Veterinarians have been around for quite a while now.
From the Egyptian king Piyadasi, who made medicines available to animals as well as humans in 1900 BCE, and the Roman ‘Veterinarius’ who were mostly military doctors just for animals – we can trace the development of the field to the first official organisation – when English farriers banded together in 1356 CE under the patronage of the Lord Mayor of London, and decided to focus not just on hooves, but also care for injuries and illnesses in horses.
Veterinary training didn’t begin properly until the first college opened, in Lyon, France, in 1792, and the second opened a few years later, in Alfort near Paris, France. Europe was the hub of progress in the veterinary sciences, with the first American vets training in European colleges, until private veterinary schools began opening in the States through the 1850’s. The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) was founded in 1863, and the first US public university opened in Iowa in 1879.
Through all of this, there were certainly women worldwide who cured and cared for animals, some even making it their life’s work. But what do the records show for the official training and acceptance of women in the early years of veterinary practice?
The first records tell us precious little, unfortunately, but do at least preserve names, and some little information.
Nearly a hundred years after the first college opened, a Ukranian woman – whose name is written only as V. Dobrovoljskaja – made her way to study veterinary medicine in Zurich, Switzerland, as Russia did not allow women to study medicine then. She graduated in 1889, and was, as far as we know, the first qualified female veterinarian in the world… but little else is known of this early pioneer. Her fellow country woman Marija Kapčevič, who we do at least know was born near Lochnica in the Ukraine, travelled to France and attended the college in Alfort near Paris, graduating as a vet by 1896.
An Irish woman, Aleen Cust, began studying at the New Veterinary College in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1894. She was flouting the wishes of her family, and the ruling organisation – England’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. When they refused her the right to sit her final exams in 1900, she left Edinburgh and returned to Ireland without an official qualification.
Across the Atlantic in America, Mignon Nicholson attended the McKillips Private Veterinary College, Chicago, and graduated as a qualified veterinary Dr. in 1903, becoming the first US woman to do so.
Just a year before this, a 19 year old named Isabelle Bruce Reid (known as Belle to her 9 older siblings), had travelled not too far from her home in Melbourne to the Victoria Veterinary Institute, also in Melbourne, Australia. This young lady had the full support of her parents, a well to do couple of Scottish origin named Robert and Mary Jane Reid, who figured that the girl’s affinity for animals, especially horses, would stand to her better than the career she was eyeing for herself – singing soprano on stage. On completing her studies 4 years later, Belle Reid submitted herself for examination. She was one of only 5 final year students to do so, and the only one of them to achieve a pass. The minutes of the Institute’s Board meeting of 28th November 1906 record the results for the 4th year class, and the motion:
“Mr Beckwith moved that Miss Belle Reid be passed the 4th year Examination with 2nd class honours and that she be registered as a Vet Surgeon on payment of the usual fees. Sec. Mr Leitch, and agreed to”.
With this successful registration, she became the first formally recognized female veterinary surgeon in the world.
Dr. Reid set up her own veterinary practice that same year, living and working in the practice house until she took early retirement in 1923, at the age of 40. The conservative, male-dominated profession had only ever afforded her limited status or recognition, so in 1925 she moved to the thousand acre farm she had purchased with her sister May, and named it Blossom Park. A member of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and keen breeder of animals, she exhibited prize-winning Jersey cattle, Irish Wolfhound dogs, pigs and harness horses all over Australia. Belle Reid remained involved in caring for animals, and the management of Blossom Park farm right up until her illness and death in 1945.
While Dr. Reid’s practice down under was still in its fledgling years, two more worthy American women qualified as veterinarians: Elinor McGrath from Chicago Veterinary College, and Florence Kimball from New York State Veterinary College, both in 1910. With the turn of the century, major social and cultural shifts were happening across the States, bringing changes for the veterinary profession in general, and women’s rights in particular.
First, in industry and gradually in all cities – eventually even in the countryside – horses were replaced with cars, trucks, tractors, and motors of all sorts, which had a massive impact on the horse industry. By 1907, animal powered transport was pretty much gone from American cities. Even the start of World War 1, with the high demand for horses that brought, couldn’t save the animals, and hundreds of thousands were being slaughtered every year for glue and leather, and later on it continued as horse meat became popular for the new business of tinned pet food. This didn’t bode well for the US veterinarians of the time, most of whom were really just horse Doctors with little calling to tend to agricultural animals or pets.
