Most of Ireland’s best known historical figures, literary greats, and pop culture figures are male. While their praise and accolades are no doubt well deserved, there are also plenty of Irish women who are some of the most inspiring, most influential, and most well known people of their day. Each of these women have done (or are still doing) something that makes them an expert in their field, something that changed Ireland - or the entire world - for the better, made the nation stop and take notice.
Their stories continually inspire us at Claddagh Design along with many other admirable women. And of course, they’re all Irish!
Few people know the name Ettie Steinberg, but her story is arguably the most interesting of this list: she was Ireland’s only Holocaust victim. Although born in what was then Czechslovakia, her parents and six siblings moved to Ireland in the early 1920s when she was a small child, settling in Dublin. Ettie attended St. Catherine’s school on Donore Avenue and was making a name for herself as a talented seamstress before her marriage in 1937 to a Belgian man named Vogtjeck Gluck. The couple settled in Antwerp and had a son (Leon), but being a Jewish couple they were forced to move several times to ensure their safety after the outbreak of World War Two. They travelled to Toulouse, France, and were awaiting the arrival of Irish passports so they could safely return home when they were arrested and taken to Auschwitz. Presumably, they died as soon as they got there. The morning after their arrest, the Irish passports arrived in the post. The resourceful Ettie managed to write a coded Hebrew message to her Irish family informing them of what had happened on a postcard, throwing it out the window of the train they were forced onto - a stranger picked it up and posted it, and although her family frantically tried to save her, they were too late.
Constance Markievicz is one of the first names that springs to mind when the words ‘famous Irish women’ are uttered. Markievicz lived an eventful life to say the least; born in 1868, she was the daughter of an Arctic Explorer and childhood friend of W.B Yeats. As a student in London she first became politically active, and when she returned to Dublin in the early 1900s joined a number of national movements including the political party Sinn Fein. In the 1916 Rising she was at the centre of the fighting in St. Stephen’s Green as second in command, fending off the opposition for six days straight. When the fighting ended she was imprisoned and sentenced to a lifetime behind bars, but was released under an amnesty agreement a year later. She went on to become the first ever woman elected to the British House of Commons, but refused to take her seat, instead taking a place in the newly founded Dail Eireann. She fought again and was imprisoned again during the Irish Civil War, after which she was elected to the by now officially recognised Irish government. Sadly, she died from appendicitis before she could take up her seat. Read more about Constance Markievicz
One of Ireland’s modern heroines is Mary Robinson, the first female President of Ireland. Hailing from Ballina, county Mayo, she was already well established and respected as an academic, barrister and Senator long before being elected President in 1990. Just some of the issues she advocated included the right to the legal availability of contraception, a removal of the requirement that married women resign from the civil service, and the right for women to sit on juries. She proved to be Ireland’s most popular President ever, breathing new life into the role and passing two important bills into law; legalisation of contraception and decriminalising homosexuality. Towards the end of her first term however, she resigned in order to take up an equally prestigious position; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She held this role until 2002, and still continues to work with the world’s top leaders on various humanitarian, environmental and political issues.
Kathleen Lynn was an activist, politician, and most importantly, a medical professional. Often overlooked in various accounts of Irish history, her work in each area was extremely important, and helped shape the events of a turbulent period of Ireland’s history. After graduating as a doctor from the Royal University of Ireland in 1899, she became an active suffragette, labour activist and nationalist and joined the Irish Citizen Army. In the 1916 Easter Rising she was the chief medical officer, a role which landed her in Kilmainham Gaol along with Constance Markievicz and other prominent figures. Spurred on by the poverty and poor quality of life she had seen in inner city Dublin during this time, after her release she established a hospital for infants at Saint Ultan’s, which was the only hospital where women were permitted to work at the time. The hospital improved and expanded rapidly thanks to her, and by 1937 was the primary vaccination centre in Ireland as well as providing various medical and education facilities for the impoverished mothers and children of the city.
Sonia O’Sullivan was Ireland’s premier athlete and sportswoman during the 1990s, winning medals in the Olympic Games, World Championships and European Championships (among many others) and inspiring renewed confidence in a nation newly recovered from a long period of economic hardship. Over the course of her career she racked up 8 gold, 6 silver and 2 bronze medals at the world’s most important athletic competitions, including a silver medal in the 2000 Olympic Games at Sydney for the 5000m race, gold at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg for the 5000m race, and silver at the same event in 1993 in Stuttgart for the 1500m. She currently still holds the world records for 2000m at 5:25:36 and a 2-mile run at 9:19:56, both of which have remained unbroken for 20 years, as well as a total of 7 national records for various distances. She officially retired from the sport in 2007, and now works as a commentator for RTE Sport during their coverage of high profile athletic events.
