Searching for a Christmas gift for someone with an interest in Irish women’s history or the republican movement? Look no further than Ann Matthews’ Renegades: Irish Republican Women, 1900-1922 (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010). Priced at €19.99, this highly readable paperback would make a great stocking stuffer.
In Renegades, Matthews examines the role played by women in the political and social revolutions that occurred in Ireland in the early twentieth century. She sets the scene with a discussion of the foundation laid by Fenian women and the Ladies Land League before turning to the main event: the contributions made by women to the advanced nationalist / republican movement between 1900 and 1922. Matthews refuses to allow those notorious scene stealers Maud Gonne and Countess Constance de Markievicz to hog the limelight and instead illuminates the work of the many unknown or lesser known women who made the fight for Irish freedom possible. She covers the contributions of everyone from veteran political activist Jennie Wyse Power (1858-1941) to May McLoughlin, the 15-year-old Clan na Gael girl scout who served as a messenger during the 1916 Rising. In many ways Renegades builds on and revises Margaret Ward’s 1989 classic Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism.
Among the book’s highlights is a ground-breaking chapter on the physical and sexual violence experienced by women during the War of Independence (1919-21), an issue that demands further research from historians. Matthews also explains the socio-economic background of various activists, helping the reader to understand the constraints faced by these women.
A weakness of the book – and this is a mere quibble – is a lack of attention to detail at times. For example, Matthews’ statement that twenty-eight children under the age of fifteen were killed by gunfire in 1916 is followed by a list of the dead that includes several sixteen-year-olds (pp 145-6). On page 104 she reports that the Howth gun-running took place in June rather than July 1914. The bibliography includes a creative spelling of historian Diane Urquhart’s surname: ‘Urguart’ (p. 394). In addition, given that the book is about women, it would have been useful if the index had cross-referenced women under their maiden and married names. For instance, it was not absolutely clear to this reader whether references to Min Ryan and Min Mulcahy were to the same person, given that Min Ryan married Richard Mulcahy in 1919.
Overall, however, Renegades provides readers with a fresh look at the Irish struggle for independence through the lens of women republican activists.
Marnie Hay lectures in history at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of Bulmer Hobson and the nationalist movement in twentieth-century Ireland (Manchester University Press, 2009).