Simultaneously, much political debate and public outcry was seen about the state of filthy slaughter houses, and in 1906 the ‘Pure Food and Drug Act’, and the ‘Meat Inspection Act’ were passed. Campaigns had been primarily led by female activists, who demanded accountability in the food industry practices to ensure the delivery of healthy, wholesome meat and dairy produce. Perhaps these early victories for women’s activist groups gave confidence to movements like the Suffragettes, whose first demonstration was in 1910, and paved the way for the cultural shift in following years. These acts also provided a major new employment avenue for the veterinary profession, and ensured there was government funding available to research animal disease.
It was in the midst of this change, in 1907, that Elinor McGrath became the first female to attend at Chicago Veterinary College. Her fellow students didn’t appreciate having a woman in their number, and gave her such a hard time of it that she went and spoke to the Dean, offering to leave the college. He dismissed the idea, reportedly saying: “well you better not because you’ll make a better veterinarian than any of them.” So, she stuck it out, graduating at the age of 22 as a Dr. of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) in April 1910.
Florence Kimball had started her education a little earlier than her colleague; between 1903 and 1907 she attended Wheaton Seminary (later Wheaton College, in Norton Massachusetts), where she passed preclinical courses and decided to go on to study at New York State Veterinary College, graduating in 1910. Doctors McGrath and Kimball were ahead of the curve not just as women vets, but also because they both opened small animal veterinary practices, which were rather uncommon at the time. Dr. Kimball did leave her vet’s practice to go into nursing, but there’s no reason to believe this was because her practice was unsuccessful: a letter to her Dean Veranus Moore in the January following her graduation indicates that her caseload was more than satisfactory, and keeping her very busy.
By 1939, only 31 of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) were woman, compared to about 5,000 male vets. That is just 0.6 percent.
When Dorothy Segal enrolled in the Michigan State University pre-veterinary program in the 1930s, it was made obvious that there would be significant hurdles in front of the young women in her class.
Dr. Segal, now age 98, told the AVMA in an interview:
“There were seven girls in my class, and that was considered to be just an enormous amount. The dean at the time (Dr. Ward Giltner) did not want women. He said, ‘Go back to the kitchen.’ He literally said that. The first speech he gave was, ‘What are you doing here?’ and he was not joking.”
Only Dr. Segal, in 1943, and one other of those seven women graduated and became veterinarians.
The Association for Women Veterinarians (now the AWV, but known as Women’s Veterinary Medical Association until 1980) was started just a few years later, in 1947, by Dr. Mary K. Dunlap of Kansas City, Missouri, who felt the need to form an organization of women working in a male dominated profession, and right from the start they received hundreds of letters every year from women and girls asking how to become a veterinarian. Their Constitution includes the objective to “further the mutual advancement of women veterinarians in the science of veterinary medicine by bringing them together to share knowledge, support, and friendship.”
Support was needed as the percentage of women veterinarians dipped again in the 1950s, from 2 percent down to 1.6 percent. That may have been because World War II veterans were given priority, but schools also just flat out refused women a place to study. A refusal letter to a female applicant dated March 1957, from the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts ran like this:
“It is the policy of the Division of Veterinary Medicine at the Iowa State College not to admit women to the professional curriculum. Because of the limited educational facilities it has been necessary to restrict the number of new students who may be admitted. … Each year we receive more applications from men students than can be accommodated. If women were admitted, they would displace the same number of men. In many cases women are not physically equal to the educational requirements of the large animal clinics. … We are sorry to disappoint you.”
The ‘Federal Equal Pay Act’ in 1963 and ‘Civil Rights Act’ in 1964 barred job discrimination based on gender, theoretically, but by 1970, the AWV still had less than 750 members, and 89% of veterinary students were male.
It was with the ‘Educational Amendment’ in 1972 and the ‘Women’s Education Act’ in 1974 that real changes started to occur, as these new regulations prohibited gender discrimination at schools that received federal funds. This applied to veterinary schools to, and by 1975 the number of women attending American veterinary schools had doubled.
The growth in female vets has continued, though many difficulties have remained. Women in positions of power and leadership are still rare, for example the American Veterinary Medical Association didn’t elect its first female president, Dr. Mary Beth Leininger, until 1996.
Today though, women outnumber men in vet school by more than 3 to 1, and by 2007 there were 36,383 female veterinarians working in the United States (compared with 43,186 men) – that’s 46 percent of the profession. But the AMVA reported the graduating 2,489 students of that year comprised 75 percent female (1,873 students) and 25 male (616), and continues to drop… while the retiring vets were nearly 95 percent male.
The balance has tipped so far, in fact, that the AMVA tell of many students and administrators at veterinary colleges in the US think the profession needs men “to maintain a diversity of perspectives and reflect the country’s population”.
Some believe they should begin a campaign to actively recruit men – because heaven forfend that one gender would be disproportionately represented?!
