti-diphtheria immunization programme. Despite the distinct absence of diphtheria from the historical record Strangling Angel shows that the disease was a prolific child-killer in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Ireland. The early chapters of the book attempt to rescue diphtheria from obscurity and to re-establish its reputation as ‘the most dreaded disease of childhood’. The ‘strangling angel’ of children, that showed scant regard for status and infiltrated Europe’s royal palaces as well as her slums and hovels. A sinuous disease, diphtheria very often took every child in a household and regularly decimated the child population of entire communities.

The long period of disruption attendant on the First World War, the Irish Revolution and subsequent Civil War left the newly independent Irish state with a seriously compromised system of public health administration and service provision. In 1923, the reconstitution of the Ministry of Local Government as the Department of Local Government and Public Health demonstrated that the incumbent Cumann na nGael administration had set improved health services among their first national goals. When the collection of statistical data relating to infectious disease resumed, it became clear that infectious disease in general, and diphtheria in particular, was endemic throughout the country. A new cohort of public health doctors, trained in modern public health interventions in America, were recruited to take charge of public health administration and service provision in every county.

In New York, William Park and Abraham Zingher had demonstrated the effectiveness of combating high levels of diphtheria among school children by administering anti-diphtheria prophylactic as a preventive measure. Although active immunization found advocates in Europe, a strong anti-vaccination lobby ensured that laboratory interventions were not adopted in Britain. In Ireland, the Cumman na nGael government eschewed the reticence of their British counterparts, took their cue from the American experience and adopted and promoted anti-diphtheria immunization. This is noteworthy. It demonstrates that Irish officials and medical officers readily abandoned traditional sanitarian approaches to disease control and embraced new public health methodologies to protect child life. Furthermore, it demonstrates that when it came to public health, the Cumman na nGael administration were not as conservative as the historiography suggests and did not always adopt the British stance on any given matter.

Before the establishment of a stand-alone Department of Health in 1947, the quality of health service provision depended on the efficacy, or otherwise, of the County Medical Officer. Although the Department of Local Government and Public Health actively promoted anti-diphtheria immunization in a bid to completely eradicate diphtheria the decision to implement immunization schemes rested with the local Medical Officer in each county. The wider medical community in Ireland retained their colonial affiliations and continued to view Britain as their professional compass. Furthermore, the wider and more conservative medical profession viewed the new cohort of public health doctors with suspicion. They saw them as a threat to their medical authority, and to traditional income streams, and did not readily support active immunization. The national childhood immunization programme was not readily accepted by the medical community in Ireland: the necessary components to ensure a successful intervention did not combine organically. They were forged through conflict and tragedy.

The most tragic and disturbing incident centred on the Ring College immunization disaster in 1936 when a routine anti-diphtheria immunization scheme resulted in twenty-four children contracting Tuberculosis and the death of a twelve-year-old girl. The historiography relating to the Ring incident is unanimous in its verdict; that Burroughs Wellcome mistakenly supplied a vial of live Tuberculosis in lieu of anti-diphtheria serum. However, Strangling Angel presents new evidence which strongly suggests that an elaborate cover-up of criminal proportions, designed to protect the beleaguered local doctor Daniel McCarthy, was mounted by his advisors, some of whom were senior medical practitioners. The initial cover-up of the immunisation accident itself left the affected children without the close medical attention which they required, and a child fatality ensued. Attempted criminal interference by McCarthy’s advisors failed to halt a coroner’s inquest into the death of the child, and a concocted verdict exonerating McCarthy and laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of Burroughs Wellcome was subsequently returned by a local jury under the influence of the college authorities.

When the subsequent high court case failed to uphold the charge levelled against Wellcome, or to apportion blame on Dr McCarthy, an ambiguous verdict decimated support for established childhood immunisation schemes in Ireland, and the incident was adopted by the anti-vaccination movement in Britain as a warning against the implementation of immunisation schemes there. Furthermore, the Ring incident was hijacked by the Irish Medical Association to support their monetary claims for increased remuneration for providing immunisation services. When minister Sean T. O’Kelly refused to budge on the matter, the medical association withdrew their immunisation services stating that no clarification had been forthcoming on the issue of indemnity relating to the use of anti-diphtheria antigens. As agreement on indemnity or remuneration could not be reached, the medical union maintained their withdrawal of immunisation services for over ten years: until an intervention by Minister Noel Browne settled the matter in 1948. This whole debacle, a direct result of the Ring incident, impacted adversely on the health and life expectancy of infant and child populations in districts far from Ring College.

