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

"Unbroken Service": Mairead Ni Ghrada'a Career at 2RN, Ireland's First Broadcasting Station, 1927-35

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

"Unbroken Service": Mairead Ni Ghrada'a Career at 2RN, Ireland's First Broadcasting Station, 1927-35

Article excerpt

 
   In the Irish Renascence ... women played a vital part, fought, plotted, 
   planned, wrote, painted, acted, alongside their male comrades as equals.... 
   And then, when victory was won, they were thanked and sent back to the 
   domestic hearth. (1) 
 
   In many respects it was a spectacular victory, but the paradox remains to 
   be explained: Irish women were free in the areas they had struggled for, 
   why then were they content to remain subordinate in a society they had 
   helped to create? (2) 

THESE epigraphs throw into relief the conundrum that feminist scholars faced when they first broached the question of women's conditions and roles in the emergent Free State: They found little evidence of the activism that they were looking for. (3) While men vied for jobs and power in the new administration--with an eagerness derided in the famous cartoon of the "gold rush" to Dublin (4)--women retreated into the domestic sphere, forfeiting the chance to put their imprimatur on the developing state, even yielding some previously enjoyed rights, for example, the right to serve on a jury. (5)

I rehearse this familiar and, from the present vantage point, oversimplified historical explanation in order to mark the progress made in feminist scholarship on early-twentieth-century Ireland over the past thirty-five years and to situate my own argument in this tradition of inquiry. To give credit where it is due, "progress" in this context means refining rather than radically revising the master narrative of Irish women's exodus from public politics. Indeed, analyses published in the past decade, such as Carol Coulter's The Hidden Tradition (1993) and Mary E. Daly's "Women in the Irish Free State, 1922-39" (1995), corroborate many of the main claims made in early studies, including the histories by Coxhead and Mac Curtain cited above. The new scholarship nevertheless significantly nuances the received account of women's experiences after independence, benefiting from an enhanced self-reflexivity--specifically, a heightened awareness of the tendency toward bias when producing knowledge of "others" (in this case, historical "others")--that betrays the debt of contemporary feminists to postcolonial discourse. (6) In simpler terms, what distinguishes recent feminist studies is their authors' willingness to consider the logic of Irish women's often conventional choices and behavior during the period of state formation and thus to recognize greater continuity in their experiences before and after independence.

My objective in this essay is similarly to suggest that for some Irish women postcoloniality was neither an "anomalous state" (in David Lloyd's sense of the term as a profound identity crisis) nor an experience of utter exclusion from the state-building project. (7) Rather, for Irish women who sought employment in the rapidly expanding native civil service, postcoloniality was a mode of negotiating and ideally of surmounting circumstances that changed quickly, typically in response to political developments. In this respect the postcolonial condition compelled much the same response from women as it did from their male counterparts: engaging in keen competition and making use of advantageous connections to gain much-coveted opportunities. Once women did get their feet in the door, they often assumed considerable responsibility in their putatively ancillary positions, though at times they also encountered formidable resistance. (8)

I focus here on the experiences and achievements of Mairead Ni Ghrada, the first female radio announcer in the British Isles, who worked within the established system, tacitly accepting the gendered division of labor of the time but nevertheless proving that it was possible for a young woman to carve a niche for herself within the civil service after independence and to gain a public presence (in this case primarily aural rather than visual), at least until de Valera's administration reinstated formerly barred male civil servants in 1935. …

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