Remember our Irish Ms. Aleen Cust, who had the temerity to defy not only her own family, but also England’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and study veterinary medicine in Scotland?
Well, though she left without sitting her exams, the college principal recommended her by letter, and a Dr. William Byrne, practising in Roscommon, Ireland, employed her as a Veterinary Assistant in defiance of the RCVS, despite being a member of their council. Indeed the support for her was such that when she announced her intention to run for the post of Veterinary Inspector in neighbouring County Galway, no other Vet in the area applied and she was appointed, with flagrant disregard for the stated disapproval of the RCVS.
By 1910, when America’s first female vets graduated from public colleges, Ms. Cust had been working solidly for 10 years, and was in a position to successfully take over and run the practice following the untimely death of Dr. Byrne. By war time in 1915, though still not recognised professionally by the British, she travelled to France in support of their army, to help treat warhorses there.
Legal changes in December 1919 forced the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to recognise her right to practice veterinary medicine, and she was finally allowed to sit final exams, receiving her diploma on December 21st 1922. And so Dr. Aleen Cust officially became the first female veterinary surgeon in Britain and Ireland, twenty two years after she had completed her training and started to practice.
Though she retired just two years later, she still attended professional meetings, and was an inspiration to female veterinary students until her death from heart failure while on holiday in Jamaica in 1937.
And indeed, she remains an inspiration to this day.
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This blog has a lot of new visitors, and I’m really glad to see that! But I also don’t want to be fooling anyone into being a part of a community with me if the fit isn’t right either, you know?
So, I figured I’d give ye a little dose of who I really am, like right down to the core. And if you don’t like that for any reason, and are actually a racist (whether you call yourself that or not) just jog on. Simple!
First off, I use a lot of sweary words. My son (12yo) got a bit scandalised a while back hearing me chatting with Eilís on a ‘Your Irish Connection’ — Check it Here — interview on my Youtube Channel, because I was cursing – “That’s not very professional Mam!”, says he. Well… it is what it is.
Second off, it’s not just my personal belief and lived experience that all people are equal and deserve the same human rights and safe community and care… it’s a fundamental part of the Irish experience. There’s a whole lot of bullshit floating around in the European Heritage communities that’s basically, and sometimes overtly (I’m looking at you Carolyn Emerick, mega shitehawk and peddler of appropriative racist codswallop), white supremacy, fascism, and neo nazi nonsense.
That’s not who the Irish are, or ever were.
Look, we’re not perfect. Modern Ireland can be really ignorant at times, and our lack of exposure to other cultures can be painfully obvious in the unthinking attitudes and beliefs of the people – but as a nation we truly, genuinely care for our fellow people all over the globe. We’re ranked the ninth most generous country in the world, and given the economic climate of the last few years, that’s pretty fucking cool.
It goes back further than modern charitable donations though. Even back to a time when we were on the brink of another famine, severely under the thumb of english rule and SUFFERING… we were still aware and working to support the civil rights movement in America.
Consider a quote from Daniel O’Connell, in 1843:
“How can the generous, the charitable, the humane, and the noble emotions of the Irish heart have become extinct amongst you? How can your nature be so totally changed as that you should become the apologists and advocates of the execrable system which makes man the property of his fellow man – destroys the foundation of all moral and social virtues – condemns to ignorance, immorality and irreligion, millions of our fellow creatures …? It was not in Ireland that you learned this cruelty…Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice saying come out of such a land you Irishmen, or if you remain and dare continue to countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer!”
– Daniel O’Connell. (irishamerica.com/2011/08/the-irish-abolitio…)
Irish people have ALWAYS held kinship with the minorities, the downtrodden, the immigrants, the unwanted, the pillaged, the ethnically cleansed. We have been them, and our hearts remember. Our warrior spirit fights alongside those who need our support.
Here’s your Irish Connection Resources on this topic, mo chairde. [click the headlines for links]
(by O’Connell, Daniel, 1775-1847. Publication date 1860. Topics Slavery — United States)
Frederick Douglass Photograph: MPI/Getty Images
Tom Chaffin, writing for the Irish Times, assesses the influence of his time in poverty-ridden and religiously divided Ireland, on the anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass. To the end of his life, he fondly remembered his 1840s lecture tour of Ireland and the welcoming reception he had been accorded. And though many Irish-Americans often opposed his civil rights efforts, he also viewed the Irish, in both Ireland and America, as a persecuted people.
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The Normans, perhaps? Strongbow was a Norman lord from Wales who started the Norman conquest of Ireland, around 1170. Though some of them ‘went native’ and were absorbed into Gaelic (Irish) culture, that was maybe the start of the disparagement and racism against the Irish in our own land.
