Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

"Ireland Begins in the Home": Women, Irish National Identity, and the Domestic Sphere in the Irish Homestead, 1896-1912

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

"Ireland Begins in the Home": Women, Irish National Identity, and the Domestic Sphere in the Irish Homestead, 1896-1912

Article excerpt

HISTORIANS' neglect of the experiences of Irish women as housewives and mothers at the beginning of the twentieth century has been mirrored by a lack of regard for the position of women in the construction of an Irish national identity. The winter 1989 issue of Eire-Ireland contained an article by Joanna Bourke that looked at female labor and domestic education in rural Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. (1) This article and others by Professor Bourke focusing on the shift in female labor from the fields to unpaid domestic work as housewives served as an important corrective to studies of women in Ireland that tended to focus on the roles of women in nationalist and political organizations that were, all too often, dominated by men. In bringing the study of women in Ireland out of the ghetto of nationalist politics, however, Professor Bourke ignored the role of women in forming notions of Irish national identity. In her article Bourke quotes Ellice Pilkington, one of the leading female proponents of rural reform, as saying, "It is quite enchanting to cook porridge in the belief that it will make bone and muscle for present and future generations." (2) Yet little is made of the resonance that this quotation would have had within the context of debates over national identity and the role of women; it was not only "bone and muscle" that women such as Ellice Pilkington saw themselves as building, but also, through their domestic role in the home, the shape and character of an Irish national identity. In this article I explore the role of women in the formation of ideas of national identity in Ireland through a case study of the Irish Homestead, the weekly publication of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS). What emerges is the increasing perception of the home as the cornerstone of the Irish nation, with Irish women being assigned the role not only of homemakers but also of nation builders.

At the turn of the nineteenth century women in rural Ireland moved increasingly from working in the fields to full-time housework. (3) Employment figures bear out this demographic shift: in 1881, 815,000 women were in paid employment; by 1911 the number had declined to 430,000; and the number of female agricultural laborers fell from 27,000 in 1891 to 5,000 twenty years later. (4) Yet this did not mean that women lost power and status--quite the reverse. By moving into the home, women made the domestic sphere their own and used it as a base from which they gained power through their control of the household economy. The Irish Homestead (IH) was well aware of the change in the social and economic status of women and saw the growing power of women as a foundation for a new social order in rural Ireland. An efficient farm depended on women's labor inside the home and men's role in the fields. (5)

Rural reformers associated with the IH, from Horace Plunkett to George Russell, latched onto Irish women's changed economic and social position, and saw an opportunity to construct an ideal Ireland around women's newfound prominence within the domestic sphere. Plunkett's triptych of "better farming, better business, better living," and Russell's idyll of a new rural civilization both found their clearest expressions when placing women at the center of their vision for a new Ireland.

The IH provides an intriguing glimpse into the world of fin de siecle Irish politics and culture. The paper was founded in 1895 as the weekly organ of the IAOS and set out to proselytize the message of agricultural cooperation that it had espoused since its formation one year earlier under the inspiration of Horace Plunkett. The IH developed distinct notions of female identity over the period 1896 to 1912, under the editorship first of Father Thomas Finlay, S.J., then of T. P. Gill and H. F. Norman, and finally of George William Russell (AE). From the very outset the IH published columns intended for its female readers. …

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