Friday, March 30, 2018


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The Dublin City Library and Archive (DCLA) in Pearse St. have been playing a blinder in recent times, actually over the last thirteen years or so since the tarting up and resourcing of the old (1909) Gilbert Library.

Between talks and exhibitions for the public at large and significant inputs into history research projects and publications, not to mention the archiving of material old and new, the place is a powerhouse of Dublin history.

The latest exhibition deals with women on the home front during WWI and it follows closely on a Suffragette exhibition, both of these making a significant contribution to countering the writing of women out of our glorious past.

So let's go in and have a look.

Needless to say, women started into the war in their "traditional" roles in society. They, no more than anyone else, had no idea of how their lives and future roles were to be eventually changed by this continental convulsion.

The exhibition traces the roles they played on the home front while many of their menfolk were away fighting for the King against the Kaiser.

Their activities at home were subsequently downplayed in the male history of the day, but the seeds that were sown in this period eventually grew up through the tangled undergrowth and today's world, had they seen it eventually come to pass, would surely have cheered them up.

I say that though, on reflection, I'm not sure that this would in fact be the case. There's still a long way to go.

This poster is typical of the use of women by the authorities to shame the men into going to war. Poor little (Catholic) Belgium is seen in flames with only a small area of sea between it and the home shore. Taken in tandem with other propaganda messages, this one appeals on more than one level.

What man would leave it up to his woman to go to war in is place? What will happen if the hated Bosch are not stopped? Next thing they'll be on the home shore and your family will be tortured and killed.

And if that didn't work, look at what the hated Bosch did to that lovely nurse Cavell.

I have to say I was familiar with Edith Cavell's name from having seen her statue in London many many years ago, but I had no idea that she had been executed for treason, of all things. That took me aback as she wasn't German. But apparently the Germans had conjured up a bespoke definition of treason which included helping the enemy no matter who you were, where you did it, or where you are from.

Would have saved a lot of paperwork in the case of Roger Casement. And him coming to mind brought up a British inconsistency that I must get to the bottom of sometime: they hanged Casement; shot the 1916 leaders; and refused to shoot Wolfe Tone. Funny old world.

But back to the women. On 9 June 1918, designated as Lá na mBan, and in the days following, thousands of women all over the country signed an anti-conscription pledge where, as well as indicating their opposition to conscription, they undertook not to do any of the work left undone by the men should these be conscripted.

Granted, this was well into the war and, unlike at the begining, its effects were being felt and such glory as there might have been at the beginning had dissipated. Then there had also been the Rising and its consequences.

So the poster above stands in stark contrast to that further up above which attempted to use women to leverage the men to join up.

However, a lot of men had joined up. Some for idealistic reasons, little Belgium and all that. But others had joined for a steady income for their family. And yet others had been suckered into volunteering at the end of a late night's drinking in the pub.

I'm told my grand-uncle, John Burgess, was in the last of the above categories. His joining up didn't make a lot of sense. He was married with at least two and a half children; he was well fixed working in his father's successful shoemaking business which he was about to inherit on his father's impending retirement.

When he enlisted, his father evicted his wife and children from the "company house" in Kilmainham and banished them to a wee box house across the river on Oxmantown Road. I'd say she well needed the separation women's allowance at that stage.

The allowance, which was paid to women whose men had enlisted, evoked many reactions on the home front. The Republican movement opposed the allowance on the grounds, inter alia, that it was irresponsibly squandered by the recipients.

There was mention of drunkeness, idleness and loose morals and the National Union of Women Workers established Irish Women's Patrols, reminiscent of the rural Parish Priest with his shillelagh scouring the ditches for misbehaving couples.

Cumann na mBan were active throughout this period and the exhibition features a book of poetry from Maeve Cavanagh, Sheaves of Revolt, which decried the enlistment of Irishmen into the British Army, was stridently anti-British and was suppressed by the authorities.

Maeve was the sister of Ernest Cavanagh who did memorable cartoons for Jim Larkin's Irish Worker. He was shot on the steps of Liberty Hall during the Rising.

A fine picture of Kathleen Clarke, widow of Tom Clarke, who was a founder member of Cumann na mBan and who served on the City Council with my grand-uncle PJ Medlar, finally knocking Alfie Byrne off his pedestal in 1939 to become the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin City, and that in an election in which Alfie actually cast two votes for her.

When my friend, Felix Larkin, pointed out this wonderful electoral anomaly to me, it reminded me that Albert Reynolds had signed the articles establishing the European Bank for Reconstruction (EBRD) twice and my grandfather signed his 1901 census form twice - all legit and by the book.

An unusual photo of Constance Markievicz, far right. Founder member of Cumann na mBan, sentenced to death for her part in the Rising, first woman elected to the British House of Commons and first woman in the world to become a Cabinet Minister.

Monica Roberts was a young woman who set up a voluntary organization, ‘The Band of Helpers to the Soldiers’ to provide gifts for Irish troops at the front, particularly those serving with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Flying Corps.

Many soldiers wrote to thank Monica and a correspondence then developed. These poignant letters give vivid pen-pictures of conditions at the Western Front and reveal the courage of troops in the face of appalling circumstances.

An ID certificate issued in London with a permit for Monica to travel (return to) Ireland within three months.

A general observation about the exhibition. This is one of a number of recent exhibitions drawing on archives and collections held by the DCLA, including some only recently acquired - Dublin Fusiliers, Jacobs Biscuits, Monica Roberts.

Senior Archivist Ellen Murphy has responsibility for these archives and for this and recent exhibitions. She is doing a marvellous job both behind the scenes in sorting out the archives and then organising their presentation in the exhibitions.

The current exhibition draws on the three archives mentioned and it is encouraging to see how these sources complement each other and contribute to building up a wider picture. Ellen's head must be filling up at a rate of knots of late but it is all grist to the mill.

While I'm at it I'd like to congratulate Monica in the Council's Irish Language Unit on her recent promotion. I have commented on her creative use of the Irish language both in the Jacobs and in the current exhibition. Her good fortune will be the Unit's loss.

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