I’ve been in Manchester for the past couple of days to attend The State of Ireland, 1914, conference organised by Dr Katherine Fennelly and Dr Patrick Doyle of the University of Manchester. While discussion of the First World War and the Irish Revolution naturally could not be escaped, it was really refreshing to consider 1914 beyond the centenary of WW1 and Ireland’s decade of commemoration.
There was a great blend of papers looking at the political, social and cultural scene in Ireland. Presentations played on the conference title to consider both Ireland as a State and the state of the country by 1914. My own paper explored the content of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin newspaper, which first appeared in 1906 and was suppressed shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. While I enjoyed all of the papers, there were some that really captured my interest.
In the session on ‘Reflections on the State’, John McAuliffe (University of Manchester) spoke about W.B. Yeats in 1914. While I enjoy Yeats’ poetry and have an awareness of some of the influences on his work, I was surprised to learn about the effect that the Third Home Rule bill had on the poet. As McAuliffe explained, in The Grey Rock Yeats explored both his Irish and Anglo heritage and this was made possible due to the fact that the Home Rule legislation was redrawing the relationship between Britain and Ireland.
In the same session, Liam Harte (University of Manchester) reflected on Patrick MacGill’s Children of the Dead End. For me, this riveting paper was the standout contribution of the conference. MacGill’s 1914 publication was hugely successful, selling 10,000 copies in its first two months of publication and has never been out of print since. Despite its publishing success, the book has not been without its criticisms, most notably of the ending which jars with the overall tone of the book. Widely read as fictionalised autobiography, it completely by-passes the national question to give an insight into everyday lives in the Irish West. Providing a realistic exposé, it strips away the mythical facade that the cultural nationalist movement sought to create for peasant life in the West of Ireland. Commenting on the relationship between priest and landlord, MacGill’s work, Harte explained, echoes Joyce’s thesis that Ireland was ruled by two masters: one in Westminster, the other in Rome. Harte also noted that the book gives an insight into the formation of masculinity in early twentieth century Catholic Ireland — an aspect of the book, he commented during lunch afterwards, that has been largely overlooked.
I also really enjoyed the paper from Sarah Bartosiak (Eastern Connecticut State University / Trinity College, Dublin) on gender roles and the struggle for Irish nationalism. I was particularly interested in what she had to say about how the traditional role of the woman in the house was extended by women’s nationalist organisations, such as Cumann na mBan. As she noted, women who contributed to 1916 as cooks or nurses were essentially expanding their roles in the home beyond the traditional domestic setting. ‘Buy Irish’ campaigns were often targeted at women, with one particular flyer specifically targeting mothers to buy Irish-made sweets for their children.
The day was rounded off with a brilliant and very timely paper from Virigina Crossman (Oxford Brookes University). Exploring poverty and welfare in Ireland, she spoke of the division in attitudes between those towards the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’. Society was prepared to aid people who had fallen on difficult times for reasons beyond their control (unemployment, ill-health), but it was believed that those groups seen as responsible for their own poverty (vagrants, unmarried mothers, prostitutes) should be treated more harshly. To be lenient would only encourage them to continue an immoral life, it was thought. In the context of these attitudes, Crossman referred to the current scandal of the Mother and Baby home in Tuam (for further information on Tuam, see Philip Boucher-Hayes’ blog). As she pointed out, historically, it hasn’t just been the Catholic Church that says we should be harsh on so-called ‘immoral people’, but rather this is a much deeper, more complex idea that stretches across Ireland (and Britain), Nationalists and Unionists.
Well done to Katherine Fennelly and Patrick Doyle for organising such a stimulating day of discussion.