Sinead FoxComment

The Women's Museum of Ireland

Sinead FoxComment
The Women's Museum of Ireland

When you live in a place for a long time, sometimes not even a long time, you start to think you know it. The streets hold special things for you as do the places you visit, the shops, the cafes and restaurants, the bars, the parks, the galleries or the libraries - wherever you go, and if you’re lucky you feel a part of it. The city is yours and you have a place in it.

But often you never really know a place, but instead hold a version of it in your mind that matches your experience.

Dublin is a place full of history, a history that we learn about in school and that is then forever retold in broad strokes. But what about the stories that are left out of those large narratives, what about the parts that are never told?

In 2012, four young women set out to answer a version of that question when they established The Women’s Museum of Ireland. As the name suggests, the museum is concerned with bringing women’s history in Ireland to the fore and next year they’re launching a Women of Dublin History Map. On a very blustery Saturday afternoon, we meet co-founder Jeanne Sutton and board member Zoë Coleman, to find out more about it.

The sun is strong when it comes out from behind dark clouds as we navigate the crowds of tourists in the grounds of Trinity College.

Jeanne explains how the idea came about partly from post-grad ennui. She spent a few weeks in Vietnam the summer before graduation and visited the Women’s Museum in Hanoi. She describes a large white building with pink windows.

Jeanne: “It was about social history, the cultural history, it went back thousands of years. That stayed in my head, and when I came back to Dublin I said it to Kate Cunningham, who's one of the co-founders, and she was like ‘let's do it’, so that's kind of the genesis of the whole thing.”

They launched in 2012 with an exhibition about women in education, which they held in the Long Room Hub in Trinity. Since then, the museum has occupied a digital space only in the form of their website where they strive “to educate the public about the contributions of women to cultural, political and social history in Ireland, and the role Irish women have played overseas.” Kate Cunningham now lives in Belgium, while the fourth board member, Holly Furlong is based in Belfast. Alongside them, a few other women work as content editors and fact checkers for every article that goes up on the site. All are working on the museum on a voluntary basis alongside their day jobs.

Zoë and Jeanne mention how they all often send each other things they’ve seen in the city, the plaques that show where someone lived, or where something of importance happened, and how this sharing of information is a part of the friendship the four have.

Zoë: “Me and Holly did history, we're history buffs. We all are.”

Jeanne studied law, while Kate studied philosophy, political science, economics and sociology, all of which comes to bear on how the museum takes shape.

Zoë and Jeanne talk about connecting with local history groups and attending festivals, talks, and other cultural events in the city that fuel their interest.

Jeanne: “I went to a two-day war conference, it was like a fiver in or something, but it was full of teenage boys up until retired ladies just in taking notes. So Dublin and Ireland, people just love history.”

They’re aware of the very active communities that spring up around such local interest groups, and as Zoë mentions, about the pride it can instil in the place where you live or the discussion it prompts.

The idea for the map came about late last year.

Zoë: “It was approaching the two year anniversary of the original launch [of the museum], and we kind of felt like we were resting on our laurels a bit.”

They were inspired by some of the other projects happening in the city and Zoë mentions in particular attending the historian and lecturer Mary McAuliffe’s 1916 Revolutionary Women's Walking Tour of Dublin at Phizzfest (the Phibsborough-based arts festival), which struck a chord.

Zoë: “That's maybe initially where the seeds of it came from.”

After seeing the attendance and enthusiasm at the tour, she began to think of a more tangible way to capture or communicate the women’s history they were discovering through the museum.

They secured some funding from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland which has enabled them to pay for two designers for the map, and they hope to launch it early next year. At the moment, they envisage a wider interactive digital database that would accompany the printed map itself.

As they talk, it’s clear that they each have their own particular interests with Zoë being drawn to figures involved with craft or material culture, while Jeanne mentions several literary women of history throughout our conversation. This isn’t surprising given that Zoë did her masters in 19th century art history and works at the Irish Georgian Society, while Jeanne is an editor at Image.ie.

But they’re eager that the map will be as wide reaching as possible featuring women who have made a contribution to many facets of Irish life. The museum website itself already reflects this with articles about women from fields as diverse as journalism, sport, medicine, politics, and art.

Their remit is wide in this way but they will focus on 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st century to set some parameters on it. They’re interested in medieval history too though, and there’s a number of articles on the website that cover the era.

Zoë: “Those women were class, they were really cool. They were the trailblazers.”

Jeanne: “The medieval women were an inspiration.”

There’s a sense that both of them are drawn to what could be perceived as more subversive figures of Irish life, or perhaps to those parts of women’s history that deviate from stories which often re-inforce the patriarchal view of women in society.

Jeanne: “My favourite thing about women's history is when you come across not unsafe women, but kind of bold women. I love someone who's a bit, [when] you kind of grimace when you read the full biography.”

“Everyone wants me to stop talking about Peg Plunkett. Peg was a courtesan in Dublin in the Georgian era, she was very popular and ran a brothel just off Grafton Street, it was [for] high-end men, and when she wrote her memoirs people were terrified.”

Zoë jokes about making T-shirts of “bold women” with the faces of some of their favourite Irish historical women on it. I think it would sell.

Zoë: “We're not putting women on a pedestal but we're pushing their histories so they become more apparent to people.”

History text books and traditional education are brought up several times during the conversation, and the side-bar position that women often occupy in those contexts.

Zoë: “They [history text books] are quite bland in relation to women's contribution.”

And it’s here that a glimmer of frustration creeps in, where you get a sense of a larger impetus for the museum and the map. There’s frustration too, exasperation even, when talk turns to the position of women in Ireland today, in a country that still has much to do in terms of women’s rights. I ask what it means to them to be a woman and a feminist in Ireland in 2015 and Jeanne deadpans “Tired, tiring.” before laughing.

They talk about going on marches now for the same issues that women marched for 25 years ago, before they were even born, and how strange that seems.

So the impact of the museum and the map seems important, urgent in that sense. They’re excited about the potential of the map to contribute to the larger collective history, to put those lost stories literally back into the streets, and to add new voices and perspectives to versions of history we think we already know.

Jeanne: “I'd love to see someone using the map someday when I'm walking around Dublin.”

Occasionally, with the museum they come up against some criticism mostly in form of people questioning the need for a separate history, but the main reaction has been a positive one. This is particularly true of the map and Jeanne recalls an acquaintance in a bar just the night before telling them how excited she was about it.

The rain that has been threatening finally starts to pour as we walk towards Merrion Square to see the house where Jane Wilde (mother to Oscar) held her literary salon, and the building where the fashion designer Sybil Connolly held her studio.

By the time we’re heading towards the Rosie Hackett bridge and to Moore Street to talk about the pram wars of the 1980s (which saw the traders in a stand-off against city officials), my umbrella has met its end and plans are abandoned.

Zoë and Jeanne have that type of energy that’s contagious. You can see the cogs of ideas turning in their minds as they speak about the things they’re reading, seeing, listening to, about similar projects in other countries, about women in the media, in politics, in literature, about history in Ireland – the wider community and their own place in all of it.

I leave them reminded that the place where we live often has layers that we don’t see. I leave them reminded that women have made contributions to Irish life through the years that I don’t know nearly enough about. I leave them looking forward to seeing what shape the map takes, looking forward to holding it in my hands and navigating Dublin in a different way. Possibly while wearing a Bold Women of Ireland T-Shirt.

  Written by Sinead Fox / Photos by Adam O'Keeffe /  ©2015 Project Bowes