" Ireland begins in the home": women, Irish national identity, and the domestic sphere in the Irish Homestead, 1896-1912

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Abstract

HISTORIANS' neglect of the experiences of Irish women as housewives and mothers at the beginning of the twentieth century has been mirrored by a lack of regard for the position of women in the construction of an Irish national identity. The winter 1989 issue of Eire-Ireland contained an article by Joanna Bourke that looked at female labor and domestic education in rural Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. (1) This article and others by Professor Bourke focusing on the shift in female labor from the fields to unpaid domestic work as housewives served as an important corrective to studies of women in Ireland that tended to focus on the roles of women in nationalist and political organizations that were, all too often, dominated by men. In bringing the study of women in Ireland out of the ghetto of nationalist politics, however, Professor Bourke ignored the role of women in forming notions of Irish national identity. In her article Bourke quotes Ellice Pilkington, one of the leading female proponents of rural reform, as saying, "It is quite enchanting to cook porridge in the belief that it will make bone and muscle for present and future generations." (2) Yet little is made of the resonance that this quotation would have had within the context of debates over national identity and the role of women; it was not only "bone and muscle" that women such as Ellice Pilkington saw themselves as building, but also, through their domestic role in the home, the shape and character of an Irish national identity. In this article I explore the role of women in the formation of ideas of national identity in Ireland through a case study of the Irish Homestead, the weekly publication of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS). What emerges is the increasing perception of the home as the cornerstone of the Irish nation, with Irish women being assigned the role not only of homemakers but also of nation builders.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-152
Number of pages21
JournalEire-Ireland
Volume36
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2001

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