Teach history as it truly was

Teach history as it truly was Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington

We’ve been marking the centenary of women’s suffrage – when women over 30 in Ireland and Britain were entitled to vote for the first time, in 1918 (and women over 21 were entitled to stand for election.) An enlightened advance indeed: less well-known, or well-publicised, is the fact that the Pope of the time, Benedict XV, fully supported votes for women.

The occasion has been marked by measuring other advances for women over the past hundred years, in education, law, politics and professional opportunities – welcome progress indeed. I’m delighted to know that my grand-daughters will have many advantages that I never enjoyed. I’m thrilled to know that they excel at Maths, and they are being taught Maths properly – as so often, in the past, girls were not.

Yet the past is often misread, or seen with an over-simplified  lens of today. One of the advances that Irish political women have been celebrating since in the 1918 centenary, is ‘reproductive rights’ – by which is intended a range of birth control facilities, from abortion to assisted conception like IVF.

Set against sepia pictures of Constance Markievicz, Kathleen Clarke, Margaret Pearse and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington [pictured], it really is a misrepresentation of the Cumann na mBan women of a hundred years ago.

There are more pictures in the archives of Cumann na mBan at prayer than there are demanding birth control, since of the latter there are precisely none.

It is very unlikely that many of the 1918 Irish feminists would have supported this idea. Markievicz was in many ways a social conservative and spoke out repeatedly against divorce. Her close friend and ally, Mary MacSwiney thought birth control was a wicked plot to reduce the Irish population and bring immorality to Ireland. Kathleen Clarke was a Catholic mother of five who wrote in her autobiography that her grandmother’s greatest legacy was the family rosary tradition.

And the Pearse women were deep adherents of the traditional Christian morality of the time.

Birth control was not a Suffragette cause, even in Britain. The campaign originated with the sexologists like Havelock Ellis and then the eugenicist and ‘race purity’ campaigner Marie Stopes.


Of course things changed over the 20th Century, and a greater focus on maternal health did bring fertility control into the picture.  Pope Pius XII became aware of issues of maternal health. Too much and too frequent childbearing and its impact on mothers – and infants too – did need to be addressed and women’s movements certainly did so.

However, it is false to imply that ‘reproductive rights’ were part of the feminist agenda of 100 years ago.

Whether there is any such thing as a ‘right’ in the whole field of human reproduction is another question: if there were such a ‘right’ I should be able to demand a pregnancy right now, in my 70s. But I doubt that even the most audacious human rights lawyer would guarantee to deliver such a right.


If a newborn baby’s dead body is found on a beach, what that indicates to me is that there may still not be enough publicity informing young women in a crisis pregnancy that there is somewhere they can go for confidential help and support. This is especially necessary in cases where a very young girl only realises what’s happening at a late stage in the pregnancy. Whatever the facts behind this case, it’s a tragedy.



Asked to nominate her ‘person of the year’, a listener to the Ryan Tubridy morning radio show gave the accolade to her local parish priest, whom she called Fr John. He was a wonderful pastor, she said, and looked after all his parishioners so well. Everyone appreciated him. Describing this good cleric, she said: “He doesn’t preach.”

I understood what the lady was saying, because of the context: Fr John didn’t scold or reprimand people or nag at them to be virtuous. He led by kindness. Yet it gave me pause for thought, and I reflected on how, in the past, a priest might be praised for doing just that – preaching.

Back in the day, my mother and her pals used to flock to the sermons of the famous Jesuit, Fr Martin D’Arcy – he died in 1976 – who would come from Oxford to preach at University Church, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

They flocked precisely because he was such a renowned preacher. (He also came to be associated with writers like Evelyn Waugh and Dorothy L. Sayers.)  His sermons were, apparently, electrifying. He was also known as a “philosopher of love”.

Times and styles change. A priest today is almost certainly more likely to be appreciated for being a caring pastor than for an eloquent performance in the pulpit.