Abbey Theatre CC bjaglin

Waking the Feminists: A turning point for Irish activism?

Ireland was the first country in the English speaking world to have a state-subsidised national theatre – the Abbey. Founded in 1904 with explicitly progressive views, to counteract lazy, offensive stereotypes of the Irish in theatre, the Abbey was instrumental in the Irish Literary Revival and the broader nationalist movement.

The theatre recently launched its ‘Waking the Nation’ programme to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising, an event that ultimately led to the founding of the Irish State and which will be the subject of massive commemorations next year. Just 1 out of the 10 plays programmed is written by a woman – 3 out of 10 are directed by women.

The programme provoked a passionate outcry from women in Irish theatre, who banded together under #WakingTheFeminists to demand ‘change of the systems that allow for such chronic under-representation of the work of women artists at the Abbey, and by extension in the Irish arts industry.’ The Abbey admitted that the programme did not represent gender equality and offered its main stage for a public meeting on the topic. 500 tickets were sold in 10 minutes.

The event was a resounding success, attracting support online from high profile names like Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Debra Messing, and starting a nationwide conversation on female participation in the arts.

The hypocrisy of the Abbey’s exclusion of women is made even more glaring by the fact that the theatre was itself founded by a woman – Augusta Gregory, the playwright, folklorist and champion of cultural nationalism. Female members of the Abbey, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, Helena Moloney and Ellen Bushell, were heavily involved in the 1916 Rising, as were many other Irish women, often through organisations like Cumann na mBan and Inghinidhe na hÉireann. The most famous, Constance Markievicz was second-in-command at St. Stephen’s Green. Among the last people to leave the central republican stronghold after surrender were Cumann na mBan members Winnie Carney, Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell. Ordinary women fought alongside men, despite the opposition of certain male leaders.

The founding vision of the Irish Republic, expressed in the 1916 Proclamation, was feminist in nature. It declared universal suffrage, which did not exist in Britain at the time, and guaranteed ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens.’

But this progressive, socialist dream of Ireland did not come to fruition. Post-independence Ireland was dominated by a repressive, right-wing Catholic ideology. Women were written out of the history of the independence struggle. The Constitution enshrined the special place of Catholicism in the state, and the place of mothers within the home. Women were incarcerated in the Magdalene laundries, their illegitimate children taken from them for forced adoption. Married women were banned from state jobs. Divorce was not legalised until 1996; rape within marriage not criminalised until 1990. Abortion is still illegal in all but the most limited of circumstances, and practically impossible to obtain even then.

However, something is definitely changing. The relevance of the Church has been rapidly diminishing as a result of the abuse scandals and Celtic Tiger modernisation. The Marriage Equality referendum last year proved that Ireland is willing to embrace change in some areas of society. Maybe feminism is finally having its ‘moment.’

The national theatre has a responsibility to represent the nation. Women’s voices have been marginalised for too long. Between the years 1934 and 2014 only an estimated 1% of the plays on the Abbey’s main stage were female-authored. Centenary commemorations like this should be an opportunity to redress past wrongs, to reflect with maturity on the first hundred years of Irish independence and ask where we currently stand in relation to the promises of the Proclamation. Does Ireland in 2015 afford ‘equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens?’

#WakingTheFeminists is perhaps a misnomer. Feminism has been wide awake in Ireland for a long time, certainly since the pre-independence struggles of women like Augusta Gregory, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington and Constance Markievicz. But their voices have been side-lined by the political and cultural establishments to such an extent that it feels like 21st century feminists are starting from the beginning again.

The public support galvanised by the Waking the Feminists movement shows that feminist energies are high. Something has changed within the Irish activist community. Women are ready to get out into the streets and high-profile public forums to demand equality. We want reproductive rights. We want compensation for the female victims of state-sponsored oppression, from the laundries to the barbaric practice of symphysiotomy. And we want equal representation in the arts. Is that so much to ask for?

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