Ireland's 'comely maidens' are doing it for themselves

John Lichfield in Dublin on the women choosing jobs over babies - and those coming out against them

Here IS a quiz question for Euro-feminists and Euro-male chauvinists alike. Which dynamic, successful, modern European state has a constitution which states, in effect, that a woman's place is in the home? ("By her life within the home, woman gives to the state the support without which the common good cannot be achieved.")

Clue: the country has a female President, respected worldwide, and previously active in fighting women's causes. Second clue: two of the country's recent heroes - one triumphant and sporting, the other journalistic and tragic - were, in fact, heroines, neither of whom became famous for staying at home.

The answer is Ireland, and the contradiction between question and clues tells a story. In one of Europe's most tenacious bastions of patriarchy, male privilege and conservative family values, something is stirring, mostly quietly, but occasionally with great emotion and noise.

To this day, the proportion of Irish women going out to work, 35 per cent, is among the lowest in Europe. But the number of young Irish women entering all forms of higher education and then going on into professions, such as medicine, accountancy and the law, has exploded in recent years to roughly half of the total (even more in the case of medicine). Fifteen years ago men comfortably outnumbered women in Irish universities; now women comfortably outnumber men. With the large and melancholy exception of inner-city unemployment, the Irish economy is boiling, especially for women. Three quarters of all the jobs created in Ireland in the past few years went to female applicants.

Carmel Foley, chief executive of the Employment Equality Agency, points to Mary Robinson's election as President in 1990 as a turning point. "Could I also point to Michele Smith [winner of three Olympic swimming golds] as having given a real boost to women in this country. Sport is so important, and this time we had an Irish woman - not Jack Charlton's boys - being cheered by the whole nation."(Veronica Guerin, the campaigning journalist also affected the whole nation when she was murdered by the gangsters she was investigating.)

Frances Fitzgerald, Fine Gael member of the Dail for Dublin South East, says there has been a "remarkable" transformation in women's attitudes in the last five to 10 years which cuts across education, income and class. "One of the most extraordinary developments has been the boom in women's involvement in self-help groups in inner-city areas. But there are also huge numbers of women besieging the adult education and retraining courses, even though the rules are sometimes stacked against them."

Ms Fitzgerald cautions, however: "When it comes to the real centres of power in Irish society - economics and politics - the real power is still predominantly in male hands, more so probably than in Britain or continental European countries."

In Eamon de Valera's vision of an austere, Church-obeying, inward-looking Ireland - enshrined in his 1937 constitution - Irish women were to be the homemakers and, before that, (in his own phrase) "comely maidens dancing at crossroads". The reality was sometimes quite different. Emigration meant a lack of husbands; prejudice meant a lack of jobs. The desperate country woman unable to find a husband, or the intelligent woman stuck in a loveless marriage to an oaf or a brute, are the staples of 20th-century Irish literature.

Many factors have conspired to breed rapid change, such asEuropean Union- inspired women's equality laws (until 20 years ago women were forced to resign from the civil service on marriage) and reverse emigration, which has brought many professional Irish women home.

But the most important single factor has been the weakening of the influence of the Church. The once absolute, Church-inspired ban on contraception has been gradually eroded since 1979, with the final restrictions on the public sale of condoms being lifted three years ago. Hence the most startling, and significant, statistic of all: the decline - even collapse - of the Irish birth rate, which has fallen by a third in 15 years to not much above the EU average. Families of five, six and seven children were still common in the last generation, but no longer.

Aisling O'Grady, 34, assistant dean of women students at University College, Dublin, spent eight years in London and came home two years ago. She says the atmosphere in Ireland - especially for women - has been "transformed". "There is a kind of fast-forward social revolution going on. The attitudes of the women students are light years from what I can remember even 15 years ago. In my day, many of the women students, especially the country girls, came to university to find husbands. Now they say they're not interested in marriage until their thirties. They're interested in careers."

The change has been so rapid that Finola Bruton, wife of the Taoiseach, John Bruton, got into trouble last year for saying more respect should be given to women who stay at home. She was roundly criticised by other women, including members of the Dail. This in turn produced a backlash from the anti-feminist women's groups which have also proliferated in recent years.

Among the leaders of this movement is Nora Bennis of Limerick, a founder of Mothers Working at Home and now of a new political party - the National Party. She intends to fight Limerick East at the next election, probably in the spring.

Mrs Bennis, a passionate, articulate mother of four usually pictured in the Irish media baking bread or ironing, insists she is not against women having careers. She opposes what she sees as the new psychological and financial pressure on Irish women to abandon their homes against their will. The social ills of modern Ireland - crime, drugs, teenage pregnancies - can be traced, she says, to the erosion of the traditional family. "I do think that the most important women's issue is motherhood. Not just for women, but for children and men also."

High-profile social battles over contraception, divorce and abortion have caused enormous controversy. But in other respects the increasingly unconstitutional activities of Irish women have - until recently - caused little stir. Carmel Foley at the equality agency reports an ugly rash of sexual harassment cases and a desperate shortage of child-care facilities, but on the whole the state of male-female relations is "very encouraging". She puts this down partly to the informality and "ease" between Irish people.

But Frances Fitzgerald believes this relative calm is about to be shattered. "You are going to see more politics on this issue, starting with next year's election. Patriarchies don't give up so easily."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before