The Tudor Conquest began with Henry VIII in 1536, and he’d declared himself King of Ireland by 1541. That continued through Elizabeth, and James I, and ended (officially) with the ‘Flight of the Earls‘ in 1607.
We were firmly under the English boot by then. Through the 1500s and 1600s CE we’d been subjected to the Plantations, where ownership of our land was forcibly stripped by the English crown, and re-settled with citizens from England. This officially ended in the 1650s with thousands of Parliamentarian soldiers settled in Ireland under the direction of Oliver Cromwell. Ulster was a hotspot for plantation settlement, and this created large strongholds of communities with British and Protestant identity.
English settlers in Ireland did not think highly of our native Gaelic, and by that time firmly Catholic, culture…
How godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the world may judge: for my part I think there cannot be a greater sacrifice to God.
– Edward Barkley, describing how the forces of the Earl of Essex slaughtered the entire population of Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim, 1575
All wisdom advises us to keep this [Irish] kingdom as much subordinate and dependent on England as possible; and, holding them from manufacture of wool (which unless otherwise directed, I shall by all means discourage), and then enforcing them to fetch their cloth from England, how can they depart from us without nakedness and beggary?
– Lord Stafford, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in a letter to King Charles I, 1634
They took our natural resources, the strength of our labour, and grew rich off the skin of our backs, ate well and drank merry while our people drowned in blood, sweat, and tears. They fed us slave food – this, the Irish potato, and when it failed us they refused to allow us to eat of anything else fed from our own lands, grown from our own rich soil.
You’ve all heard of “the Famine” I’m sure, but first the Irish Famine of 1740 killed at least 38% of our 2.4 million population; proportionally, a greater loss than during the worst years of the Great Famine of 1845–1852. In that time, we lost more than a million people to starvation, and a million more to forced emigration, and they said it was our fault.
…being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual.
The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.
– Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s
[existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.
– Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior
The United Irishmen (and women) Rebellion in 1798 was perhaps the beginning of the first organised attempts to overthrow the oppressors in hundreds of years, and it officially started in Belfast in 1791 (read my post about Vinegar Hill). A counter campaign of martial law used tactics such as house burnings, torture of captives, pitch-capping and murder, particularly in Ulster where large numbers of Catholics and Protestants had joined in common cause. That just couldn’t stand.
The Act of Union in 1801 was a betrayal, and highlighted a particularly Catholic vs Protestant struggle for Catholic emancipation, and following from that the The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB; in Irish: Bráithreachas Phoblacht na hÉireann) began in 1858 – it was a secret oath-bound fraternal organisation dedicated to the establishment of an “independent democratic republic” in Ireland.
And then, my dear Readers, our Troubles became focused in ‘the North’.
Tensions were rising and we seemed on the brink of civil war from 1912, with opposition to ‘Home Rule‘ from Ulster Unionists, who formed the ‘Ulster Volunteers’, which led to Irish Nationalists forming the ‘Irish Volunteers’. World War 1 averted some of the crisis, but it didn’t go away anywhere.
Of course the famed Easter Rising didn’t happen in a vacuum, and we’ve just celebrated the 100 year anniversary of that these last few months, so we’re very much into recent history now after a run down of what… nearly 750 years of English rule? The history of that is well know, I guess, though the depth and breadth of it is often glossed over and washed green instead of red, swathed in beer and rebel ballads.
The Partition of Ireland was the division of the island of Ireland which created two distinct political territories – Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, as it was called at the time, on the 3rd of May in 1921, under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Today we still call the 6 counties ‘Northern Ireland’, and it is a self governing part of the larger ‘United Kingdom’, with Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and England. The rest of the island is a sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland, or just called Ireland.
To refer to us now as ‘Southern Ireland’ is offensive. To say we are part of “Great Britain” will get you verbally slapped at least, and even though technically and geographically our island can be classed as part of the ‘British Isles’, if you’ve read this far you may now have an inkling of why it might rankle and burn to be proprietorially inferred as owned by Britain in such a way.
I’ve brought you this far, through 800 years of systematic oppression and genocide, shown you the seeds that were planted on our island that were cultivated and grew to be ‘the North’.
I didn’t grow up there. I’m reluctant to talk about the horrors that direct immersion in ‘the Troubles’ has brought for the people who did.
My great grandparents, my grandparents and their siblings were directly involved, and maybe even my parents or their siblings, I don’t know. We don’t talk about the more recent loyalties and actions in the same way as we tell stories which are a generation or two removed. I can tell you the stories I’ve heard of the Black and Tans that make me want to scream when I see a product named this way in ignorance, my awareness and fears through the long years of Bombings in the North, and the Republic, and in the heart of England too – and if you ever order an ‘Irish Car Bomb’ drink in my presence you will not be in my presence for much longer, of that you can be sure.
