Birth of Free State and the control and gendering of Irish women

While men of violence were denounced, church and State deplored emancipation of women

On a dull winter day in the year of Irish Free State's birth, Rev Sheehy addressed the women of Ireland at the annual conference of the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland [CTSI]: "The great question is: what really will you do with your lives here and now in Ireland in the year of Our Lord 1922? Will you be the bane or the blessing of man; a ministering angel or a wily temptress; dragging him down to the mire or raising him to the stars?"

While this biblical framing of women’s options had been grist to the religious mill for quite some time, there was one thing that dated this speech to the “year of Our Lord 1922”: Sheehy’s request that the women of Ireland exert their moral power to “to help Irishmen and women to live their best lives for God and country; to discourage the taking of human life in a physical sense, to work for an honourable and lasting peace between brother Irishmen”.

From the outset of the Civil War, women’s role was the subject of anxiety. Unlike any other phase of the conflict, significant numbers of women were rounded up and arrested by the new Irish authorities because, as erstwhile compatriots, the Free State rulers knew exactly how valuable these women had been in the War of Independence. While others believed, including many women, that women should play a moral role in bringing about peace. Ministering angels or wily temptress, women were presented with stark moral choices which framed their potential power in explicitly gendered terms.

Civil War did not just lend the violence, fear and killing a kind of unbearable intimacy, it also raised existential questions about the viability of the new Free State. For many this threat was cut to the quick of civilisation; the very civility of the Irish nation – long imagined and now within grasp (for some at least) – risked being sacrificed at the altar of false gods and unrealistic expectations. There were regular appeals from pulpits, Dáil seats, commissions of inquiry and in newspapers to parental discipline, pleas for parents to reassert their authority over their sons and daughters. The family quickly came to be seen as an agent of a particular kind of social cohesion and stability.


The Free State was not two months old when the Catholic hierarchy used the pulpit to assert the democratic legitimacy of the State and condemn the men and women of violence. Cardinal Logue railed against the perversion of the true order of things – schoolboys touting guns and Irish men's innate devotion and bravery turned to crime. Worst of all were the young women and girls "involved in this wild orgy of violence and destruction, if not as active agents, at least as abettors and fomenters of strife". What, he asked, was the future of Irish motherhood if this behaviour spread? A question that led him quite naturally to consider Irish women's morality, for if Irish men were innately patriotic and brave, Irish women were pure and pious.

Modesty and moral panic

The Most Rev Dr O’Doherty, Bishop of Galway, said “We in Ireland used to have a reputation, not only at home, but throughout the world wherever the Irish race scattered, for the modesty of our girls and the purity and manliness of our men.” This rhetoric has often been taken for moral panic, but it was in essence a way of articulating a fear of social chaos.

The Most Rev Dr Coyne also zoned in on these "half-crazed, hysterical women" who were undermining the authority of the bishops and priests and assisting "in the slaughter of some of the best and bravest of Ireland's sons". The destruction of masculinity was every bit as much a concern as the demoralisation of women. While the rhetoric of moral outrage came to rest most naturally on the shoulders of women, in truth the central fear was for men's position in this changed universe. The anxiety caused by the fraying of the social edges, the trauma of years of conflict and the fear that in Ireland it may never end, came naturally to focus on the importance of ordinary people behaving as God had intended. Social order was seen to depend on divinely ordained roles for the sexes and anything else was a perversion of the natural order.

The visible role of women on the anti-Treaty side and the active role of many women in the unrest and revolution since 1916 added a new intensity to an anxiety evolving since the early days of the suffrage campaigns. Thus, characterising the women engaged in the Civil War as hysterical, crazed and emotional, did important work in denying them any political agency and effectively undermining the idea of women as capable of any independent political consciousness. However, while delegitimising female political convictions, it also framed those convictions as responsible for murder and social chaos. In PS O’Hegarty’s clever and vicious words, these women were “arid begetters of violence” – barren in a maternal sense, but procreators of bloodshed. Undoubtedly, the foment of civil war, the very real fear and pain it caused, provided cover for and gave renewed vigour to old anxieties concerning the impact of “unwomanly” or “mannish” women. However, Irish nationalism was undergirded by respectability and its emphasis on social control with very rigid ideas of one’s place, gender and race. These ideas predated the Civil War as, crucially, did fears of the implications of women’s collective political emancipation to that world order.

Social fabric

In 1926, the popular Catholic magazine, the Irish Monthly, explained to its readers: “We have passed through . . . a veritable social revolution in recent years.” Some date it from the Great War, but I think we had better start with the 20th century. In those 25 years many things have happened, but, I venture to say, nothing so startling, nothing so alarming, nothing so humiliating as the so-called emancipation of woman. In this world vision, the most alarming thing to happen in a century that had scarified millions of souls with conflict and flu, was the liberation of women. In fact, what the author found alarming was not any putative emancipation of the “fairer sex”, but female disobedience – women “looking for trouble” and dressing immodestly. The fear was about what a loosening of social control would mean for the new Irish nation. As the author explained, disobedient daughters meant bad fathers and immoral mothers. The whole social fabric was implicated and threatened.

However, fear was not the only thing driving this moral crusade and loud assertion of appropriate gender roles, thousands of people were also convinced, enthused and even excited by the idea of righting the Irish moral ship. For years, grassroot Catholic organisations, such as the CTSI, had been preparing a nation-in-waiting of Catholic citizens, in which respectability and moral probity, defined by traditional gender values, were the linchpins of social capital. There was an appetite for this vision. Thousands of young men and women joined the ranks of Catholic organisations such as the CTSI or the Legion of Mary and the sodalities and confraternities of Ireland were brimming. In 1924, Kevin O’Higgins, vice-president of the executive council and minister for justice of the new State, gave the keynote at the CTSI’s annual conference, in which he argued that it was “the Catholic laity breathing powerful life into the nostrils of [Irish] democracy”. For many thousands of men and women this was a civilising mission of which they were an intrinsic part and their gender roles were central to their place in it.

For those Irish women politicised and/or radicalised by their involvement in the revolution, and particularly for those who refused to recognise the political legitimacy of the new State, the Irish Free State represented a backward step. However, as these same women knew from first-hand experience, the ink had barely dried on the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic’s guarantee of “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”, than their male allies were equivocating. By the 1917 Sinn Féin Convention, the women of the organisation had to organise in order to insist on representation at executive level and even that was given begrudgingly.

While the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State honoured the commitment to equal suffrage, it did not prove effective at preventing the enactment of legislation in the 1920s and 1930s which openly discriminated against women. Irish women’s citizenship would remain contingent for many more decades.

Lindsey Earner-Byrne is the senior academic leadership initiative chair in Irish gender history in University College Cork