One of Dublin’s newest bridges was named after Rosie Hackett, the long time trade unionist, founder of the Irish Women Worker’s Union, and supporter of the nationalist movement and 1916 Rising. Born into a working class family in 1892 she started life living in a tenement building on Dublin’s Bolton Street, and so had a deep understanding of working class life. She joined James Larkin’s Irish Trade and General Worker’s Union when it was founded in 1909 and had a prominent role in the 1913 Lockout, mobilising the workers of the Jacob’s biscuit factory (where she worked at the time) to strike in solidarity with others. She lost her job because of this, and went on to work as a clerk in the print shop of Liberty Hall. There she became involved with the Irish Citizen Army and the leaders of the nationalist movement, and was soon a valued member trusted with highly secretive messages, errands, and tasks. When some of the leaders were struggling to print the 1916 Proclamation (which Padraig Pearse would read on the steps of the GPO declaring Ireland and independent republic) in advance of the Easter Rising, her expertise saved the day; she was the only woman ever allowed into the printing room and handed the finished, fixed product to James Connolly herself, with the ink still wet. After the rising she spent the rest of her life working tirelessly in trade unionism, securing better rights for Irish workers all over the country.
Veronica Guerin was an acclaimed and respected journalist who investigated and exposed the activities of Ireland’s drug criminals. Having started out in the public relations industry in the early 1980s, she transitioned into journalism in 1990 and began writing for the Sunday Business Post and Sunday Tribune. She proved to be a tenacious crime reporter, pursuing a story directly to the source regardless of the risk involved. She quickly developed close relationships with high authority figures on both sides - the police force as well as the criminals themselves - and received death threats for her efforts. In October 1994 two shots were fired into her home as a warning - she was given a 24 hour police escort and carried on with her work. Convicted criminal John Gilligan personally attacked and threatened her on another occasion, and in a separate incident she answered her front door to a man pointing a gun at her head, although his shot missed and hit her in the leg instead. In 1996 however, two men (allegedly working on Gilligan’s orders) on a motorbike followed her while driving, pulled up beside her car at traffic lights, and shot her dead. Her tragic death caused public outrage and indirectly lead to the setting up of the Criminal Assets Bureau and a huge crackdown on organised crime in the country.
Although this list is full of dedicated and determined women, Anne Devlin is possibly the most dedicated and determined of them all. While she was not a President, or rich and powerful, or even very well educated, she was key to the very beginnings of the Irish independence movement; the 1798 Rebellion. Devlin came from a family with a long standing nationalist tradition, and was destined to be involved in the rebellion whether she wanted to or not (although she did fully support the views of her family). Having grown up in Wicklow, she moved to Dublin with her family as a young woman and met one of the movement’s leaders, Robert Emmet, who was in the midst of planning the rebellion. Nervous that all of the men coming to and from his house would attract attention, he employed Anne as his housekeeper to keep up appearances. She played her role extremely well and the authorities were taken completely by surprise when the rebellion was executed. They caught up with her soon afterwards however, and she was imprisoned and tortured relentlessly, but under no circumstances would she give any information away. Her entirely family was imprisoned (her brother died in jail as a result of the poor conditions) and even Emmet himself appealed to her to give in, since he was already sentenced to death. Still she would not say anything, and was eventually released after eight years.
Christina Noble is undoubtedly one of the toughest and most compassionate women around. Born in Dublin in 1944 to a poverty stricken home, her alcoholic father failed to provide for her mother and three siblings and the family lived in the slums of Dublin. At age 10, her mother died and the children were separated. Christina was sent to an orphanage in the west of Ireland and told that her siblings were dead. At 18, she escaped and lived rough on the streets of Dublin for a time before running away to England to find her brother. Over the next few years she started a life over there, marrying and having three children. Her husband however was abusive, adding further troubles to her already difficult life. Around this time she began having a recurring dream of children in Vietnam who were calling for her to help them, and so she began work to set up the Christina Noble Foundation. In 1989 she travelled to Vietnam herself to help poverty stricken families find relief, and later expanded the foundation’s operations to Mongolia. Now aged 70, she still retains close contact with the first children she met, and is still actively involved in the foundation’s work. In recognition of International Women's Day I wrote a brief history on women in my own trade which you may also find of interest.