I can share memories of crossing into the North, across the border, maybe once or twice… and the soldiers aiming guns at us frightened kids in the back of the car, their harsh questions and suspicious peering, poking, prodding with the tip of a machine gun.
I can tell you of the confusion and anger I felt when I first learned of the Hunger Strikes, at the age of 4 or 5 years old, and later on when I understood the dirty protests, and the stark reality of a person starving themselves to death for what they believed. Of how the energy of hunger has seeped so thoroughly into this land that it seems forever stained with the raw, gnawing, hollowed out fear and pain of starvation, and how teenage me was tormented by that before I even knew what it was, or how to manage it and protect myself from the ravenous pockets of it that are a part of our landscape. And maybe even begin to heal some of that, in time.
And I can tell you of the sweet, cautious, dawning of hope with the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, two weeks before my 20th birthday. That unsteady peace has grown, and things have stabilised in the North for the first time any of us can remember.
Nearly one year ago now (24th June 2016), we woke to the news that Britain had voted to exit the EU – Brexit – and still nobody knows what that means for Northern Ireland. I’m not going to speculate on that… but about the only good I saw from the last year’s news and social media chatter is the idea that both Unionists and Nationalists in the North may be agreed that leaving the United Kingdom is the way forward for Northern Ireland.
Borders have always been a problem for us, as you can perhaps imagine.
Note: Throughout the article are clickable direct links to further resources… which I’ve kept to general Wikipedia articles to aim for as much source neutrality as possible. Please do educate yourself further, as this article is only scratching the surface.
‘We need not claim that in quantity and quality of achievement he was great as a writer; but we surely can say that he did write well, that he did help others to write greatly – that he did help Irish letters, in all its branches, to be native, continuous, rooted, branching and fruitful.’
Robert Farren, ‘Douglas Hyde the Writer’, in Irish Press (14 July 1949) [obituary notice on the day following his death]
A boy, transplanted to Roscommon soil – in an alien garden; he not only put down firm roots, but proceeded to flourish and bloom like no other before him, to cross pollinate thoughts and ideas that would wake and revive the native life, all the while respecting, caring for and nurturing the fields and gardens which surrounded him – Douglas Hyde.
Born by accident in County Roscommon, on 17th January 1860; while his mother, Elizabeth, was on a short visit to Longford House, in Castlerea. Raised in his father’s Church of Ireland rectory in County Sligo, Hyde didn’t return to Roscommon until he was 7 years old. His father, Arthur, was appointed Rector and Prebendary (a type of Canon) of Tibohine, and the family moved to the village of Frenchpark in 1867.
There were 4 brothers, but the youngest, Douglas, was educated at home due to illness, by his father and his aunt. At the time, Irish people were still suffering the after effects of the extreme poverty and denigration of the Big Famine. An Gorta Mór, ‘the Great Hunger’, took about a million people in death, and approximately another million in emigration. That was about 25% of our population. And the anger that remained! The loss and grief were terrible, but the anger and frustration felt by the Irish people equaled, and even surpassed it – to know that there was plenty of food all along, grown on our land, with our labour, and leaving our country to grace the tables of Landlords and their class, while our children starved to death.
The Irish ‘peasantry’ were suffering and struggling still by the time Hyde was born, to a county that was among the worst affected. His family were well off, of a higher class, and it would have been unseemly for their child to mingle with the peasantry.
But mingle he did. In particular, he was fascinated by listening to the older people in the community speaking the Roscommon Gaeilge dialect. He became friends with an old Gilly on his father’s estate, a gamekeeper by the name of Seamus Hart. The job title ‘Gilly’, by the way, comes from the old Irish term Giolla, meaning servant or slave. The Irish language was deemed coarse, backward, savage – old-fashioned, at best. It had been made shameful to speak it, to teach it to your children. Parents were convinced that their children would never, ever, get anywhere, progress at all in life unless they could speak with a proper English tongue. But to the young Douglas Hyde, the language was lyrical, eternally pleasant to listen to, witty and wise and unendingly beautiful. He fell in love with the Irish language, and began to study it of his own accord.
The boy would roam the estates, and the countryside, listening to the stories, exploring the ancient places, talking to the older people in their own tongue. Learning. He loved the legends of Rathcroghan, home of Queen Meadbh (Maeve) and Gaelic royalty for over 2000 years. He carved his name in Uaimh na gCait, the Cave of the Cats – fabled entrance to the Irish Otherworld. He was devastated when Seamus Hart died, 7 years later, when Hyde was just 14. He flagged a bit, stopping his studies of the language and the culture, but his interest and passion began to rally when over the course of a few visits to Dublin he discovered there were others like him; groups of people who wanted to preserve and speak the Irish language, to whom it was just as important and wonderful as he found it to be.
