Why feminism and socialism have been systematically frustrated in their efforts to influence the national movement.
– This article originally appeared in The Village, April 2016
In 1909 Patrick Pearse wrote a short six verse Irish-language poem, A Mhic Bhig na gCleas, translated into English as Little Lad of the Tricks. A relatively disposable piece, it has since gone on to have an infamous status; proof for many that Pearse had dark sexual proclivities:
…Raise your comely head
Till I kiss your mouth:
If either of us is the better of that
I am the better of it
There is a fragrance in your kiss
That I have not found yet
In the kisses of women
Or in the honey of their bodies.
Ruth Dudley Edwards’ 1979 revisionist biography, The Triumph of Failure makes much of this poem, presenting it as evidence of Pearse’s supressed tendencies. And later works have echoed her, to the point that the trope of Pearse-as-Paedophile is now standard fare among Irish historians. Similar speculations have also been made about Eoin O’Duffy’s sexuality and even about Michael Collins.
Such tabloid innuendos, though, ignore a central truth about Irish nationalists in the early years of the twentieth century: masculinity mattered for them. Not in the sense of private peccadilloes, but as a key part of their public ideology. The trope of masculinity did much work for organisations like Sinn Féin or the Irish Volunteers, allowing them, as it did, to imagine what national sovereignty and the end of British colonial rule would look like. It allowed them to critique that British rule as an effeminizing influence on Irish men. And it allowed them to attack opponents, such as the Irish Parliamentary Party, as unmanly traitors. The heavy emphasis on masculinity also does much to explain how and why women and leftists were systematically frustrated in their efforts to influence the national movement; imagining the nation as a male fraternity was a convenient way to dismiss feminism or socialism as divisive ideologies that pitted brother against brother.
In another of Pearse’s most famous texts, The Murder Machine, the educator-nationalist railed against the British state schools in Ireland (the eponymous “machine”). And in a telling passage, Pearse denounced contemporary school system as being worse than “an edict for the general castration of Irish males.” Anglicized Irishmen, he said, are “not slaves merely, but very eunuchs.” For Pearse, Irish men had been emasculated by British colonialism and by the slow parallel process of Anglicisation.
These were common anxieties among almost all Irish nationalists.
A recurring theme in Gaelic League publications was that the Irish, by longer speaking their native language, had become deficient and deformed and no longer real men. As one turn-of-the-century Gaelic Leaguer said, if the Irish continued to speak only English, then “we can never be perfect men, full and strong men, able to do a true man’s part for God and Fatherland.” The movement to revive the Irish language was thus imagined as a process of reasserting a purified male power and was often associated with a recovery of sovereignty and strength.
When the Irish Volunteers were established in 1912, many of their founding members had already imbibed this thinking that saw national revival and masculine revival as two parts of a broader whole. Writing in the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Irish Freedom newspaper in July 1912, Ernest Blythe, later to be a government minister in the 1920s, discussed the contribution that the Volunteers would make to healthy Irish masculinity. While he criticised the weak “flabby men” that predominated in Ireland, he also spoke of a subterranean manliness still surviving, he said, thanks to both militant nationalists “but also those whose thoughts have gone no further than the running and leaping and hurling which they delighted in”. The future Irishmen, which physical-culture and physical-force enthusiasts such as these would birth, would be noticeable by their “mighty lungs and muscled frames”. The Volunteers were “the rebirth of manhood unto this Nation”. Their muscular masculinity would replace the flabby weakness of Ireland under British rule. Talk of masculine power continued to circulate in the years after the Rising. Indeed, Ernie O’Malley, a medical student turned IRA soldier, later remembered that one positive effect of the war was that the “familiar stage Irishman had disappeared”, replaced by the confident, armed men of the IRA.
The rhetoric of heroic men standing together for the national interest, also lent itself to suppressing the “wrong” kind of politics. A 1921 pamphlet on The Labour Problem published by the Sinn Féin-allied Cumann Léigheachtaí an Phobhail presented socialism as an intrusion into the national fraternity of men: “Labour… is like a virulent foreign element in the social system… whatever else we are, capitalist or worker or neither, we are all Irishmen interested beyond anything else in the welfare of our common country, and as an Irishman speaking to Irishmen I put it that these industrial conflicts, if continued, will inevitably impair, if not utterly destroy, our common country”. Feminism was denounced in almost the exact same terms.
The tourism-friendly version of Irish nationalism that has featured in the Decade of Commemorations has received a large dose of justified criticism. With the government promoting an image of romantic, if depoliticised Irish rebels, it is worth remembering, first, how much Irish nationalism was a product of the encounter with British colonialism. Second, the state that emerged from this national struggle was noticeably coercive, particularly when it came to female citizens or left-wing politics. Masculinity, and the nationalist desire to create a harmonious nation of muscular men, was central to all of that. Masculinity matters.