The 25th anniversary of the publication of ‘An Agenda for Women’s History in Ireland, 1500-1900’ inspired a colloquium hosted by the Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI) at NUI Galway last Friday. The brainchild of Bronagh McShane (secretary of the WHAI, researcher with RECIRC since 2015, and now embarking on a postdoctoral project, writing a history of women religious in early modern Ireland, funded by the National University of Ireland), the event showcased current initiatives in research, combined with reflection on where the field is at.
Evan Bourke kicked off the first panel with a survey of the epistolary network of Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (1615-91). Bourke deployed network graphs to show that critics’ emphasis on Ranelagh’s intellectual connections (with Samuel Hartlib and her brother Robert Boyle) has sidelined the importance of her familial correspondence. Honing in on her exchange of letters with her elder brother Richard, earl of Burlington, Bourke demonstrated Ranelagh’s equal concern with politics and strategic familial advantage. Frances Nolan reconstructed the relationship of Frances (née Jenyns) Talbot, countess of Tyrconnell (1648-1731), with her daughters – a fraught dynamic encapsulated in Lady Tyrconnell’s barbed comment that ‘there cannot be a more odious bitter thing then child[r]en’. Reminiscent of ‘an early modern episode of the Kardashians’, Nolan deftly mined her sources to interrogate the women’s complaints to their aunt, the influential Sarah Churchill, duchess of Marlborough, regarding their mother’s mismanagement of their portions and their exclusion from her various wills. Clodagh Tait’s study of emotion and authority in seventeenth-century Irish families complemented Nolan’s paper in its focus on wills and letters as sources for understanding emotions in Galway and Kilkenny. Arguing that wills offer insight into the emotional dynamics of families – in particular via the example of Valentine Blake’s differential treatment of his grandchildren – and teasing out the ways in which anger could be gendered, through the letters of Henry Lynch to his wife Mary, Tait offered a stimulating vision of how early modern Ireland can be illuminated by an approach informed by the history of emotions.
The second panel began with Jane Maxwell’s castigation of historians who mistakenly interpret early modern women’s letters as indicative of illiteracy. Countering that the emerging culture of letter writing transformed women’s writing practices, she drew on sources from the late seventeenth through to the nineteenth centuries to contextualize and historicize epistolary materiality. Felicity Maxwell (no relation) surveyed current scholarship on women’s letter-writing in England, Scotland, Ireland and Europe, as a springboard for her discussion of the biography and correspondence of Dorothy Moore Dury (subject of her current monograph project, funded by the Irish Research Council). She argued for an innately cross-cultural and transnational quality to the composition of women’s letters from Ireland in this period. Sparky Booker brought us back into the medieval period to consider legal applications of the category ‘woman’.
She pitted theory against practice, evaluating prescription in relation to coverture (a married woman’s subordination to her husband by law) against the evidence of specific legal cases and verdicts in fourteenth-century Ireland, in the process cautioning against easy generalizations.
The WHAI sponsored a reception and prize-giving prior to the final session. Frances Nolan won the 2017 WHAI-Irish Historical Studies Publication Prize for her article, ‘The Cat’s Paw: Helen Arthur, the Act of Resumption and The Popish Pretenders to the Forfeited Estates in Ireland, 1700-3’ (forthcoming in Irish Historical Studies). Susan Byrne won the 2017 WHAI MacCurtain/Cullen Essay Prize for ‘“Now will you be a Free Stater?” Gender and Sexual Violence Against Women during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, 1919-1923’, completed as part of an MA degree in History at UCD.
The keynote was delivered by Mary O’Dowd; her appraisal of 1992’s ‘Agenda for Women’s History’ revisited the historical moment of that article’s inception and considered the directions in which the field has moved since. Lamenting the loss of a more flexible academic environment, she recounted the commissioning of essays for the 1991 Women in Early Modern Ireland volume (co-edited with Margaret MacCurtain) from academics who could take the time to extend beyond already established specialisms.
Her talk raised questions about the relationship of women’s history to ‘mainstream’ and gender history, then and now. It identified particular areas of progress: aristocratic women, female authors and their networks, women’s depositions and legal status, religion, land settlements. Looking to future agendas, O’Dowd drew attention to the expansion of sources that has been taking place in social history (and exemplified in the colloquium’s preceding papers) – parish records, wills, court and ecclesiastical records – and advocated collaboration with museums and archaeologists in pursuit of material culture. By way of conclusion, O’Dowd pointed the way, presenting her own current research on family relationships and age in early modern Ireland.
Some Further Reading
Margaret MacCurtain, Mary O’Dowd and Maria Luddy, ‘An Agenda for Women’s History in Ireland, 1500-1900’, Irish Historical Studies 28 (1992): 1-37.
Evan Bourke, ‘Female Involvement, Membership, and Centrality: A Social Network Analysis of the Hartlib Circle’, Literature Compass: The Seventeenth Century 14 (2017).
Clodagh Tait, ‘“Whereat his wife tooke great greef & died”: Dying of Sorrow and Killing in Anger in Seventeenth-Century Ireland’, in Michael J. Braddick and Phil Withington (eds.), Popular Culture and Political Agency in Early Modern England and Ireland: Essays in Honour of John Walter (Boydell, 2017), pp. 267-84.
Felicity Maxwell, ‘Calling for Collaboration: Women and Public Service in Dorothy Moore’s Transnational Protestant Correspondence’, Literature Compass: The Seventeenth Century 14 (2017).
Sparky Booker, ‘The Geraldines and the Irish: Intermarriage, Ecclesiastical Patronage and Status’, in Peter Crooks and Seán Duffy (eds.), The Geraldines and Medieval Ireland (Four Courts, 2016).
Mary O’Dowd, ‘Men, Women, Children and the Family, 1550–1730’, in Jane Ohlmeyer (ed.), The Cambridge History of Ireland (Cambridge University Press, 2018), II, pp. 298-320.