Hyde rejected family pressure to follow their traditional career in the Church, and instead went to Trinity College, Dublin, where his flair for languages continued into fluency in French, German, Latin, Hebrew and Greek.
At the age of 20 (1880), he joined the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, and published over a hundred pieces of Irish language poetry under his pen name An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, ‘the Pleasant Little Branch’. The Irish Language movement was viewed as eccentric at first, the province of bored academics looking for novel ways to spend their time.
But it gained respect, and a huge following, steadily in the years to follow. Hyde was a huge influence on this, helping to establish the Gaelic Journal in 1892, and speaking publicly on topics such as “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland”, where he said:
But the Irish language is worth knowing, or why would the greatest philologists of Germany, France, and Italy be emulously studying it, and it does possess a literature, or why would a German savant have made the calculation that the books written in Irish between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and still extant, would fill a thousand octavo volumes…
We must arouse some spark of patriotic inspiration among the peasantry who still use the language, and put an end to the shameful state of feeling — a thousand-tongued reproach to our leaders and statesmen — which makes young men and women blush and hang their heads when overheard speaking their own language…
To a person taking a bird’s eye view of the situation a hundred or five hundred years hence, believe me, it will also appear of greater importance than any mere temporary wrangle, but, unhappily, our countrymen cannot be brought to see this…
We must teach ourselves to be less sensitive, we must teach ourselves not to be ashamed of ourselves, because the Gaelic people can never produce its best before the world as long as it remains tied to the apron-strings of another race and another island, waiting for it to move before it will venture to take any step itself…
I appeal to everyone whatever his politics — for this is no political matter — to do his best to help the Irish race to develop in future upon Irish lines, even at the risk of encouraging national aspirations, because upon Irish lines alone can the Irish race once more become what it was of yore — one of the most original, artistic, literary, and charming peoples of Europe.
The following year, the same in which he married a German lady by the name of Lucy Cometina Kurtz (1893), Douglas Hyde helped found the ‘Gaelic League’, Conradh na Gaedhilge, to preserve and promote Irish culture and language. Contrary to other organisations of the time, Conradh na Gaedhilge accepted women as full members right from the start, and did not assign them to subordinate roles. Many notable women, such as Lady Esmonde, Lady Gregory, and Mary Spring Rice, played an active part in establishment of the League, and in leadership roles in their local communities. At the 1906 annual convention, out of 45 executive roles, 7 were filled by women. Hyde resigned in 1915, when the League formally committed to the Nationalist political movement, as he felt that the culture and importance of our language should be above politics. His influence though, was huge, as many of the prominent Irish leaders (such as Earnest Blythe, Pádraig Pearse, Éamon De Valera, and Michael Collins) first became educated and passionate about Irish independence through their involvement with Conradh na Gaedhilge.
It seems he tried his best to stay out of politics, and returned to the life of academia. He did get sucked in briefly, accepting a nomination to Seanad Eireann, the Irish Senate, after the creation of the new Irish state. But things got messy in 1925, and a Catholic smear campaign caused the loss of his electoral seat, so he settled in to be Professor of Irish at UCD (University College Dublin), instead. In 1938 though, then Taoiseach (Irish political leader) Éamon de Valera, re-appointed him to the Seanad. From here he was nominated and elected uncontested to the position of An tÚachataráin, first President of the Irish Republic, on 26th June 1938. Although the President could choose either English or Irish in which to recite the Presidential Declaration of Office, Hyde set the precedent by (unsurprisingly) declaring in his chosen native tongue. His speech, the first ever recitation of the Irish Republic’s President, is one of the few remaining recordings of the now lost Roscommon dialect in which he was fluent.
He was a very popular president, cultivating friendship with many world leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and the English King George V, but due to ill health decided not to run for a second term, leaving office on 25th June 1945. He never returned to Roscommon, his wife having died early in his presidential term, but moved to a residence in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin, the President’s Residence in the Phoenix Park, Dublin; where he died quietly on 12th July 1949, at the age of 89. Douglas Hyde is buried with his family at Portahard Church, which is now the Douglas Hyde Museum, beside the Main N5 road between Tulsk and Frenchpark, in County Roscommon.
