Speech by Mrs Sabina Higgins at the conference ‘Women – Their Contribution to Irish History and Society’
Moylough, County Galway, Sunday, 21 October 2018
It is such a pleasure for me to join you to reflect on, and to celebrate, the contribution of Irish women to our history and our society. We do so on the centenary of the general election that led to the establishment of our First Dáil Éireann, the democrat assembly of the revolutionary Irish Republic which authroised and organised our War of Independence. That election of December 1918 was the first held after women, after centuries of unceasing struggle, had won the right to vote.
This year of 2018 has provided us with a special opportunity to celebrate the achievement of the great victory that women’s suffrage represented, not just for women, but for all who recognise that gender equality and women’s rights are central to any republic worthy of the name.
Michael and I have attended events throughout the year to commemorate the energy and courage of all those women of a century ago who devoted themselves to the cause of justice and equality, and to pay tribute and recall their organisations – Irish Women’s Franchise League, the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation, the Irish Women Workers’ Union, Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan. Those events have gone some way towards restoring the memory of those women to our national consciousness – but much remains to be done.
I am so honoured and so delighted to attend this conference today. May I thank the Moylough Heritage Society for their most generous and kind invitation and commend them for organising this conference. Our local authorities and county councils play such a vital role in supporting and sustaining our heritage, so may I also commend Galway county council for extending their support to this endeavour.
This conference is a reminder, not only of the centrality of women to our national history – a centrality which is only now slowly being recognised – but of the adversity so many women overcame as individuals and as a collective, and of the strength and resolve that they demonstrated throughout our long and turbulent march towards nationhood.
We who were born and raised in the West can still see the outlines of the villages abandoned during An Górta Mór, the Great Hunger, as millions starved, died of disease or were forced to flee to America. The oral accounts of the Famine, s carefully collected and housed in the Department of Folklore in UCD, tell us of women going to extraordinary lengths to sustain their families, waling great lengths to buy corn working in the fields, and labouring beside men in the relief works, digging drains and ditches.
Women were paid but a penny and half in the relief works, while men were paid two pennies. Others were placed indoors in workhouses, such as the girls at Mountbellew workhouse. Last October, Michael and I visited Western Australia, the destination of some of those orphan girls – it was deeply moving to imagine their long journey to Australia and the lives they sought to make in a new world beside the Pacific Ocean. I am very much looking forward to learning more today from Paula Kennedy and Kathleen Connolly.
It I not surprising that, forty years after the Famine, it was women who organised the conduct and organisation of the Land War when the men of the National Land league were jailed. The Ladies’ Land League was not the first national political organisation of women on our island, and it fought not just for political rights but for economic and social rights, for the defence of the homestead and against evections.
I often think that Anna Parnell, the leader of the Ladies’ Land League, should be given as much honour as her brother, Charles Stewart Parnell, and I hope that, in time, she may be returned from her resting place in Devon to the soil of her native Ireland.
The true heirs to the Ladies’ Land League, and to their wonderful example, may be the Irish countrywomen’s Association – for it was the ICA who were at the vanguard of the demand for rural electrification and the provision of clean water across our country, two of the most basic prerequisites for or national economic and social development.
The example of all those women from our national past, whether in the political, social, cultural or economic spheres, can sustain us as we seek to make progress in our time. I do not need to remind anyone here that, despite all the efforts off women such as Ada English, Constance Markievicz and Helena Maloney, the formal political equality achieved in the new Irish State in the 1920 was not matched by real political equality, nor was it accompanied by real economic, social or civic equality.
In spite of the promise of the Easter proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, women still faced a long and difficult march towards equality – and I am speaking of equality in all its forms. It has been march marked by many setbacks, and even defeats, in a society that yields only slowly and painfully to change. Yet yield it has, thanks to the unceasing struggle of ourselves and our forebears, from the demands for economic development advanced by the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, to the removal of the marriage bar, equal representation on juries, to equal pay for equal work, and all the other wonderful victories of the past century.
If this conference today reminds us of all those struggles, all those defeats, and all those victories, let it also inspire us tow in new rights in our time.
Go néirí go geal libh go léir.