MORE Irish women than Irishmen have over the years emigrated from Ireland. In this new history of Ireland from the 1920s to the 1950s Jennifer Redmond uses an important array of new sources to tell their story. This includes newspapers, archives, oral histories, statistics and personal stories.
The Irish Constitution of 1922 enshrined for all citizens religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities, but it also lauded the traditional Irish woman as wife and mother and not the feisty women of the Irish Citizen Army or the suffragettes. Not a surprise then that after independence women emigrants outnumbered men 1926-31 and 1945-51. In the 1920s 84% of emigrants went to the USA, but, as the latter brought in restrictions, by the 1930s 94% went to the UK. In the North of Ireland these figures were reversed, perhaps reflecting more job opportunities for women.
Redmond highlights the inadequacy of the new Irish Government to deal with a serious failure of the new state. As Redmond comments. “No elected official emerged as a champion of emigrants in the post-Independance period, and women representatives did not demonstrate an interest in either developing arguments on the necessity for women to work or defending female emigrants from charges of moral wantonness.”
Irish women emigrated primarily for work and for the better wages and conditions in Britain. Irish women (and men) played a significant role in the many battles fought and won in the British trade union and labour movement for a better world for all workers in this country. For me a major omission from the book is any reference to this history, including the role that groups such as the Connolly Association played in issues such as the role of Irish nurses in the NHS.
Moving Histories is an important contribution to the history of Irish women emigrants in the UK but the classic is still the 1988 “Across the Water Irish Women’s Lives in Britain” by Lennon, McAdam and O’Brien. Both of these books, in their own ways, as Redmond comments “explores these lives interpreting the weight given to loss and tragedy in narratives of emigration in a specifically gendered way.”
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