The Irish Poet and Writer W.B. Yeats had this to say on Douglas Hyde:
‘He had much frequented the company of old countrymen, and had so acquired the Irish language, and his taste for snuff, and for moderate quantities of a detestable species of illegal whiskey distilled from the potato by certain of his neighbours’…
‘the cajoler of crowds, and of individual men and women … and for certain years young Irish women were to display his pseudonym Craoibhin Aoibhin in gilt letters upon their hat-bands’.
‘The man most important for the future was certainly Dr Douglas Hyde. I had found a publisher while still in London for his Beside the Fire and his Love Songs of Connacht and it was the first literary use of the English dialect of the Connacht country people that had aroused my imagination for those books. His faculty was by nature narrative and lyrical, and at our committees […] he gave me an impression of timidity or confusion. His perpetual association with peasants, whose songs and stories he took down in their cottages from early childhood when he learned Irish from an old man on a kitchen floor, had given him. Though a strong man, that cunning that is the strength of the weak. He was always diplomatising, evading as far as he could prominent positions and the familiarity of his fellows that he might escape jealousy and detraction. […] He never spoke his real thought […] for his mind moved among pictures, itself indeed a premise but never an argument. In later years the necessities of Gaelic politics destroyed his sense of style and undermined his instinct for himself. He ceased to write in that delicate, emotional dialect of the people, and wrote and spoke, when he spoke in public, from coarse reasoning’.
He said Hyde ‘wrote out of imitative sympathy’; he was to create a popular movement (the Gaelic League) but Yeats nonetheless mourned for ‘the greatest folklorist who ever lived’… ‘his style is perfect – so sincere and simple – so little literary’.
I went down to this little child, because she was a child… I got down on my knees in the aisle, and I asked her was she ok? She said, “No”. She was upset, and she said, she had had an abortion that afternoon in London. Now if you know anything about flying, you don’t fly after having a tooth out, for fear of haemorrhaging. Now she’s sitting in her seat… there was nobody with her, she was on her own… because of the severity of the matter, we had no choice, we couldn’t wait to get back to Dublin. That plane was diverted into Liverpool. And my memory… was of that girl – the ambulance men came on, they very discretely looked after everything, and nobody knew anything, they took her off – and she SCREAMED, all the way down on that stretcher, for us not to tell her parents back in Ireland.
That was an experience from the 1980’s, told by Derry-Ann Morgan, a former employee of Ireland’s national airline, to the crowd of activists, protestors and passers-by attending a Pro-Choice Rally on a very cold Saturday in May 2013, in Ireland’s capital city. That a girl of 15 years old would be subjected to such trauma, on finding herself pregnant in circumstances that simply did not allow for her to birth and raise a child, is unthinkable. But sure, that was 30 years ago. So much has changed in Ireland since then!
Highlights from the 80’s here on the island include an amendment to the Irish constitution, just to be sure to be sure than none of our poor wee Irish babbies might get killed unnecessarily. Driven by fear of abortion in other countries, the 8thAmendment in 1983 made it illegal for a woman to travel for an abortion, and illegal to even provide information, or speak to a pregnant woman in Ireland about how or where she could travel for abortion to another country. That same year, it was reported that an Irish mother of two named Sheila Hodgers was refused treatment for her progressive cancer, even down to not being allowed proper pain medication, due to the risk it posed to the foetus she was carrying at the time. Her husband repeatedly requested an abortion, but was refused. The hospital had to abide by a code of ethics drawn up with the Catholic Church, which would not even allow for a Caesarean section, as there was a chance of damage to the foetus. Following a premature labour, the baby died a few hours after birth, and Ms. Hodgers lasted only two days longer.
It’s a good thing the Government of Ireland has managed to wriggle out from under the thumb of the Church in 2017, so a travesty like that couldn’t possibly happen again, isn’t it?
Oh no, wait, they haven’t yet.
When the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist residing in Ireland, hit the news, the nation, and the world, was shocked. Ms. Halappanavar died in October 2012, after she had sought help at the University Hospital in Galway as she was suffering a foetal miscarriage at 17 weeks. On being told the foetus was not viable, Savita requested an abortion, but was then informed the hospital could not perform an abortion under Irish Law as the foetus’s heart was still beating. A few days after, Ms. Halappanavar was diagnosed with septicaemia, leading to multiple organ failure, and death of both mother and foetus.
This happened despite the 1992 ‘X Case’ in which the Supreme Court decided that a pregnant woman could have an abortion to save her life, including from suicide – which was based on the case of X, a 14 year old girl who had been made pregnant by rape, and wanted the right of an abortion. This led to the 13th, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, stating that the prohibition on abortion would not limit the freedom of pregnant women to travel out of the state, and that the prohibition of abortion would not limit the right to distribute information about abortion services in foreign countries. Neither of which was of any use to Savita, whose husband reported that a nurse in the hospital told them their repeated requests for abortion had to be denied, because “Ireland is a Catholic country”.
