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."

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn