Recent years have witnessed a very welcome flourishing of historical and political research on the questions of gender and sexuality in Irish history and Irish society. In particular, the shameful lack (until the publication in 1978 of MacCurtain and Ó Corráin’s pioneering collection of essays) of historical studies of women’s changing roles within, and contributions to, Irish society is now being remedied. No longer can it be said that Irish women are entirely ‘hidden from history’ (to borrow the title of Sheila Rowbotham’s famous 1973 book), although some lacunae in the literature are still noticeable — for example, the problem of lesbian invisibility remains. That said, the present selection of works is impressive in the range of issues, themes and theoretical perspectives it covers. Given that gender and sexuality have featured prominently on the political agenda of the Republic of Ireland since at least the early 1980s, these publications are both timely and much needed.
The first title reviewed here, Mary O’Dowd and Sabine Wichert’s Chattel, servant or citizen, is not specifically concerned with Ireland but has a much broader scope. Based on the proceedings of the twenty-first Irish Conference of Historians, it includes essays examining women’s status in Italy, Britain, France, Canada, Poland and the U.S.A., as well as several comparative essays. Among the essays with a specifically Irish theme are three in particular which deserve to be singled out.
Donnchadh Ó Corráin’s essay on ‘Women and the law in early Ireland’ makes use of Latin and vernacular legal tracts, contemporary genealogies and (to a lesser extent) vernacular literature to explore themes which include marriage, rights and responsibilities in relation to children, rights of inheritance, and sexual violence against women. Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha singles out the Law of Adomnán of A.D. 697 as a landmark in the written history of women in Ireland. Named after the abbot of Iona and scholar, it is ‘the earliest surviving law concerned primarily with [women’s] welfare, and very probably the first law with this focus to have been enacted in the country’.