How horrific. How utterly, incomprehensibly tragic all of that is. Janet, who has been a pro-choice activist in Ireland for 24 years, recounts what she views as the best experience for a woman in Ireland today:
At 5 to 7 weeks… they illegally obtain the medical abortion pills online… they order them, risking charges for importing a Class A drug without a license, and with their partner or friend take them over the course of a weekend and have an abortion at home with everything they might need, or booked into a hotel room.
And what, in her experience, is the worst experience for an Irish woman who faces the choice today?
It is not to do with if they have travelled, or how far along they were, or what type of abortion they have had. It is simply the isolation which comes with not having anyone to talk to about the experience… We know that 150,000 women who gave Irish addresses have travelled to the UK, it may be more… That is so many women passing each other each day and not knowing they have that shared experience, and being unable to support each other.
The Pro-Choice Rally in May 2013 was timed to coincide with a 3 day Government committee hearings on proposed new legislation, following publication of the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013’. Dr. Sinead Kennedy of the ‘Action on X’ group, organisers of the rally, spoke of her feeling with regard to the Bill, and the debate that surrounds it:
We had the spectacle beginning yesterday of politicians debating the merits of allowing women lifesaving abortions. Debating how many years in prison – 5, 10, 15, 20 – vulnerable women in difficult situations will be subjected to, if they try and access abortions here in this country. Listening to politicians who seem to think that they’re bishops back in the 1950’s, who think that women are no more than vessels or incubators.
We need to tell this government that we will not accept legislation that excludes suicide. Women will not be subjected to panels of 3, 4, 7 doctors (to decide if they may have a termination). This is outrageous, it is barbaric. And women must not and will not be criminalised in their own country, for accessing abortion. (This Bill doesn’t provide) access to abortion for women who are victims of rape or incest, it doesn’t provide access for women who have fatal foetal abnormality, it does nothing to address the issue of when a woman’s health is in jeopardy because of her pregnancy – and more than that it doesn’t do ANYTHING to address the 5,000 women who travel abroad every single year to Europe, who are criminalised in their own country, and treated like exiles. And we will not tolerate this anymore.
It is surreal to think that under the proposed legislation, a 14 year old rape victim such as the girl in the X case, who is proven to have taken abortion pills in Ireland, would be subject to a 14 year prison sentence. Her attacker, if convicted, would be likely to face a 7 year jail term, the current average. As reprehensible as the situation is though, Dr. Kennedy is satisfied that things are moving in the right direction. She said that this legislation is the bare minimum we need, and while it is highly restrictive, and insulting that we have to stand out and demand this, it is nevertheless an important defeat for anti-abortionists. This, finally, is a step in the right direction.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 now defines the circumstances and processes within which abortion in Ireland can be legally performed. It allows for abortion where pregnancy endangers a woman’s life, including through a risk of suicide. It was signed into law on 30 July by Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, and commenced on 1 January 2014. To determine whether the pregnant person is truly at risk, her case is put before a panel of up to 4 doctors and specialists, who must concur on the ruling.
There are no restrictions or checks in place for the religious beliefs of any of those doctors.
In a conversation with Katherine O’Donnell, director of the Women’s Studies Centre at University College, Dublin, she speculated:
Besides women who are ‘out’ about needing terminations for medical reasons, there is no big visible presence of women who have chosen to terminate pregnancies for other reasons, it is left to a few activists and organisations (such as Choice Ireland and Doctors for Choice)… so many thousands of Irish women annually terminate pregnancies, but there is no visible mass movement. We seem to have as many Irish women who are saying they were ‘hurt by abortion’ or that abortion is harmful, as those who are affirming it as a positive choice in their lives. If even a small fraction of Irish women told their abortion stories, I think it might be the way to unlock the long impasse where the argument about abortion goes into arcane abstractions rather than lived lives.
In 2013, it was estimated that 12 women leave Ireland every day to secure an abortion, while countless others are taking pills purchased online. Abortion is the most common gynaecological procedure an Irish woman is likely to have. It is variously estimated that between one in 10 and one in 15 Irish women of reproductive age have had an abortion. An Irish woman is more likely to have had an abortion than appendectomy or tonsillectomy.
It is time for Ireland to accept that the Abortion War will not be won by anything but safety and support for Ireland’s women, and the right – regardless of the situation – of an Irish woman to make the best possible choice she can for her own life.
You can provide support and keep up to date at the Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland Website.
[A version of this article was first published in Ms. Magazine, in the Summer issue of 2013, researched and written by Lora O’Brien.]