In 1941, pandemic diphtheria spread across war-torn Europe. By the time the disease reached Britain and Ireland it had taken over one million child lives. The severity of the infection in Britain forced health officials there to perform a volte face, and to introduce a national programme of anti-diphtheria immunization. In Ireland, diphtheria re-appeared in levels not witnessed since the pre-immunization era. Parents were faced with a tough decision. To expose their children to a rampant and potentially fatal disease or to subject them to a compromised immunization programme. By 1944, mounting diphtheria fatalities focused minds and municipal health clinics were overwhelmed by parents seeking to have their children immunized.


Strangling Angel: Diphtheria and Childhood Immunization in Ireland is important as it is the first comprehensive study of the origins of the childhood immunization programme in Ireland. It portrays Irish public health authorities as being progressive regarding their willingness to accept and employ new public health initiatives, and importantly, it highlights how this attitude differed from the sluggish response of their British counterparts. The book explores the radical public health interventions which pitted efforts to achieve communal health against the rights of the individual. It presents a historical precedent where the actions of one medical practitioner undermined public confidence in the immunization process itself. In an era when childhood immunization is increasingly considered more of a lifestyle choice than a lifesaving intervention, this book may bring some historical context to bear on a current public health debate.


Michael Dwyer is a lecturer in the School of History at University College Cork.

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Irish Studies

An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland

Following the release of An Army of Tribes, author Edward Burke discusses the behaviour of soldiers and their commanders and his exploration of the autonomy of British infantry units in Northern Ireland. 

In July 2012, I decided to walk the 303 miles of the Irish border for charity. I had recently returned from a year and a half in Afghanistan, where security restrictions and high fences had limited my movements. I was rewarded with walks along twisting boreens arched with canopies of ash, scrambles over sentinel hills such as Cuilcagh or Slieve Gullion and long pauses at the ethereal loughs of the Ulster marches. Battle sites were also strewn across my path, as I walked through or past places such as the Barnesmore gap, Benburb, and Moyry pass. These were often remarkably serene places: is very difficult to find anything but peace at ‘Bloody Pass’, the Upper Lough Erne site of a massacre of Jacobite soldiers after the Battle of Newtownbutler in 1689. I was treated with an immense kindness and not a little curiosity during my hike along the border. In quieter moments, people would relate to me some darker stories. Standing on a wind-stripped hill in west Tyrone, a Catholic farmer told me how his only neighbour, serving in the local Ulster Defence Regiment battalion, would lie in wait at night in a field his house to taunt his elderly mother with sectarian abuse.

Grievance and violence in such a setting was extremely intimate, with complicated, often highly localized, motives. As I walked and tried to get my head around such accounts, I became increasingly curious as to how British soldiers made sense of such a political and social landscape, what were the accepted narratives and ‘truths’ that enabled them to function, to do ‘a job’ and emotionally respond to casualties during this most violent of period of the Troubles? Too often, at least in Irish Republican narratives, the British Army has been unhelpfully demonised; atrocities inevitably lead to the top and everything was planned from the outset. The divergent motivations, experiences, and emotions of soldiers in different units are lost in such accounts.

Out of that long walk came the idea for a book, one that took more than five years to research and write. The central argument of An Army of Tribes is that British Army small infantry units enjoyed considerable autonomy during the early years of Operation Banner and could behave in a vengeful, highly aggressive or benign and conciliatory way as their local commanders saw fit. The strain of civil-military relations at a senior level was replicated operationally – as soldiers came to resent the limitations of waging war in the UK. The unwillingness of the Army’s senior leadership to thoroughly investigate and punish serious transgressions of standard operating procedures in Northern Ireland created uncertainty among soldiers over expected behaviour and desired outcomes. Mid-ranking officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) often played important roles in restraining soldiers in Northern Ireland. The degree of violence used was much less than that seen in the colonial wars fought since the end of The Second World War. But overly aggressive groups of soldiers could also be mistaken for high-functioning units – with negative consequences for the Army’s overall strategy in Northern Ireland.

Unchecked cohesion has a way of turning on its master. Too often a detrimental, excessive and ultimately deviant loyalty to the regiment or its sub-units could seriously damage government policy and the reputation of the British Army in Northern Ireland. The fear of ostracism from the group, away from leaders that have taken on a charismatic role of influence, is often too great for young soldiers to refuse to carry out collective tasks or stand witness against other soldiers. As an NCO in 1st Battalion, Scots Guards observed, a deviant but charismatic Sergeant could ‘ruin’ a platoon in weeks, as young soldiers began to emulate him. Only sound officership and a strong sergeants’ mess can stop such a rot. But a ‘hyper-invested’ group, one that contains soldiers with proven combat records, can sometimes be confused for a high-functioning one in aggressive units. It takes a good commander to know the difference.

Edward Burke is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

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